Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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*. We begin with an overture, which gives you some idea of the solemnity of the proceedings (reinforced immediately by the subtitle, which tells us this is not a movie but a “motion picture”). That solemnity would prove to be the film’s undoing, much as it would kill the first Superman film. Both franchises would learn their lesson and go on to much sharper, more entertaining sequels. I think the problem in both cases was that the producers didn’t realize that the audience hadn’t grown up in the interim. This is a mistake the Marvel comic-book films of the twenty-first century would not make. But that’s getting far ahead of ourselves . . .
*. It’s a grand score by Jerry Goldsmith, by the way. I’m not knocking the overture itself.
*. After the credits, we’re thrown straight into an action sequence, which was a good idea. However, I remember seeing the movie at the time it came out and being taken aback by the new look of the Klingons, who weren’t at all like they appeared on the TV show. I guess they figured these were the only aliens we were going to see so they had to do something special with them.
*. The science-fiction films that have dated the worst have done so not because their particular vision of the future turned out to be wildly inaccurate or because special effects have advanced so much, but because they get the clothes wrong.
*. So let’s get this over with. The uniforms. Yes, they’re so bad they’re funny. It’s hard to know where to begin. With the engineering outfits with their quilted targets on the front? The security detail made up to look like 1920s American football players, complete with leather helmets and codpiece? McCoy’s hippie-doctor look? The giant belt buckles that were, apparently, meant to be a kind of medical scanner (but this was never explained). The snug pyjamas that show off the male anatomy at its fullest? The way Ilia-as-probe comes out of the shower stall with no pants and sky-high heels?

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*. Along with the clothes we have to mention the hair. Sideburns were big in the late ’70s, and here they flash like scimitars down the side of nearly everyone’s face. And my jaw dropped at Spock’s startling makeover as a member of the mod squad, only to be outdone (as always) by McCoy’s first appearance as a hirsute naturopath. Next to these, Kirk’s hairpiece, though it seems like a parasitic alien life form (a tribble, perhaps?), looks almost modest.
*. These style matters contribute to giving the film an unmistakeable “camp” feel. This is then further amplified by the special effects, most of which look pretty bad. It pains me to say this, because they involved a lot of work, and I’m no lover of CGI. But the blue-screen effects throughout are weak; the planet Vulcan looks like a trashy dump what with its improbably cluttered sky of matte art and all the red garbage bags piled around; Neo-San Francisco seems to just be a leftover set from Logan’s Run; the wormhole sequence, which involved lots of painstaking animation, plays like a bad trip inside a cheese factory; and V’Ger’s cloud looks like a more relaxed version of the time portal in 2001.

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*. That said, I do like the Enterprise model work. The old girl looks good, even in dry dock.

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*. There are other factors contributing to the feel of a movie that came too late. The cast, especially our three principals, were now too old, and looked it. Indeed I don’t think DeForest Kelly was in good health. This gives the film a sad sort of feel. Then there was what was happening elsewhere in the SF movie-verse. The game had changed. Star Wars had come out a couple of years previously. Alien was just months away. Compared to those two films the lushly-appointed world of Star Trek suddenly seemed passé, old-fashioned. This is very much the future that was, but was no longer.
*. Isaac Asimov got called in to vouch for the science, which earned him a credit. But I have my doubts, especially when it comes to the holes in space. My understanding is that if Voyager 6 had disappeared into a black hole it wouldn’t have come out, and if the Enterprise went through a wormhole there’s no telling where in the universe they would have ended up.
*. There never was a Voyager 6, by the way. At least not “at the end of the twentieth century.” I believe they stopped after two.
*. The V’Ger “orifice” sounds indecent. Wouldn’t a better word have been “aperture”?
*. Where are these “exterior visuals” or “external views” that people get to switch to on their viewing screens coming from? Are there little cameras floating about like Google Cosmos that let them get footage of everything that’s going on in the universe from any angle?
*. I had to laugh at all the useless light displays playing on the monitors, especially at Spock’s console. Sometimes they’re just a honeycomb of blinking lights, sometimes a cross between a lava lamp and a screensaver, sometimes a scrolling page of code, even at one point just the name MARK in all caps filling a screen. I don’t see how any of this could possibly be displaying important information, but it’s another cliché from an earlier tradition of SF filmmaking where computers had to seem to be doing something all the time.

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*. I like the ambition and vision of the story, which is very much in keeping with Roddenberry’s sensibility and the rest of the Star Trek mythos. My problem with it is that it feels like an hour-long TV episode padded out to feature length. And I mean padded. There’s far too much time spent looking out the window at all the nice space scenery, and I even liked the V’Ger cloud, for the most part.
*. With all the time given over to visuals, the cast is left with very little to do. Bones, for example, doesn’t do any doctoring (Doctor — formerly Nurse — Chapel takes care of Chekov’s burned hand), Scotty only gives his usual updates from engineering about how the ship can’t take any more, and Uhura, Chekov and Sulu have literally almost nothing at all to do. Sulu in particular seems shortchanged, despite “taking the con” when everyone leaves the bridge his role consists of nothing but reaction shots, staring in wide-eyed amazement at whatever’s up on the screen in front of him.

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*. Let’s be honest: the original Star Trek cast weren’t great actors, and here they’re pretty much left to play to type. Which leaves the newcomers Persis Khambatta and Stephen Collins to carry the load. It’s curious, but they are really the stars of the movie and the story basically revolves around the two of them. I think they do very well, though they are mainly types as well. She is beautiful and he has a cleft in his chin you could go spelunking in.
*. V’Ger has a nefarious plan to reduce all carbon units to simple patterns for data storage. This was a nightmare scenario in 1979, but today it’s seen as a kind of nerdy rapture, a consummation of our destiny and something devoutly to be wished for. What happened to us? The Internet?

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*. The Star Trek franchise kept on rolling, through various new television series, novels, cartoons, comic books, sequels, and resets. Despite being a big fan of the original series I was never that fond of what came after. The only other Star Trek movie I cared much for was the next one up, The Wrath of Khan. I think it’s clear in retrospect that the basic premise of Star Trek was better suited for episodic adventures on the small screen. Nevertheless, despite being slowed by the stiffness of age, coming in overweight and with hardened arteries, this “motion picture” manages to express something of the show’s romantic questing spirit in all its hammy glory.

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