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Film Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

28 May, 2009

Theatrical Poster for Star Trek - The Motion Picture

This review contains spoilers. But if you haven’t seen this … well, go watch the original series first. Then watch this.

Before we delve into this film, let me make one thing clear – I am a sucker for stories about Artificial Intelligence. I even enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s AI. The idea has always appealed to me; especially the way in which it relates to some of the most common themes of science-fiction: the quest for knowledge, playing god, and the fear of the unknown.

Star Trek – The Motion Picture stands at a curious position in the Trek chronology. The adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are clearly divded into their days in the first five-year exploratory mission (Star Trek: The Original Series) and their romps across the galaxy over ten years later (the Star Trek films). The latter part invokes images of the crew of the Enterprise in their red uniforms, breeches and all, not the admittedly laughable one-piece pyjama suits that the crew wore in The Motion Picture. The sequel to the film, Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan, entirely ignores this film in more ways than the uniform. The Motion Picture ends with Kirk and his crew off on another exploratory mission; Wrath of Khan abandons that to put Kirk in his mid-life crisis.

Although it received a lukewarm response at release and grossed massive figures at the box office, The Motion Picture was shoved into a corner by both Paramount and the fanbase. It is regarded today as one of the worst films in the Trek franchise. I went into the film knowning all of this, but I came out throughly sastisfied. That surprised even me.

Let’s get the obvious flaws out of the way first. The uniforms on this particular venture are terrible. I don’t even know what to call them – they’re a cross between a jumpsuit and pyjamas with a strange belt-like device on the waistline. And it’s all grey – that terrible drab grey of old paint on old buildings. No matter how beautiful the refitted Enterprise is, we do not need to see it for six minutes (although I must say that it looked magnificent). And it is very true that the plot of The Motion Picture owes a lot to the original series episode The Changeling. Obviously, originality was not of concern to those involved in writing the script.

While all of that is very true, the first act of this film is sheer genius. From the first glimpses of the dingy interior of the Klingon ships and the massive dust cloud surrounding V’Ger, each shot is beautiful. As we watch Spock fail to attain the kohlinahr, we see some of Leonard Nimoy’s best acting. The human disappointment and distractedness that occupy his eyes for a brief moment give way to Vulcan acceptance. The reintroduction of the other characters we know so well are equally satisfying, especially that of McCoy (with a beard!). In a sense, this whole act reinforces the nature of The Motion Picture as a kind of prologue – whether or not that was the intention of its creators.

As the Enterprise finally begins its journey, the already slow pace of the film becomes even slower. I think I will be one of the very few to defend this, but I will be defending it anyway. Imagine if you were in the Enterprise, slowing entering V’Ger, an unknown entity which threatens to destroy the Earth and will most probably destory your ship. Of course time will move slowly, excruaitingly so, as you approach what seems to be certain doom. The Motion Picture is slow for the same reason that 2001: A Space Oddyssey is slow. No, we didn’t need to go through V’Ger for five minutes before something actually happened in the plot, but a pace as snappy as that of Wrath of Khan would have destroyed this film.

The ending of The Motion Picture is, for the lack of a better word, breathtaking. While the revelation of V’Ger as a childlike artificial intelligence and later the Voyager VI probe is not the greatest twist in cinema history, it is particularly poignant in parallel to Spock’s search for answers similar to its own. As much as this is Kirk’s story, it is Spock’s story.

It could be argued that The Motion Picture is not a very Trek-ish film, and to a certain extent I would agree. The brooding, slow sequence of events that occur in the second act would never have been found in an episode of the original series. But as the film ends, and Kirk decides to go “thataway”, I felt there was nothing more Trek than that – just going out and doing it, exploring the galaxy right in front of us. Even as an unintended consequence, The Motion Picture serves as a fitting prologue to the trilogy of films that followed it (The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home) much as Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country acts as an epilogue. If we ignore Star Trek V – The Final Frontier (as we should), then this film and The Undiscovered Country act as bookends to the excellent trilogy of films inbetween them.

I understand the criticism of The Motion Picture, and I do indeed agree with most of them. It is, without a doubt, an incredibly flawed film., but I do feel that it deserves its place as the beginning of Star Trek’s adventures on the big screen.

7/10

Update: upon re-examination, while I would change nothing in the review, I would bump up the rating to 8/10, which I do believe is well deserved.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. weathereye permalink
    28 May, 2009 11:08 am

    I agree with everything you’ve written here, and it makes me want to watch the movie again. It has been a few months.

    For all its flaws, TMP had to be made, and it had to be made the way it was. Star Trek had been struggling to return for years; when it did, it came back the way Roddenberry had always intended: an intellectual exercise, rather than space opera. With pajamas.

    But its problems made it clear to the powers that be that Roddenberry’s vision required an additional layer of tweakery — much like the original series. And so the changes that we all saw for The Wrath of Khan were made, setting the stage for the next 20 years of Trekking.

    Excellent review, Kumar.

  2. Marius permalink
    28 May, 2009 7:38 pm

    Well said, sir. Well said indeed. I am one of the few remaining boosters for TMP. I view it much like Lord of the Rings…good enough but in desperate need of editing. And I really wish you could see the Enterprise fly-by on the big screen. Those 7 minutes or so aren’t enough. Try to imagine that the only view of the ship you’ve seen were the effects shots from the original series, then suddenly there she is; sleek, enormous, gorgeous. That scene could have been twice as long and it would still have been too short. And the music for it was absolutely perfect.

    As you said, this film is deeply flawed, but still a work of art. Kudos, Kumar.

    • Ari permalink
      7 July, 2010 12:09 pm

      Well, Marius, that’s why we have big screen TVs. 🙂 I am very glad I rented this DVD to watch on my TV instead of streaming it or downloading it on my computer.

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