I would love to be able to say that the first Star Trek film (appropriately titled The Motion Picture) was groundbreaking; I would love to be able to say that it is an essential piece of cinema. But despite my love for the original crew of the USS Enterprise, I cannot say either of those things without lying. Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t the complete disaster that some make it out to be, but it’s certainly not a masterpiece. If anything, the best thing the film did was to reignite interest in the newly-revived franchise – and thank Logic that it did.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. It would certainly be more appropriate to say that the syndication of the original series, which was canceled in 1969 after three seasons, actually was the catalyst. After all, the syndication is what piqued the interest of studio execs to bring the show back in a motion picture format. So much interest, in fact, that Paramount Pictures intended to put $15 million into the movie. And that was just the beginning.
When all was said and done, the film would end up costing monumentally more money than that – $46 million, in fact. This was no cheap endeavor. Clearly inspired by the work of Stanley Kubrick, and more specifically, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Motion Picture has all the intent of being an almost ethereal, epic science fiction journey. Instead, we are left with a handful of truly beautiful scenes marred by poor pacing and forced acting.
The plot is nothing too foreign for an episode of the series. An alien entity in the form of a cloud is approaching the earth. Kirk (William Shatner), now an admiral based on earth, resumes control of the USS Enterprise to solve the issue; he’s got more experience than the current captain, William Decker (Stephen Collins) and is therefore more suited for the job. Or is he? Captain Kirk here seems more of an old curmudgeon stuck in his old ways, creating tension with Decker, who has been in command and feels threatened by Kirk’s newly-appointed leadership. The rest of the original crew, of course, is brought back for some reason or another, but at the end of the day the plot feels highly inconsequential. There’s a lot of confusing space talk and scenes of gigantic displays of spacecraft moving at a snail’s pace throughout the galaxy. Combined with a lack of real action and Kirk’s familiar machismo, the film gets off to an interesting start before dragging along for the rest of the duration of the film. In the motion picture’s defense, it does speed up towards the end – but that’s assuming you’ve kept it on to witness the ending.
The special effects, for the time, seem pretty spectacular. However, Star Trek has always been more than just special effects. It’s been about philosophical issues and the relationship between the crew. While we still have that here, it’s so overshadowed by an effort to visually “wow” the audience that everything familiar about the original series seems buried.
Should you watch this film? No. Well, not unless you’re a Trekkie or need some nice visuals accompanied by an admittedly astounding score by gig to help lull you to sleep. Which isn’t a bad thing. We could all use some time for rest and relaxation in our lives, no? The problem is that the film was not intended to work as a sleep aid. It was supposed to be much bigger; much more fantastic.
Director Robert Wise, upon the film’s release, considered the film only but a rough cut. As the story goes, he hand delivered the film to the premier in Washington, DC on December 7th, 1979. In 2001, he was given the chance to recut it and fix the pacing issues, making for a much better film. Better, but still not what it could have been.
Don’t lament the subpar quality of the film, however. I actually find it quite interesting to see how the franchise evolved over time. Though the Star Trek universe would get off to a faulty start on film, it would prove to be a short learning curve. The next film, The Wrath of Khan, would prove to be far better. And regardless, the motion picture made $139 million worldwide. Though Paramount did not consider the movie a real success, they considered the profit decent enough to warrant a sequel, albeit one with a smaller budget. Much to the dismay of creator Gene Roddenberry, he would have limited creative control over the sequel, something that many attributed the poor pacing and loose plot on.
So, don’t fret; the next installment of the Franchise Files will come back with a vengeance. The Wrath of Khan is a science fiction classic, and in a rare move, completely destroyed the original film in every aspect. Live long and prosper until then.