RETRO MOVIE NERD: Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979)

From a blog on the other side of the universe, I have returned to The Casual Geekery to report my findings on a film from the past that has it’s roots steeped in nerd dirt. Today, we take a look at the first big screen adaptation of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. It’s STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and yes they ran with that title, which generates about as much excitement as the film itself.

Rated G
Running time: 132 min.
Release date: December 8, 1979

Star Trek. That everlasting pop culture phenomenon that has been preserved forever by the bastion coined as “geekdom”. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a backstory to it that I will not go into great detail about, other than to say that a second television series was being produced in 1977 but was then scrapped when Paramount decided that science-fiction films were viable money-makers, thanks to Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Part of that discarded production was kept and then the pieces were added to complete the big-screen debut of the popular television series. The result was eagerly anticipated with an opening weekend box office of more than $11 million. It was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score). It had an Academy Award winning director at the helm. But was the movie any good? Well, let me tell you…

In the 23rd century, a monitoring station detects an alien force, hidden in a massive cloud of energy, moving toward Earth. The monitoring station, as well as three Klingon ships, are destroyed by the cloud. Meanwhile, on Earth, we learn that former Enterprise captain and now admiral, James T. Kirk (William Shatner), has a desk job with Starfleet Command in a future San Francisco. The new Enterprise has been dispatched to investigate the ominous and threatening cloud, with a lot of the ship’s new systems still needing to be tested. Kirk takes command of the ship due to his experience, which upsets the ship’s new captain, Willard Decker (Stephen Collins). Two officers are killed due to a faulty transporter and Kirk’s unfamiliarity with the ship’s newer engines leads to more discord between himself and Decker.

Google Stephen Collins…then read all about him. I’ll wait.

We get some familiar faces on the crew, such as Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), chief engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), weapons officer Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), helmsman Sulu (George Takei) and Vulcan science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who has just returned from his home planet, attempting to purge himself of all human emotion. There, he felt a consciousness reaching out, which he presumes came from within the energy cloud. We also have a new member of the crew, Ilia (Persis Khambatta), who is the ship’s new navigator, and a hint of a romantic history is revealed between herself and Capt. Decker.

Did you Google Stephen Collins?

As the Enterprise approaches the cloud, it is attacked and a probe resembling a bright continuous bolt of lightning boards the ship and takes Ilia with it when it disappears. She returns to the ship soon after as a robotic doppelganger, a probe sent to study the crew of the Enterprise. The crew delves further into the cloud…and further….and further….and further. The visual effects here are quite impressive, but the scene depicting the ship’s journey through the alien entity takes quite a while to develop. This is an issue throughout a few scenes in the film. When Kirk is on a shuttle to be reunited with the Enterprise, we get a long, loving look at the Enterprise; perhaps too long, as it appears every contour of the ship is held for much longer than it should; also, instead of dialogue we get the exchanging of glances and facial expressions between the various crew members as they watch things unfold on their giant view screen.

These scenes really pad out the running time of the film (132 minutes), making it feel a lot longer than it actually is. Finally, when the crew realizes what they are up against and what the entity is searching for, it really adds up to an unfortunate anticlimax. We get quite a few philosophical discussions, which isn’t unfamiliar for fans of the original series, but it’s not very exciting and could easily lull one to sleep. Apart from the sluggish pacing and the anticlimactic ending, seeing the original crew on the big screen and watching their characters behave as if they hadn’t missed a beat was comforting.

Director Robert Wise had previously won Best Director Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, so he brought a strong pedigree with him to this film. Perhaps he overdid it a tad with the special effects, as they really overwhelm the story, not allowing much room for things like dialogue and story focus. It takes almost an hour before the Enterprise even encounters the energy cloud, as Wise focuses on having the camera make love to the Enterprise, which really shouldn’t be the focal point to the story. He has plenty of awesome visuals, however, which were rightfully recognized, even though they crowd out the story.

A little more focus on the plot and a little less on advancing the effects would have helped move the story at a quicker pace. One note to make about the visual effects here: Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) and John Dykstra (Star Wars) were behind the creation of Star Trek’s effects. The Oscar-nominated score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, a sweeping piece in the vein of Star Wars or Superman. The theme from this film would go on to appear as the main piece of the future Trek spin-off, Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

Having the entire cast of the original series return here was the only way to go. When the series was cancelled after only three seasons, the fan base was missing that sense of closure. Certainly, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not the last time fans would reunite with the original cast, but introducing an all-new cast probably would not have made Paramount as much money. Since Shatner, Nimoy and company provide their usual performance and interactions, let’s analyze the newcomers in this film. Stephen Collins provides a good effort as Capt. Decker, as he has to balance the hurt feelings of being usurped by Kirk while still fulfilling his duties aboard the ship. Persis Khambatta is interesting because as the lead female (Nichelle Nichols is hardly on-screen), she is unique in her exotic bald look but still exudes beauty, ironically after her character is turned into a robotic clone.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture looks good, no question about it. The cast is solid, but ultimately the screenplay gives them very little to do other than look longingly out into space. The visual effects are the highlight of the film, but it’s really too much of a good thing. The story loses focus thanks to prolonged scenes of absolutely nothing happening. An ending that gets quite treacly and philosophical means that the story builds up to a sparkler display rather than a full-blown fireworks show. Star Trek’s big-screen debut deserved much better.

Rating: **1/2 – The sum of the parts does not equal a movie to recommend.

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