Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 20, 2021)
Time for a quick synopsis of my troubled history with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. When this epic hit movie screens in December 1979, I eagerly went to see it and apparently liked it very much. Frankly, I don’t recall the exact feelings it inspired in my 12-year-old self, but I do know that I went on a major Trek binge after that.
I constantly watched episodes of the syndicated program - back in the old days when it was just Star Trek and we didn’t need to call it “The Original Series” - and I even read tons of the show novelizations.
My Trek ardor cooled after that, though I remained moderately interested in the movies. Actually, I came to feel that I liked the films but not the TV show, an emotion that peaked with 1991’s terrific Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. That flick rekindled my desire to revisit its predecessors, so I dropped some big bucks on a special laserdisc package that bundled the first five movies.
That 25th anniversary set offered nothing particularly compelling other than a nice case and a couple of doodads, but it saved me some money off the purchase of the LDs separately, which I felt justified it.
I always felt I needed to rationalize my acquisition of all five movies because of ST:TMP. I don’t know when it happened, but sometime between 1979 and 1991 I came to dislike the flick.
The new viewing of it that accompanied the LD purchase didn’t alter this opinion. While some of the other films in the series had their problems, I thought that ST:TMP was by far the worst of the bunch. Bloated and boring, the movie went nowhere and seemed like a total dud.
Perversely, I tended to check out ST:TMP again every couple of years. Between screenings, I’d start to convince myself that the movie wasn’t as bad as I recalled, and I’d give it another chance.
Then I’d realize that it really was that terrible. I’d file away the LD until my memory failed sufficiently to merit another spin.
When the Trek flicks started to appear on DVD, I ditched that LD set, so I didn’t watch ST:TMP for at least four or five years prior to its 2001 DVD release. I then avoided it for about seven and a half years until this Blu-ray ended up in my hands.
And that viewing went the same as the rest, as I still find myself disenchanted with the film. Perhaps it’s time to admit defeat.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture follows the reunited crew of the Enterprise. A mysterious force steadily approaches Earth, and it destroys pretty much everything in its path. The Enterprise is still going through a refitting, but it’s the only ship that can possibly intercept the cloud.
After a few years as a desk jockey, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) badly wants to get back on the bridge, so he uses this calamity to wrest back control of the Enterprise from young Captain Will Decker (Stephen Collins).
This doesn’t sit well with the junior officer, but he has no choice other than to suck it up and go along with the decision. He remains on board as science officer when a mishap kills the Enterprise’s already-designated employee.
Slowly - and I really do mean slowly - the film conspires to bring back all of the show’s old regulars. It appears that most of them - Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Chekov (Walter Koenig), Scotty (James Doohan) and Sulu (George Takei) - already worked on the redone Enterprise, along with more obscure figures like Doctor - formerly Nurse - Chapel (Majel Barrett) and Lt. Commander - formerly Yeoman - Rand (Grace Lee Whitney).
However, Kirk’s main compatriots come aboard via different means. Retired from Starfleet, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has to be drafted to return, while Mr. Spock comes back for more personal reasons.
After years on his home planet of Vulcan in pursuit of the Kolinahr discipline - which would purge all emotions from him - he fails to pass a test, largely because he senses the presence of the V’Ger spirit. As such, he rejoins the crew largely to find his own answers about this mysterious entity.
Another dynamic occurs when Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta) joins the crew. A Deltan - apparently a very sex-oriented people - she and Decker once had a fling, and her presence stirs up some old memories and emotions.
All of that exists as a backdrop to the Enterprise’s attempt to reach, contact, and deal with V’Ger. Does any of it really matter? No, for the very simple story is told in such a turgid manner that all considerations become subsumed to the dull pacing.
Defenders of ST:TMP like to tell us how intelligent it is, which implies that non-fans must be too moronic to comprehend its intricacies and depth. Feh!
In truth, ST:TMP does possess a moderately intriguing story. The questions that surround V’Ger seem interesting, and Spock’s relationship to the entity also boasts some potential. Add to this Kirk’s burgeoning midlife crisis and the interactions between Ilia and Decker and you should have something.
Onscreen, the reality seems totally different. The movie remains short on story and long on endless special effects shots.
Oh my, does ST:TMP pour on the visual imagery! The Enterprise doesn’t even leave port until more than 36 minutes into the movie, and much of the reason for that delay relates to the interminable glimpses of various elements.
The movie should have been called Star Trek: Check Out Our Bitchin’ New Budget. It feels as though so much time was devoted to impressing us with effects that blow away those from the old show that no one bothered to notice how terribly boring they were.
This tendency does have its defenders as well. As a waiter in my college years, I worked with a serious Trekkie, and he felt that the never-ending early shots of the Enterprise were warranted because the die-hard fans wanted to see them.
I’m sure that’s true, and I’m also sure that they loved the intricacy of the imagery. However, it’s not good filmmaking. These shots - and many more like them throughout ST:TMP - do absolutely nothing to further the plot, and they slow down the movie immeasurably.
Frankly, ST:TMP has a story that easily could have fit into a regular episode of the show. In fact, what we find comes across as little more than a regurgitation of one of Trek’s basic plots.
It features an apparently omnipotent force that has to be outwitted by Kirk’s ingenuity. We saw this tale many times during the original series, and ST:TMP does nothing to improve upon the archetype.
If anything, it seems like a poor variation on the story, mainly because the film drones on for so long. Some wags have dubbed this film Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, and it’s hard to disagree with them.
The movie moves so slowly, and little really happens. The picture’s more about reaction than action. While I didn’t expect it to be a slam-bang effort ala Star Wars - or the 2009 Star Trel, for that matter - it should have struck a more satisfying balance.
That would have to wait for the film’s sequels, all of which improved upon this clunker. Yes, I include much-maligned efforts such as 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and 1989’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. For all their faults - and they include many - they simply feel more like real Trek than does ST:TMP.
The latter comes across like imitation Trek. The series was always accused of being too serious and without humor, but that wasn’t the truth. However, ST:TMP offers Trek foes evidence of their theory with its flat pacing and lack of charisma.
Despite its recycled plot and frighteningly slow progress, I could have gotten into ST:TMP had it displayed any sign of the original show’s spark. However, that wasn’t the case, as the long-time collaborators in the cast felt like virtual strangers here.
I get no sense of the original show’s fine camaraderie or spirit, as everyone appears morose and unenthusiastic. The scenes that focus on Kirk, McCoy and Spock - the triad at the heart of the old series - come across as bland and drab.
Nimoy seems most unhappy to be on the set, as he constantly looks like he really doesn’t want to be there. In his 1995 autobiography called I Am Spock, Nimoy claimed that he was happy to do the flick, but he made his concerns known:
Once filming commenced, it seemed like we actors stood forever on the bridge of the Enterprise, staring at a blank screen, which later would be filled with wondrous special effects. This work was very tedious, and frankly, not much fun. What was this gloom? This depressed atmosphere? This lack of attack, fun, élan?
I think it came out of a sense that we were doing something Historic and Important. Somehow, although the TV shows depended heavily on the day-to-day energy of the creative community - writers, directors and actors - the movie seemed to have been taken out of our hands. And our energy was sapped by an unwarranted reverence. We were passengers along for the ride on a voyage we could never quite fully manage or understand.
Of the movie’s premiere, Nimoy added:
What do I remember of the movie that I saw? Incredible shots of the Enterprise, looking more massive and awesomely beautiful than she ever had.
And then more shots of the Enterprise, looking massive and beautiful.
And more shots…
Eventually, the special effects became downright tedious. A great cheer came up from the audience when the ship went into warp speed, but unfortunately the story never really took flight - and the chemistry between the characters was never taken advantage of.
And those comments essentially encapsulate everything that’s wrong with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It stands as a monument to special effects wizardry, as it looks about 10 billion times better than anything we ever saw on the original show.
However, it falls so deeply in love with those visuals that it leaves room for little else, and the wonderful spirit the cast displayed on the series is nowhere to be found.
I’ve always preferred the original show to The Next Generation and the others series because of that chemistry. Admittedly, some of the performers on the newer programs can act rings around those found on the old one, but I never felt they were able to duplicate the fine spark the original showed.
There was a sense of fun, excitement and distinctive character that seemed to disappear somewhat on later iterations. For all the talent involved, subsequent Trek series never came across with the same spunk and charm.
Unfortunately, neither did Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and it made the original cast look nearly embalmed. As a Trek fan, I owe the film a debt of gratitude.
It essentially resurrected the franchise and allowed us to partake of the many more satisfying efforts that came over the last 30 years. Nonetheless, it remains a bloated and boring flick that’s as dull and pointless as ever.
Odd footnote: I don’t know the character’s name, but did anyone else think that one of the prominent aliens who served on the Enterprise bridge looked a lot like comedian Steven Wright?