Saturday, August 06, 2016

Looking Back at Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979)

For years I and my friends have referred to the first Star Trek film as Star Trek:The Motionless Picture, because the movie has long stretches where nothing seems to happen. I saw this film at Akers Mill in Smyrna Georgia when it first premiered. I was a junior in high school and had been a rabid Star Trek fan for most of my life. My best friend Barry Wofford and I ate dinner at a place called Round the Corner, where you ordered your food using phones mounted on the tables, and then we stood in line for an evening showing.
I recall having mixed feelings at the time. I was so happy to see my heroes on the big screen. To see a NEW adventure of James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the others. But the movie was just so...ponderous. Or so it seemed to me at the time.
I've more or less avoided the film for the last several decades. I think it's been more than twenty years since I sat and watched it all the way through. Amazon Prime has added all the Star Trek movies to the rotation of films so I decided that the time had come to watch the movie again. And this time, I got it. I got what director Robert Wise was going for.
The plot of STTMP concerns an almost unimaginably huge alien spacecraft that is on a collision course with Earth. The ship is surrounded by an energy cloud and as the film begins, the cloud destroys three Klingon ships that attack it, and then a United Federation of Planets space station which merely hails and scans the ship. Any interaction is met by incredible destructive force.
The only Federation starship close enough to intercept that alien ship is the newly refitted USS Enterprise. Admiral James T. Kirk, straining at his administrative duties, uses the crisis to regain the Captain's chair on the Enterprise and leads a crew of familiar faces and new characters to confront the danger to Earth.
I remember that there were two scenes that I found mind-numbingly boring when I saw the film in the theater. The first was when Kirk first sees the new Enterprise, and Scotty takes what seemed like half an hour to fly Kirk around the exterior. This scene seemed interminably long to me at the time. But this time I wasn't watching the Enterprise. I was watching William Shatner's face. Say what you want about the man's delivery of lines, but I still think he's a very good and expressive actor, and in this scene you realize how badly he has missed the Enterprise. The ship is the love of his life. A range of emotions play across Kirk's face as he looks at the ship. He has come home.
The second problem scene for me was similar. The Enterprise has penetrated the energy cloud to find the alien craft V'Ger and there is yet another long flyby scene where the Enterprise circles the giant craft, and here, as I alluded to before, is where Wise wanted to show us AWE. It gives the main characters a chance to emote. For Kirk, this is why he's a Starship Captain. To see new things. To marvel at wonders beyond his experience. Spock, seeking to finally rid himself of the human emotions he thinks have held him back, is hopeful, seeing V'Ger as the ultimate logical reasoner. (He has been sensing the craft's thoughts since before it appeared.) The other members of the bridge crew are stunned at the spectacle of V'Ger.
And the shots of the Enterprise against the massive form of V'Ger show the audience just how gigantic the alien craft is. We know how big the Enterprise is, and it's a tiny, tiny, spec shown against V'Ger. So yeah, I got it.
Now, here's the thing. I'm still not sure STTMP is a good Star Trek movie. It lacks the heart of the TV show, which was recaptured in Wrath of Khan a couple of years later. But, I do think it's a good science fiction film. It explores many themes of what it means to be human, and it shows us amazing sights and new concepts. The movie is slow, yes. But it's not totally motionless.


Bill O said...

Robert Wise was always an intellectual, Vulcan-like director. No melodrama, even when faced with Kirk. Not interested in making a movie out of a tv show with which he was mostly unfamiliar, he concentrated on the big themes, in a 2001 way. Movie's original trailers explicitly compare it to Kubrick's film, narrated by God - Wise's mentor Orson Welles.

Full history of the film in new book, The Fifty Year Mission.

The Wasp said...

I didn't see it in the theaters, but it was the very first movie I rented for our first VCR in 1984. Yeah, it's slow, yeah, Harlan Ellison's original ideas are better, sure it's a rehashing of "The Changeling," but, I like it. Between the uniforms, the Sesame Street multiculturalism, Deltan's dangerous sexuality, there's a 1970s weirdness glow to it that makes it the better child of the original series than ST:NG. And it feels big, something I want Star Trek movies to do, and they rarely manage. If you have that kind of time and money, make it big.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Thanks, Bill. I'll check that book out.

Wasp, yeah, as I noted, I like it better now. At age 17 it wasn't what I wanted from a Star Trek movie.