Tuesday, February 9, 2021

REVIEW: There Is No Comparison: Remembering Star Trek The Motion Picture

Star Trek The Motion Picture ranks quite highly on my personal hierarchy of Trek films (Just behind The Wrath of Khan and First Contact respectively).

In Australia, the extended 1983 TV version of the film often found its home on local TV stations, ably filling the slot assigned to the “midday movie”.  Its protracted run time would easily consume a sizeable portion of the afternoon - perfect for lazy, rainy days stuck indoors.  During Coronavirus lockdown, it’s in a similar context that I’ve had cause to revisit the film - its soothing tone a balm for isolation and boredom.

James Patrik There Is No Comparison: Remembering Star Trek The Motion Picture

As a younger fan, I often overlooked the merits of The Motion Picture, preferring instead the glorious motion control starship warfare of its sequel.  It seems the most common criticism of the film is its slow pace.  Stylistically, the film shares an obvious kinship with 2001: A Space Odyssey as opposed to the broad accessibility of Star Wars.  Caught in the shadow of that pop culture juggernaut, it’s easy to imagine how fans in 1979 would have been deeply disappointed in the film.  Its slow, ponderous pace is decidedly at odds with the kinetic, brightly coloured tones of the series upon which it is based. 

However, there is something to be said for exercising patience with a story that refuses to rush and unfolds at its own pace.  This idea is immediately exemplified in the overture before the opening credits.  Already a fading tradition of cinema in 1979, it has been preserved on the home media releases.  Unhurried and deliberate, The Motion Picture is an outlier in the film series.  If you approach it in the right mood, the film is almost hypnotic, calming even.

Depending upon your personal taste, the oft derided reveal of the newly refitted Enterprise is a prime example of the film’s measured pace – five minutes and forty seconds of pupil dilating starship pornography.  Despite the length of the sequence, it reinforces an idea that Trek rarely serves well – the Enterprise itself as a character.

The story itself is a surprisingly hard slice of science fiction.  An old NASA probe – having gained sentience wandering the galaxy – returns to Earth seeking its human creators, erroneously contextualising them as “God”.  The premise is quite similar to the original series episode The Changeling and finds Trek wading through metaphysical subject matter far more successfully than Star Trek V would a decade later.  It’s a cerebral story – typically Rodenberry in tone – and featuring many of his favourite storytelling motifs.

Pretending the ten years between the series and this film is, in actuality, a mere two requires extraordinary suspension of disbelief, but the cast revisit their characters effortlessly.  It’s a story in which Kirk and Spock bear complex motivations.  Kirk is ambitious to the point of forcing Decker out of his job, while Spock is cold and distant after his unconscious mind is touched by the arrival of V’Ger. 

James Patrik There Is No Comparison: Remembering Star Trek The Motion Picture

Shatner – svelte and resplendent in dark hair – is immediately engaging, tempering Kirk’s zeal with an explorer’s curiosity.  Regretting the acceptance of a promotion to Admiral, the character is a man reinvigorated by being in command of a starship once more.

New crewmembers Decker and Illia provide viewers with an insight into the defunct Phase II series (themselves both characters from the aborted show).  Persis Khambatta (a former Miss India) delivers a suitably bizarre performance, cementing her as one of the standout guest performers of the film series.

As ever, it’s not a perfect film.  In the 2016 documentary For the Love of Spock, actor Leonard Nimoy describes the making of The Motion Picture as “a painful experience”.  He openly criticises what he deems “a bad script” and laments the loss of character development at the expense of visual effects.

As can be said with most of the original series films, Takei, Koenig and Nicholls are present and accounted for, but have minimal screen time.  The seventies aesthetic that permeates the film can be both a virtue and a hindrance.  McCoy’s bushy beard, gold medallion and white leisure suit are a pleasure to behold.  Not quite so pleasing are the pajama-like Starfleet uniforms.  Allegedly chosen by director Robert Wise who felt the brightly coloured uniforms of the TV series were not appropriate for the silver screen, these sartorial nightmares come in depressing shades of brown, beige and white.

Despite these flaws, I look at the film with a fans affectionate gaze, anticipating my many personal highlights with each re-watch.  The wormhole malfunction, Spock’s psychedelic spacewalk and poor Commander Sonak’s grisly death at the hands of a malfunctioning transporter (“What we got back…didn’t live long…fortunately”).

Accompanied by a sumptuous score (and a thunderous main title sequence) by the iconic Jerry Goldsmith, The Motion Picture is, in my opinion, the only entry in the film series that feels truly cinematic.  I can still recall the old VHS copy of the film I had as a child.  On the back of the box, the film was aptly described as a “special effects bonanza” – and that it is – delivering big screen spectacle in a way that no Trek has ever approximated.

Its difficult to believe that it is 42 years old, but it seems there may still be life left in it yet.  As recently as last year there were rumblings of a potential 4K release – we can only wait patiently for such plans to materialise.  It is my hope that the 2001 Director’s Cut of the film (still trapped in standard definition) will be included in any high definition re-release.

I, like many fans, have grown to appreciate The Motion Picture – not for its deficiencies, but rather for its virtues, the audacity of its ambition and its legacy as the film that ignited the film franchise. 

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