Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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Greetings humanoids!  As summer begins to scorch the green from the lawn, it’s time to resurrect a Graham’s Crackers tradition from a few years ago:  the movie series review!  You may not realize this, given the complete absence of advertising and hype thus far, but there’s a new Star Trek movie coming out at the end of July.  Star Trek Beyond, the thirteenth volume of films based on that obscure cancelled sci-fi series from the 60’s, is due to hit theaters on July 22, 2016.  Longtime readers may recall that back in 2012 I did a day-by-day recap of every James Bond movie leading up to the release of Skyfall, offering up a custom brew of trivia, anecdotes and commentary designed to whet appetites for what turned out to be arguably the best 007 movie of our generation – and Star Trek Beyond‘s pending premiere gives me a lovely excuse to do the same for the bygone silver screen adventures of Kirk, Spock, Picard, Data et al.  There are seven weeks remaining and only twelve movies to get through so the posting schedule won’t quite be so rigorous – but hopefully you’ll enjoy what I have to say, and perhaps you might be inclined to brush the dust off your DVD cases and pop them in again.

Without further ado, let us… engage!

Given the entrenchment of Star Trek into western popular culture as we know it today, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was nothing more than an old cancelled NBC space show with a robust group of dedicated fans who couldn’t let go – the Firefly of its day.  In the mid-1970’s, without the Internet to give viral life to the latest rumor, one could rely only on tantalizing hints of revival shared at conventions like a game of telephone.  For series creator Gene Roddenberry, a contradiction of a man whose lasting vision and humanism were always tempered in life by a healthy degree of Barnum-esque hucksterism, the notion of being able to squeeze a few more cents from a past success in a climate where his attempts to move on were flaming out left and right must have been powerfully compelling.  When he would show up and announce that he was working on a way for Star Trek to return, who knew how much of that was truth and how much was just baiting the hook so he could keep charging appearance fees and selling merchandise?  The short-lived animated Star Trek series was a taste, an ultimately unsatisfying hors d’oeuvre, but for fans, it was something – something to stoke the fire of hope for the return of the genuine article.

Eventually, Roddenberry got down to business and began writing, cobbling together a controversial screenplay provisionally named The God Thing that was subsequently given the green light for a very low budget – even for the penny-pinching 1970’s – movie.  But in Hollywood, there is no such thing as a straight road, and The God Thing would be rewritten, cancelled, revived as a TV pilot, cancelled again, scheduled as a TV movie of the week, cancelled, and then finally – after Star Wars exploded across the world, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on its heels proved that the popularity of sci-fi wasn’t a one-off fluke – given the go-ahead as a big budget motion picture.  The best effects houses in the country were hired to give it a sweep and scope equal to Star Wars, and the production secured the services of director Robert Wise – a filmmaker who had edited Citizen Kane, directed one of the highest grossing movies of all time (The Sound of Music) and won an Oscar for West Side Story.  And the movie was titled, to remove any sense of doubt as to its potential for epicness, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In the 23rd Century, an unspecified number of years after the conclusion of the USS Enterprise‘s five year mission to explore strange new worlds, a massive energy cloud that is vaporizing everyone and everything in its path is headed straight for Earth.  The highly decorated Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) undertakes some bureaucratic wrangling to get himself assigned as captain of his old ship, which is currently undergoing a massive refit in orbit.  In doing so, he displaces its current captain and his protege, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), and swiftly recruits his old crew to accompany him on this emergency mission – all with the exception of science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is back home on the planet Vulcan attempting to purge himself of his lingering human emotions, but at the same time is drawn to a consciousness at the heart of the energy cloud and in short order, finds himself back – albeit uneasily – amongst his old friends, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov.  Also signing on for this mission is the Deltan navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a mysterious bald alien woman who has a history with Decker.

After a nearly fatal misadventure inside a wormhole thanks to Kirk’s unfamiliarity with his new ship, the Enterprise arrives at the energy cloud and manages to avoid being vaporized (thanks to Spock’s quick thinking).  The ship penetrates and journeys deep inside the cloud, seeking to make contact with the intelligence that is powering it, to try and convince it to leave Earth alone.  Abruptly, Ilia is abducted and replaced with a probe identical in appearance (but with a sudden penchant for high heels and short skirts) through which the crew can now communicate with the intelligence, which calls itself V’Ger.  V’Ger is a form of mechanical life travelling to Earth to locate its creator, with whom it plans to join.  After Spock goes rogue attempting to investigate further, he reveals his understanding of his connection to V’Ger – both incomplete and searching for someone who can provide answers.  V’Ger is having a crisis of faith – for a mechanized life form built to function solely on logic, this is an anomaly that it simply cannot compute.  The Enterprise is finally welcomed inside the heart of the energy cloud, where they discover what V’Ger really is:  a probe built by NASA and launched over 300 years ago, Voyager 6 (V—ger), which has grown beyond its 1970’s programming and become sentient.  Voyager has seen the universe, has learned the what and the where and the how, and now wants to understand the why.  The answer lies in the human equation:  Decker sacrifices himself to join with Voyager and Ilia, completing a trinity of sorts which causes them to ascend to a plane of existence beyond our comprehension and leave the Enterprise (and Earth) alone to continue its adventures.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (or TMP in fan shorthand) is most definitely not akin to Star Wars.  There is no swashbuckling, there are no action scenes to speak of.  There isn’t even really a villain.  This is less shades of Joseph Campbell on monomyth than it is a deeply philosophical pondering of essential questions of human existence – notions of faith and purpose and the meaning of it all, perhaps with the aspiration of the story far exceeding its capacity to reach it in the course of an economical running time.  It’s interesting to situate the movie opposite its sequel, The Wrath of Khan, as the two most literate and intellectual Star Trek movies ever made.  But where Wrath of Khan locates the philosophy in the hearts of its characters, TMP assigns them to a largely offscreen, unfathomable character that we, the audience, don’t really care that much about.  There are few personal consequences whether or not V’Ger gets its answers, other than the hackneyed “Earth will be destroyed!” gimmick.  The resolution of the crisis is also hived off to supporting characters that we’ve just met and haven’t invested that much in either.  Stephen Collins brings a great deal of likability to his thinly-written Decker, and Persis Khambatta tries her best but is stuck in a pretty dumb, borderline unplayable role.  (I have to roll my eyes at the description of her character – an alien beauty from a race that is supposedly so sexually alluring that members of her species have to take “oaths of celibacy” in order to serve safely with humans, lest they, I don’t know, sex them to death?  Such a creation would not be out of place in anything directed by Michael Bay, and speaks to irritation at the way Roddenberry and many, many artists and creators like him over the decades feel this puerile compulsion to flaunt their sexual fantasies publicly within their art.  Put it this way – a woman wouldn’t have come up with the idea of Ilia.)

What is striking about the regular cast is how uncomfortable they seem in their roles.  With the bulk of the movie’s runtime given to showcasing the effects work, the script is thin on character moments as it is, but even in those brief bluescreen-free scenes, there is a notable lack of energy to the interactions, stemming from the fact that Kirk just doesn’t seem like Kirk, McCoy is not McCoy, and so on down the line.  I’m sure not all of it can be traced to the ridiculous uniforms they were clad in (Shatner observes in his book Star Trek Movie Memories that the actors could not sit between takes without ruining the costumes, and an inadequate compromise was made with the crew providing boards that they could lean against instead).  It must have been a considerable challenge for each actor, returning to a part they had played ten years earlier – and never expected to again – and trying to recapture what was endearing about them in the first place while regurgitating technobabble and conjuring emotions at blank screens where effects would be inserted later.  This works for the story, to a point; the Enterprise crew is supposed to be uneasy at being reunited suddenly in a crisis after a long time on separate paths, not to mention worried at the fate of their home world, but for an audience, especially for a 1979 audience that had waited to see these people again for a long, lingering decade, it would have simply felt wrong, as if you’d showed up at someone else’s family reunion.  There is no sense of camaraderie; the interplay, even the familiar banter between Spock and McCoy, is forced and clunky.  The screenplay uses the characters only as props in service of exploring the movie’s larger philosophical canvas, rather than using the philosophy to explore the characters.  The dialogue is almost exclusively explanatory and plot-driven, “Morris the Explainer” writ large.  As such our emotional investment in the journey is minimal, and as the credits roll, we might be thinking about what we’ve just seen, but we don’t feel much of anything.  The motion picture has not moved us.

So what works about The Motion Picture?

Two major things.  The first and most obvious answer is Jerry Goldsmith’s music.  There had been a merciful pivot away from the deeply grating bleeps and boops that characterized 50’s and 60’s sci-fi, starting with Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cemented with John Williams’ brilliant work in Star Wars.  Given his turn at the podium, Goldsmith echoed Williams’ symphonic sweep in the creation of the famous main title theme which would appear in five of the films and serve as the theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation, but also craftily incorporated some electronic elements to underscore the eerieness of the mysterious cloud as the Enterprise travels through it, the music often the only element pushing the movie forward through long, silent stretches.  The visual effects, assembled by such industry heavyweights as Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, are sublime, and the odd wonky matte painting aside, hold up extremely well against their modern-day CGI equivalents.  They rival and arguably exceed the Star Gate sequence in 2001 in terms of their abstract beauty and the imagination infused into the imagery.  It’s not X-wings flying over the Death Star, but it’s art, and much of it is beautiful.  The only mistake with the effects is the fault of whomever decided that every penny that was spent had to wind up on the screen, to the detriment of pace.  (Wise had to cut the movie together without the effects in place, as they were still being worked on right up until almost the hour of the gala premiere.)

A criticism levelled frequently at Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it is boring.  A critic at the time complained that it had “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars.”  In hindsight, Roddenberry, Wise and the production team deserve some credit for not trying to make another Star Wars.  Their noble error was in going too far the other way, of giving us poetry when a prose exploration of the same subject would have been more in line with what the audience wanted.  In a sense, the entire movie functions not as narrative but as metaphor, and a rather vaginal one at that given the predominance of men in the cast:  it was observed by a smarter mind than myself that the Enterprise, a tiny speck soaring deep through the tunnels of a vast energy matrix in search of V’Ger, is a sperm bringing the spark of humanity to the egg waiting to be fertilized by it.  Throw in talk of the creator and creating God in our own image and you’re dealing with some heavy, heavy stuff, man, when perhaps most people just wanted to see some spaceships blow up.  Still, if you’re not going to press my thrill button, or try to stir my emotions, then at least challenge my intellect, and in that area, The Motion Picture succeeds.  I, too, have on occasion stopped to ask the question to the empty air just as Spock does at a critical moment in the third act:  “Is this all that I am; is there nothing more?”  Figuring that out seems to me to be the essence of what it means to be human – the fuel that has driven Star Trek in all its forms.

That, to me, is the polar opposite of boring.

The Motion Picture also works as a necessary stepping stone for what is to come; a cathartic purge, if you will, of the mess of false starts and dashed hopes that preceded its creation.  It dispenses with the awkward baby steps that were always going to accompany the first reunion of the characters and their transition from small screen to big and gives the series tabula rasa to move forward to much greater heights in a brand new era.  It is also, in its more stately approach to the solving of narrative problems, a template for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Where Gene Roddenberry had to include a fistfight to sell his show when NBC had dismissed Star Trek‘s first pilot as too cerebral, here we see that cerebral approach to storytelling in full, elegant display.  V’Ger begins the movie as a terrifying antagonist, doing seemingly villainous things, but its actions are not out of spite, and a crisis is eventually resolved without shots fired nor nuclear explosions set off (aside from the “heavenly” burst of white light that accompanies the creation of new life at the end).  There is a profound optimism in the message that understanding is the greatest means at our disposal to end conflict between enemies who seem implacable.  Today, when a presidential candidate bleats incessantly about building walls to keep the terrifying others out, we should take this message to heart, even if our cinematic appetites have always trended toward resolution by good old-fashioned shoot-em-up – as exemplified by the enduring appeal of Star Wars.

In summary:  Points for score, effects, philosophical underpinning and aspirational reach.  Probably the best, if only, “hard sci-fi” Star Trek film. Marks off though for weak characters, expositional writing, languid pace and a lack of emotional depth.  It’s Star Trek, but it’s not enough Star Trek, if that makes any sense.

As the last thing you see before the credits promises, the human adventure is just beginning, and next time we’ll delve deeper into what is still regarded, justifiably, as the greatest Star Trek movie of them all, where we learn that it was the Klingons who said that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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