It's easy to understand why a lot of Star Trek fans aren't particularly enthusiastic about Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It's a quiet, sterile film that arguably draws more from Stanley Kubrick than from the television series it's based on; dispensing with the “Wagon Train to the stars!” tone in favor of something much more cerebral. Additionally, while the beloved stars of the show are present, the film is stingy in terms of doling out scenes that allow the crew to rekindle some of that old chemistry. The movie would rather spend two minutes slowly panning across one of its impressive models than spend two minutes letting Bones and Spock bicker with each other.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn't the film the fans wanted, but that shouldn't stop us from appreciating the movie for what it is: a technically stunning, artistically ambitious piece of '70s sci-fi built around a deliberate but ultimately rather elegant story. I'll go even further: if you examine the film closely, you'll discover that this is still very much a Star Trek story. In many ways, even closer to the spirit of the television series than most of the other sequels. The main things that have changed are the scale and the speed: it's as if a solid 50-minute episode of the series has been given a massive budget and had its running time padded to 131 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, the film's story originated as a TV script: it was supposed to be the pilot episode of a rebooted Star Trek series, but evolved into a movie script once Paramount decided a big-screen adventure was the way to go. Like so many Trek stories, the tale begins with a simple crisis that must be solved: a mysterious and seemingly dangerous alien life force is hurtling towards earth at a rapid pace (it's set to arrive in three days). Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner, T.J. Hooker) decides that he needs to handle this situation himself (because of course he does), so he re-takes the reins of his old ship, the U.S.S. Enterprise (which has just undergone a major refit).
Naturally, this decision doesn't sit too well with freshly-minted Captain William Decker (Stephen Collins, 7th Heaven), who begrudgingly accepts a demotion to Commander while Kirk gets the old gang back together. Eventually, Kirk, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley, House of Bamboo), Hikaru Sulu (George Takei, The Green Berets), Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig, Babylon 5), Montgomery “Scottie” Scott (James Doohan, Man in the Wilderness) and Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols, Snow Dogs) are reunited on the bridge of the new-and-improved Enterprise, ready to take on another grand adventure. Also along for the ride: Ilia (Persis Khambatta, Megaforce), a Deltan woman who serves as the ship's navigator. Ilia was required to take a vow of celibacy before joining Starfleet (something required of all Deltans due to their extremely high sexuality), though we learn that she once had a romantic relationship with Decker.
It takes a long time for the Enterprise to actually reach the mysterious “thing,” and the journey there isn't exactly packed with exciting incidents. While there are a handful of charming character beats (I love the scene where a bearded Bones sees Kirk for the first time in years and immediately starts grumbling), director Robert Wise is far more interested in The Majesty of Space. It's obvious that he wants to make Star Trek: A Space Odyssey; creating a film where philosophical ideas are fused with awe-inspiring imagery. The spirit of the film is best captured in the lengthy, wordless “strip tease” sequence: as Kirk sees the refurbished Enterprise for the first time, Wise lovingly examines the beautiful ship from every angle, beginning with detailed close-ups before observing the ship in all its glory. It's a solid five minutes of “nothing happening,” but it's stunning cinema nonetheless.
As in the case of the space docking sequence in 2001, the secret sauce is the music. All of Jerry Goldsmith's Trek scores are exceptional, but none quite match the majesty, thematic power and rich inventiveness of this effort. His main theme is a rousing march that exists in the same tonal ballpark as John Williams' equally-iconic Star Wars theme without ever sounding like an imitation, and he finds a host of wonderful variations on this idea throughout the score. Additionally, he serves up the first appearance of his memorable Klingon theme, and gives Ilia her own gorgeous theme (which is also used as an overture). Elsewhere, Goldsmith employs a unique “blaster beam” instrument – which had only been created a few years earlier – to add an otherworldly touch to some of the film's stranger sequences.
If the “Kirk admires the Enterprise” sequence is this film's equivalent of the space docking sequence from 2001, then an abundance of other vfx-driven moments draw inspiration from that film's colorful, trippy “stargate” sequence. On quite a few occasions, The Motion Picture turns into a dazzling light show, serving up the sort of scenes that almost demand to be accompanied by illegal substances and/or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
Considering the abundance of moments that can be described as “ooooh, pretty,” it's understandable that the film has a reputation as a style-over-substance affair. And yet, the story – once you get to it, anyway – is quite compelling. I won't spoil any details about the identity of the powerful being they encounter, but let it be said that the meeting both creates a tragedy and a unique set of moral and scientific problems for the crew to confront. The conclusion is pure Gene Roddenberry: optimistic, beautiful, relevant, a little silly.
The TV show veterans slip back into their old roles with ease. Shatner's hammy swagger and cocky grin, Kelley's wary scowl, Nimoy's inquisitive raised eyebrow... the actors have spent enough time playing these characters to embody them effortlessly. Admittedly, the film will probably work better for people who have at least a passing familiarity with the show: unlike some of the later features, The Motion Picture doesn't really bother trying to re-introduce us to the characters, but merely assumes that we have a good idea of who they are and what their shared history is. Collins and Khambatta do respectable work in brand-new roles, though the former's “square-jawed hero” routine is a little conventional and the latter could have used a bit more character development.
Despite being the first film in the series, Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn't the ideal introduction to this vast fictional universe (nor does it really set the tone for any of the films that followed). However, it's easily the most underappreciated film of the series: an intellectual blockbuster than uses the raw DNA of the series to create an arthouse epic. It isn't the best Star Trek movie, but it does a better job than any of them of capturing a universe that feels infinite in terms of both scale and scientific possibility.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 131 minutes
Release Year: 1979