Time has not been kind to the reputation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first big screen journey taken by Captain Kirk and the Enterprise. Though it got fairly positive reviews in its day, some audiences found it slow and plodding. Once The Wrath of Khan came out and became an instant classic, The Motion Picture was treated like that boring cousin you only think about when you see him at weddings, ignored all year long until you’re forced to think about him.
That’s too bad, because the cousin is far more interesting than he’s given credit for.
The crew’s first foray onto the silver screen takes what was meant to be the pilot of a relaunched TV series that never quite materialized and expands it into a full-length film. (It’s also a new riff on something the original series dealt with in The Changeling.) Admittedly, it shows in the rather thin story. There is a threat in outer space, so the crew flies out, talks to it, and convinces it to go away. The end.
That’s seriously the whole story. Yes, you can sum up many stories with a pithy line or two, but I’m not really exaggerating. That’s the story.
In order to fill out the running time, the whole first third of the movie is spent getting the band back together again. It’s pure fan service, and to me it’s the weakest part of this movie (perhaps because I have no great nostalgia for Star Trek). These characters have had some great interactions over the years, it’s why people love them, but not here. It’s all by the book. The writing is dry. No great joy in seeing them get back together again, no character interactions that make you smile, just workmanlike, totally padded fan service.
The only thing not workmanlike or created especially for old fans is Captain William Decker. Frickin’ Decker. Mr. 7th Heaven and admitted child molester. The irritating know-it-all who is inserted into the main crew and who steals too much time from Scottie, Bones and others, all in the service of being a glorified red shirt, and who has the dubious honor of making me mention child molestation on this blog for the first time. Bah!
Early on we take a quick trip to Vulcan (more fan service) and see some nameless classic Trek aliens get zapped (ditto), otherwise, the build up is pretty empty. It amounts too, “Giant cloud is coming, Enterprise, go check out it!”
Once the Enterprise gets to the giant cloud calling itself Vygr, though, things pick up.
Well, “pick up” is the wrong choice of words. The movie continues to plod along at a glacial pace. Hell, the pace gets even more glacial at this point. Rather, it gets more interesting. The scale expands to something bigger than anything Trek had dealt with before, a massive mechanical entity that is probably larger than anything encountered until this point. It’s YUGE!
The movie makes a point of underscoring this, too, by giving us a 20-minute sequence during which the Enterprise flies over the alien vessel, real slow, like a spaceship on Quaaludes. Literally 20 minutes of sloooow flying and looking at badass special effects.
But here’s the thing: I loved it. It’s like a less pretentious 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wants to be Important, almost collapses under its own weight, but never does.
The slow unraveling of the mystery of Vygr’s origins, the wholly alien nature of the craft (or is it?), the deliberate way things unfold, the idea that the crew have to think their way through this problem. Except for that last one, this is all stuff that is now panned by Trek fans but that is pretty great in my eyes. Throw in the fact that it’s gorgeous to behold and wonderfully shot, and you’d have something that would be more highly praised if it wasn’t Star Trek, in my opinion. People want TREK when they see Trek. Totally understandable. This is more moody and artsy fartsy than Trek should be. I get why people don’t like it, but damn if I didn’t enjoy this whole sequence.
Yeah, for real.
The final reveal about what Vygr is has always wowed me, too, just as much now as it has in the past. Love the whole concept. Love the idea. It’s classic “thoughtful” sci-fi of the sort Bradbury, Clarke or Asimov would have written, the kind that gets you thinking about what it means to be alive, what consciousness truly is, and about what humanity’s responsibility to the things we create is.
Also love the resolution, even if it is a rather subdued, anticlimactic finish to a confrontation with a planet-eating cloud. It ends with a thought puzzle rather than an explosion and death. That feels very “Trek” to me.
It may be slow and brooding, but dammit, if it didn’t have the “Star Trek” name attached to it I insist that Star Trek: The Motion Picture would be a well-respected science fiction film because it wouldn’t have all that fan baggage.
These days, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is routinely ranked near the bottom of the original crew Trek films, but me? I’m a believer.
Khan is next …