Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not as bad as you think

Star Trek 01Time 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.

Star Trek - The Motion Picture 03In 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!

Star Trek - The Motion Picture 02Early 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.

Star Trek - The Motion Picture 05But 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.

Star Trek - The Motion Picture 04Also 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 …

25 Comments

  1. Kenneth Douglas Pierro
    Reply
  2. Kenneth Douglas Pierro

    As a star trek geek , sorry but the movie it self was a complete disaster. The special effects were out of this world , now compare that to the wrath of kahn , thats where you see the cast them selfs being like the original crew with attitudes and personality we came to know and love

    Reply
  3. Chris Knight

    I love every frame of this movie. And I quote something from it on a nigh-daily basis.

    Reply
  4. Dave Powell

    This movie was my 13th birthday present at a time when the nearest theater was 40 miles away from where I lived. I loved it then and I still love it. Nostalgia, sure. Sentimental, sure. But still an entertaining movie.

    Reply
    1. Eric San Juan

      I agree wholeheartedly. People slam this thing left and right (mostly Trek fans, oddly enough), but I greatly enjoyed it. Sure, it’s “slow,” but there is a beauty to its slowness that managed to keep me engaged the whole time.

      Reply
  5. Tom McGrew

    Great piece! As a longtime Trek fan, I see TMP as the only true hardcore sci-fi film in the entire cinematic canon. I urge everyone to seek out the Director’s Cut (sadly only available on standard DVD). It’s not a massive improvement but the improved editing makes it seem WAY less plodding. And — while I can’t quite put my finger on it — there is something about it that lightens the tone ever so slightly and makes the character interactions seem a little more natural (and more “Trek-like”). It’s really the best way to watch this misunderstood classic. And it’s sad that we may never see it in HD.

    Reply
    1. Eric San Juan

      Misunderstood classic sounds about right to me. Every Star Trek geek I talk to has terrible things to say about this one, but as I mention in the piece, if this was a movie un-attached to the Trek franchise I think it would be appreciated for the cerebral, beautiful science fiction it is.

      Reply
    2. Tom McGrew

      I posted on this about a year back if you care to read: https://www.facebook.com/tom.mcgrew/posts/10204830543657862 I may actually start my own blog one of these days.

      Reply
    3. Eric San Juan

      I agree with every word you posted. I get why people don’t like it — yeah, it’s slow — but I think it’s a wonderful tone poem with some interesting SF concepts at its core. Not much “adventure,” but so be it.

      Reply
    4. Tom McGrew

      There were plenty of great TOS episodes that were light on the adventure aspect, too. TMP is lifted from one of it’s best episodes. What were they expecting?

      Reply
  6. Eric San Juan

    Dammit, I screwed up the posting dates. This wasn’t supposed to post tonight. Ahhh well, read and enjoy.

    Reply
    1. Chris Knight

      Just say you slingshot(ted) the post around the Sun, so it could show up early.

      Reply
    2. Eric San Juan

      Well considered, Mr. Knight. Well considered.

      Reply
  7. Chris Campagna

    Nor is it as good as you’d like me to think.

    Reply
  8. Robert Knaus

    Magnificent visual effects and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is aces, but the movie hovers between “hypnotic” and “kinda boring”. It’s ambitious, I’ll give it that.

    Reply
  9. Nerd Out With MeNerd Out With Me

    And the poster is awesome as well!

    Reply
  10. Jeff Combs

    I didn’t know it was a pilot. The costumes in this movie always killed me. Everything is in muted pastels. Pale blue jumpsuits. A complete departure from the earlier tv show but then they changed direction afterwards and never did anything like that again.
    I forgot the guy from 7th heaven was in it too. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the movie but I remember him being an odd fit. And another character is Kirk’s son, and he gets killed, right? And then he’s never mentioned again in any movie. Almost like the entire franchise tried to forget about it.

    Reply
    1. Ed Sanders

      Pajamas!

      Reply
    2. Jeff Combs

      Oh yeah. Well, here’s something that should have happened

      Reply
  11. Eric San Juan

    Kirk’s son shows up in the next movie, and then dies in the one after that. And yeah, the new uniforms in this one were pretty bad!

    Reply
  12. Ed Sanders

    Pajamas!

    Reply
  13. Trevor Griffiths

    I love ST: TMP. It was one of the first factory-recorded VHS tapes my family ever purchased (along with Raiders of the Lost Ark) and I must’ve watched it a million times growing up. I’m glad to see it’s gotten reappraised in the years since its release. It’s a great sci-fi movie that got unfairly judged in Star Wars’ shadow.

    Reply
  14. Yvonne Christian

    I hated the costumes to in TMP. They were hoping to start a new Star Trek TV series with that cast, but they changed their minds in the long run.

    Reply
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