Another Attempt At Loving ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

Desperately, I want to love Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was my first introduction to Star Trek. The movie poster hangs in my New York City apartment. The whole idea of this beloved television series getting an enormous amount of money thrown at it to make one of the prettiest movies ever made, directed by legendary director Robert Wise, on its own is fascinating. (Paramount had kept going back and forth on if it wanted to make a movie or a new television series called Star Trek: Phase II. The television series was scrapped at the last possible minute – scripts had been written and sets had been built – to, instead, do a movie.) It had been 10 years since there had been live action Star Trek. And you’d think the movie would start out on a celebratory note. The return of James T. Kirk! Again, you’d think the movie would open with a reintroduction to the characters people fell in love with: A reminder why Star Trek became so popular in the years after it was canceled. Well, that is not what they did.

Now, I do love that it exists. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of pieces “In Defense” of this movie, and then push-back on those takes with, “No, actually, it’s bad.” I don’t think it’s either, which I know doesn’t make a snappy headline. It’s a very pretty movie that I do appreciate, but also I would never in a million years recommend this movie to a non-Trek diehard. Seriously, just go ahead and skip ahead to The Wrath of Khan. Nothing in this movie is ever spoken about again. In The Voyage Home they are still talking about things that happened in The Wrath of Khan. But not once does Kirk stop and say, “Remember when Will Deckard merged his body with Voyager 6? I wonder how that worked out for him?”

And Paramount has just released the first four original movies on 4K for the first time. Of those first four, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the one I watch the least. (I am even a big fan of Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. A truly underrated film.) So, of the four, I decided to dig into the one I have the most fraught relationship with. If there was ever a chance it could win me over, it’s on a 4K release of this gorgeous film. (Well, one caveat here. This is the original cut. The Director’s Cut is superior, which I own, but has never been released on anything but DVD, but is currently being remastered for a 2022 release. So, technically, that cut in 4K would probably have the best chance. I digress.) And it’s been a few years since I just sat down and watched this from beginning to end.

Having Kirk be a raging asshole in this movie was certainly a choice. I’m exaggerating a little, but there’s very little about this character that resembles the more fun-loving guy we saw in the series, or who we see in future films. Kirk shows up, demotes the current Enterprise captain, tells everyone he’s taking the Enterprise back for himself, and does just that but then realizes he doesn’t know how the ship works anymore – then almost gets everyone killed. Actually, one of his first actions after taking his ship back is watching two people die a terrible death in the transporter. (A scene I still can’t believe exists in this movie that is supposedly Rated G.) Leonard Nimoy always had the ability to play Spock with a sense of warmth, which he does to great effect in The Wrath of Khan, but not here. Right, Spock doesn’t show emotions, but he’s also not rude. In The Motion Picture, he’s just kind of a prick and everyone thinks he might be on V’ger’s side. (The whole V’ger plot could have been interesting. But in a movie that’s already so “cold,” a villain that’s a machine without any real emotions isn’t helping things here.) Only Deforest Kelly shows up remembering how to play his character. And half the time it’s like he’s looking around at everyone else wondering what’s going on and why everyone is being so dour.

But, good gosh is this movie gorgeous. And, now, especially in 4K. And the reason I said I’m glad it exists is that now, in retrospect, we know better stories were still to come. So, a Star Trek movie that looks like 2001: A Space Odyssey is remarkable. (Douglas Trumbull worked on the effects in both movies.) It’s funny, a lot of people make fun of the scene when Scotty and Kirk fly around the Enterprise twice, very slowly I should add. The Enterprise has never looked better and they deserved to take this victory lap. (Okay, two victory laps.) Star Trek: The Motion Picture built a truly unbelievable amount of models and, yes, this movie wants to show them off, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s score. (Also, it’s pretty unusual that between the original series, The Motion Picture, and The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek had three fairly iconic, all different, theme songs.)

Here’s the scene that best encapsulates Star Trek: The Motion Picture: Spock wants to investigate V’ger. He steals a spacesuit with a rocket booster. Now, instead of just flying off into V’ger, the suit, using some sort of audio instruction manual, explains how the booster rockets work. Then, after that ends, Spock narrates what he’s trying to do, before, finally flying off into V’ger. We needed absolutely none of that. Then we are given many, many minutes of visual candy as Spock flies through V’ger, narrating all the wondrous things he’s seeing. Rewatching now, okay, yes, the rocket booster instructions are not necessary, and maybe we can pick up the pace a little. (Wise agreed and his Director’s Cut tightens a lot of scenes.) But also there’s something that’s pretty appealing about a movie that’s not in a hurry to get anywhere. It’s a movie that’s visually appealing but isn’t throwing so much at the viewer at once where we don’t even have time to process it. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is just its own thing and I’m never completely going to be on its wavelength – but every few years I really enjoy trying.

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