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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Wednesday 22nd August 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I haven’t seen many of the Star Trek films: First Contact, the 2009 reboot, and Wrath of Khan (plus Search for Spock, too long ago for me to remember any of it). Prior to watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, pretty much all I knew of it was that it had some links to a failed attempt to resurrect the TV series in the ’70s, that it was directed by the director of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that it contains lots and lots and lots and lots of very slow and elaborate special effects sequences.

That point turned out to be very true. We really do spend a very long time admiring the Enterprise, wormholes, and the movie’s Big Dumb Object, which tends to cause reviewers to use words like “interminable”. Now I’m someone who’s a big enough SF/SFX nerd to have watched all the raw model shot footage included on the Red Dwarf DVDs (and found it interesting!), but even I’ve gotta admit that as lovely as all these sequences look (and sound), they don’t half go on a bit. It felt to me as if the lesson Robert Wise took from watching 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Douglas Trumbull took from making it!) is that the key to making a science fiction movie seem Serious is to slow all your special effects down to a glacial pace!

They’re very good special effects, though – even given the fact that I watched the original version, and not the Director’s Cut with its CGI additions. I imagine that if the film was remade today, a lot of the special effects shots would look broadly similar, but would just be achieved using different methods. Sets and shot compositions are nice, too.

I’m all in favour of more science fiction movies about exploration of weird alien phenomena, rather than action-packed battles against conventional baddies. But here, the plot’s a fairly thin version of the Mysterious Alien Artefact Threatening Earth of countless sci-fi tales: trim down the special effects sequences, speed up the pacing, and the whole thing could quite comfortably be told within a 45 minute TV series episode. The film’s not as smart as you’d hope from something that includes Isaac Asimov’s name in the credits. However, towards the end of the film the true nature of said Big Dumb Alien Artefact is revealed, and I found it a fairly surprising and effective twist.

There’s lots of potential in the conflict between Kirk and Decker: the question of whether it really is in everyone’s best interests for Kirk to take charge of the Enterprise, or if he’s just nostalgic for the thrill of command. Unfortunately, not much is made of it: presumably it would’ve helped if the Decker character had been played more forcefully by a better actor. Like so much else, the idea of Kirk’s nostalgia for being a Captain rather than an Admiral was handled better in Wrath of Khan.

The film spends some time reuniting the crew. Athough I’ve only seen a very small proportion of the original series episodes and feature films, I am fond of these characters, and their rapport is good to watch, so there’s a genuine sense that something feels very wrong – a piece of the puzzle’s missing – when Spock turns up acting even more brusque and unemotional than usual. There’s a good line from McCoy (“Why is any object we don’t understand always called a ‘thing’?”), and the very first thing that the character of Ilia dues upon meeting Kirk is emphasise her oath of celibacy – which I took to be a self-referential joke about Kirk’s reputation as an alien ladies’ man!

Unfortunately, there’s not really enough of that sort of thing. Most of the scenes on the bridge consist of the crew standing around either watching special effects, or formally issuing and reacting to commands. DeForest Kelley in particular gets almost nothing to do; as Stephen Rowley put it*, “Bones always did hang around the bridge too much (probably because that was the only decent set), but this becomes particularly embarrassing here.” In its attempts to challenge 2001‘s claim to the title of “proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie“, Star Trek: The Motion Picture removes a lot of the fun ’60s-ness of the TV series.

Although this review sounded really negative, I did enjoy the movie: I was curious to know the answer to the central mystery of what V’Ger really was, there were plenty of likeable individual moments throughout the movie, and most of the sci-fi ideas were solid even if they were underexplored.

Also, my interest in movie special effects meant that I found it interesting to look at examples of 1979’s state of the art optical techniques, even when they seemed to be done for the sake of it, rather than because they served the story. Judging by this film, my tolerance for interminable FX sequences is very high!

[3 out of 5]

* His review of this film and quite a few others seem to have been removed from the current version of his site. 😦

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  1. Thursday 23rd August 2012 at 12:22 am

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