(Rewatched 3 June 2013.)
This was, I think, the first Star Trek movie I ever saw. I don’t remember much of that viewing, except that the fact I hadn’t seen Wrath of Khan meant that I didn’t get much out of it.
Watching it now: it’s okay, I suppose. The problem is that it’s very much an in-between film. On the one hand we have the film’s main goal, to resurrect Spock. As dramatic as the idea of resurrecting one of the world’s most recognisable fictional characters sounds on paper, if you look at it another way, the ultimate aim of the movie is merely to return to the status quo: our familiar crew, reunited again. Put that way, it’s really quite a mundane goal around which to base a movie.
That wouldn’t matter too much if there was another interesting storyline going on. But the Genesis Planet aspect of the plot is really just an epilogue to Wrath of Khan; the concept is not developed significantly enough to justify stretching it out and dedicating a whole second movie to it.
So, one storyline is a continuation of something that didn’t really need to be continued from the previous film; the other might seem extraordinary, but is a goal that, rather than moving the series forward, just returns it to the same comfortable setup in preparation for future adventures. Like I said, a bridging, “in-between” film, rather than a satisfying movie in its own right.
Even the death of Kirk’s son David happens in a rather un-dramatic fashion. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if there was a more direct link between Kirk’s efforts to resurrect Spock and the death of his son – the price he pays for the return of his friend?
David is a bland character, and he and the Vulcan Saavik get lots of screen time that would have been better dedicated to other things. For example, McCoy’s conflicts with Spock were one of the fun things about the original TV series, but the idea of them occupying the same body is wasted in this film: we get a couple of minor jokes involving the doctor suddenly coming out with Spock-y logic, but that’s about it.
It’s far from being an annoyingly bad film. It passes the time pleasantly enough. There are things to enjoy: for one thing there’s the novelty of seeing Christopher Lloyd in Klingon make-up (though he’s not the most threatening baddie).
Kirk’s trick with the self-destruction of the Enterprise is probably the best sequence in the film. (Having said that, it does rely on us accepting the idea that a spacecraft that size could be capably run by only a few crewmembers – which, incidentally, also happens to be one of the many suspensions of disbelief involved in watching this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness…)
Fun Fact! Apparently, Frank Welker, animal voiceover god extraordinaire, contributed some screaming noises to this movie! Bit of trivia for you, there.
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. 😦