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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins

Written By: Harold Livingston, Alan Dean Foster (story) Directed By: Robert Wise

The Short Version

The starship Enterprise finally gets the stage it was meant to play on.

Still the most successful television to screen transition I can think of.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture manages to be dated and timeless simultaneously.

This may be the last of the intellectually driven space adventure movies.

If you must, forget that it’s Star Trek; it needs no baggage to be an excellent film.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

JARLSBERG.

A step away from the common while still being familiar.  A mixture of agreeable flavors that’s easy to digest.


Pairs Well With...

GEWURZTRAMINER.

When you’re ready to step away from the Chardonnay and the Pinot Grigio for something that’s more complex but still as easy to enjoy, here you go.  It’s sophisticated enough to contemplate if you want, but simple enough that you don’t have to.

“No, Admiral.  I don't think you're sorry. Not one damned bit.”


In the late 1960s, Gene Roddenberry pitched “Star Trek” as “Wagon Train to the Stars.”  Two pilots and three seasons later, he proved that there could be more to science fiction on television than just ray guns, green skinned alien women, and out of this world adventure.  Even as the show paid homage to the cheese at the drive-in, it reached for something more.  Week after week, Roddenberry, his cast, and his crew put “science” back into “science fiction” (with the occasional mulligan handed their way courtesy of a Heisenberg Compensator or two), and reminded audiences that starships are just vehicles for carrying the human story onto more exotic stages.

Over the protests of some very vocal fans, the network cancelled the show in favor of “Laugh-In.”  But “Star Trek” wouldn’t go quietly; indeed, it became even more popular in syndication.  An animated series came and went, after which plans were drawn up to bring the crew of the Enterprise back to live action television.

Then came a movie called Star Wars, and the world changed.  Suddenly, the small screen was no longer big enough to hold the Enterprise; only the cinema would do.

Enter Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

But forget, if you want, that this is a “Star Trek” movie, because under the direction of veteran filmmaker Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still), Star Trek: The Motion Picture pulls the very neat trick of working not just as a resurrection/metamorphosis of the classic franchise, but also as an excellent standalone intellectual science fiction movie.  While there is, of course, a lot to be gained from being familiar (or obsessed) with the television show that came before, it is absolutely not necessary to have seen a single frame thereof to pick up on and follow this story.  (Indeed, one may find oneself more open to appreciating it cold without the background to pick up on the fact that this script freely adapts itself from the premises of some old TV episodes.  One of those in particular has caused many a cynical fan to call the movie “Where NOMAD Has Gone Before,” which is rather unfortunate.)  Its appeal is universal, provided that one doesn’t need an explosion to go off every ten minutes or so for sci fi to be exciting; its sense of adventure that of a world that still believed in things like the wonder of real-life space exploration.

Of course, the aforementioned universality is appended by that little “explosion” caveat, which is why none of the “Star Trek” movies to follow would flow at the contemplative, detail-soaking pace of  Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and why many call this “the boring one.”  I feel sorry for those people, because far from being “boring,” this flick is interesting.  Indeed, I consider it to be the last thoughtful sci fi film of the 1970s.

It starts with the story, which would, for better or for worse, prove to become the frame over which many “Star Trek” films would be built afterward.  An alien menace threatens to destroy the Earth as we know it, and only the crew of the Enterprise can save the day.  But a funny thing happens on the way to the drive-in, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture ends up being anything but a bug-eyed flying saucer invasion.  Instead, it proves to be nothing less than an extensive discussion on what it means to be human, the merits and pitfalls of the human condition, and the place of humanity in the universe.  It’s a “what if” exercise that begins with those space probes humanity was thrilled to send out to the ends of the galaxy once upon a time and runs wild from there.  It’s imaginative, it’s expansive, and it’s anything but cynical.

The wonder of the story is magnified by extraordinary visual effects that still hold up three and a half decades later, made to take full advantage of the giant canvas of a silver screen and impressive even in modern high definition.  The camera is made to linger over these shots, calling upon the audience to drink in all of the rich details on offer, be they light shows in a cloud or all-encompassing views of the newly redesigned Enterprise ready to launch from its construction scaffold.  To those with little patience, these long looks at the eye candy can be a source of “get on with it” irritation, but I very much appreciate them; even more so now that Hollywood has become obsessed with half second jump cuts barely perceptible to human senses.  The film’s senses of wonder and adventure are even further enhanced by one of composer Jerry Goldsmith’s most outstanding scores, headed up by a heroic theme that the studio would keep on hand for use in front of the adventures of a future Enterprise.  (Bonus: If you watch the Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there’s even an Overture to enjoy.)

And then there’s the cast, delighting old school fans while at the same time offering them fresh takes on old friends evolved and not alienating newcomers to the story.  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, and more are on hand to give it another go, with Persis Khambatta and Stephen Collins not just playing new guest characters, but just as importantly, changing the familiar chemistry just enough to keep everyone else honest.  Sure, the tunics they’re wearing were dated even when the film was released, and the hairstyles straight out of a discotheque (save perhaps for Kirk’s “hair helmet,” which is special unto itself), but there’s nothing here to take a modern audience out of the picture; if anything, the smattering of “dated” details paradoxically helps to add to the overall timeless quality of the film.

I’m sure there’s a flaw here somewhere – others insist that there are scads of them – but if so, I can’t bring myself to care about them.  The part of me that enjoyed not only the original “Star Trek” but also Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” won’t allow for that.  Even though it represents the dawn of the silver screen stage of one of the world’s most highly commercialized franchises, the core of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is pure in a way that none of its successors ever aspired to be; the last gasp of an era, and a celebration of being able to look up at the stars, say “wow,” and wonder.

I like Khan just as much as the next hundred million guys, but there’s something to be said for more contemplative sci fi, as well, especially now that it’s becoming rarer by the day.

Bottom line, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an outstanding film, very much undeserving of the “dull” label with which it is so often slapped.  Rich in detail and even richer in wonder, this is science fiction worth experiencing whether one is a franchise fan or not.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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