Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) / Sci Fi-Drama

MPAA Rated: G, but has been re-rated to PG for brief violence   
Running Time: 136 min. (132, theatrical release)

Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols
Director:  Robert Wise
Screenplay: Harold Livingston
Review published September 9, 2003

Star Trek the Motion Picture 1979 cast pictureI've seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture in all its major forms, from the theatrical release, to the 12-minute longer extended version, and finally the Director's Edition, with its enhanced special effects and scenes.   For this review, I have decided to use the Director's Edition, because it is likely the one that most people will be viewing today on video.  My only recollections of the previous two major releases were that the extended version significantly fleshed out the flawed theatrical release, but not having seen them is many years, I am not comfortable commenting on the differences or improvements, so I'll just stick with what's fresh in my mind for now.

The plot: Fast approaching Earth is a cloudlike alien entity that has destroyed anything that has approached its enigmatic construct.  The Enterprise and its crew are the only things left to stand in its way on its approach, with the now Admiral Kirk (William Shatner, Loaded Weapon I) taking over the helm for its current captain, Decker (Stephen Collins, All the President's Men).  Kirk makes every attempt to reason with the entity, who is later called by the moniker, V'ger.  V'ger abducts the Enterprise's navigator, Ilia (Persis Khambatta, Nighthawks), who later returns in mechanical form, giving voice to the entity that is pure logic.  A little bad news: V'ger wants to rid the Earth of all the carbon based-life forms, effectively ending life as we know it for everyone, unless Kirk and company can save the day.

For many years, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been considered a grand bore, not really living up to the spirit of the original show, instead, trying harder to emulate 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The allusions to Stanley Kubrick's masterwork is extremely evident, especially in the sequences depicting the approach to, and arrival at, the main core of the mechanical entity calling itself V'ger.  Elements of many other films abound, some of them perhaps coincidental rather than conscious, among them Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which had an opening sequence similar to the effects as seen in V'ger's tractor beam ride, with Jerry Goldsmith's (Alien, Coma) score emulating Bernard Herrman's almost note for note.  Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) even borrows the light and dark effect of Vertigo's dream sequences during the "Spock Walk" sequence.  But hey, don't knock the film for unoriginality, because if you're going to steal, steal from the best.

The main complaint about Star Trek: The Motion Picture is its slow build-up, and long sequences with little action, particularly in such scenes as Kirk's approach to the Enterprise and the characters being re-introduced to each other.  Movie-goers of the time were overcome by Star Wars mania, and didn't want the slow and ponderous science fiction that Star Trek exemplifies.  However, over the years, these scenes have become more assets than liabilities, as the overwhelming nostalgia for the original crew and the vessel they traveled in. 

The main story also has that 2001 feel, with the humans trying to outwit the confused mechanical entity, ala HAL.  It doesn't have the immediacy of the conflicts with Klingons and Romulans that the TV show as well as future Star Trek films would have.  Most of the drama has to do with one of discovery, eschewing long action scenes in favor of long moments of the crew staring in awe at the monstrous and nebulous structure that is V'ger's strange architecture.  Much of this works and much of it doesn't, as serious contrivances are necessary to give us understanding of what's going on.  This trend does dumb things down a bit, especially in the crucial climax of the film which feels more rushed than the build-up, and subsequently is a bit hokier than it should have been.

All in all, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is neither as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe, nor is it as great as the creators tried to make it.  Of all of the Star Trek films, it's perhaps the one that is the closes to pure science fiction, and therefore, the least accessible for those who watch only for action and thrills.  Still, the ambitiousness of the undertaking is admirable, and it definitely has aged well.  For those with only a passing interest in Star Trek, who want to watch the original movies, it's probably recommended to start with The Wrath of Khan, but for die-hard fans, this is the one you start withIf you haven't seen it in a while, it's quite highly recommended for those who love the original series.

-- Follows the TV series from 1966-9.  Followed by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1987), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).  Continued into the "Next Generation" movies Star Trek Generations (1994), Star Trek First Contact (1996), Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002).  Spun off into a reboot series, Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).

2003 Vince Leo