Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), a (…to boldly go…) belated review

Way, waaaaaaaay back in the 1970’s and when I was first getting into the various movies and TV shows which would impress me, one stood out above all the others: The original Star Trek.

While I thrilled to the adventures of James West in The Wild, Wild West or Colonel Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man or laughed hysterically to the misadventures of Agents 86 and 99 in Get Smart, it was Star Trek that blew my very young mind.

The show quite literally could be anything. There were episodes which were filled with suspense and even horror. There were episodes which were grand adventures. There were episodes that were hilarious comedies. And yes, there were episodes that were… something, especially during the less successful third and final season.

Yet the show captured my imagination like few others and even now, despite its age and mostly inferior effects, I love it. Yes, I know they “remastered” the effects but I kinda prefer seeing the original episodes with their original effects, for better or worse.

The success of Star Wars in 1977, I strongly suspect, opened the door for the studios to want to make sci-fi films like it and, they hoped, cash in on this. It wasn’t too surprising, then, that the cult favorite Star Trek would get a second look and a movie greenlighted. It would be directed by veteran Robert Wise, whose career began in the early 1940’s (directing, uncredited, additional scenes for the Orson Wells follow up to Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons) and who had in his resume such impressive works as West Side Story (the original, natch), The Day The Earth Stood Still (again, the original), The Haunting, The Sound of Music, and The Andromeda Strain.

Truthfully, he was an inspired choice to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture -or any picture, for that matter- given his works in so many different genres and styles.

Here’s the movie’s original trailer:

Alas, when it was released in 1979, I recall the reactions to it were mostly negative. More than one critic made fun of the film’s name, re-dubbing the movie Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, and many felt it was too slow going and didn’t really have much of a payoff.

What was learned over time was that Robert Wise and company were on a very tight -too tight- deadline and were rushed into releasing the film to theaters by December of 1979 to try to take advantage of the vacation time. Worse, when the film was shown on TV more scenes were added to it, sometimes with incomplete effects, and it was quite clear the film as it was released to theaters was, at best, a not quite complete work in progress.

Many years later and in 2001 a “Director’s Cut” of the film, supervised by Mr. Wise, would be released and I felt at the time that it was a much “smoother” work which made the movie move much better than the theatrical cut. Unfortunately, that edition was released just before the advent of high definition video and, since then, it hasn’t been available except for the original DVD. That will change as a new, 4K edition of this version of the film is set to be released very soon.

It was that news which got me curious to revisit Star Trek: The Motion Picture and, as I was set to do some flying (its become my life of late), I took my VUDU digital copy of the theatrical cut of the film and loaded it up to my iPad and, once in flight, watched the theatrical cut of the film for the first time in many, many years.

And I must say: The movie worked a lot better than I remembered, though I’m still curious to revisit the Director’s Cut (I do have the original DVD but would rather wait to see the new HD version).

Even more interesting is that it occurred to me that of all the characters shown on screen, TV or movies, William Shatner’s Captain Kirk is probably the only one who has been shown through almost all stages of life.

Sorry for the mild deviation in reviewing the film, but its fascinating to me that in the original TV show you had the young, clever, brash Captain Kirk. He was the adventurer, the risk taker, yet clever enough to find intelligent ways, especially with the help of Spock and Dr. McCoy, out of danger. He could fight, he could love. He was young and full of energy.

The Captain Kirk we see in The Motion Picture is older but still young enough to have many of the elements that made his younger self tick present. He takes over the Enterprise and steps on toes but is smart enough to realize he isn’t infallible and does take others’ advice. This is indeed an older Kirk, but a Kirk who could still kick ass and romance the ladies, I suppose, though in the course of this film he isn’t shown to do either.

For the next film, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, we have a Captain Kirk who realizes he’s getting old and doesn’t like it one bit. He tries to fight age and feels melancholy about losing that youthful energy but, by the end of the film, has accepted that he has moved on into a new stage of his life.

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the last to feature the original cast together, we have a Captain Kirk who has accepted he’s old and no longer looks back longingly to how he was when he was young.

Again, its a fascinating succession, from youth to older to older still and missing one’s youth to old and accepting it. I suppose one could add Star Trek Generations to this list to show his passing, but the execution (pardon the pun) of this was so terrible, IMHO, that I don’t really view the film as canon.

Anyway, returning to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this film could well be the one that’s most like the original series. In fact, more than a few people noted the movie’s story bears more than a passing similarity to the original series’ episode The Changeling. Here’s the trailer for that episode:

In The Changeling, the crew of the Enterprise encounters a robot named NOMAD which tries to understand these humans, who it feels are an infestation on the ship. In STTMP, we have a machine named V’ger who has a similar confusion regarding the ”carbon based units” aboard the machine, and the danger winds up being similar.

Watching the film and as I said above, I found myself surprisingly involved in it. No, its not perfect. I feel like despite the movie’s long runtime (this theatrical cut clocks in at 2 hours and 12 minutes) it didn’t focus nearly enough on the relationship between the three leads (Kirk, Spock, McCoy), and gave very short shrift to the ancillary characters (Uhura, Scotty, Chekhov, and Sulu).

It would have been nice to see them interact a little -lot!- more.

Worse, the film introduces two new characters in Stephen Collins’ Captain Decker and Persis Khambatta’s Ilea who, while not terrible, are also given much less to do than one would have liked.

And yes, the film doesn’t feature all that much ”action”, mostly the actors looking in wonder/mystified by what was happening before them (ie, in their own imagination as this would later involve effects work!).

And, not to knock someone for something he’s been knocked for too many times, but the film also features what is perhaps the nadir of William Shatner’s Kirk acting, his incredibly wooden reaction to two people dying in a transporter malfunction (go to 1:05 approximately)…

But setting aside the ”bad”, one can then focus on the good. The film features some terrific effects, especially in the Enterprise itself. The music is spectacular. And it’s a freaking blast to see a still fairly youngish cast interact with each other and deal with a mystery -and tension involved in this- which is fairly well handled.

The film may not soar or have the intense action that can take your breath away, but it is a great way to rejoin old friends.

I highly recommend the theatrical cut of the film, warts and all, to any and all Star Trek fans.

And I really look forward to seeing the remastered Director’s Cut…!