Star Trek: The Motion Picture is far from an ideal start to the Trek filmography. It had a massively troubled production (read the Wikipedia article on the film for a thorough overview of these troubles), and the film was barely finished in time for its premiere. Over 20 years after its debut, director Robert Wise was allowed to re-edit the film and touch up the special effects, and it’s his revised cut that is now most commonly available. But his tweaks can’t hide the film’s central failing, which is that for all its scale, for all the elaborate effects, huge sets, and epic length (at 136 minutes, the director’s cut is the longest of the Trek films), the story just isn’t enough to sustain the length. It does pick up in its second half, but it’s a long, slow, heavy film, and not one easily recommended to the casual viewer.
A mysterious entity, a sort of enormous energy field, is making its way across the galaxy towards Earth, absorbing everything it encounters; we first see it absorb three Klingon warships (its method of absorption is not unlike the manner in which Flynn is sucked into the computer in Tron), and later a Starfleet space station. The only ship that can intercept it before it reaches Earth is the Enterprise, and Kirk, now promoted to Admiral, has to finagle his way into the captain’s chair, in the process slighting the current captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), who is demoted to Executive Officer. He must become the science officer as well, when the intended officer is killed in a transporter mishap (one of the film’s most genuinely unsettling scenes).
Then Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta) joins the crew as navigator, and we learn that she and Decker have a shared past. The Enterprise sets out to intercept the entity (now only about two days away from Earth), but the journey is a rough one: the Enterprise was caught in the middle of a massive refitting, and when it attempts to jump to warp speed, it creates a wormhole which nearly destroys the ship; only Deckard’s intervention prevents this catastrophe, embarrassing Kirk. Spock, who had been attempting a ritual purging of emotions on Vulcan when he sensed the approach of this entity, arrives on the ship to assume the position of science officer, but his cold, closed-off manner makes the reunion bittersweet.
The Enterprise finally reaches the entity, which scans the ship and ultimately sends an energy probe which absorbs Ilia, sending in her place a robotic duplicate which is meant to observe the “carbon-units” which “infest” the Enterprise; Robo-Ilia identifies the entity as V’Ger. V’Ger’s goal, she explains, is to contact “the creator”, who apparently is on or originates from Earth. When Robo-Ilia appears to recognize Decker, he attempts to job her memory by showing her places and objects familiar to the original, but he meets with little success, and V’Ger threatens the Earth with a set of probes that will destroy all the “carbon-units” on Earth. Spock, meanwhile, has gone to investigate the interior of V’Ger, the design of which, is Maude Lebowski might say, “strongly vaginal”:
Spock discovers what he deduces to be V’Ger’s home planet, a planet of living machines, along with what appear to be whole galaxies’ worth of planets, all absorbed by V’Ger during its journey. He sees an enormous image of Ilia, and attempts to mind-meld with it, nearly overloading his brain in the process, but revealing that V’Ger is not malevolent but merely logical in the extreme–he later weeps for V’Ger “as I would for a brother”, as he realizes that V’Ger is caught in an existential crisis, seeking its creator so it can ask “Is this all there is? Is this all that I am?” The decision is made to confront V’Ger directly, and Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Decker, and Robo-Ilia go to the very center of it, where they discover that V’Ger is actually Voyager VI, an Earth-sent satellite which must have fallen into (as Decker cryptically puts it) “what they used to call a black hole”, where it was discovered by the living machines, who interpreted its programming–“Learn all that is learnable. Return that information to its creator”–literally, and engineered it to do just that. But the information V’Ger requires requires “the creator” to join with it–and Decker volunteers to merge with V’Ger (and Robo-Ilia), the idea being that his human consciousness will allow V’Ger to transcend logic. He does so in what has been called “The Ultimate Space-Fuck”:
V’Ger dissipates, the Earth is saved (all the planets and ships that were absorbed by it are still screwed, I’m guessing), and the Enterprise sets off for a “proper shakedown”. Roll credits.
The problem with The Motion Picture isn’t the story so much as the handling. Robert Wise was a good director, and no stranger to science fiction, directing the original The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain. But those films were less space adventure and more thrillers, dependent less on special effects and more on narrative. Also, Wise had by this time won two Oscars and had become a “respectable” director; The Andromeda Strain is a good film, but it’s also deliberately paced and rather dry, and by the time of The Motion Picture, The Day the Earth Stood Still was over 25 years in the past. And The Motion Picture is a dry, deliberately paced film, not helped by its lengthy sequences of effects porn (the infamous four-minute flyover of the Enterprise, the ship’s passage into V’Ger, etc.), its drab design (heavy on blue, gray, and beige), or the muted acting (which I’ll discuss more in a bit).
And, yet Wise may be less to blame than the big man himself: Gene Roddenberry was the outright producer on this and only this film (he was relegated to the rank of executive producer for the rest of the films he lived to see), and his utopian worldview precluded most violence (he notably criticized the violence in Wrath of Khan), and he gave us a film with a non-malevolent villain, in which no truly malevolent act occurs, in which V’Ger’s absorption of planets and starships aplenty–no doubt resulting in billions of deaths–is treated as an act of data acquisition, not genocide. And it’s bloodless–literally and figuratively. The combination of serious, tasteful direction (the film was initially rated G) and serious, tasteful writing results in a film that can be rather wearisome.
Harold Livingston’s script (which I’m sure others had a hand in) is certainly not one of the jewels of the series. Star Trek was always at its best when it either focused strongly on the characters (as in Wrath of Khan) or when it treated relevant themes allegorically (The Undiscovered Country). Here, however, the closest thing to a relevant theme–the question of “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?”–is awfully vague and abstract, and not explored satisfactorily. It isn’t even until the film’s second half that such questions arise (and to be fair, the second half is much stronger than the first), and they are answered with…well, with the Ultimate Space Fuck.
The script also errs in focusing too much on Decker and Ilia, so that when sufficient time is allotted to Kirk, Spock, and to a lesser degree McCoy, the rest of the crew are barely there at all. Scotty has his moments, but Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov have virtually nothing to do. Decker isn’t without potential as a character; his tense relationship with Kirk, his feelings for Ilia, his choice to sacrifice himself at the end…properly written, you could get an arc out of him. But the film doesn’t really do this, at least not to a degree that would compensate for the other issues at play. Ilia is a cipher, an ex-lover (who pointedly refers to her “oath of celibacy”, though my roommate suggested this was merely a nod to Kirk’s reputation), an alien healer (through…mental control, I guess?), and, eventually, a robotic duplicate with convenient flashes of human memory. The dialogue is uneven, with some pretty clunky technobabble–the finale is a logistical clusterfuck–and some pretty weak wisecracks for McCoy, though for the most part, it’s passable. But there’s nothing as good as “Have you heard the Klingon proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold? It is very cold in space.”
As for the acting: Shatner has some of his most Shatneresque moments here, especially the line “I intend to be on that spaceship…following that meeting. Report to me in one hour.” (A throwaway line, I know, but just listen to it. It’s ridiculous.) For the most part, he does fine, but he’s on the self-conscious side here; one of his best moments, when he responds to Scotty with a mimic of his accent, feels like an ad-lib, and it’s one of the film’s few relaxed, genuinely human moments. Nimoy is better, getting to play both an especially repressed and especially emotive Spock. (I will say, though, his makeup seems vaguely off here. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it looks a bit strange to me.) DeForest Kelley does what he can with the aforementioned shaky writing for McCoy, and while he has some surprisingly stiff moments–his first scene is particularly bad–he manages to steal the show when he can.
Stephen Collins’ Decker is your standard square-jawed All-American hero; he’s fine, but if the script had been a little more up to par, he could’ve been one of the better one-off characters in the films. Persis Khambatta does what she can with Ilia, and she’s actually quite solid as Robo-Ilia, but there’s just not much to the character. James Doohan may come off best in the whole cast; he’s especially relaxed and amiable, and apparently devised the bits of Klingon and Vulcan language which appear early on, which Marc Okrand used as the basis for the whole Klingon language. Doohan had a good shoot, it would seem. Nichelle Nichols and George Takei are fine, but they (especially Takei) are basically cameos here. Walter Koenig is pretty bad here; his accent sounds fake and he has a bit of a tendency to mug, with lines like “Gran…ted” and “Can that be one of their crew?” coming off particularly poorly. David Gautreaux, as the commander of the doomed space station, sounds awfully sedate for someone facing an unstoppable alien threat.
Not the best acting in the series, is what I’m saying.
The production was an expensive one, and to be fair, it shows. Drably colored though the sets and costumes are, they’re well-designed (the sets were deservedly nominated for an Oscar), and Richard H. Kline shoots them as well as he can. It’s actually in some ways one of the visually ambitious entries in the series, and had the film had a clearer sense of vision, it could’ve developed a really strong aesthetic. As it is, we’re left with moments. The special effects are consistently well-executed (they were also Oscar-nominated, in a lineup that included Alien (which, of course, won), The Black Hole, Moonraker, and 1941–one of the strongest lineups ever, I’d say), the scope of V’Ger being especially impressive, and the probe sequence being rather haunting in its use of light and sound. The wormhole sequence is pretty goofy, looking more like the music video of “Bohemian Rhapsody” than anything else, but it’s the concept I blame here, not the execution. Douglas Trumbull worked on most of the film, and it shows: the design of V’Ger is not that unlike the Star Gate in 2001, which Trumbull also created.
Finally, I have to mention Jerry Goldsmith’s score. You may know his main theme as the theme to The Next Generation, but it began here, and it’s incredible, of course. The rest of the score is quite strong as well, like the lovely “Ilia’s Theme” (used as an overture) and the distorted chord that accompanies any sighting of V’Ger, but it’s that glorious, sweeping theme that stays with you. The score was also nominated for an Oscar, but lost.
The Motion Picture is a badly flawed film that manages to be watchable and even moderately enjoyable, mostly because of its professionalism and the inherent entertainment value of Trek. It’s hard to sum up my feelings about it; appropriate for so confused and scattershot a film. Every Trekkie worthy of the name has seen it, I’m sure, and all serious film buffs should give it a look, but it’s too clunky, too messy, and too dry for me to recommend strictly as entertainment. If you need help motivating yourself to see it, use this teaser, narrated by Orson Welles. It’s pretty badass.