Monday, May 13, 2013

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

One of my earliest theatrical film memories is of seeing Star Trek: The Motion Picture when I was four years old back in 1979. I don’t recall ever having watched an episode of the classic television series it was based on beforehand, but I do remember falling asleep in the theater due to boredom. I had seen a re-release of Star Wars with my father a few months earlier and due to that film I came to expect action packed dogfights whenever I saw a flick with spaceships in them. I was too young to understand the concepts being thrown at me and was only interested in spectacle.

Flash forward to 2001. The Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is released on DVD. At this point in time I had seen the film multiple times in both its Theatrical Version and the Extended Television Cut. I enjoyed the movie based on the audio/visual experience, but other than that I still found the movie slow and somewhat nonsensical. But it was still Star Trek, and to a fan like me Star Trek is like sex – even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good. The Director’s Edition fixed a lot of the pacing problems, filled in some gaps via new special FX shots and tightened up the narrative by adding in some excised footage and taking out some filler. While it was still not a great film by any means it was now very, very watchable.
The story takes place a few years after the show’s original five year mission ended and Kirk (William Shatner) accepted a promotion to the rank of Admiral. When a large alien cloud is discovered to be on a direct heading for Earth, Kirk uses his clout to take control of the newly refitted Enterprise in order to intercept the invader before it can reach its destination.

Veteran director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, West Side Story, The Haunting) tried to make this as epic a motion picture event as he possibly could with vast sweeping shots of the Enterprise juxtaposed against the mammoth V’Ger Cloud and moments of high drama and romance in the face of the unknown. For the most part he failed. The drama falls on its face and comes off as hokey and forced, especially the romance between new characters Decker (Stephen Collins) and Ilia (Persis Khambatta). Everything is so slow and deliberate that the movie is a chore to sit through at times. Wise obviously didn’t know anything about Star Trek and it shows in the final product.
Screenwriter Harold Livingston, who was going off a story outline by Alan Dean Foster and Gene Roddenberry, doesn’t seem to get what made the source material so great. The classic series was fast paced (for the 60s), had action, conflict and lots of hot girls in skimpy outfits. Basically they took what made the show so much fun to watch and did the exact opposite. Gone are the fist fights, off-the-cuff humor and the “Wagon Train to the stars” approach. It’s all been replaced with quiet moments of contemplation, endless special effect shots and people calmly getting angry toward each other (“Stop… competing with me Decker”). There’s a reason there was a fan backlash when this was first released. This is more 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Trek.

Not all of it is bad. Actually there is a lot of great stuff here. The idea behind V’Ger and its quest is intriguing; following the kind of thought provoking stories that made the original series so wonderful (in their own way). The character arc for Spock is also pulled off rather well with him trying to figure out if he really wants to eliminate his human half permanently or not.  The special effects are astoundingly beautiful and still hold up to this day (they’re the reason the film cost so much to produce). The sets are lavish and interestingly designed (the V’Ger chamber has always been my favorite) and the score by Jerry Goldsmith is quite possibly some of the most majestic and epic music he had ever composed.
The acting… not so much. William Shatner is trying his hardest to reign in his overacting tendencies, but seeing him go hog wild with his movements and hand gestures while attempting to whisper most of his dialogue is kind of silly to watch (“Dammit Bones, I need you… BADLY”). He looks like he’s having an epileptic fit in the Library of Congress. Leonard Nimoy is the best of the bunch and gives his iconic character some added dimension by actually reverting to a more emotionless state than he was when the series ended. As the movie spins on we get to see some of the Spock we all knew begin to come back. DeForest Kelley, as usual, is there to be a snarky comic relief character. Unfortunately all his jokes are lame and don’t work at all (“This child is about to eliminate every living thing on Earth. What do you suggest we do? Spank it?!”), and his verbal sparring matches with Spock that were so much fun to watch are boiled down to Bones telling him he’s a jerk.

The supporting cast all have their moments, some more than others. Most of the time they just stare blankly at the viewscreen as all the wicked cool special effects play out before them (Sulu being the worst offender). Stephen Collins’ Decker is a whiny little bitch who is always trying to poke Kirk in the ribs for stealing his command out from under him. “Dude, just take it like a man” I always say when I watch him moping around and being an insubordinate jerkoff. Persis Khambatta’s Ilia is just as bad. She cannot act at all and her scenes with Collins are awkward and non-convincing. Both characters' choice in their ultimate fate in the finale doesn’t really make a lick of sense in the grand scheme of things, mainly because the ending was made up on the spot as they were filming it. “You wanted the Enterprise, and I want this” my ass. The way his character was written he should have volunteered Kirk to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
The costumes are pretty lame too. In the original series the uniforms the crew wore were basic T-shirts and a black pair of slacks. What’s the multimillion dollar upgrade in the movie? Pajamas. That’s right, one-piece pajamas with the shoes sewn into them and a HUGE belt buckle with no belt front and center. Dammit do these things look ridiculously stupid! It’s the military! WTF?!

So the film is kind of a beautiful disaster. On one hand it does tell an intelligent story through some amazing special effects and a wonderful score all wrapped up in a nice little Star Trek bow. On the other it doesn’t exactly feel like the Star Trek we all remember from back in the day since the characters are written so wrong and the pacing is as slow as molasses in winter. It did make a shit ton of cash and kicked the Star Trek film franchise off in a big way. In that aspect I really like this film. But when introducing the uninitiated to the property for the first time I always warn them in advance “don’t worry, things get better in later films”.

3 out of 5

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