IT COULD have been glorious. But after ten years of waiting, five years of planning, three years of production and over $40 million of spending, the motion picture interpretation of the Star Trek television series is worse than an anti-climax: in essence, they blew it.
There are three groups of people who will definitely want to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture: Star Trek fans (of which I am one), Star Wars fans, and those moviegoers who consider themselves genre connoisseurs, because they made it to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. All three groups will be sorely disappointed--most of all the millions of Trek fans who desperately hoped the film would be the apotheosis of the qualities that made the late '60s television series stand out during its three-year run on NBC and ten years in syndication. The film simply fails to live up to the legend created by the television series. The real flaws of the film lie not in the plot, the special effects, the acting, the characterizations, or the message, but in the way director Robert Wise put it all together.
Those with Trek credentials will recognize that the plot is primarily a mish-mash of three of the original television episodes--"The Changeling," "The Immunity Syndrome," and "The Doomsday Machine"--each of which had something interesting to say, and said it in less than one hour.
One would expect that two hours of a movie rather than one hour on television would allow for an even deeper discussion of the issues to be covered. The plot really contains the substance of only one television episode, with almost an hour's footage tacked on to the beginning to justify the movie's existence and to offer a chance to show off expensive special effects. The first part of The Motion Picture describes the reunion of the major cast members on the pretext that they are required on board the refitted U.S.S. (United Space Ship) Enterprise to battle a never-before-encountered "thing." ("Why is any object we don't understand always called a 'thing'?" asks Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley) in typical Star Trek: The Television Show fashion). The "thing" is headed for Earth, gobbling up everything it encounters.
The second part of The Motion Picture describes the Enterprise crew's interception and final solution to the problem. The first half seems aimlessly tacked on. The writer and producer thought it necessary to explain the ten year gap between the last episode of the Star Trek television series and The Motion Picture. The resulting footage is not only unwieldy and expensive (a five-minute sequence involving the Starfleet's San Francisco headquarters must have cost at least $2 million) but also damages the rest of the show--the half-hour wasted on James T. Kirk's procession to the Enterprise, and the net loss of 20 minutes to uninteresting preparations for departure, might have been used profitably elsewhere to put more content into the film.
Action is no problem in The Motion Picture--there isn't any. Gone are the days when young, virile Kirk would throw adversaries across the room, or deftly stun an enemy alien from 500 feet with his trusty hand-phaser. No, in The Motion Picture he merely sits back and sucks in his success-connoting paunch while spinning around in his comfortable command chair. But after all, Kirk is now a crotchety old Admiral (Chief of Starfleet Operations, no less) who's almost sexual obsession with his old command as captain of the Enterprise impels him to wrench the captaincy out of the hands of the new leader of the Enterprise--Captain William Decker (Stephen Collins).
Kirk isn't the only figure who doesn't do anything--the Enterprise doesn't show itself to be capable of doing anything breathtakingly spectacular. The Enterprise is traditionally as much of a character as the people in the show, and like the people, the most famous of Star Ships never develops a personality.
What makes the lack of action even worse is the amount of time devoted to special effects sans action, dialogue or intelligent meaning. The lengthiest of these scenes is almost ten minutes long; such sequences dominate the film. Inserted between the effects are bits and pieces of trite dialogue, sparsely populated by thoughtfulness and chock full of allusions to the television series and are thus only understandable to Trek fans.
Gene Roddenberry, who produced both the series and The Motion Picture, promised that the optical effects in the movie would not overwhelm the idealism that made Star Trek popular as a television show. Roddenberry apparently reneged on his promise. The special effects are not particularly wondrous, although publicity materials for the film claim that special effects wizards Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Dykstra (Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica) created the effects with the most sophisticated equipment ever devised for such work.
Special effects seem to be what movie studios think science fiction is all about these days. No doubt, Star Wars impressed a good many people because it depicted outer space with realism and "flash." But since the "creators" of The Motion Picture wanted to get away from the rough 'em up cowboys and laser beams action of Star Wars, they decided to put their special effects money into non-military opticals of the Enterprise's travel through an alien "cloud." It is quite possible that Dykstra and Trumbull decided that since anyone can create the illusion of space travel--they should devote their energies to creating a formidable enemy so large (82 Astronomical Units--about 7.5 billion miles in diameter) and so colorful and so full of sexual imagery that their work would be considered seminal.
It is also rumored that the original special effects team was fired two years into the production, leaving Dykstra and Trumbull to pick up the ball midway. This could account for the rushed, unfinished appearance of the effects.
The Enterprise set design, in contrast to the very colorful "cloud," does not do justice to the ship. There is no sense of the Enterprise's size, and only those who are fortunate enough to remember the television series will understand that the Enterprise is huge, containing an endless number of corridors, transporter rooms, conference rooms, dining rooms and recreation areas, Additionally, the decision to make the interior set and costumes completely metallic and devoid of color eliminated any sense of warmth on board the ship.
This metallic quality is also evident in the actors' performances. Although Star Trek fans are already familiar with the characters, even they will wonder at the absence of definition in the roles played out in The Motion Picture. And, needless to say, those unfamiliar with Star Trek will be utterly lost.
All of the members of the cast try to play their parts as people ten years older than we remember them. But even though they look older, and sound older, and try to appear older in terms of the quality of their voices, the maturity which develops with age is just not there. In fact, Kirk seems to have lost his maturity instead.
Since there is no action in the film, dialogue is the only thing left to compete with the special effects, and the dialogue is uninformative, full of jargon, and plainly pseudo-intellectual--almost as much as unfriendly critics would have us believe the television series was. The non-effect scenes didn't have what it takes to counterbalance lengthy visual scenes with little intrinsic interest and much bore potential.
In an era when movies seem to require some epic characteristics to make them memorable, it is a shame that there are no thematic elements which would make The Motion Picture more durable. The story focuses exclusively on one problem--stopping the intruder before it destroys all the "carbon based units" (i.e. life) on the Earth. The Enterprise and its crew, once it has assembled, proceeds to the alien with no delay, no tests or demonstrations of strength, courage, ingenuity, resourcefulness or extraordinary ability. And once one technological challenge has been overcome, the Enterprise and its crew arrive at their destination having had no shakedown, without demonstrating that the women and men of the 23rd century are capable of handling their 23rd-century problems. Only fans of the television series will be able to use the 79 television episodes as the basis of their knowledge of the crew's ability.
The Motion Picture's message is typical Roddenberry--that we should not strike out at the unknown without first determining its true purpose and motivations. Unfortunately the moral is swallowed up and permanently obscured by the simplicity of the characters and the weakness in the plot. We do not perceive the Enterprise crew as thinkers but as doers, whose own motivations are as clouded as those of the enemy they are combating. We end up learning more about the enemy than the human beings. We can assume that Roddenberry meant us to view the alien as a projection of ourselves. It was a good idea, a common theme in Star Trek, but one overwhelmed by the film's flaws.
The decision you have to make is whether or not the film is worth seeing. For nostalgia's sake, it is a worthwhile experience. Young children will not appreciate the glib intellectualisms of the film at all. They should not be dragged to The Motion Picture with the expectation that this is another Star Wars. In fact, no one should see Star Trek with the notion that it is similar to Star Wars or that it was even meant to be.
But even if the western-in-outer-space images are not there, neither is the thoughtful intelligence which you would expect to substitute for an overkill of laser fire and death stars. Star Trek: The Motion Picture deals with deep issues in a surface manner--probably the result of compromise with film executives who were afraid of too much cerebral content in a G-rated film being released at Christmas time. (An original story by Roddenberry and science fiction Guru Harland Ellison was rejected by Paramount because it dealt with the identity of God.)
Fortunately, if The Motion Picture succeeds in making a profit (which preliminary indications like the grossing of $12 million in three days would indicate), then we can expect a sequel. With luck, next time the flaws will be corrected, and Star Trek II will indeed be glorious.