Movie Review – Star Trek: The Motion Picture

1979 Paramount Pictures

Three Stars

I was eleven years old when my parents brought me and my brother to see this movie. We had already been Trek fans for most of our young lives watching the episodes over and over until we almost knew them all by heart. I still remember the excitement as I sat in the theater to see new Star Trek on the big screen. Then the  lights dimmed, the music came on, the movie played, and I thought what the heck? Star Trek was indeed back but not exactly how fans expected.

As most fans of Trek now know Gene Roddenberry was working on a new Star Trek series called Phase II when Star Wars hit the movie theaters like a bat out of hell. Paramount wanted a Star Wars of their very own thus the planned series was retooled into a big budget motion picture. After a troubling production with an out of control budget the movie finally made it to the theater in a somewhat finished state.

Logically you would expect that Paramount would want an action packed special effects extravaganza to match the thrills and excitement of Star Wars. They got the special effects but the action and thrills are nowhere to be found. I am in no way saying this movie is bad in fact I like it quite a bit. I just can’t imagine this was what the studio executives were looking for. This is a long and slow paced movie that in tone and feeling seems closer to the original Trek pilot The Cage more than anything. I get the impression this is the Trek Roddenberry had growing inside him ever since the original series ended and he finally got a chance to let it out. This is truly his updated view of an optimistic future populated with characters who think before they act and don’t go in with guns blazing. That was all good for Roddenberry but for many of the fans and even casual fans this was not the Trek they remembered and yes it’s kind of boring. Even some hardcore fans were put off by the lack of characterization and the dull tone.

As I said I enjoy this movie; the updated Klingon’s are cool and some of the special effects are impressive. The redesigned Enterprise is my personal favorite design both inside and out (with the too dark and drab transporter room being one exception, yuck). The music score by Jerry Goldsmith is one of my favorite movie scores even though I wish he had incorporated the original theme to a greater degree. The story is somewhat compelling even though it really is just a retelling of the classic episode The Changeling.

Unfortunately even though I enjoy this movie on one level I know it is far perfect. Number one the characters don’t feel completely right, Kirk is very stiff, slow on the uptake and not really in charge (I realize Kirk has been sitting behind a desk for over two years but I’m not sure if the characterization was intentional or not). McCoy is not as bad but seems too cold at times and not quite the lovable character from the series. Spock fairs better as his character grows from his experience, finally realizing that more than logic is needed to make one whole. The remaining regular characters are not given much to do but stand around and look amazed at the view screen while tossing out the same lines they had in the series. As for the new characters, Stephen Collins brings Decker to life nicely but the character of Ilia needed more depth, I thought she came across as a little strange and not in a good way. The second and biggest problem here is the pacing. There are a lot of nearly endless shots of space stations, the Enterprise, and other special effects. The flyby of the Enterprise is well done but gets tedious. The scene where the bridge crew members stare in amazement at the various moiré patterns in the energy cloud surrounding Vger is mind numbing. Yes some of the patterns are pretty damn cool but it just goes on way too long. It is abundantly clear when watching this movie that the effects came before everything else and that hurts the movie big time.

With the talent involved this could have been so much better. A little more action, sharper writing especially with the characters, and a bit more discipline in the editing suite would have done wonders. Star Trek: The Motion Picture made enough money worldwide to ensure another movie but the executives took hold of the purse strings and brought in a new producer to make the next movie a little more palatable to the average viewer.

The good:

Some of the Federation uniform designs are very nice looking and look comfortable but others look bland and unflattering. Still to me they fit the Star Trek universe better than the overly military and hot looking uniforms in the following movies.

In the future there will be no
bright colors! Very earthy.

The production design is good but a little uneven.

Beautiful design.

Best Klingon makeup in my opinion.

I like the design of the engineering section but it’s a little sparse

I would have loved a bit more of this engineering design. This is a concept drawing for the aborted Phase II series.

Best torpedo effect ever. Go Klingon’s!

Bald chicks are not normally my thing but she looks hot.

The not so good:

The pacing. I think they forgot to edit the movie.

In the original series the crew encountered massive alien vessels, a planet eating Doomsday Machine, a giant single celled organism, disembodied ancient entities, an old probe returning to Earth seeking its creator, and countless other new and strange phenomena and lifeforms. In these encounters there was never a time when the crew simply stood around looking glazed over with awe, wonder, or downright confusion. They were always aware of the point of their mission and their objective. In this movie they seem overwhelmed and clueless as to how to proceed. The professionalism that was evident before seems to have been lessened and replaced by a bizarre inability to act or even do more than coldly consult and bitch at each other about their current situation. The rhythm and flow is missing. The camaraderie is missing. This feels more like the pilot for a brand new Trek series with characters unaccustomed to this sort of thing.

There are far too many scenes of someone standing around staring in amazement (or confusion).

More standing around.

…and stand and stare. Take 56…

Did they run out of light bulbs and material to finish the floor?

Did the optical guys go overboard or what?

So what’s with the really big ugly controls?

So the engineering section is now seven or eight decks high? A little overkill on the special effects again.

Random thoughts and observations:

With all of the collected data available to the machines and later to V’ger itself it couldn’t figure out how to remove space gunk from the name plaque and read the whole name? How advanced.

“Its knowledge has reached the limits of this universe and it must evolve.” I guess that knowledge is lacking in the space gunk removal department.

Another thing about V’ger and the machines. If their knowledge has reached the limits of this universe then why do they consider organic life forms not true life forms? In their travels they must have encountered world after world with organic life forms and concluded that they grew naturally and evolved over millions of years. How many worlds did they find where machines spontaneously sprouted from single celled machines and evolved into higher forms of machinery?  It’s not that hard to deduce with all that collected scientific knowledge that organic life is a naturally occurring process and that a machine based society is not the norm.

Why are there never any starships available but the Enterprise?

Considering there is a massive destructive force on a direct heading for Earth and every second brings it closer it seems odd that Scotty takes so much time getting Kirk to the Enterprise.

Why do the Klingon gunners sit in spinning chairs? What reason could there be for the chairs themselves to spin? It’s not like they’re manning a gun turret.

The Enterprise transporter console now has a shield around it, I guess the safety of these people aboard the space station is not a big concern.

I still prefer the theatrical version of this movie but the Director’s Edition did make some improvements in the special effects. Effects that were too time consuming or expensive were finally finished after twenty plus years.

My favorite scene:


The Klingon’s, not worried that this cloud is incredibly massive, go in guns blazing.


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