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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

by on 2011/01/10

“This is how I define unwarranted.”

* *

Like that old chestnut about how Apple sees Microsoft, I see Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a monolithic resource hog, with neither taste nor style.  It has an interesting overall concept, but spends too much of its time paying clumsy service to itself, to its own detriment.

Ironically, other than the show’s actors, and the Enterprise exteriors, it doesn’t feel much like Trek to me.  Throughout, I kept imagining the interference of bickering bureaucrats.

  • Space Track, eh?”
  • “What’s the least we need to keep?”
  • “Change everything else!”
  • “More, more, more!”

Like the awkward pilot episode of The Next Generation, we see a surfeit of alien crew members and one-off costume designs.  We see superfluous levitation gimmicks, thruster suits, facial hair, unbuttoned shirts, hairy chests, medallions — dear god in heaven, a giant gold medallion — perms, bad comb-overs, and mortifying ‘nad bags, with mercifully untucked tunics for the officers.

We get circuitous tangents into a space dock flyby, an accidental wormhole, and the tour of a mysterious cloud.  Captain Kirk (William Shatner) goes on and on about a three-day deadline, but a rush for him is a near real-time eternity for us.

Given the hurry, why is a captain touring the ship, checking circuits in engineering, or operating transporters?  The Motion Picture?  It feels more like Star Trek: Telling the Crew How to Do Their Own Jobs and Being Tragically Wrong Every Time.

Shatner can be charming but, here, Kirk is distinctly unpleasant.  In fact, few of the leads seem to want to be involved.  They act like the animated simulacra of their former roles, with only the minor players enjoying the reunion.

But enthusiasm is not enough to carry the torch.  Like The Return of the King’s ending stretched to an epic length of its own, The Motion Picture feels as if it will never quite be done.  Every time it needs a turning point, it just keeps shambling on.

More Close Encounters than Star Wars, The Motion Picture makes no pretense of being action-packed.  It has an overture, for pity’s sake.  Nobody expects it will be anything but deliberate . . . but glacial and meandering?

If it weren’t for a score by the redoubtable Jerry Goldsmith — of Alien and 1968‘s Planet of the Apes — the movie would be a near total loss.  The visuals don’t add much panache to the composer’s western flavoured experiments, but some of the visual effects sequences work as a music video, supporting a sort of “Moonlight Sonata for Organ and Distressed Orchestra”.

As I watched, I was aware of only one scene during which I genuinely enjoyed myself:  when an alien force probes the ship, wreaking havoc on the bridge.  Had David Lynch suddenly taken on guest director duties?  Probably not, but things did suddenly get interesting, if only for a bit.

So, while I’ve enjoyed other films by director Robert Wise, I regret that this misfire is not one of them.  The Motion Picture is Star Trek fumbling to get its head up its own ass.  Modest promises poorly executed, and old friends acting strangely . . . I’m with the critics on this one.  Skip it and go directly to The Wrath of Khan.

* *

Rated PG for retinal-scorching visual effects

136 minutes (Director’s Edition)

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