Essays · Movies

The Human Adventure of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

Celebrating ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ – you know, the slow, dull, boring one – on its 37th birthday.
Star Trek Motion Picture Title Card
By  · Published on December 8th, 2016

Overtures are just the best. They’re big, proudly grand announcements that signify to their audience the film they are about to watch is an epic and important entry in the cinematic timeline. The overture says, “Look at me, this film belongs in the same breath as The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, and Lawrence of Arabia. You have a lot on our mind, and we need you to leave the outside world behind, and we need you to focus on the screen in front of you.” They give you enough time to gobble down your popcorn and shush with the chatter. Overtures are a promise from the filmmakers that they are taking their jobs seriously and would appreciate your full attention.

Thirty-seven years ago, the overture blared its last demand for your devotion with the December one-two punch of The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There have been a few attempts to revive the device since, but these sci-fi slogs pretty much plunged the nails into the overture’s coffin. Despite its freedom from the Disney Vault, The Black Hole is mostly forgotten, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture seemingly survives only on the enthusiasm of its undying Trekkie fan culture. But even the most die-hard of followers will dismiss the first film in the franchise as a treacherously slow misfire.

Not me. With every rewatch (an event that occurs as frequently as once or twice a year – I have a problem), I grow fonder of The Motion Picture. I am not here to argue for its placement at the top of your Star Trek ranking, but while you are quick to praise The Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home, I am desperately pleading from the fringes that the self-seriousness of The Motion Picture’s overture not only deserves a little bit of your love but rightfully ranks it amongst cinema’s other bold visions.

This year has been marred with celebrity deaths, a doomsayer news cycle, and an electoral revelation that has the entire country staring into the abyss. Star Trek’s 50th-anniversary celebration has landed at a time when I need hope for the future more than ever. As much as I need my rage and my determination for change, I need a dream to fight towards. I need to know that this human adventure is going to amount to something worthy. I need Star Trek.

For 50 years, Star Trek has placed an importance on science, exploration, and human connectivity. Gene Roddenberry may have served these vegetables on a dish covered in pulpy salt vampires, green space hands, and goateed doppelgängers, but in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Civil Rights movement, Star Trek was there to revel in our potential. We will break away from ignorance and hatred.

Hints of this quest for human expansion can undoubtedly be found in The Wrath of Khan and its sequels, but The Motion Picture is a blunt instrument for this message. The first film in the franchise is not concerned with revenge or any such form of Kirk-Fu. Taking its Big Idea inspiration from Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as tricking its budget from Paramount’s desire to replicate Star Wars, The Motion Picture reaffirms the original TV series’ mission statement: we will get better.

You certainly cannot deny me that Jerry Goldsmith score. The man made his bones during the golden age of television and quickly transitioned into legend with Lonely Are The Brave, Planet of the Apes, Patton, Chinatown, and a myriad of overlooked gems ranging wildly in quality. His theme for The Motion Picture defined Star Trek for decades and proved timeless when adopted by The Next Generation for its seven years of syndication.

Leaving the swelling bombast of the opening credits, Goldsmith introduces the gaseous antagonist of The Motion Picture with synthesized strings and a barbaric Klingon battle cry. The monolithic but indefinable blue cloud makes an easy meal out of the Klingon cruisers, but these reinvented baddies can take pride in their exit thanks to Goldsmith’s war party anthem. Only occupying the frame for a matter of minutes, this animalistic makeover of Star Trek’s most iconic villains is firmly cemented, and it probably has some folks in the audience craving their plot line over that of the USS Enterprise.

For more than half of the film, the only motivation for the alien consciousness calling from space seems to be supplied by the film’s composer. Its menace solidified by nebulous visual effects and Goldsmith’s ethereal electronica pumped with pipe organ. When told that this disintegrating entity is on a collision course with Earth, our sense of dread culminates from its symphonic trajectory. It’s okay that we’re scratching our heads because Goldsmith has us covered.

By 1979, it had been ten years since anyone had seen the crew of the Enterprise. Not only had we missed the conclusion of their Five Year Mission, but it was long over, and the ship’s family was scattered to the far corners of the galaxy. The anticipation of the reunion was an excitement that J.J. Abrams would replicate with the 2009 reboot, as well as when he jumped ship for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s simply too delicious a delight to ponder the mystery of absence. However, with growing fondness, so too is an increase in anxiety. This is not my beautiful Enterprise; this is not my beautiful Captain Kirk.

On the first watch, it must have been an incredibly jarring re-introduction. Not only had the Klingon foreheads changed, but the uniforms were unforgivably beige, and the emotions woefully muted. Director Robert Wise brought with him the full weight of serious social science fiction like The Day The Earth Stood Still, as well as the lush visual flourish flaunted in his musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Hollywood was here, but would it overshadow the charm of our TV characters?

On Vulcan, long-haired hippie Spock failed to cast out his savage passions and retreated from the ceremony of Kolinahr. The cloud entity calls to his human blood and culturally shames him. Captain-turned-Admiral Kirk attempts to make his belt-less belt buckle uniform look commanding while shaking off his desk job and stealing back the center seat from a very reasonable Commander Decker. Stephen Collins as Decker is about as white bread as a lead can get, but he succeeds in throwing some serious shade at Shatner’s chest-first performance. Leonard “Bones” McCoy is forced out of retirement by his Captain and is apparently asked to shed both his President Grant beard and disco medallion. The swinging single life must grind to a halt for Starfleet.

Twenty minutes into The Motion Picture, fandom was crying out for the gold, blue, and red tunics. The perceived clinical accuracy of 2001 shared a desperate dream for things to come, but it was not Star Trek. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy clash with Douglas Trumbull’s special photographic effects, this left the crowd as cold as the corridors appeared to be.

Then there is that money shot – or shots after shots after never-ending shots. Due to those pesky and rather terrifying transporter malfunctions, Scotty must transport Admiral Kirk aboard his ship via shuttle. This pornographic tour around the Enterprise is obviously a magnificent showcase for Richard Taylor and Jim Dow’s refit model, but it’s also a graphic peep show that is essentially an overlong visual expression of Kirk’s hard-on for his starship. Some might question its infinite climax, but somewhere along Shatner’s salivating leers, I found myself swooning as well.

It may take an hour to leave space dock, but once the Enterprise finally encounters the cloud entity, The Motion Picture is allowed to get trippy with its existential mumbo jumbo. There is no one-on-one phaser fire, no unleashing “The Dogs of War.” Kirk’s only possible action is to reason with this living machine, an all-powerful child that eventually reveals itself to be a reflection of our own insatiable curiosity. As fun as the villain of the week could be, the misunderstood monstrosity plot of Star Trek’s first cinematic outing feels the most beholden to Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy, even when the Hollywood trappings do not.

Star Trek – The Motion Picture fails to replicate the “Wagon Train of the stars” excitement of the original series, and despite drawing in massive initial appeal, the film is more often simply cited as the start of the odd-numbered Star Trek curse. I still proclaim that to be deeply unfair. For all its sterile and fumbling missteps, we cannot ignore this proud, lavish relaunch to the franchise. As much as we may prefer the hot-blooded emotions of the later films, the cold logic on display in The Motion Picture champions the spirit of the human adventure in an utterly sincere manner that only Kirk and company could.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)