Friday, July 11, 2014
IN RETROSPECT: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
*** out of ****
When I went to the video store as a kid, I wondered why my dad discouraged me from renting the first Star Trek movie (subtitled The Motion Picture). We'd covered II, III and IV as well as episodes of the original series. What could be so wrong with the first feature film?
Finally, I rented it ...and gave up on the movie less than an hour in. To an eight-year-old, whose indoctrination to movies was through the Spielberg/Lucas era, this 1979 sci-fi felt like an eternity of sterile imagery with every character leaving their familiar energy at the door. Even the worst Trek movie of all, V: The Final Frontier, just out in theaters at that time, wasn't guilty of being so dull.
Other than seeing parts of the first film playing on the video wall at the rental store or on the Channel 41 Sunday afternoon movie, I really didn't give this film a fair full viewing until 2001, when the now hard-to-find "Director's Edition" was released on DVD. Like any movie being given a special treatment on the new medium, I viewed it again.
The low-energy hadn't changed, but I had a new appreciation for the film. Seeing it in widescreen for the first time certainly helped. The general production of the movie has a bland look but seasoned director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music) had an ambitious amount of split-diopter shots. Seeing John Dykstra and Douglas Trumbull's effects shots in their intended ratio also allowed me to perceive a grandness to the model photography, which few of the following Trek films ever managed to capture again. Most importantly, I came to realize it was the only Star Trek movie to have a strong science fiction plot. Many other movies that followed were better, but they were closer to sociopolitical allegories with space jargon.
The first movie is about the original crew of The Starship Enterprise, together again after years apart, facing an unstoppably destructive object, of unbelievable mass, headed towards earth. Any offensive action would be pointless. Spock senses that it has a consciousness and when communication is established (in the strangest way) it is discovered that the entity has some sort of relationship with Earth and seeks its creator but can't comprehend that earth's people could be relevant to what it needs.
The movie becomes what most great Star Trek is often about: Understanding your obstacles rather than destroying them. This is the shame of the J.J. Abrams films, which may be brilliantly entertaining but have too much of a "war-on-terror" attitude, which betrays the original vision.
The movie was drawn from the preproduction of a television pilot intended to launch an all new series. The success of Star Wars in '77 inspired Paramount to exploit their Star Trek property in the cinematic arena. Sci-fi enthusiasm was making a huge comeback and Trek fans hadn't seen it in any new form since its TV show was cancelled in 1969.
The movie impressed fans temporarily but its sequel would summon a bigger audience for its stronger drama and liveliness. In recent years, The Motion Picture has grown on me. I always knew that Jerry Goldsmith's beautiful score to the film elevates the material a great deal, but I've also come to like it as a sick-day movie; The kind you can enjoy if you're on the couch and want something slow-paced and hypnotic.
It's still one of the last movies I would recommend to someone green to this franchise.