Saturday, July 4, 2009
Star Trek The Motion Picture: It's Not That Bad!
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is considered by many people, including self-proclaimed Trekkies, as a slow, boring film, certainly one of the least entertaining films in the ST series. It premiered to much hoopla back in 1979. The original cast had been reunited, the sets and ship had a sleek new look, and the special effects were far beyond anything seen on the TV show. However, many viewers had trouble connecting to the story, which included some elements from previous Trek shows, such as The Changeling, and was a slow, visually interesting but action - deprived tale. Fans who had become used to the Star Wars style of science fiction (which is to say, space opera) found this film to be devoid of excitement.
I have to admit, when I first saw the film, back in 1979, the pace nearly killed me. Particularly painful was the seemingly interminable sequence where Scotty takes Kirk for a tour of the refitted Enterprise. Upon my second viewing, I used that time to get up, go to the restroom, get in line at the concession stand, and get a box of Milk Duds - and when I came back, they were still putzing around in that shuttlepod, looking at the new ship!
In general, although I consider myself to be a huge Trek fan, I've avoided watching ST:TMP over the years. But then, the Director's Edition came out on DVD, and I had to get it. There were a number of improvements made - the scenes on Vulcan with Spock are vastly superior to the original film. The effects throughout the film were updated and improved, and it's nicer to look at than ever before.
But upon watching the dvd recently, although all these changes were nice, and I certainly enjoyed them, I came to feel that the film itself, the story behind it, was actually not so bad. The main characters of Kirk and Spock go through some significant changes (particularly Spock). When we see Kirk in this film, he's not the heroic captain we knew from before. Instead, he's a middle aged man desperate to get back his glory days; he uses the Vger threat to force his way back into command of the Enterprise, and to hell with whoever gets in his way. It's not a flattering image but it's so unexpected that it makes Kirk a little more interesting than before.
Spock really goes through some changes in this film. It actually sets the course of the character for all later appearances, from the movies that would follow (including the new Star Trek film) and even his appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Spock begins the film trying to purge himself of all emotions, to be completely Vulcan. Yet at the end, he comes to realize the falseness of this premise he has carried around for years: that he has to choose to be human or vulcan. He realizes that he is both, and from that moment on, he finds a peace that is always evident. He is able to retain his logical, orderly way of thinking, and yet is able to express compassion and friendship without reservation. Nimoy does a fantastic job with Spock.
The story itself probably harkens back to the whole philosophy of Trek more than any of the later films, which were much more action-oriented (probably in response to this film). The Enterprise crew deals with Vger in a calm, intelligent way (not so the Klingons!) and nary a shirt is ripped. The threat of Vger is palpable but everything seems very low-key. In some ways, this film and its sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, mirror the situation that occurred with the first two pilots for Trek. Pilot number one, The Cage, was considered too cerebral, too talky. Then pilot number two, Where No Man Has Gone Before was made, this time with Shatner in the lead. The second pilot had action aplenty, and yes, Kirk's shirt was torn off. The network loved it. People also loved Wrath of Khan, and all the films that followed were in that same style.
ST:TMP was a science fiction film closer in style to the classic SF films of the past, such as Day the Earth Stood Still, which was also directed by Robert Wise. It wanted you to think about what was going on, not merely to witness it. However, whatever message it was trying to send (the human adventure is just beginning?), got lost due to the pace, and most audiences were simply bored. But perhaps because I am older now, I was able to sit down and genuinely enjoy this film. There's a certain joy seeing the old crew return, and knowing that this movie was responsible for all the iterations of Trek to come. I even found myself taking a liking to the uniforms, something I know many fans hated. But hey -they had short-sleeved shirts! I mean, these uniforms actually look comfortable, unlike the later maroon jacket ones (how heavy were those things anyway?). The redesign of the Enterprise was beautiful, especially the engine room. That design was incorporated in a variety of ways into the later Treks, and I sure wish they'd used something like it in the newest film, rather than that brewery!
It's not the best film in the Trek series, but it's certainly not the worst. Give it another chance. You might be surprised (but do get the Director's Edition - even the tour of the Enterprise seems better!).