The first entry in the Star Trek saga had been cancelled and the story was considered as final as... Jeopardy! Yeah... we all know how long that lasted. But even after the saga became a hit in syndication there were false starts and fizzled attempts to get the finest crew in the fleet back on screen... ANY screen! That is until 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit theatres and became a huge hit. A huge financial hit, that is... and one that was lambasted by (most) critics.
Yeah, we all know the complaints about this first movie. It's been called Star Trek: The SLOW Motion Picture, Star Trek: The Motion Sickness and many other things that are unprintable even on this remarkably profane website. Yeah, I know, I know, it's "boring", it's "derivative", it's "a waste of time". Been there, done that... let's move on. It's true that The Motion Picture leaves a few things to be desired... however, let's look at what this film really IS!
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a beautifully done Science Fiction film and a really excellent slice of Americana from the overture to the final fade to credits! It is the rare television adaptation that is both wonderfully true to its source material AND accessible to a new audience (who didn't watch the show every afternoon after school). To this end, creator Gene Roddenberry re-crafted "In Thy Image" (the pilot episode to be for the proposed sequel series Star Trek: Phase II) into a full-length movie script, written with the great Alan Dean Foster and final(?) screenwriter Harold Livingston.
Paramount Pictures was able to secure not only the original cast, but also the directoral talents of none other than Robert Wise. Yeah, haters will tell you that they hired the director of West Side Story and The Sound of Music (as if that's a bad thing) without also citing his credentials as the director of classic horror flicks like The Body Snatcher and The Haunting as well as, yes, classic sci-fi like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain!
And what ABOUT that cast? Not everybody was coming back for Star Trek: Phase II... who did they get to come back for Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
Before you can say "Happiness is being one of the GANG!", the calm of space is broken by a creepy cloud, bigger than you can imagine and as hard to identify as that strangely familiar, but still uninvited guest at your graduation party. As it creeps along its collison course toward Earth it destroys Klingon battle Cruisers and Federation science outposts alike! But what is this strange and vast menace, soon to be known as V'Ger? Where did it come from and who sent it to Earth? Most importantly, who or WHAT is this CREATOR that it seeks?
The answer is none-too-easy to find, to say the least. Before we find out, we will see mysteries we've never witnessed before (or since) in all of Star Trek, we'll leave some of our dearest blood behind, we'll deliver a cosmic starchild to the next stage in evolution, revisit our past and discover something new about the future.
While I do believe that Star Trek: The Motion Picture did lead to a great series, reached toward the future and spawned new television series and comic books, it's interesting to note one reason that this film's scope was so very expansive, even while telling a tale that had just enough plot to sustain a television pilot. That reason is simple... The cast, crew and studio honestly believed that this would be the ONLY one of its kind!
It's true. Star Trek was to continue as a sequel series or, perhaps, a low budget feature. But when Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were remarkably successful Paramount set its sights on a larger budget MOTION PICTURE with new sets, new uniforms, new colors, a redesigned ship and an eye toward the future... albeit a future that was to be self-contained in a single shot. Knowing that this was intended to be (as the title suggests) THE Star Trek Motion Picture, it's easy to understand why Wise and Roddenberry spend so much time appreciating this polished and beautiful Science Fiction world that they had created. Hence the beautiful and long tracking shots of all of these amazing ships and space sceneries, built by such incredible Hollywood legends as Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra and many, many others! Say what you will about the wait time, accompanied by Goldsmith's score, the sights are breathtaking in the original version, the Director's Cut and especially on Blu-Ray! If you still dare to doubt that fact, check out the 1979 Oscar nominations for Best Effects, Visual Effects and you'll find a lot of these familiar names.
Speaking of Goldsmith's (also Oscar-Nominated) score, it's interesting to note that the familiar theme from Star Trek: The Next Generation began as the theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (after being coupled with Courage's original Trek theme). Goldsmith's excellent "Klingon Battle" theme began right here.
And it's not just the music that repeated its motifs in the Star Trek universe. Many of the themes concerning an unstoppable entity heading for Earth in search of communication started right here. Too abstract? Well, the characters of Will Decker and Ilia (both originally created for Star Trek: Phase II) were reworked into the characters of Will Riker and Deanna (none-too-subtly, I might add) for Star Trek: The Next Generation! The list goes on and on.
While many Trekkies (oops, sorry, TrekkERS) can point out many plot points taken from Roddenberry's Genesis II and the Star Trek episode "The Changeling", it's remarkable to note that many fans (and even some canonical sources) speculate that the mysterious V'Ger may have either come from or led to The Borg! In truth, even with Spock's observation that V'Ger came from a planet of machines, there's just about as much evidence that V'Ger came from the Borg Homeworld as there is that he visited Cybertron, the concept of V'Ger's desire to "join with" its creator seems more than a little bit like assimilation. Retcon may exceed intent here, but the big, huge cybernetic question mark is a little too big to completely ignore!
Though green-lit due to the success of films such as Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture went a very different way from the swashbuckling action of that saga, even though such elements existed in its own source material. Instead this next step in the evolution of Star Trek went for a more cerebral, muted feel, inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and the like. This was no mere rehash of Star Trek, but was an evolution of the beloved characters, picking up years after we last saw them and, surprisingly, not always at their best. While Gene Roddenberry and company could have gone for a romanticized, perfect version of these characters (who had since become icons), instead they explored the human adventure of the famed crew and allowed a focus on their flaws. As refreshing as that is, it's hard not to notice that the film itself is flawed due to its focus on the future, focus on the idea that this might be the ONLY film of its kind or a lack of any true focus whatsoever. As egos flared, and Gene himself caused more and more delays in his producer's goal for the perfect one-shot adventure (not to mention script approval by the main stars) we ended up with a somewhat disjointed and occasionally slow experiment in franchise re-fit and saga relaunch worth somewhere around Three Stars out of Five!
Yes, I love this film, but this is after over three decades and more viewings than I care to admit to, which have led to an opinion as evolved as the series itself. No, it's not a perfect film and after the cost overruns and time delays the future entries in the series (most of which, admittedly, were better films overall) were handled with lower budgets, corner cutting and television crews (for a while, at least). Still, while this film may well pale to such later entries as Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan or Star Trek: First Contact (not to mention, to be fair, some of the truly incredibly entries in the subsequent television series), the future of the future of Star Trek started here and without The Motion Picture we wouldn't have the saga that we have today. No, it's not perfect, but setting aside the preconceived notions and decades of made-up minds, it might be time to give this one a second look. It may never be your favorite film, but never before has Star Trek been so iconoclastic or expansive, not to mention fertile. And while this is, most assuredly, the MOST geeked out review of my ENTIRE writing career, I will still, without fail, see you all in the next reel!
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