Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Rated PG (for sci-fi action and mild language)
Release Date: December 7, 1979
Runtime: 132 minutes
Director: Robert Wise
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Stephen Collins, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Persis Khambatta
The lingering perception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it was a sluggish misstep from small screen to big, primarily because of the inevitable comparison to Star Wars. That was the initial impression, too, as it was branded with sarcastic nicknames like Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture and The Motionless Picture, despite a box office haul that more than doubled the film’s sizable budget for the time (read more in the trivia below).
The comparison to that galaxy far far away was (and is), however, demonstrably unfair, one that the original movie posters tried to face head-on with the tag line “There Is No Comparison”. It’s not only unfair on principle but, more particularly, because the two films’ ambitions were entirely different. Moviegoers went in expecting Star Wars, which is why they didn’t know what to do with a more brainy effort aspiring to be 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead of getting George Lucas, they had to wrestle with Stanley Kubrick. The result is not only the most undervalued Star Trek voyage ever made (one that exists in its own vacuum, never to be referenced in the canon again), it’s one of the best sci-fi films ever made.
It is, to echo Mr. Spock, fascinating.
The television series Star Trek, much like Star Wars, sought to elevate B-movie material (albeit in different ways; Star Wars with scale and scope, Star Trek with science and philosophy). Yet Star Trek: The Motion Picture boldly set those action-adventure “cowboys in space” elements aside, and also jettisoned Kirk’s more base if endearing impulses (nary a kiss is smacked or a punch thrown). Instead, ST:TMP reached for an A-level sci-fi brass ring, a cerebral contemplation about our place in the universe, and even about the possible evolution of consciousness itself.
Better, more holistically satisfying Star Trek films would follow, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains the purest, highest expression of Gene Roddenberry’s intellectual and philosophical ideals for the series he created. On those terms, no other movie or TV iteration over the franchise’s now 50-year history can match it. At its core, this is what Star Trek was always supposed to be about: the exploration of space that would always circle back to the exploration of humanity, and how the two were inextricably linked.
The film’s aspirations could be seen even before viewing one frame, boasting a story by legendary science fiction author Alan Dean Foster and directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Robert Wise, who made classics ranging from multiple Oscar-winners The Sound of Music and West Side Story to smart sci-fi like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain. Those two creative choices alone declared the seriousness of the movie’s goals, as did opening with a stirring pre-credits overture that harkened back to old Hollywood epics.
The premise is a pretty familiar one – there’s a threatening anomaly approaching Earth and the U.S.S. Enterprise is the closest ship in the quadrant – but the script uses that as a launching pad (or space dock?) for a complex study of character, faith, and philosophy far beyond a safe “let’s get the old gang back together” lark.
Perhaps the most stark expression of that early on is seeing how Admiral James T. Kirk is portrayed. Rather than having fun with his iconic winking swagger, this is an indictment of Kirk’s arrogance and sense of entitlement. He’s not asked to take command for this mission; the opportunistic Kirk uses the emergency to his own selfish advantage, forcing his way back into the Captain’s chair of the newly refurbished (but not yet fully overhauled) Enterprise.
Following a 5-year absence to an administrative position, Kirk usurps the command of Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), now demoted to Commander, who is an eminently capable and qualified leader that Kirk, no less, recommended for the post.
Rather than making Decker an in-over-his-head newbie whom Kirk must rescue, the script allows the reverse to be true. Kirk’s behind the times (more than he’s willing to admit), and it’s Decker who must make up for Kirk’s deficits – even, at one point, saving the entire ship.
The whole dynamic makes for a compelling deconstruction of Kirk, looking at the negative (even dark) side of his innate leadership virtues (something that diehard fans may have understandably bristled at), but his arc also allows for us to see his strengths, and his uncanny ability – rooted in a deep, instinctive understanding of human nature – to come up with ingenious and intuitive solutions, even in the face of impossible odds.
Suffice it to say, William Shatner must’ve been fascinated as an actor by the prospect, and his performance steps up to every challenge the script requires – which includes not sentimentalizing Kirk’s worst traits; when he’s a jerk, our sympathies are squarely with Decker (played with a sincere integrity by Collins, who serves as a great foil for Kirk’s flaws).
Instead of the confident leader, Kirk pushes his crew too hard, overcompensating for his own inadequacies (and the guilt of his effective coup). It’s a bold choice to establish Kirk in such a negative – but real, and interesting – light.
Not to be short-changed, Leonard Nimoy is given his most substantial turn as Spock. The half-human/half-Vulcan finds himself on a spiritual quest for meaning, seeking answers to life’s biggest questions: “Who am I?” “Why are we here?”
For Kirk and Spock, both men are at midlife crossroads; it’s a test that brings out the best and worst of each of them. For Kirk, especially, as it’s a crisis of identity (one that would continue in Star Trek II as he’s confronts the life that could’ve been, but wasn’t).
The rest of the old crew is here, too, if largely relegated to simply-drawn supporting roles (though done with the chemistry that endeared them to an entire culture). Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) – a.k.a. “Bones” – is understandably the most integral of the remaining ensemble, serving as the cranky moral conscience to Kirk, the one guy who can call Jim on his B.S. and have it carry some weight (plus, their reunion captures the unique bond the two share, and that fans were nostalgic for).
Even so, ST:TMP ultimately lacks the fuller, richer camaraderie and sentiment that the crew shared in the original series (the core trio especially). Now with the passage of time, when the need to satiate nostalgia doesn’t feel so immediate and necessary, this film’s more cerebral disposition is both an effective and welcome risk. It displays a depth and reach that feels particularly satisfying and distinctive today in our a world of safe and calculated Cinematic Universe tentpoles.
It also reflects a noble high-mindedness that the new Star Trek reboot would do well to emulate, because it’s what J.J. Abrams‘ new alternate history most glaringly lacks. Even so, given the mixed response that this severe and unexpected shift away from a populist tone received, it’s understandable that Star Trek II would intentionally remedy that issue (and for the long haul, the series was better for it).
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is also quite a spectacle, basking in its grandeur rather than constantly warp-speeding through it. This tone was in direct contrast to the visual effects thrills that Star Wars revolutionized; instead, it was true to the Star Trek spirit of exploration.
Many have griped about the pacing. The initial shuttle flight to the Enterprise, for example, was often dinged for being excessively drawn out (though it also had the virtue of re-establishing Kirk and Scotty’s unique relationship). The slow, patient trek through the high-tech cloud of V’Ger (that threatening anomaly) was also characterized by some as too laborious. Yet that pace reflected the very soul of the franchise, one that looked out at the vastness of space with awe and wonder. Thankfully, the actual visuals are worth all the gawking, with only the “wormhole” effect coming off as simplistically dated.
I haven’t delved into the actual plot details here, but intentionally so. Not because there’s little to discuss; on the contrary, Star Trek: The Motion Picture compels discussion, not only immediately afterward but even to pause and debate while watching. Yet those riches – and narrative surprises – are best left to an initial viewing, one that I wouldn’t want to spoil for the many who’ve never given it a shot (or for others that should give it a much-deserved second chance).
But as a tease I will say this: the plot, rather ingeniously, calls back to the 20th Century and our own initial first steps into space exploration. It does so in a way that’s not only clever but actually meaningful, so much so that it should make any viewer lament how much we’ve digressed from the halcyon days of NASA’s Mercury, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions.
Yes, Star Trek has always prided itself on a love and respect for science, of integrating that passion into its own fictional fabric, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn’t exalt science as an end. For even as atheistically humanist as Roddenberry was, his characters were inevitably on spiritual quests.
That came from the acknowledgment that science, no matter how much of it could be known, was incapable of answering all of our questions. It’s a humble recognition that logic is not enough. That the core of what makes us human is mystically intangible, and therefore requires contact and communion with something greater than what we can ever possibly grasp.
That’s pretty heady stuff. That’s deeply spiritual stuff. That’s the stuff Star Trek: The Motion Picture is made of.
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (Currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)
- Though seen as a box office disappointment, Star Trek: The Motion Picture more than doubled its (then) near-record $40 million budget with a domestic gross of over $82 million (and went on to pull in nearly $140 million total worldwide). Its opening weekend haul of nearly $12 million in early December of 1979 was, at the time, the biggest debut in Paramount’s history.
- Leonard Nimoy initially turned down any involvement in resurrecting the Star Trek franchise, either for television or the movies. It was the signing of Oscar-winning director Robert Wise that caused him to reconsider.
- The Director’s Edition is currently available on DVD but not on blu-ray. While only about 4 minutes longer, it includes the scene of Spock crying while waxing philosophic, as his heart breaks for V’Ger’s longing to communicate with its creator (a longing similar to Spock’s own existential crisis in the film, thus the tears). Perhaps deemed “too emotional” for Spock, it’s actually one of the best moments of the entire film – even a highlight in the franchise’s history – and it’s a shame that it was cut from the original theatrical release.
- Along with stylistic and tonal influences from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a more direct tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 classic Solaris can be seen in the character of Ilia, as well as the V’Ger cloud. Solaris features a scene in which someone talks about moving through the fog and seeing a giant replica of a human — and which also features a normal-sized replica of a dead woman visiting the dead woman’s lover (and, along the way, punching through a metal door on the lover’s ship). Rumour has it that a scene in Solaris was inspired by a scene in Robert Wise’s The Haunting, and it’s possible that Robert Wise was returning the homage with this film. (Thanks to Peter L. Chattaway for that fascinating trivia submission.)
- Before the success of Star Wars, this version of Star Trek – complete with Commander Decker – was being developed for a new television series called Star Trek: Phase II, following the immense popularity of the show’s reruns in the 1970s. But once Star Wars revived big screen sci-fi adventures as a viable genre, the project was quickly shifted to feature film status.
- Decker and Ilia served as templates for Riker and Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, the TNG episode “The Child” from 1988 was based on an unproduced script for Star Trek: Phase II.
- The redesign of the uniforms between the first and second film was done, in part, to sort of “reboot” the franchise after the first movie’s perceived underwhelming reception. But mostly it was due by demand of the cast, who found the new costumes to be too uncomfortable and difficult to put on, wear, and manage in throughout a shoot day. For the entire cast, signing up for a sequel was contingent on new Starfleet uniforms.
- One of Spock’s lines is, “Any show of resistance would be futile, Captain.” Given the similarity of that line to the Borg’s infamous catchphrase, many Trekkers now in hindsight like to theorize that perhaps V’Ger would eventually evolve into the Borg, the arch nemesis of the Next Generation crew. As an author, William Shatner actually played with this idea in one of his Star Trek novels, although his book is not considered canon.
- Though never stated in the film, Commander Decker was intended to be the son of Commodore Matthew Decker from the Original Series episode titled “The Doomsday Machine”.
- Composer Jerry Goldsmith’s new Star Trek theme – which would go on to serve more famously as the series theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation – almost never was. The first main theme he submitted was rejected by director Robert Wise. This “redo” has since become an iconic staple of the Star Trek universe.
- Goldsmith had a protégé he was mentoring who sat in on most of the film’s scoring sessions. It was a young James Horner, who would go on to score the next two Star Trek films.
- This film served as the basis for McDonald’s first ever movie-themed Happy Meal.
- A V’Ger “Memory Wall” sequence was infamously scrapped from the film. This link details the scene, per it’s script pages, with on-set photos.