Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) review

When I was five years old I lived with my family on a camp site in Africa owned by a construction company. It was in a pretty remote location and we lived in simple Portakabins, but it was fairly civilised, with a small swimming pool and a club house with a screen and projector. Being so young, I don’t remember many film showings apart from a remake of The Thirty Nine Steps (which scared me) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP). My father pulled a lot of strings to get a reel of the brand new Star Trek film sent over from the UK. He had watched the TV series and been hooked on it, and put his weight behind the film by telling everyone how great it would be. When you live in a remote part of the world with no English TV, getting a fix of entertainment from back home is a real treat.

The showing didn’t go quite to plan and before the film had even ended it was clear that it wasn’t a hit with the audience – non-Trekkies were bored senseless and even fans were left confused by something they weren’t expecting. It was pretty much the same response everywhere else too. Where was the humour, action and occasional tongue-in-cheek silliness of the original series?

In the transition from small screen to big screen, Star Trek had opted to take itself much more seriously. Inspiration was clearly taken from grandiose, intelligent science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey, with lengthy special effects sequences and a plot that assumes intelligence and familiarity with science fiction concepts. Although the film should be admired for not choosing a dumbed down storyline, it was going to be hard for mainstream audiences to understand and enjoy.

The story starts with an inexplicably angry Kirk (promoted to Admiral) ripping into everybody as he tries to get the Enterprise out of space dock to face a mysterious cloud that’s on an intercept course for Earth, destroying everything in it’s path. Maybe it’s meant to be the seriousness of the situation eating away at him, but Kirk seems like a different character – a dislikeable one. More awkward scenes follow with the demoted Captain Decker who Kirk has trampled over to get back command of the Enterprise. The ship and crew eventually get out of space dock, but not in a fully ready state, and when Kirk again behaves like an idiot and forces the warp drives online, there’s more trouble and another clash with Decker as the ship gets trapped in a worm hole. It all feels very pointless and drags out the opening section of the film, but at least provides an excuse for Spock to arrive on-board and offer his services.

There’s yet another howler of a scene where Kirk speaks to the crew about what they are facing. As he is describing the alien cloud, he receives an emergency message from a comms station under attack, which he implausibly asks to be patched through to the large screen so the whole crew sees it. This message shows the station come under attack and be obliterated. Watching the station destroyed doesn’t do much for the morale of the crew members in the room, but you would expect an experienced leader to be able pull of a great motivational speech – instead Kirk stammers a few words and walks out the room. The footage of the comms station being destroyed is made ridiculous by Kirk asking to switch to “external cameras”, so we get a pretty picture of the station being vaporised by the cloud. We are expected to believe that everything in the Star Trek world is surrounded by a set of external cameras, positioned in just the right places to capture scenes in a cinematic way. Anyone who knows anything about films and how to create tension could have filmed this scene in a more believable and dramatic way.

Fortunately, the film starts to improve when the Enterprise intercepts the alien cloud – even the characters settle down, becoming likeable and true to their earlier appearances in the TV series. It’s as if the beginning of the film was shot last and had to be rushed to meet the tight deadline.

Although heavy on special effects scenes, the exploration of the V’Ger cloud is stunning to look at, and feels very atmospheric. It’s a million miles away from the low-budget presentation of the original TV series and must have been a real treat for fans to see for the first time.

The level of effort and investment put into the film was immense, with legendary director Robert Wise teaming up with equally legendary special effects masters Douglas Trumbull (2001) and John Dykstra (Silent Running and Star Wars Episode IV). Robert Wise seemed like the perfect choice, having directed some very successful films including science fiction titles such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain.

A new ship was designed, with a new interior, and all the costumes were new. There was a space dock as well as a few other comms stations and space stations, all presented using highly detailed models. And last but not least, the vast V’Ger cloud, with amazingly complex outer layers and an inner section that still looks great by the standards of todays special effects. Sometimes effects that aren’t CGI stand the test of time very well, and there are some great examples in TMP.

It’s interesting to re-watch the film over 30 years later and see the capabilities of special effects at the time. As mentioned previously, external shots in space almost all look beautiful, yet a simple effect such as superimposing video onto the viewscreen on the bridge of the Enterprise looks amateurish. This effect improved dramatically by the time the sequel (The Wrath of Khan) was released three years later.

TMP is certainly a flawed film, with some awful scenes, characterisation and pointless sub plots, but fortunately they are almost entirely in the first third of the film. If you can overlook those, it’s arguably the film that stayed truest to the premise of Star Trek, and it made a commendable attempt to move the franchise into the realm of serious, grown-up science fiction. I’ve already found that the newest Star Trek film (the J.J.Abrams franchise reboot) doesn’t stand up to repeat viewings very well, and yet I find TMP is mostly enjoyable to watch over 30 years later. It’s particularly surprising to see how many things that we see in the later films (Klingon ship designs and interiors, even the opening sequence music and title fonts) were there in the very first film, proving they were done right from the start. More than any other, this film defines the aesthetics of the Star Trek world.

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