In watching the Star Trek films of the The Next Generation era and the present Abrams era, what has constantly disappointed me about them is that they’ve lacked a sense of sophistication, ideas and intellectualism that characterised the original 1960s TV series and the ST: The Next Generation TV series. All these features is what made the original TV series do distinctive and even when they’ve been entertaining (as the Abrams films have been), there’s a level of depressing superficiality to them.
So when I got the chance to see the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first film based on the original TV series, I was interested to see whether it had a different mentality and perspective.
Despite being an enormous financial success STTMP has always had a maligned reputation. While some considered it imaginative and inventive the majority opinion seems to be that it’s slow, heavy-handed and humourless. Which view is the more valid one?
The film’s plot concerns a seemingly all-powerful, relentless entity that destroys everything in its path. The entity is heading towards Earth and seems certain to lead to its destruction so the Starship Enterprise is chosen to stop it with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the old crew brought back in charge. But when the entity is confronted, there is much more to it than meets the eye.
Upon viewing the film, the widely held belief that STTMP is slow would be an understatement. During most of the half, it is so slow that it is downright tedious. In particular when Kirk and colleague Scotty (James Doohan) are travelling down to the Enterprise is so drawn out it felt like the most boring scene I’ve ever seen.
The reason for this ponderous tone may have been because the makers of the film were worried that Star Trek wouldn’t cut it on the big screen and wanted it to be something more than feeling like a longer episode from the series. This seemed to include having a higher tone and substance, which included hiring a prestigious, veteran director in the form of Robert Wise.
However, Wise seemed to have little feel and understanding for the concept. As a result the camaraderie and humour between the crew that was so prevalent in the series is absent here, replaced by a dour mood that adds very little to the film.
But after an unpromising and dreary first half, STTMP improves considerably in the latter stages. One reason for this is that despite slow pace and lacklustre characterisation, the film always has a classy feel to it. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is excellent and vibrant (much more than the film itself is) and the film’s big budget is well spent on impressive sets and quality special effects, which hold up well even today.
But more significantly, the film develops significant narrative interest once the Enterprise encounters the entity. Whereas present-day Star Trek films would probably treat the entity as some simplistic, malevolent enemy to be destroyed, the entity in STTMP is a source of complexity and mystery. Instead of leading to confrontation, it leads to development and a potential step forward for humanity (although the film’s conclusion is rather similar to 2001: A Spacy Odyssey).
So despite its considerable flaws, STTMP leaves a much better impression than most of the Star Trek TNG films & pair of Abrams Star Trek films. That is because it has an undercurrent of wonder, awe and excitement for the future for humanity that the other ST films lack.
Back to the original question of whether STTMP is either a dreary bore or an inspiring and imaginative film? The answer is: all of the above.