Hey, why not go over the 13 (to date) Star Trek movies? That should be fun. Let’s start with the first one, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, from 1980. Directed by Robert Wise, it runs for 131 minutes. Amazon Primesters can watch it free here, where it sports a shockingly high four star average rating. 

The Plot: Actually really quick to summarize. There’s a dangerous energy cloud out there that seems to devastate everything that comes into contact with it. Starfleet naturally calls in newly-promoted Admiral Kirk, who of course gets the old gang together to try to figure out what it is and what it wants, as fighting it seems impossible. Turns out it’s the old Voyager 6 probe, given sentience by an alien power. After making the discovery, a crewmember agrees to merge with the probe and that pretty much saves the day.

What Works: The score, for one thing. The film’s operatic pretensions are laughable (it was originally presented with an overture!), but the score really does work well, particularly since so often in the film it’s the only thing really keeping you engaged with the movie. There are a lot of individual moments that work: there’s too much of them in the film, but the Decker/fake Ilia scenes about what it means to be human are as Star Trek as it gets. Spock’s arc is actually pretty good I find: he abandons his goal of pursuing the path of a cloistered life of pure logic as he is drawn by “V’Ger” and its intelligence, and ultimately realizes that he belongs on the exploration side of things. He’s the only one of the main cast who really gets a resonant arc, which is interesting as Leonard Nimoy apparently hated making the movie and wanted out of Star Trek after it. Go figure.

What Doesn’t Work: Oh good Lord. The movie is way too long and stuffed with obvious filler, which is actually contradictory when you think about it. You fill something to bring it up to the proper amount of screen time, while this is well over that. Was Paramount really demanding a 2 hour 11 minute film? It’s practically made for the fan edit treatment (don’t feel guilty about wrecking Robert Wise’s vision, as he notoriously did the same to Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons).

But even if you pared away a half hour of useless nonsense (which would be extremely easy to do), is what remains even worth watching?

Meh.

A lot of people defend the film on behalf of its ambition, but I disagree. The film does have a theme and does some work in orchestrating its characters to advance it. Some. But so much of it is underthought and underdone. Some people are no doubt inclined to give partial credit as they see where they were going with it, but fuck that. What’s on the screen is all that matters, I don’t believe in that sort of grading on a curve. And there’s just so little here that moves or even interests me as presented. Kirk’s basic issue is that he’s rusty and doesn’t fully understand how his refitted ship works, which is a problem until it isn’t. McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, etc. have no real development between them, which could be okay, except that nobody else is picking up the slack. Also, we have three new characters: Commander Sonak, the replacement Spock who doesn’t make it to act two, Commander Decker, who actually does most of the heavy lifting and is arguably the true protagonist of the film, and Lieutenant Ilia, who actually dies early in the movie and is replaced with a robotic copy, in the movie’s most bizarre concept. Though Disco Dr. McCoy is up there:

The basic theme of the movie is, essentially, finding your way. Spock does. So does Kirk, though it’s really a jumpy sort of arc for him as I said. Decker definitely does when he merges with V’Ger at the end of the movie, though he really seemed pretty excited about his Starfleet career and becoming a captain soon, knew a lot about the ship. So that’s pretty jumpy too. Guess maybe Ilia dying scrambled his head some? I don’t know. But the movie just isn’t very good at drawing you into these peoples’ emotions. Robot Ilia is interesting, but the mechanical voice gets completely grating in a really short time. There’s one moment where she responds like real Ilia that is well-played and fascinating in the implications. I will say that there are some moments that work, some ideas, some scenes that could have worked if they’d been better refined. But they don’t. The script’s origins as an aborted pilot for a second Star Trek television show are well-known, as are its, ahem, debts to earlier episodes, like the one it essentially remakes, but those wouldn’t matter much if it delivered the goods. I just don’t think it does.

Legacy: Undeniably the weakest legacy of all the Star Trek movies, it’s largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated Trek fans. It’s not exactly hard to understand why. It has ambitions, to be sure, but it’s simply much too slow and boring, and lacking in interesting tension, which is probably a redundant thing to say. V’Ger never really comes off as a character in its own right, nor does it distinguish itself much from the many, many other godlike beings we’ve seen before in Star Trek. Ilia is a little better as an antagonist but bad choices were made there too: the robot voice should have been rethought, and “Kirk unit” is a nonstop howler. There is quite a bit of unintentional humor to the movie, and a fair amount of awkwardness to it as well. I’d like to blame Wise for this movie failing but ultimately Gene Roddenberry held much of the power here and, frankly, this is the precursor to his truly terrible first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the same way the Star Wars special editions foretold the prequels. So little time spent on development of our characters and securing an emotional investment in them, too much time spent on the movie equivalent of “guest stars” taking over and leaving the stars with nothing to do, as well as on “deep” ideas that were a lot shallower than the Great Bird thought they were. I keep coming back to the fact that much of the strongest material in the movie is Decker discoursing with Ilia about the meaning of being human. Why isn’t Kirk doing that? Again, this was a repurposed TV script, but it does some things to adjust to the movies, like raising the stakes from the episode it remakes. But at the end of the day, the movie simply lacks interesting tension as a result of mushy decisions based on characters and theme. It could easily have been a better film than it is, but frankly wasted potential doesn’t dispose me toward liking the film more. Without the Star Trek name this would be a long-forgotten flop. Thankfully nostalgia for the series alone saved it from that fate, and it only gets better from here.

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  1. Metavirus says:

    I still love the deep “twang” sound the cloud entity makes when shown on the screen. And yes, I do enjoy “Kirk unit”.

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