David Reviews Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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Let’s get the obvious question out of the way: why in the world is Criterion Cast posting a review of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? The film was released in the late Seventies, no new version has been recently issued on either Blu-ray or in a new theatrical run, and while it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility for this site to take a look at mainstream big budget productions aimed at the mass audience, it’s also pretty obvious that ST:TMP isn’t the sort of movie that fits all that comfortably alongside the foreign, independent and alternative cinematic expressions that typically draw our critical attention.

The reason I’m posting this review here is that I agreed to participate in the 2015 White Elephant Blogathon, a project organized by Philip Tatler in which he solicits nominations from a couple dozen movie bloggers for offbeat films that are randomly assigned to the participants. Everyone involved gets a title and agrees to post a review about it on the assigned date. Last year, my first time participating in the Blogathon, I drew Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, which I considered a stroke of good fortune as it’s exactly the kind of contemporary art house offering that this page frequently covers. In fact, Josh Brunsting had reviewed it for the site over a year before I did.

Neither that film, nor Star Trek: The Motion Picture proved to be suitable for posting on my Criterion Reflections blog, where the standards are more restrictive, according to my own specifications. So when I was given this movie to write about, I asked Ryan Gallagher if it would be OK for me to publish it here, and being the well-known Star Trek (and general science fiction/fantasy) geek that he is, he was happily quite accommodating. So thanks for the support and the outlet, Ryan!

And as for me, I’m very pleased to revisit this film again, 35 years or so after I first saw it upon original released back in December 1979. At the time, I was in my late teens, a veteran of a dozen or so combined theatrical screenings of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, well-versed in the lore of Marvel Comics, Heavy Metal magazine and of course the original Star Trek TV series (along with the short-lived Saturday morning animated cartoons and numerous paperback spin-offs that kept the flame burning in the decade between the show’s cancellation and its eventual rebirth as a film franchise.)

I recall entering the theater that evening very eager to see where the next wave of cinematic sci-fi would take us, backed by Hollywood’s assured promise of bigger budgets, newly enhanced special effects technology and an influx of creative talent recruited to launch us into a new phase of futuristic entertainment as the Eighties got underway. The marketing build-up to this particular film had been prolonged and extensive, building anticipation for an alluring, can’t miss Big Event that seemed destined to surpass the phenomenal impact made by Star Wars a couple years earlier. With a bigger and more familiar cast, an extensively developed, cosmos-spanning mythology cultivated over the course of the past 15 years, and an aura of populist triumph as the fervent appeals of dedicated hordes of Trekkers to revive the series had finally come to fruition in a film that would certainly be bigger, bolder and more audacious than anything we’d ever seen before on screens large or small. Here’s the teaser trailer, giving a sense of how the studio stoked and provoked our anticipation:

I also recall leaving the theater pleasantly dazzled by the glaring neon-saturated light show that filled up big chunks of the two-hour running time, but aside from that, feeling mostly disappointed by the lagging pace of the narrative, a scarcity of engrossing action or drama, and way too many lingering, fetishistic tracking shots of the Starship Enterprise, accompanied by the prolonged stares of actors being instructed to gaze with awestruck sentimentality at non-existent objects that would eventually be created months later in post-production. Now, I can dig a tight close-up of meticulously detailed model work as much as anybody, but after five or ten ponderous minutes of poring over the surface, inch by inch it seemed, as if creating a visual catalog and maintenance manual for the craft, my attention wandered quite a bit. And I’m saying this from the perspective of a kid who had enjoyed assembling quite a few plastic kits of officially licensed Starfleet, Klingon and Romulan vessels in the years preceding the release of this film.

On the plus side, my curiosity was sufficiently satisfied about how characters like Captain Kirk and Officers Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Chekov, Uhuru and Scott would look and sound after coming out of their involuntary retirement. They all picked up pretty much where they left off a decade earlier, delivering the same rhetorical beats that endeared us to them through countless reruns in that interval. They had all obviously aged a bit, and had more freedom to swear than their former bosses at NBC ever allowed (a few gratuitously placed “damns” and “hells” were peppered throughout the script, just enough to avoid a dreaded G rating.) But as is often the case when we run into past acquaintances, the joy of reunion sputtered to a halt all too quickly. At the time, the story didn’t grab me with the kind of urgent fascination that drew me back to the theater for repeat immersions into its world, the way that Star Wars or Close Encounters did a couple years earlier, or that Blade Runner and The Road Warrior would a couple years later.

Over the years between then and now, I did manage to keep up with the Star Trek franchise through the theatrical releases, though not with the rigorous devotion I might have thought I would when I was a teenager at the apex of my fandom, and I only took in occasional scattered episodes of the various TV series incarnations over those years as well. Somewhere along the way, I parted ways with a more diligent following of the universe originally envisioned by Gene Roddenberry and maintained by dozens of his disciples ever since. To this day, my fondness abides with the original TV cast, and the concise 50-minute narratives that I bonded with in my youth. I did give the J.J. Abrams reboot “prequel” film from a few years back a look, but had to turn it off after about a half-hour, unwilling to entertain that bastardized travesty of an adaptation any further. I got no enjoyment from it, and saw no reason to grit my way through.

Sorry for all that meandering preamble, but I just felt like I had to clear out some of the personal underbrush and put my baggage on the table before I could get into a proper appreciation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture after giving it a fresh look in the year 2015, a date that seemed unfathomably futuristic from the perspective of a teenager living in 1979-going-on-80. It’s also important to point out that the version I just watched for this review was the 2001 Director’s Cut, an overhaul authorized by Robert Wise, who died just a few years later, apparently making this his last major creative statement, following a career that boasted important credits (and multiple Academy Award nominations and winners) on films running the gamut of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Devil and Daniel Webster in the 1940s, The Day the Earth Stood Still in the 1950s, and West Side Story, The Sound of Music and The Sand Pebbles in the 1960s. By all accounts, Wise’s changes made for a big improvement in the overall pacing and structure of the film; I didn’t bother trying to find the original cut so I have no basis to compare.

Perhaps fittingly, this most recent viewing occurred mostly on a hand-held tablet device, through Amazon Prime Instant Video, where my membership with that service not only allows unlimited plays (I’ve run it through the film three times now, at varying levels of attention) but also provides access to the IMDb X-Ray feature, flashing on-demand casting updates of the actors appearing in the picture at any given moment, and amusing, occasionally informative anecdotal trivia with the brush of a finger-tip on the pressure sensitive screen. To me, this streamlined portable technology offers like a more favorable format than watching what amounts to a longer than usual TV episode in the full cinematic scale. The limitations of what were once considered to be state-of-the-art visual effects, aiming for but continuously falling short of 2001: A Space Odyssey levels of grandeur and trippiness, are much better disguised in the smaller frame. Likewise, the tight confines of the Enterprise’s bridge, where most of the exposition and character interaction takes place in big blocky close-ups or two and three shots, doesn’t really require or benefit from a full theatrical setting, and the fairly pedestrian and predictable plot twist of the film’s cosmic, world-threatening adversary V-GER turning out to be a relic of then-current human technology returning to menace its “Creator,” would have fit quite comfortably into the confines of an hour-long TV episode, after trimming away the bloat of intros and ogling that consumed most of this film’s first half.

As for the actual story told by Star Trek: The Motion Picture, at this point in time it feels like a fairly inconsequential placeholder in the larger saga established over the long future history of the United Federation of Planets. It’s cool to learn a bit more about how the Enterprise was renovated and launched, though just a bit too convenient to see how everything tidily fell into place for Kirk to resume his command with pretty much the same hands on deck, plus a few strategic additions (the displaced Captain Decker and a new officer Ilia who simultaneously imported some exotic South Asian beauty and created a lead character who was also ultimately disposable, even if they didn’t put her in a red uniform.) Despite the vastness of the mysterious astronomical cloud entity that bore down on the Earth with seemingly hostile intentions, (vaporizing a few Klingon warships in the film’s opening minutes) I never felt much in the way of palpable danger, but then again, haven’t we all been spoiled in that regard by watching any number of planet-devouring menaces turned away like clockwork in cinematic spectacles over the past forty years or so? In the end, the enemy turned out to be just an immature, under-informed specimen of technology in search of that elusive something we call “the human touch.” Once that intuitive quality was introduced into the mix, softening the materialistic edges and warming up the cold rigor of strictly logical analysis, ultimate danger was averted and we could resume the basic optimism and camaraderie that serve as the foundation of the Star Trek universe.

Beyond all that, I really don’t have a whole lot more to say about Star Trek: The Motion Picture other than to draw the obvious conclusion that it performed an important function in reviving the franchise and setting up it for fruitful expansion over the next few decades. Whether or not that expansion should continue any further is a question that I will merely raise but not specifically address, other than my lack of dismissive rejection of the most recent iteration I previously mentioned. With the right adjustment to our expectations going in, I think the movie holds up fairly well as a nicely polished relic of its era, at least for viewers content to enjoy talky and speculative science fiction of a middlebrow variety. I can only guess as to what kind of response the blogger who nominated this film was looking for from whoever drew the assignment – if he was hoping/expecting someone to put it through the shredder, I don’t have it in me, sorry! For the moment, this was a nicely timed refresher for me, after coming off a week spent pondering the solemnity (and inadequate digital representation) of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev – a welcome contrast of divergent styles of self-consciously epic film making.

white-elephant
The 2015 White Elephant Blogathon
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