Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Movie Review

Star Trek has always had a special place in my heart. For years my mom and I would watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager together, marveling at the amazing episodes and issuing heavy sighs at the bad ones. I often say that I was raised on Star Trek. Along side the all the shows, we also went to see all the movies (we’ve actually seen every movie since Generations in theaters), so when the opportunity to go see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in theaters popped up, I knew we had to go. And because I am taking advantage of that opportunity, I thought it the perfect time to start a new review series here at WildeBeard Reviews.  That’s right, I’m going to rewatch and review all thirteen Star Trek movies over the next few weeks. But before I can give you my thoughts on arguably the best Star Trek movie, I have to give you my thoughts on arguably one of the worst (or at least most forgettable) Star Trek movie first – Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Full spoilers to follow (it’s a 38 year old movie, come on now…)

Of all the original cast Star Trek movies, The Motion Picture is the probably the one I’ve seen the least, with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier being either a tie or a close second. Because of that, I didn’t really remember the plot of this film going back into it.  I remembered a vast ship and an entity named V’Ger being involved along with a bald woman and the dad from 7th Heaven being a lead cast member. For the most part, I remembered correctly, but of course, I also had forgotten a lot of detail that makes this movie a somewhat better watch that I remember, yet still not great and barely good.

I forgot what the plot resolution of this movie was and, upon seeing it again, I really liked it. If you don’t remember (or don’t mind it being spoiled), Star Trek: The Motion Picture starts off with a gigantic cloud swallowing up a trio of Klingon Birds of Prey and a Starfleet space station. Soon after, the Enterprise and her crew are assembled to go intercept the cloud which is on a course for Earth.  Upon reaching the cloud, it is discovered that there is a massive, planet sized ship inside that is sentient and named V’Ger.  V’Ger, as it turns out, is headed to Earth to find the Creator.  After V’Ger creates an emissary in the form of Ilia, a crew member that was taken by V’Ger and copied as android, Kirk and Co. convince Ilia to take them to see the true form of V’Ger, only to discover that V’Ger is really the Voyager VI probe that vanished into a black hole 300 years prior. From there, the probe was found by a race of living machines who sent Voyager back out to the star to complete it’s mission to “learn all it could.” Now, having gained sentience during it’s travels and thinking it’s mission complete, V’Ger returned home to find it’s Creator (NASA) and fulfill it’s purpose in life. For my money, that’s a really interesting story and a really cool idea but unfortunately it is left largely unexplored in any meaningful way. The reveal happens so late in the movie that there’s just no time left to get any deeper into philosophical implications of V’Ger’s history which is a shame because that’s one of the things that Star Trek always does well.

This movie also has a rather interesting, if short, character arc for Kirk.  Over the course of the film, Kirk has trouble dealing with someone else, Captain/Commander Decker, being the captain of the Enterprise even going so far as to question Decker when he is clearly in the right.  It takes a “come to Jesus” meeting with Bones for Kirk to see that he is the antagonist in the situation.  Kirk eventually does begin to trust Decker but, if you’ve seen the film, then you know that Decker isn’t around for too long.  I think I like this little mini arc because, well for one, it’s really the only character development in the whole movie, and it reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in Star Trek: Generations where Kirk tells Picard ” don’t let them promote you, don’t let them transfer you, don’t let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship.”

Now that we’ve touched on some of the good of this movie, we need to talk about some of the bad because oh sweet mercy, this is a bland, boring movie that just plods along for two hours until it finally gets to the point. By that time though, the movie had mostly lost me and I was happy for it to be over. There are a lot of weird movie making choices at play here, like long drawn out scenes with no dialogue. I didn’t keep track but I swear that there could be a solid 15 minutes cut out of this movie that consist of nothing but slow sweeping shots of ships (say that 5 times fast).  I mean Kirk and Scotty float around the Enterprise in dry dock, looking longingly at the ship and each other long enough that I was starting to think that they we’re just gonna put the shuttle craft in neutral and dry dock each other. And then when the Enterprise is being tractored in by V’Ger, it just drags on way too long.  After the first few minutes, the audience gets the point, V’Ger is insanely big and absolutely dwarfs the Enterprise but it just…… keeps…… going…. It’s like a Family Guy skit that goes 5 minutes past the punch line.

Now, as long and drawn out as those scenes are, they did make me appreciate the old way of doing ships and space ships – real, tangible models.  The models used for all the ships in this movie are intricately detailed and absolutely stunning and stunning in a way that modern CGI just can’t replicate.  I didn’t realize how much I missed real, tangible, practical effects until I watched this movie again.  While I realize that modern movies like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets just wouldn’t be possible to make without CGI, I do feel like Hollywood has begun to rely too heavily on computer effects.

Some other nitpicks about this film: the opening credits are as basic as you can get.  They’re seriously just white text on a black background.  Maybe I’m just too used to modern movies with big flashy credits sequences but come on.  It’s especially frustrating because the movie opens with ships flying through space which would have been perfect to play the credits over.  It seems like such a simple thing but it would make all the difference.  I honestly thought I had accidentally skipped to the end of the movie because the opening credits were so bland they felt like the end credits. Also, the way the movie wraps up is just insane.  After the threat of V’Ger is dealt with, Kirk just happily orders the Enterprise out to deep space like nothing just happened.  Seriously.  Earth almost suffered an extinction level event at the hands of a sentient 300 year old NASA probe and once it’s all said and done, Kirk is just like “Eh fuck it, let’s bounce”.  It was incredibly jarring and completely nonsensical. The uniforms and set design are also God-awful.

In the end, Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a great story idea that is executed terribly, a couple good character moments but largely flat characters, and has some baffling movie making choices that bog down the films pacing.

Final Rating: C-

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One thought on “Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Movie Review

  1. I know I’m an outlier here, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture is easily my favorite Star Trek movie. I’ve heard people criticize it for years, and most of your points are correct, but I call it the only real science fiction Star Trek film (though on reflection, ST IV and ST V should probably qualify). Holy crap – Alan Dean Foster worked on the story and it had Isaac Asimov as a science consultant! The others were mostly space-action movies dressed up with some current event commentary.

    The thing to remember about The Motion Picture is the time and context when it was made. Sure, the uniforms were ugly as hell, but there weren’t any Star Trek movies with established uniforms before this, and they were trying to break new ground. The 70’s could have made it a lot worse!. Also, they could glaze over the philosophical considerations with V’ger because remember, Voyagers 1 and 2 had literally just been launched 2 years before. Both probes passed Jupiter earlier that year, and they were coming up on Saturn rendezvous the next year. Revealing V’ger to be a (future) Voyager probe brought the story right to the audience’s doorstep, with no need to lead them by nose into a discussion of humanity’s potential. As for the long, drawn-out effects shots, remember that Star Wars had just come out 2 years before, and special effects were in a motion-control renaissance. The original Star Trek had budget effects, and I’m sure the filmmakers wanted to finally portray the scale of outer space the way it should be.

    As goofy as it was, The Motion Picture was an honest attempt to bring the best version of Star Trek to the big screen, at a time when there were no Star Trek movies to compare to. It was just like an episode of the original show, yet it wasn’t formulaic. It was a chance to finally show off what they always wanted to do with the franchise, but were never able to before.

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