Sci-Fi Month: "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Sci-Fi Month: "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: December 7, 1979
Directed by: Robert Wise
Genre: Adventure/Mystery/Sci-Fi
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was easily one of the most eagerly awaited movie releases of a generation. It was the long-anticipated adaptation to the big screen of one of the most quixotic and beloved television shows of all time. When "Star Trek: The Original Series" (ST:TOS to fans) was canceled in 1969, almost nobody expected to hear from it again. The sets were struck, the actors moved on and the studio released it to syndication without a second thought. Its run was through.

Or so everybody thought. It turns out that, due to a methodological error in the way TV shows' ratings were generated in the 1960s, Star Trek was actually far more popular than the numbers would have suggested. In fact, it was only in syndication - the terms of which usually allow each network to schedule the show in the time slot of its choice that the show and its audience finally managed to connect. An entirely organic, grass-roots movement began around the convention circuit and the calls began to see the Enterprise on screen at last. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was the culmination of those efforts.

The plot of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" has been the subject of quite a lot of confusion over the years. It seemed almost as if the filmmakers had too many ideas to fit together into one screenplay, and so the film seems to maunder across deep philosophical waters without the kind of quick, flashy resolution that audiences had so enjoyed a few years earlier, with the release of "Star Wars."

This was really more of a difficulty with the audience reaction than with anything intrinsic to the plot itself. In a nutshell, the plot of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" is an effort to understand the difficult-to-foresee consequences of humanity's actions. The Voyager space probe, which had launched only a few years before the movie came out, has traveled to the edge of the solar system, where it fell through a wormhole and was transported into deep space. While there, it suffered from a one-in-a-trillion collision with an alien probe of similar purpose. In the ensuing centuries, the combined probe gathered the data necessary to achieve self-awareness as "Star Trek" technology does from time to time and embarked on a quest for its creators. It was this quest that brought "V'ger" to Earth with such disastrous consequences. As a side note to the main plot, it's worth explaining that Spock (Leonard Nimoy) felt an affinity with V'ger, as it was like him a Terran/alien hybrid dedicated to the quest for wisdom and logic.

With such an ambitious plot, it's difficult to imagine that "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" could ever have been brought off without leaving at least some in the audience scratching their heads. The "V'ger" device plot device, not the actual probe is an elaborate effort to connect twentieth-century mankind with a sprawling interstellar epic. This isn't easy to do as the actual Voyager probes were powered by old fashioned rockets and gravitational acceleration, which would have made contact with an alien civilization difficult. In other words, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was tremendously ambitious, and challenged its audience in the very best traditions of "ST:TOS."

For all of the technical sophistication of the screenplay, it falls to the actors to breathe life into a script. The cast of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was exceedingly lucky in this case, as they had all worked together before. Three years of shooting on a shoestring budget, on a cramped soundstage that had to be closed by 5 o'clock every day had the effect of bringing the cast together as people and as friends. Through this difficult apprenticeship they learned to react to each other's cues and nuances, a skill that would prove invaluable when they were together again for the movie.

Perhaps for this reason, director Robert Wise had a somewhat easier task before him than the typical filmmaker. His cast was already experienced, they knew the material as well as he did better, perhaps and came to the shoot with the kind of serious attitude that sets an actor free to focus on the performance, rather than stumbling through the effort of building a character from scratch. All this formula needs for success is a director who knows a good thing when he sees it, which is why Robert Wise made for an excellent choice. His style of respecting a performer's experience and insight moved him to let the actors drive their own performances, to great effect.

In the end, it would be unfair to regard "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" as simply another movie. Even as a work of high cinematic art, the verdict on the film would be lacking. "Star Trek," that goofy, campy TV show from the '60s, has grown to have implications far beyond the screen. It has become a part of the culture, and the culture is better for it.

Rating: 3 out of 5