Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Wow...EVERYBODY was in Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow!
Ten years after the television show was canceled, Star Trek returned as a feature film.  Ten years!  Think about it...that's like if Friends came back as a movie today!  Well, actually no...Star Trek was canceled due to low ratings, so I guess a more apt comparison would be the making of Sliders: The Movie.  Regardless, thanks to renewed popularity via syndication and the Hollywood science fiction boom in the late 70s, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born, featuring the entire original cast.  Awesome...?

Deep in space, a mysterious energy cloud is effortlessly destroying everything in its path; while none can be seen, it is assumed that there is a ship or a being in the center of the cloud, probably because normal clouds don't fire energy beams.  The cloud is on a collision course with Earth, and it will reach the planet in two days.  The only spaceship that can intercept the cloud in time is the Enterprise, the same ship whose adventures were chronicled in the Star Trek TV show.  It's a small world, sometimes. 

Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) has, since we last saw him, been promoted to administrative duty in Starfleet Command.  However, when he learns of this threat, he more or less assigns himself as the new Captain of the Enterprise, demoting the current Captain Decker (Stephen Collins) in the process.  As Kirk reassumes his command of the ship, he sees many familiar faces --- Scottie (James Doohan) is still in the engine room, Chekov (Walter Koenig) is still an underused character that will no doubt be injured at some point in the film, Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) still acts as a glorified telephone operator, and Sulu (George Takei) still has the second most awkward speech cadence on the ship, after Kirk.  That's almost the entire old crew!  Ten years, and they all still have the exact same jobs?  Apparently, there is little to no upward mobility within the ranks of Starfleet.  Well, after a little manipulation, Kirk convinces Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley) to un-retire and return as the ship's chief doctor.  And, for reasons of his own, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) returns from his home planet to help, too.  With the one new cast member, Ilia (Persis Khambatta), the team was finally complete.  So, what do they do?  Well, after repairing the Enterprise (it was in the process of being refitted with new parts), they do exactly what you think they will: they intercept the cloud and try to uncover its mysteries.  Do they succeed?  Well, this movie has ten sequels to date --- what do you think?

I have to admit, this movie sets out with a purpose (To the cloud!) and it doesn't bother with much else.  The acting is about what you would expect from this cast; they act like television actors in a small-budget show.  It's not their fault, though, since most of them were brought back for nostalgia and not their talents.  The script doesn't help them much, either.  Naturally, Shatner and Nimoy get the meatiest roles, with the most development and dialogue.  DeForest Kelley comes in a close third with dialogue, if no character development (oh, wait...he shaves off a fake beard...does that count?), and nouveau-Trekkie Stephen Collins comes in a distant fourth, because new cast members obviously can't survive --- there's seven core cast members, and dialogue cut seven ways is pretty thin.  I won't say that the performances, outside of Shatner and Nimoy, were poor.  They aren't great, but they aren't horrible.  Nimoy's Spock isn't bad either, just socially awkward.  Shatner, though, is pretty terrible and I can't understand it.  Shatner is a funny guy and, at his Kirkiest, can play a charmingly overconfident leader.  This time, it seems as though he thinks he is performing Shakespeare on the stage and that he must pause between lines for the audience to stop clapping.  I'm moderately familiar with his peculiar vocal cadence, but it is greatly exaggerated here. And, believe it or not, Stephen Collins is even worse. 

But is the acting really the point of a movie like this?  No, it is about the idea, the adventure.  And, at its core, the central idea behind this story is a pretty cool one, especially if you are somewhat familiar with NASA missions.  You don't have to be a NASAnimal (if Glee can do "Gleek"...) to appreciate or understand it, but that knowledge deepens your appreciation for the plot.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that it takes over two hours to get to that core idea.  The rest of the film features the Enterprise slowly, slowly, slowly, approaching the destruct-o-cloud.  Oh, wait, I forgot about the slow-motion wormhole scene.  That alone felt like two hours, but my concept of time was undoubtedly warped by the gravity of the hole.  The film's pace is definitely the biggest problem with this movie; sometimes, slow exterior shots of the Enterprise are coupled with grandiose bits of the soundtrack, implying a sense of accomplishment that the script rarely provides.  If the two hours leading up to the climax were filled with adventure or character development or witty dialogue --- hell, even with Kirk seducing green women --- I would have no problem.  But do you know what you see on the screen?  Several sequences where a character is staring at the Enterprise's monitor, then cut to the monitor showing the energy cloud, then cut to another character and repeat for five minutes.  There must have been at least a half-dozen separate occasions like that. 
"Captain, scans show her to be beside herself in boredom."

Even the pace wouldn't have been a deal breaker if the production values were there.  If you're going to take forever to do something on the big screen, make sure there's enough pretty pictures to keep our eyes, if not our brains, occupied.  Despite having a pretty substantial budget, though, there are a lot of annoying failures with the post-production work.  The special effects, while better than the television show, were definitely not great.  They look even worse when compared to contemporary movies, like Star Wars, Alien, or Close Encounters.  And the makeup for the alien species is particularly bad; Spock's fellow Vulcans apparently got their pointy ears from a cereal box and the Klingons must have had homemade costumes.
Better than the film's costumes.  More expensive, too, even without the mower.
What we are left with is a television-grade production with television-grade actors and a lot of boredom.  Honestly, I am surprised at how amateurish this turned out, given the already existing sci-fi universe and the usual competence of director Robert Wise.  There must have been behind the scenes problems, because there is no way this movie makes its way from pitch to the big screen with this story and pacing.  I used to think that the Star Trek curse (only the even-numbered ones are any good) was a crock, but The Motion Picture has me convinced.


  1. Was the film a box office success? Why did it get sequels?

  2. It was a success, but not as big of one as you might suspect. Sure, nerds will throw their money at just about anything, but this should have been better. The budget was in the $30-45 million range, and it made $139 million worldwide. The Empire Strikes Back, made a year later, looked better, was cheaper to make ($18m), and made more ($209m in its first release).

    From what I can tell, the problem is with the production process. This was going to be the plot to a new TV show, starring the original cast (Star Trek Reloaded, 2 Star 2 Trek, whatever). They already had the series in production when they decided to fast track a Star Trek movie --- without a script. That left them the TV pilot, and they played with it basically until the release date. While successful, it was an underwhelming success, which is why (I think) series creator Gene Rodenberry was more or less excluded from Wrath of Khan, which is awesome.

  3. I had no idea that there was an awesome Star Trek movie (although, the newest edition was fun). Part Deux is worth checking out?

  4. The new one was pretty fun, but Deux is great. You might have wondered why the hell so many people care about Star Trek...even Wrath of Khan doesn't "wow" you, it will at least make Trekkies a little more understandable.