Forty years ago a landmark moment in Star Trek’s history arrived, in the form of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s an important chapter in the series’ survival, the turning point from canceled cult classic to enduring icon of science fiction. But there is a reason we remember The Motion Picture’s place in history more than we remember The Motion Picture: It’s boring as all hell.
As fans across America prepare to revisit TMP this month in celebratory screenings ahead of its actual 40th birthday this December, what they’re about to re-experience is a moment in history that is perhaps best remembered as such than for what it actually is. The Motion Picture’s existence is paradoxical. It’s both an important moment to be remembered, and a movie so cosmically overwrought and forgettable that to contemplate seeing it again in the dark environment of a movie theater once more is to challenge your eyelids to an existential test of endurance.
It’s why it’s so easy to remember The Motion Picture—helmed by Robert Wise, who also directed The Sound of Music and West Side Story—within the context of history and the far better things it would pave the way to. Its release proved an appetite for more Star Trek that would not just spawn an entire movie franchise beyond it, but lay the ground for Trek’s return to TV in the form of The Next Generation, securing the franchise’s place in pop culture history for the next 40 years (and beyond).
We get to see the first dramatic steps in a transformation of the Klingons from uncomfortable Orientalist imagery into an intricate, textured culture that would make them one of the most iconic aliens in sci-fi. In newcomers Will Decker (Stephen Collins) and Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), we get a tiny glimpse of what could have been in the then-simmering plans for what would come to be known as Star Trek: Phase II, the first of many Trek continuations that might have been, and never were.
Because it’s so much easier to remember those things than what The Motion Picture is actually about: a slow-moving deadly cloud dragging its way towards Earth. The entity at the heart of said space cloud, V’Ger, turns out to be one of Earth’s original Voyager probes, damaged on its deep space mission and fixed up by mysterious cosmic entities, given unfathomable sentience and power but not the power of loooooove. The film also features a weirdly curmudgeonly Captain (now Admiral/desk jockey) Kirk, with little of the charm he’s beloved for, bullying his way back into command of the Enterprise to meet the threat. Seemingly endless chit-chat and a cursory sacrifice of both of the film’s intriguing new characters, Ilia and Decker, to teach V’Ger about the human connection later and our bridge crew is back and ready to boldly go where no one has gone before all over again.
Oh, and Spock’s trying to purge his emotions and Bones has chest hair.
This takes 132 minutes. I cannot stress enough how too long this movie is, too meandering, too indulgent, too everything other than actually interesting.
Despite these fatal flaws, and beneath its languid pacing, The Motion Picture also speaks to the heart of what Star Trek is about; it shows us the grand, haunting, wild and sheer weirdness of space exploration, of encountering the unknown. Perhaps not quite the boldly going of that iconic opening bit from Kirk that accompanied every episode of Star Trek, perhaps not quite even the where no one has gone before, given that this movie is essentially a remake of the season two episode “The Changeling” stretched to a breaking point. But it still invites us to indulgently revel in the beautiful spectacle of the final frontier, to evoke those feelings of Capital-R-Romantic, exploratory wanderlust. It hopes that we, like its heroes, will spend so many of its lavish special effects sequences—some more enduring than others, these days—simply staring in awe as Jerry Goldsmith’s equally awe-inspiring soundtrack blares into your ears.
There are so many incredible images the film lingers on. The chilling displays of the mysterious cloud eradicating a Klingon scout party in the opening. Spock, heading out alone into the depths of V’Ger’s innards in search of an understanding with it. The slow unveiling of the heart of V’Ger, and the reveal of its true identity. Those glorious, glorious views of Kirk’s first return approach to the Enterprise via shuttlecraft—a sequence so delectably hedonistic it almost feels like a Playboy photoshoot for a starship—that, like the rest of the movie, goes on for a lot longer than it arguably should.
It’s in these atmospheric moments that The Motion Picture lances through the esoteric dullness of its actual plot to nail what its endless scenes of characters talking and staring at viewscreens never could: space is beautiful, and weird, and petrifying, and alluring, all at once. It’s as captivating as it is cold, as intimate as it is vast and alienating.
And yet it’s also in these moments of astounding, haunting beauty that the film still cannot escape its paradoxical existence. V’Ger’s presence is full of spectacle and unknown dread, making for all those beautifully evocative shots as the Enterprise begins to explore and probe it, but the reveal of its true identity and its intent comes so late in the film that the unknowing tease simply becomes an infuriating roadblock, one that our heroes managed to solve a third of a way through an episode of TV back when this story was still “The Changeling.” Even that iconic, beautiful sequence of Kirk and Scotty’s shuttlecraft making its way towards the drydocked Enterprise, full of fan-tingling nostalgia, thematically clashes with the argument that the film spends most of its time engaging Kirk in—that he’s no longer at home aboard it, stiffened and turned irascible by his promotion, no longer familiar with the place he most longs to be and rendered aimless by that malaise. Much like The Motion Picture itself.
And that really is the rub of this movie, once you peel back the layer of its position in Star Trek’s history. It’s a tight, focused hour of TV, retooled and stretched to a box office grandeur in an attempt to ape Star Wars to the point of narrative incoherence. It’s a moody, cerebral drama in a format that craves action, bursting with big ideas it incessantly talks about without ever really acting on them. It’s a nostalgic reunion of a beloved team that treats a good chunk of that team like it doesn’t really want to actually be there.
And yes, it’s incredibly beautiful to the point of indulgence, while somehow also draining the technicolor dream coat aesthetic of its TV forebear into an insipidly dull color palette (they saved all the color for the poster, ultimately the greatest thing to come out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture). This movie is so incredibly beige—emotionally and literally, those gorgeous Starfleet uniforms of red, blue, and gold swapped out for pantsuits that come in either shades of deathly pale baby blue or taupe—it almost hurts, but to even feel that hurt would be too strong a reaction to something that is so bland it’s almost like a black hole of emotion.
Yet still, sometimes, just rarely, a tiny crack of something brilliant breaks into escape velocity from that dull void. As the movie comes to an close, V’Ger is dealt with and Kirk is ready to captain the Enterprise on a new mission again. Ilia’s replacement at the helm, Chief DiFalco, asks him for a heading. Kirk doesn’t give her one: instead, with a wave of his hand, a twinkle in his eye, and a wry smile, he simply says “Out there. That–away.” It’s a lovely moment, as we’re treated to one final visual indulgence, a gorgeous shot of the Enterprise soaring into warp speed. Our heroes are back, at last.
Perhaps it’s weirdly apt summation of the whole endeavor that Star Trek: The Motion Picture takes its entire runtime to finally, finally get there.
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