Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture

Okay, so I couldn’t resist a bad pun in the title. Seriously though, it summarizes my problem with the first feature length Star Trek film: not much happens in this movie. When something finally does happen, it isn’t very interesting. There’s not even enough content here for a filler episode of the original series. Now, I can imagine some readers saying ‘You just don’t get deliberately paced, conceptual sci-fi. Go back to watching the Abrams-verse if you can’t handle the real deal.’ That might be a valid criticism if it weren’t for the fact that I have serious problems with the action-oriented reboot as well. No, the problem isn’t that I don’t appreciate philosophical, cerebral sci-fi. I do. I like 2001, Solaris, Moon, even Prometheus (which a lot of people hated). The problem with The Motion Picture isn’t that it aspires to be philosophical; the problem is that it aspires and fails. It also fails to be entertaining which is a cardinal sin for any fictional medium, clever or otherwise.

Here’s how I imagine the thought process behind this movie went. I deliberately haven’t done much research beyond watching the film itself, so I’m essentially guessing, but willing to bet that this is close to what happened. Roddenberry and his collaborators saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and thought “That’s a great movie!” I would agree. However, they then thought to themselves “Let’s make a Star Trek movie like that! Since 2001 raises questions about human purpose and destiny, our movie will raise questions about human purpose and destiny! Since 2001 is methodically paced with a loose, meandering narrative, our movie will be methodically paced with a loose, meandering narrative! Since 2001 features an artificial intelligence, our movie will feature an artificial intelligence!” Unfortunately, all of the elements that work in 2001 don’t work in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I’m sure it looked good on paper, but it falls flat in execution.

disco mccoy

The future is disco.

I’m not entirely sure why none of it works. The main problem is the pacing. It’s one thing for a film to take its time to develop, but there should be a point to it. For example, do we really need an almost 7 minute sequence of the Enterprise sitting in space dock? A much shorter establishing shot would have done the job. Also, the ship takes a long time to get to its rendezvous with V’Ger. This might be fine if anything happened along the way. Often in sci-fi, a long space voyage can be exploited to explore characters, resolve some kind of conflict, or introduce some psychological tension. The Motion Picture doesn’t bother with any of this. The conflict between Kirk and Decker gets old fast and the conversations among the other characters are tedious and inconsequential to the plot. We’re just along for the dull, protracted ride from earth to the ominous cloud. (By the way, when the principal antagonist in a movie is a cloud, the movie has problems.) The audience is never rewarded for their patience. There’s isn’t any payoff at the end of it. I’m not going to spend time on plot synopsis here (there’s always Wikipedia for that), but suffice it to say that the plot is too thin to carry the film’s weighty pretensions. Again, this concept might have provided enough material for a less memorable episode of the TV show, but it cannot sustain a feature length movie.

But I’m a philosopher, not a film critic (Jim) and usually I can forgive some technical flaws and appreciate a movie’s underlying philosophical ambitions (as with Prometheus). Unfortunately, The Motion Picture, despite it’s 2001-esque aspirations, doesn’t offer much by way of fodder for philosophical reflection. Worse, what it does offer is embarrassingly sophomoric in both philosophical and science fiction terms. The familiar tropes are all here: V’Ger is an entity in search of meaning, having transcended its original programming or teleological function. It seeks to return to the ‘the Creator’ for further instructions. However, as Spock informs it, it must find its own meaning. There is an obvious parallel here between V’Ger and humanity. The humanism that permeates many of Roddenberry’s original Star Trek episodes is back. As human beings, we’ve transcended our biological programming and must find our own meaning independent of the intentions of an alleged creator blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard it all before, and more deftly handled, in any number of sci-fi stories. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this entry. It doesn’t really add to the canon in any discernible way. It’s just another Roddenberry story. Of course, his antipathy toward theism is well known. It can be readily found in several Star Trek episodes, notably “Who Mourns for Adonais?” I don’t have a problem with this aspect of Roddenberry’s work; in fact, I share his humanism — though not his globalist utopianism — to some extent. But this schtick was getting tired even in 1979. Learn a new tune already. However, my criticism is not simply that this premise isn’t particularly original. Stories are told and retold and much of our contemporary fiction is a retelling of ancient mythical tropes that are probably destined to be recycled indefinitely. Roddenberry could have told his humanist parable again in a fresh way; unfortunately, he didn’t.

In conclusion, there’s not much to see here. The best thing about this movie is Jerry Goldsmith’s score that would later become the theme song for TNG. There are a few decent visual effects for the time, I suppose, but nothing that really stands out. The actors slip back into their roles, but they aren’t given much to do. So, I can’t recommend The Motion Picture except to the die-hard Star Trek completionist, who’s no doubt already seen it. In my opinion, this is one of the worst entries in the Star Trek franchise. Fortunately, this early misstep is followed by what is widely considered to be the best of the franchise: The Wrath of Khan. Next time, I’ll talk about that flick in more detail.

Star Trekkin’ Across the Universe

This summer, I’m going to blog my way through all of the Star Trek movies, from The Motion Picture through Into Darkness. I watched them all recently, so I thought it might be fun to review them. I’m not sure I have anything new to add to what’s no doubt already been said about these movies. I’m a Star Trek fan, but I’ve always felt it worked better on TV than it did on the big screen. The movies that work well, for example The Wrath of Khan, are the ones that most closely follow the TV incarnation. Nevertheless, the ones that depart from the TV formula are also interesting for that very reason.

I suppose it’s standard practice for blog projects like this to rank the movies from best to worst. So before I start my reviews proper, I’ll offer my own ranking.

The Wrath of Khan

The Search for Spock

First Contact

The Undiscovered Country

The Final Frontier

Generations

Star Trek (2009)

Nemesis

Into Darkness

The Voyage Home

The Motion Picture

Insurrection

I think I’m solidly with the consensus on The Wrath of Khan being the best of the Star Trek films. More controversial, perhaps, is my relatively high ranking of V and VI and relatively low ranking of the rebooted franchise. In my reviews, I’ll say more about why I’ve ordered the list this way. In the meantime, I’ll reiterate my rule of thumb: the films that most closely capture the spirit of the TV shows  (e.g. Wrath of Khan and First Contact) are better than those that depart from the source material (e.g. Voyage Home and Insurrection) or lean in the direction of self-referential parody (e.g. Into Darkness).

In my next post, I’ll examine Star Trek: The Motion Picture and attempt to justify my second to last ranking. Until then, enjoy this video: