'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' is the most beautiful 'Trek' film, and the least human
Entertainment Geekly's 'Star Trek' series begins with a partial defense of the weird first film
Star Trek turns 50 this year. It is the most important of the great pop culture franchises, maybe, the first realized vision of a cross-platform fictionalized universe. There are long-running narrative ideas that predate Trek‘s 1966 TV debut, sure: James Bond, Middle-Earth, Godzilla, Spider-Man, Superman, Sherlock Holmes. But the Star Trek half-century is the half-century of fandom, canon, mythology, spin-offs, young faces growing old across sequels and reboots. It is the age that fandom took over the movie industry – or the age of the movie industry co-opting fandom. Consider: The other franchises had to come to Hollywood. Trek started here – to the south, in Culver City, at Desilu Productions, rescued from development oblivion because Lucille Ball had serious sway.
If you want to understand everything fascinating about our movie moment – the push and pull between fans and creators, between beloved actors and the characters who define them, between the executives with all the money and the creators with all the ideas, between the demand for more of what has already worked and the constant need to set off in bold new directions, between the infinite creative possibilities of special effects and the infinite destructive possibilities of special effects – you need to understand Star Trek. It is the miracle of modern entertainment.
Star Trek turns 50 this year. It is the most inessential of the great pop culture franchises, maybe, forever chasing the stylistic advances of younger upstart entertainments, forever entrapped in narrative tropes and hackneyed philosophy, a vision of the future long past. Once progressive in vision, the franchise turned conservative in its desperate curation. In Trek, you see the beginning of the Faustian bargain between fan and executive – between the person who wants more of the same, and the person unwilling to try anything new – that would transform genre storytelling from the fascinating fringe into the vanilla mainstream. In Trek, you see the end of science fiction as a venue for ideas; the never-ending birth of remake culture; you can pinpoint the moment when every movie needed to be an action movie.
If you want to understand everything depressing about our movie moment – how every movie is an advertisement for another movie, how the most expensive films in history have less emotional impact than a middling episode of Better Call Saul, how directors became crossing guards, how actors became spokespeople, why a Pulitzer Prize-winning author is working on the Hasbro Cinematic Universe – you have to understand Star Trek. It is the downward spiral, the totalitarian Mirror Universe. It is modern entertainment’s original sin.
There is no simple way to understand Star Trek. There are high highs and low lows. There is canon and fanon, a general sense that continuity doesn’t matter running alongside a fierce protection of holy canon. There are arguments: Kirk vs Picard, Deep Space Nine vs everything, Voyager was secretly brilliant the whole time, J.J. saved Trek, J.J. ruined Trek.
Best to focus in, I think. On July 22, the 13th Star Trek movie will arrive in theaters. If Star Trek Beyond is awful, it still might not be the worst Star Trek movie. If Beyond is fantastic, it still might not be the best Star Trek movie. Trek cinema is all over the map: Thrilling, boring, experimental, primitive, expensive, shoestring. Maybe Star Trek should only be a TV show. (A new one arrives 2017.) Maybe Star Trek should only be about an Enterprise. Maybe it should just end. Maybe we’re just beginning. Every week from now until Beyond, we’ll look closely at one of the movies, in chronological order from Kirk to Picard to Kirk again. Hopefully, we’ll understand more at the end.
There are some moments in Star Trek: The Motion Picture that are so beautiful – serene, cosmic, passionately alive with the possibility of The Infinite. You want to cry, you don’t know why. There are planetscapes and solaric abstractions and effervescent fugue-core incoherence rippling across electric oceans. The villain in The Motion Picture is one such abstraction: A demi-god vapor-planet of unknown origin and unknowable purpose. It is the first thing we see in the movie, and we never really see it at all.
In the first scene of The Motion Picture, three Klingon ships approach the cloud. In 1979, a Star Trek fan would have recognized the design of the Klingon ships. But things would have also looked different, to that diehard Trek fan. The camera follows the ships move across the stars – the kind of special effect that was practically impossible when Star Trek was on TV.
The Klingons are different, too: more alien, with makeup and forehead prosthetics. The subtext could be understood by a child: Star Trek is now $tar Trek!. And things sound better, too. The Motion Picture opens with the new Star Trek theme by Jerry Goldsmith, one of the greatest and most instantly recognizable musical cues in the last four decades. And the first scene is set to Goldsmith’s Klingon Battle Theme. That track might actually be better than Goldsmith’s theme tune, the way John Williams’ “The Imperial March” is deeper, richer, funnier, more dramatic than the Star Wars main theme.
The Motion Picture needs you to know that it’s a movie, by god. It’s right there in the title: “The Motion Picture,” a phrase connoting something bigger, better, more official, maybe even more pure than all that had come before. (You can feel an implication: Wouldn’t Star Trek be even better on the big screen?)
Today, “The Motion Picture” is a meaningless title. It runs along another outdated idea: That movies are fundamentally better than television. Almost four decades on, TV is more like movies, and movies are more like TV. And – roll with me, please – “motion pictures” stopped being A Thing You Watch and started being Your Life And How You Express Yourself. Your ten-year-old nephew makes motion pictures. Your ten-year-old nephew films from better angles than Robert Wise.
Wise directed The Motion Picture. He is one of perhaps twenty people who you could say saved Star Trek, and he is one of perhaps thirty who you could say almost destroyed Star Trek. (The lists overlap. Gene Roddenberry’s on both, at the top.) But if you allow for some wide wiggle room in your definition of “authorship,” all the best motion pictures in The Motion Picture comes from Douglas Trumbull.
Trumbull was a special-effects guy, worked on some of the most famous sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey, was just finishing Close Encounters of the Third Kind, would soon craft the neon gritworlds of Blade Runner. An impressive run, and one that maybe Trumbull himself only appreciates as a complimentary prize from fate. In the early ’70s, Trumbull directed Silent Running, a Big Idea space thinker that earned the kind of negative money cult sensations always earn.
Trumbull only agreed to do The Motion Picture out of spite. Paramount was in a jam; he was on contract to them; they needed him; he wanted nothing to do with Paramount ever again. So he agreed to finish the movies’ special effects on a tight turnaround, on the condition that he would never have to work with Paramount again. He worked his team hard – in his own telling, Trumbull wound up in the hospital for two weeks, exhausted. Working alongside onetime protégé John Dykstra (who created some of the most memorable effects in Star Wars) and much of the Close Encounters team, Trumbull the weirdest and gorgeous and often wildly incongruous visions ever seen in a science fiction movie.
Much of it looks unreal, like this early shot of Planet Vulcan, rendered across matte paintings and smoke effects and the tease of rockform gargantuans. Who knows how this played in 1979, so soon after Star Wars imagined alien planets as real on-location set-ups in Tunisia and Guatemala.
In the best and maybe most despised sequence from The Motion Picture, the Starship Enterprise enters the godcloud, and, for 10 minutes, we see an interior that seems to hold the cosmos. It’s the closest thing to a tesseract ever caught on film: The deeper we go, the more there is.
There’s a shot in this sequence that may be the single most stunning image ever captured in a Star Trek project. Maybe that doesn’t matter as much as we think; maybe the franchise only gets worse when the people involved think “stunning images” are what define Star Trek. But, toward the end of this journey inwards, the camera pulls back to what a cinematographer might call a “Cosmically Extreme Long Shot,” and we see the great starship Enterprise, a tiny speck on this monster’s horizon.
Later, Spock puts on a spacesuit and goes on his own private journey through what you can only safely describe as a cosmic vaginal endoscape. The cutting strategy is familiar to anyone who saw 2001: Spock’s face, something crazy, Spock’s face, something crazy. At the end of Spock’s journey, there is a woman – Ilia, but it doesn’t matter, names don’t matter in The Motion Picture, nothing any person does really matters. We know that’s not the real woman; she’s back on the Enterprise, or some version of her is.
But Spock is tantalized. To the extent that any character has a “journey” in The Motion Picture, Spock has been seeking something the whole movie. A higher state of consciousness, maybe? He seems to find it here, in this glowing representation of WOMAN. An unearthly glow encompasses him, erasing his face from our sight. He reaches out his hands – to mindmeld, to know.
The mindmeld blasts Spock backwards. The effect is, no other way of saying this, orgasmic. Spock describes the strange thoughts he experienced, inside the creature’s brain. “Is this all I am?” he says. “Is there nothing more?”
The Motion Picture‘s monster is in the midst of an existential crisis, it turns out. It was a computer, created by man – Voyager 7 6, or “V’GER,” a satellite sent out to the stars. In the stars, it found more computers, which gave it inconceivable power. It has seen everything now – and, in achieving total cosmic awareness, it has also achieved sentience. It lives: So what?
In The Motion Picture, the “what now” is… well, sex. Or togetherness. Or the awareness of other life. Or the knowledge that we live only so that we can create other things that live. It’s all a bit abstract – but don’t Zen Buddhists seem pretty happy? The movie ends with Ilia and Decker – another nothing character, they might as well be named Eve and Adam, Woman and Man, Thing One and Thing Two – bonding with the cloud-thing. The climactic image of them – receiving enlightenment? ascending to a higher state? dying? being reborn? – is one of the silliest and most transcendent special effects shots ever.
“I think we gave it the ability to create its own sense of purpose,” concludes SpockKirk. You might point out, rightly, that “creating a sense of purpose” is not the most dramatic concept for a movie. You might also point out, just as rightly, that “creating a sense of purpose” is the central experience of humanity. How do you put such a vague but universal experience onscreen? How do you conjure up the fear that there is no purpose? Maybe you need a new language, something beyond words. Cinema, or whatever cinema used to be.
Decades later, Wise worked on a special cut of The Motion Picture. It was released with added digital effects – not the first time a major moment in Trek history happened because of Star Wars, not the last time a terrible moment in Trek history happened because of Star Wars. That special cut adds in a few shots that seem to clearly identify what V’Ger looks like. This is helpful only if you think that incoherence was The Motion Picture‘s problem, and not its saving grace. The first Star Trek film has almost no real story, and the characters are only “characters” because we know their names and faces from a long-dead TV show. But you could spend a long time pondering the image of the Enterprise, dwarfed and surrounded by V’Ger.
You wonder what it must have been like, to see that on a big screen. You wonder what it must have felt like, to only see motion pictures on the big screen. You wonder, above all, what it was like to feel so small in the universe.
The Motion Picture depends on you loving space – and I mean “space” both ways, as in “everything outside of Earth” and as in “height and depth and width and distance.” In 2016, nobody pays much attention to outer space, except as one more piece of nostalgiabait trending curiosity. (Is Pluto still not a planet?) And maybe we don’t pay as much attention to the other definition of space: What does distance mean, to digital natives?
So The Motion Picture is beloved by film theorists and special effects nerds and people who treat marijuana as a sacrament. But in 2016, special effects are too common – and marijuana too legal – to feel sacred.
Kirk looks at the Enterprise for the first time around minute 16 of The Motion Picture, and doesn’t stop until minute 23. Kirk and Scotty are riding a little shuttle to their ship, and that ride takes seven minutes of screen time. It is slow, and nothing “happens,” unless you love Douglas Trumbull’s special effects and Jerry Goldsmith’s music, unless you can groove onto the idea that “Looking” is an active state. (Wrath of Khan is to The Motion Picture as The Motion Picture is to Solaris.)
Kirk’s returning to the old ship after years behind a desk. He ascended from the captain’s chair to become, ahem “Chief of Starfleet Operations.” One of the many accidental gags in The Motion Picture‘s nonsense script is that Kirk must have been truly terrible at operating Starfleet. There is a giant killer gas cloud coming towards Earth – and “the only starship in interception range is the Enterprise.” The only starship? Isn’t Earth, like, the center of Starfleet Operations? Wouldn’t this be, like, the Joint Chiefs saying, “We’ve only got one fighter jet defending Washington!”)
Kirk is out of practice. “You haven’t logged a single star hour in two years!” declares Commander Decker, the man who would have been in charge of the Enterprise if Kirk hadn’t unretired himself. Decker is played by Stephen Collins, with retroactively creepy blandness. There is a ghost of a good idea here, the whole DNA of Wrath of Khan: What if Kirk is too old for this? But part of the strangeness of The Motion Picture is that the special effects sequences are vivid, mad with pulsating power – and the scenes with human beings are void, stilted, static. Wise shoots with wide angles and deep focus, so you can appreciate how full this Enterprise is of humans standing immobile, unresponsive.
Wise had a huge budget, and so he built huge sets, each less compelling than the last. The Enterprise‘s Rec Room looks as playful as a prison cell, and the observation lounge allows crew members to sit on asylum sofas and contemplate the eternal void.
You could say that the whole problem of Star Trek – or a problem that many brilliant creators and actors have grappled with – is how stilted the core ethos of the franchise is, on narrative and visual levels. Star Trek must have a cast of characters who obey authority and work together. Everyone’s an officer in some codified organized military or other. Everyone wears a uniform. Because most of the action happens with the main characters on “The Bridge,” most of the climactic sequences in Star Trek history happen with all our heroes sitting down.
Wise does not try to bring life to this structure. He doesn’t send the crew into a fistfight, doesn’t blow up the ship, doesn’t ram spaceships into each other. He does send a couple characters out into space – but they don’t fire lasers at anyone. Late in the long first act, Dr. McCoy arrives on the Enterprise, and Kirk asks him for help. Look at how Shatner insistently extends his hand; that is the closest Kirk comes to an action scene in The Motion Picture.
Maybe the problem was Roddenberry. The creator of Star Trek spent the decade after Star Trek trying to bring back Star Trek. He would not let it die. You think of George Miller, returning to create the perfect Mad Max 30 years later. Or maybe you think of George Lucas, who returned to the saga he created with no clear sense of what made the saga work so well. Or maybe you think of other people – Chris Carter? Roger Kumble? Anyone on Fuller House who isn’t John Stamos? – returning to the most popular item on a long-dormant IMDb page.
Roddenberry was devoted to Star Trek, but he carried the blame for all the perceived faults of The Motion Picture. This is the only Trek film Roddenberry really worked on. History repeats: Years later, Roddenberry was booted from The Next Generation. Mythology holds that Roddenberry’s utopian vision was the antithesis of drama. So in The Motion Picture, Decker is only ever mildly upset with Kirk, and Kirk is only ever mildly concerned about Spock.
The film can’t even commit to a lack of emotion. One of Ilia’s first terrible lines is, “My oath of celibacy is on the record, Captain.” Soon, celibate Ilia is transformed into an emotionless robot – two different layers of Spocklike indifference! But Ilia can’t keep her eyes off love interest Decker, and Decker can’t stop smiling at her. Here again, another ghost of a good idea – what if Kirk Junior had to romance Lady Spock for the good of the cosmos! – but the outcome is never in doubt, the drama never dangerous.
Roddenberry was a utopianist. He believed in the best ideas about humanity getting along. This is the beautiful thing about Star Trek, and it is why people who love Star Trek get nervous whenever some new Star Trek thing tries to be dark, or less-than-hopeful. It strikes me that the vision of Starfleet in The Motion Picture is as close as Roddenberry ever got to a pure utopia. Everyone is so… serene. Everyone is so… peaceful. Everyone is so… bland. George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig are only in the movie to smile at Kirk.
Kubrick’s big joke in 2001 was that the computer was more human than the humans. That’s another accidental joke in The Motion Picture. Shatner, dangerously toned-down, seems more Vulcan than the Vulcan. The Enterprise crew listens patiently to Kirk giving commands, follows orders. Spock pursues great knowledge, with no ambition or thirst. He seeks cosmic transcendence with all the exhausted energy of a TSA officer opening her 31st carry-on of the day, knowing there’s probably nothing inside but a toenail clipper and a forgotten half-empty water bottle.
The Motion Picture has a simple problem: It’s too goddamn slow. Every other Star Trek film is, in some way, a reaction against that complaint. But the slowness creates the great parts of The Motion Picture – those long moments of sound and image, unencumbered by plot or character or even dialogue. You could argue that The Motion Picture is 2001 for Dummies, or the misbegotten mash-up of 2001 and Star Wars with placeholders where characters should be.
But The Motion Picture is reaching for something no other Trek film has even tried to reach for. It is Head-Trip science fiction, Big Question science fiction. No one involved can think of a compelling way to dramatize those questions. Surely there was a way, though! You think of “Balance of Terror,” one of the greatest of all Star Trek stories. “Balance of Terror” is a bottle episode about people in one set trying to outthink people on another set. Like a lot of great original series episodes, it might as well have a declarative title: “THIS IS ABOUT THE COLD WAR.” The characters have no psychology: They exist as mouthpieces for thought-notions, “Let’s shoot first,” “Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt,” “We can’t trust anyone,” “We need to trust someone.” The narrative is Socratic, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Not every fight needs to be choreographed.
Could The Motion Picture have worked like that, as a thoughtful exploration? It still almost does, even if everyone besides DeForest Kelley looks bored. There’s no other film like it – besides maybe Final Frontier (more on that in four weeks). So The Motion Picture is a fascinating curio. There are better Treks, but they’re smaller, too, and maybe less ambitious. This could be the last Star Trek ever. Will anyone ever even try to write the last Star Trek?
Further sign of the cognitive dissonance that powers The Motion Picture: The special effects are colorful, neon-dark against the infinite, and the clothes are beige, gray, light brown, and off-white. The clothes look like furniture, the furniture looks like clothes. These are the shortest-lived of the Trek uniforms, and the extras all look like they’re wearing pajamas. I am not sure we will ever be in a moment like this again: One of the most expensive movies of the year takes for granted that you want to see middle-aged men wear V-necks.
But, devil’s advocate: The Motion Picture uniforms are the only Star Trek costumes that look made for comfort. They are loose, turtlenecks and sweatshirts, onesies, shirts that don’t ever get tucked in. Witness the Holy Trinity in slanket-chic.
The grand exception is Ilia, played by Persis Khambatta. An Indian model with silent-cinema eyes, Khambatta was cast as Ilia when The Motion Picture was going to be a new TV show, and her character only just barely transitioned to the feature film, with the barest whisp of a backstory and a kinda-nude scene. Captured and reprogrammed by V’Ger, Ilia returns to the Enterprise in a barely-there bathrobe with a cowl and high heels – a clear sign that V’Ger is much kinkier than the movie allows.
WORTH NOTING FOR FUTURE FRANCHISE REFERENCE:
The first lens flare in any Star Trek film occurs about 35 minutes into the original theatrical cut. You can see it floating next to Sulu’s head. This was almost certainly a mistake brought on by Wise’s abject love for unnecessary camera trickery. But penicillin was a mistake, too.
THE ENTIRE MOVIE IN ONE SHOT:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture