Star Trek: The Motion Picture often gets a lot of flack from Trekkies and non-trekkies alike for being slow-moving, awkward, and unlike the television show it was expected to follow. Fans remember Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock as being much closer to the feel of the show they grew up with, and non-fans remember that a lot more things blew up in those films, which always makes for superior entertainment.
What these people fail to see in The Motion Picture is ambition. The creative team (staff writers, the director, and even the actors) took a beloved and well-anticipated follow-up to the Star Trek legacy and tried to do something more with it (gasp!). TMP gives us ample time to revel in reintroductions. Kirk's five minute glimpse at the exterior of the Enterprise is one such moment which scored major points with the fan base of the day who'd waited ten years to see the Enterprise again (and a much more realistic looking one too!), but which is hard to understand 25 years later, when you can't channel surf for twenty minutes without seeing a variation on The Enterprise in one of the myriad of Star Trek shows that have since been produced.
Indeed, much of the beauty of TMP can only be glimpsed if you're willing to approach it as if the year were 1979, and you'd been waiting ten years to see more Trek. While it's true that a two hour film of William Shattner's butt would similarly seem more pleasing in such a light, I can say with relative assurity that TMP has more to offer (no offense to Mr. Shattner intended).
The special effects are a particularly stunning element of TMP which is now all to easy to gloss over. The new model of the Enterprise, which actually looked real enough to make the overall shape look sort of corny, the warp speed effect (which paved the way for the warp effect we see in Next Generation and later shows), the interior of the energy cloud, and many of the ship sets are highly elaborate, and bring a new sort of credibility to the formerly silly looking world of Trek. Assorted visual effects are disproportionate (sometimes mind-boggling considering the time period, and sometimes looking like they were done with sheets and flashlights), but the new director's cut does a good job of replacing and improving upon the latter.
But most importantly, at the heart of TMP is a sincere desire to evolve Trek. An easy crowd-pleasing film would have found the original crew on their third five year mission, caught up in a war with the Klingons. Yey battles, special effects, and familiar territory! Instead, we're given estranged characters who have grown apart, as well as some (namely Kirk and Spock) who are battling with internal demons that they've never had to face before. These characters are darker and less prone to smiling than they had been before. This complexity is more likely to be appreciated by a fan who is familiar with these characters and would notice the change. Unfortunately, stubborn fans still miss the point, lamenting that this is not the same old Kirk and Spock doing the same old song and dance.
Perhaps most risky is the plot, itself. Rather than a clear-cut storyline, in which the characters are faced with a problem that involves conflict, struggle, and ultimately a master plan, TMP centers around a vague and undefined threat that slowly and barely maliciously unveils itself, appealing more to reactions of the mind than of the gut. The two final realizations (what V'ger is, and what V'ger wants) are similarly brilliant, standing out amongst some of science-fiction's best twist endings.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not a perfect film. The look of the film is a bit odd, with atrocious colors, contrasts, and uniforms, clearly reminiscent of Alien (1979) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), two of the three major sci-fi pictures that proceeded TMP. Both were also horror films, and their uses of visual styles were intended to create discomfort and a sense of foreboding. These visuals and their corresponding emotions are grossly inappropriate on the starship Enterprise, cherished home to our protagonists.
Similarly odd is the introduction and presence of Commander Decker and Lieutenant Eileya, two left-overs from the unproduced second Star Trek television series, who seem to have no place in this film. An inappropriate amount of time is given to introducing these utterly flat characters, as well as their relationship to one another, when neither contributes much to the film, aside from one being used as a pawn by V'ger. V'ger might as well have used a random ensign. Decker finally manages to get a crucial moment at the end of the film. However, based upon the clues and character momentum building since the start of the film, Spock would have been a more logical choice for this role. It certainly would have given more impact to the ending.
Of course, then we wouldn't have a Spock left to kill off in Wrath of Khan.
Finally, some of the music cues in this film are disasterous. While TMP features some sensational scoring, including the new Star Trek theme (which will eventually become the Next Generation theme), and a stunning love theme, both themes are reused ad nauseum, especially when the love theme pops up while Kirk leaves the enterprise in a space suit, looking for Spock. Perhaps the fan fics about those two were on to something?
Worse yet, instead of a theme, V'ger gets a simple haunting sound that could be best described as an electronic "boom". While terrifying and alien at first, the "boom" is quickly over-used, becoming comical as it's played on a beat every single time something new about V'ger is discovered. "Captian, I believe there's a craft within that cloud" (boom!). "V'Ger seeks the Creator" (boom!). This gets quite funny after a while.
All in all, however, the director's cut does an excellent job compensating for these flaws in judgement whenever possible. Rambling scenes are trimmed, odd and unnecessary scenes about the new lieutenant's chastity are (mostly) omitted, and minor details are subtly improved. Unfortunately, the new cut continues to leave out several short but key moments omitted in the original film version but later included in the made-for-TV edit. Decker's comment about creating God in one's own image is most clearly missing in this version.
To rap up a rather lengthly review, this is not the film to see if you're just in the mood to catch up with Kirk and the gang. Any of the other films could be considered far more trivial and light-hearted; far more fitting for the original series tone. This is neither a film for Trekkies nor for new-comers looking for easy entertainment. This is a complex thinking film, and it requires an understanding of the time, place, and audience for which the film was made. Clocking in at 136 minutes, it also requires a healthy attention-span. But if you can bring all that to a viewing of this film, you will not be disappointed.
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