Long consigned to the status of shadowy misfire besides the zippier action-adventure series that the Star Trek film franchise evolved into, Star Trek – The Motion Picture stands, for me, in fascinating contrast in both purpose and reflexes to J.J. Abrams’ popular 2009 reboot. Abrams’ film utilised the tools, tropes, and familiar figures of Gene Roddenberry’s epochal creation to construct a sci-fi adventure film, with rapid-fire pseudo-scientific exposition and vast genre concepts offered, in essence, to decorate that modest genre film. Little sense of scientific or moral curiosity or sense of wonder, beyond the most functional, is overtly apparent or necessary in Abrams’ film: even planetary genocide becomes mere plot element. Star Trek – The Motion Picture, on the other hand, is entirely about those qualities, and it was, and is, generally denigrated for stressing such values over flashier pleasures. Yet Robert Wise, by this point in his career an old master of big-budget studio filmmaking, inherited a project that had proven something of a poisoned chalice in the period after Star Wars initially changed the rulebook for big-screen sci-fi.
The film that finally resulted channeled one major strand of the TV series’ lexicon of basic plots: dissemination of the nature of life and sentience, and a sense of awe at the scale of universal possibility, twinned to a central, Rod Serling-esque parochial irony. At a time when the rest of the Starfleet is elsewhere engaged, a colossal energy field disguising some variety of super-sophisticated vessel advances towards Earth, swallowing hapless Klingons and space stations in its path. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), having been promoted to Admiral and having been kept away from active duty for several years, enthusiastically uses the crisis as an opportunity to take command of his old ship, the USS Enterprise, which has just completed a total refit and still needs many bugs shaken out, to go and meet the enigma. To do so, he has to step on the toes of his younger, blander replacement as Captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and a series of accidents and contrivances draws his former shipmates Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Felly) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) back into the fold.
Wise’s later career had developed a recurring theme engaging man’s relationship to technology. It’s there in Steve McQueen’s relationship with his engine in The Sand Pebbles (1966), and in the grandiose but finally entrapping medical centre in The Andromeda Strain (1970), and even in the stately, doomed glory of the The Hindenburg (1975). It’s tempting to say this was a natural offshoot of Wise’s respect for craft, and partly a pragmatic response to his late-career drift into expensive productions, trying to squeeze the most possible use out of the hefty production infrastructure such movies saddled him with. But this motif also sits comfortably with his long interest in ghost-in-the-machine narratives: the arrant mechanism that throws a plan, a great project, into disarray, the unknowable human factor in the coolly organised system, is apparent even in the psychological horror of The Body Snatcher (1945). Something like a techno-fetishism is inherent here in the lingering scene in which Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) surveys his newly-refitted former home, the Enterprise, with almost erotic longing; later, the film inverts the motif by substituting the distractingly beautiful ship’s navigator Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta, certainly the sexiest bald woman in the history of cinema, although her performance is only adequate, and her subsequent life was rather tragic) for an even more distractingly dressed roboticised replica; and the very conclusion involves the creation of a new life-form through the irreducible blending of the organic and the technological. The
is at first jittery to the point of being deadly: a transporter accident kills two officers, and a later engine imbalance creates a wormhole that nearly sends the ship careening into an asteroid. Kirk’s usual instinctive sense of how to deal with problems is failing him in his need to push events. He needs Spock, interlocutor of the human and alien, inspecifically spiritual and archly scientific, to solve the problem. Enterprise
Spock himself is introduced in an atmospheric sequence on Vulcan in which the intrusion of the alien vessel into his consciousness defeats his efforts to totally purge emotion amongst the stygian, titan-littered landscape of his homeland, looking for all the world like a lost character from Kung Fu. His standing between the sentient yet totally insensitive alien, which calls itself V’ger, and the reactive, intransigent Kirk presents another enigma at first, in his detachment and overriding need to reach the alien, suggesting the possibility to Kirk and McCoy that his desire to meet V’ger, which exists as a proof of an ultimate logic, might supersede loyalty to the crew. An interesting note Wise attempts to sustain is the initial failure of the comradeship associated with the familiar characters and the new personnel on board exacerbates a brittle, alienated tension. If it’s a homecoming for the crew of the
, there are initial signs the family has turned dysfunctional. Shatner’s performance, much more terse and guarded than usual, sets the scene for this, and Nimoy’s distanced, craggy severity extends it most effectively. Enterprise
Yet Spock's journey brings him to a point of recognising the necessity of fellowship and emotion as the values that makes existence bearable, by mind-melding with the alien and learning of its desolate, existential crisis in being a living entity without any capacity for life. V’ger reveals itself to be an expression of yearning: the very core of the massive craft proves to be a paltry ancient piece of technology, a Voyager space probe sent out by Earth to collect data, transformed by a distant, purely mechanical civilisation into a gigantic, super-sophisticated galactic rover that’s become sentient purely by experience, and yet one which cannot escape its basic programming, so its return to Earth is a search for its Creator. Unable to recognise humans as life like itself, proposes to annihilate all such entities to free what it supposes its Creator to be from their rule. It would be a mistake to characterise where all this leads as profound, as it’s all wrapped up in that kind of all’s-well-that-ends-well homily that defined the series, but it does at least keep at its heart a vital sense of curiosity and iridescent possibility. The climactic images of Decker and Ilia entwined by jism-like plasma, transforming along with V’ger through a new kind of sex act into a supra-cyborg that transcends all previous concepts, possesses a kinky, poetic, epic lustre that no entry in the series later dared.
As a story, and a way of telling a story, Star Trek – The Motion Picture bears innate relationship to narrative progression of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and especially The Andromeda Strain as a threat is investigated with cool yet fraying interest by intelligent minds, and the threat proves, if not illusory, but partly misunderstood, and acts of apocalyptic destruction have to be forestalled. Wise therefore brought a coherent sensibility to the handful of science-fiction films he made. The influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is hard to ignore, too. His stately pacing here, so often criticised for slowness, nonetheless attempts to carefully condition a sense of space as mystery, as an expanse of awe and unknowable truth, and an understated yet grandiose kind of tension builds as the film, and the Enterprise, near their destination: Wise’s grip on spectacle is hypnotic in the scenes in which the Enterprise enters and explores the interior of V'ger. That Wise's sensibility meshed with Roddenberry’s in this regard, too, is fortuitous: for both men, the idea, and act, of solving a mystery was inherently intriguing, and the act of emotive rationality finally paramount. The lusher, jauntier, more mythic but less awesome sensibility that Nicholas Meyer and Nimoy brought to their subsequent instalments was more flat-out enjoyable, but finally less intriguing.
Whilst, then, it’s a better film than it generally gets credit for, and an eminently entertaining one, Star Trek – The Motion Picture still fails to work at maximum capacity. The structure doesn’t allow much space to explore the dynamics of a group of once-inseparable comrades rediscovering their vital relationship, and the newer characters don't get much space either. The stiff distractedness of the early scenes is compounded by weirdly uneven special effects by Douglas Trumbull. There's a distinct whiff of unintentional camp value in the scenes where Decker tries to reach the buried human remnant in Ilia’s double, who's returned to the ship wearing a mini-skirt bathrobe and glass slippers, and the "special guest star" nature of his and Khambatta's roles suggests something akin to The Love Boat in Space. Not helping is the drab look of the film, like the amusingly hideous unisex costuming. Many members of the old cast, like Walter Koenig’s Chekhov and Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura, were kept virtually in dry dock for the duration. Ironically, the film really only hits its stride when it comes to a halt before the great enigma of V’ger. Jerry Goldsmith's superb music score, the main theme of which was later recycled for The Next Generation, does on the other hand invest the film with great resonance.