Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Short Take: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.


Star Trek has been described as the middle ground between the unabashed pulp fantasy of Star Wars and the philosophical science fiction of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1979, the initial TV series received an upgrade to feature-film status with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The filmmakers, namely producer Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Wise, were clearly eager to identify it with the 2001 end of the genre spectrum. They went ridiculously overboard. The story takes place a few years after the end of the television series. A massive, destructive, and apparently omnipotent alien entity is making its way towards Earth. The Star Trek crew’s ship, the Enterprise, is the only vessel in range to intercept it. This is a solid premise for a science-fiction adventure film, but the picture is too bloated with its own sense of importance to be entertaining. Action scenes are kept to a minimum, and the story seems less about drama than pseudo-philosophical blather, such as questions about the nature of one’s relationship to the Creator, the quest for knowledge’s role in the meaning of existence, and so forth. These never go anywhere worthwhile, and their conceit is insufferable. The screenplay, credited to Harold Livingston and Alan Dean Foster, also has little feel for the character relationships that helped define the TV show. A central dynamic was of the man-of-action Captain Kirk (William Shatner) finding a middle ground between his two main lieutenants, the cold, logic-minded Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the passionate, emotion-driven ship’s doctor (DeForest Kelley). That’s all but gone, and the other series regulars (James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig) are little more than extras. Like 2001, the film seeks to end on a moment of lofty existential transcendence, but it’s reactionary rather than hopeful--the threat has been contained--and it seems ridiculously pretentious. The film clearly follows 2001’s lead with other elements, and at times it’s blatantly derivative. One example is the leisurely, symphonic-music scored piece of sightseeing around an immense spacecraft; another is a prolonged effects-laden “Stargate” sequence. The film also mimics 2001’s slow, deliberate rhythms. However, the effect here is tedium; there’s none of the grandeur that 2001’s director, Stanley Kubrick, was able to evoke. The picture was poorly received, and it proved a false start for the movie franchise. The series wouldn’t begin in earnest until the second installment, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The only thing introduced that proved worth keeping was Jerry Goldsmith’s magisterial score. The cast also includes Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta. The cinematography is by Richard H. Kline. Douglas Trumbull oversaw the special effects.

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