To celebrate the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, the Flickering Myth writing team look back at the classic sci-fi franchise. Kicking off Star Trek Month is Matt Smith with a review of Star Trek: The Motion Picture….
The first time I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the whole experience seemed to be over pretty quickly. Pressed play and before you knew it, it was over. Not because it was a whirlwind of a movie. I got called into work about eight seconds into the movie starting.
So, I tried again. I re-watched what I’d already seen, not wanting to skip ahead in case I’d forgotten something important, and was confronted with a blank screen and music. My TV seemed to be broken. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘my TV seems to be broken’ (I think in such scintillating prose). Turns out it was a minute and a half musical intro, played out before anything even appears on screen. This gives way to a bombastic set of opening credits. The film owes Jerry Goldsmith, not just because of the soundtrack he provides, but also for giving the film a leg up before the story has even started.
After that, most of our group of space age explorers are all reunited pretty quickly. Kirk (William Shatner) retakes command of his beloved starship, swiftly reaffirming his cockiness even when the Earth only has three days to be saved. This is Shatner at his most Shatner. He takes command of the frame, even when sat down. This isn’t always for the best, however. It’s almost as if Kirk is too busy to react to things happening, because Shatner is concentrating on acting. His non-expressive ‘oh no’ after seeing two people die in the transporter problem also found in Galaxy Quest decades later being a prime example. His manner of speech is unusual, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s attention grabbing. And when I was imitating him earlier I suddenly realised I was doing Adam West in his Batman years. Imagine the conversation between those two heroes of the 60s…
I’m probably being too hard on him though. I’ve never been the biggest fan of the all out hero, especially when there’s a curmudgeon around to moan. Enter: Bones (DeForest Kelley). The instant he’s on screen is a delight, just for the humour he brings to the character. In his own way, Bones is a little like us. Not enough energy to be the hero, can get a little cranky, but ultimately he wants in and wants to enjoy the adventures laid out before him. He also just sort of hangs around, not doing much. Maybe that’s just me.
But back to the movie. Or rather, even further back. The TV show this was based on is an allegory for what was going on at the time, in terms of politics, racism and beyond. That’s what makes the original such a cultural landmark, in that it entertained people with wacky adventures while also commenting on issues of the day. With people’s fears of technology (see also, Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey), this movie could also be seen as a contemporary commentary. The antagonists are creatures made of sentient technology, who don’t recognise humans as life. But instead of giving us fear of technology, the movie comments on how we, as creators, are the ones who can provide answers and use what we’ve created to become more evolved. Humans have always used tools. You’re using one just to read this right now.
Where is also has similarities to the original series is in story. Unfortunately for this movie, there’s a whole lot of not much going on. This would be fine, if it were a story focused on the meditation of mankind exploring space. But this is Star Trek, with a plot that starts off with a rushed expedition to save Earth. Given there’s not a lot of time, I never felt any of the characters were feeling the pressure to move quickly and get things done.
It felt like a feature length episode, stretched to feature length with a bigger budget and padding. Even Spock’s emergency space suit launcher (that’s what I’m calling it, and I stick by that name) has an emergency procedure that laboriously details instructions on what to do in case of the emergency which, you must presume, the character is in the middle of right now. Therefore, it is the most useless piece of emergency equipment ever created. Imagine a fire hose that wouldn’t start before you’d read the instructions, even if you were a fireman with twenty years experience.
What did improve, as to be expected coming so long after the original TV series and with a bigger budget, are the effects. The models, the backgrounds, they’re all joyous things to see. They wouldn’t hold up in this day and age of Krakens and Jar Jar Binks, but for a movie made over thirty years ago? Fantastic. And which would you rather watch, given the choices above? It’s not kitschy, it’s genuinely fantastic in this regard. The visuals, from the unveiling of the Enterprise, to the wormhole effects on the crew (they get waylaid a few seconds into their journey. Imagine that), to the model building. The dragging on form of pacing is made a little better because it’s all so nice to look at. Except the costumes, unfortunately, which just baffle me. What doesn’t look bland is just strange.
As a whole, it never takes itself too seriously, dealing with heavy issues (humans as, essentially, God, what happens after you die, humanity’s future) in a light hearted fashion. If this story were made today (not J.J. Abrams’ reboots, but the story found in The Motion Picture), Kirk would be angst filled, Spock would have a nervous breakdown when it comes to his identity and Bones would probably fit in. The key to the original was that it never tried too hard to be about something, meaning the messages the episodes and this movie convey are much easier to absorb.
Overall, like the minute and a half introduction music, Star Trek: The Motion Picture sounds great and has a lot going for it, but perhaps drags on a bit too much. But considering it had the job of turning a famous TV series into a famous series of movies, it does excellently in keeping the cultural milestone of Star Trek as a whole going, and is a great first step on the road to all the stories audiences enjoyed in the years to come with Kirk and co.
Star Trek Month continues tomorrow with Villordsutch reviewing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…