Star Trek: The Motion Picture

STtmpStar Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979, 132 mins, 4K UHD 

Looking back on it, I’m tempted to suggest -sweeping over-generalisation that it is- that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a pretty clear marker of the old giving way to the new. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the feel of Old Hollywood, of creative teams more used to making westerns and crime thrillers suddenly getting scripts featuring aliens and spaceships. There’s a sense of people suddenly making sci-fi films with no interest in such genre material, and little affinity for it – indeed, at a time when such material was considered the realm of the cheap b-movie quickie. The days of genre fans/geeks who grew up loving the stuff then making genre films would still be a few years away, but already with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg the changing times were clear: post-Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood was still in transition, and the old guard hadn’t yet been replaced by the geeks. So Hollywood sci-fi was still Logan’s Run, The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. 

In the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that’s possibly its strength. It feels like a serious (albeit often misguided, at times) attempt to make a great ‘Motion Picture!’ back when that still meant something (today any distinction of quality between television and cinema is largely gone). Its not played for laughs, there’s no dodgy sets, there’s no geek in-jokes and surprisingly low-key fan-service if any at all (I suspect much of what we’d identify today as ‘fan-service’ in the film is actually incidental). It’s not 2001, and neither is it Star Wars, but rather it sits somewhere in between, in a place few genre films have dared position themselves (maybe Interstellar would be a modern example). I am endlessly surprised whenever I re-watch the film over the years, just how refreshing it is, and enjoyable.

Indeed, having recently read Robert Preston Jones’ superlative oral history of the film, Return to Tomorrow, I’m actually more surprised than ever that the film even got finished and in sufficient shape to be considered a film at all. Its possibly a textbook lesson of how NOT to make a film. The script wasn’t finished when they were shooting the live-action, the director and actors were cooking up the finale on the fly: imagine making a film like Ben-Hur and making the last reel on-set without a script (it wasn’t quite that bad, but not far off- I’m always amazed at films going into production without finished scripts but it continues to happen). The original effects team was great on ideas but lousy at execution, wasting millions of dollars in research and most importantly wasting priceless time. Once that effects team was largely dismissed (albeit most of the staff rehired), the deadline that Douglas Trumbull and his team/s were faced with, the task left them regards its scope and the visual effects it needed, back in that era of physical miniatures, lighting and motion-control rigs and photo-chemical printing… its mind-boggling.

The pacing is obviously the film’s biggest problem, something not helped by many visual effects shots hanging around too long or sequences being overloaded with just too many of them. Its tempting to suggest that Wise and/or the editor Todd Ramsay became too enamoured by all the expensive effects shots coming in at the eleventh hour but the simple truth is, the shots were all coming in very late (Preston’s book has some timeline stuff that is just jaw-dropping regards when models became available and filming happened and elements arrived at the optical printer etc) and they never had the perspective we have with the finished film- hence the justification of the Directors Cut. But considering how late everything was… its amazing that Jerry Goldsmith’s score was so good (in my mind the composers very best) and maybe having to cut the film to the timing estimates handed to Goldsmith which he scored the music to… well, little wonder the film’s pacing is dodgy.

The odd thing about this which bugs me, is when Trumbull and everyone got together with the script and storyboards, why didn’t they cut some of those boards? I find it hard to understand why, with effects teams working alternate day/nights shifts in at least three facilities working twelve to sixteen-hour days labouring over really difficult shots to unrealistic schedules, they didn’t rip up more of those boards. The Epsilon 9 and Orbital Office Complex sequences are obvious examples, featuring too many shots. The Orbital Office Complex is a lovely miniature and beautifully photographed, but do we need to see so many shots of its exterior before cutting to the interior and Kirk arriving? Clearly nobody could ‘see’ that so much of it would be redundant or could have been culled to allow more time and resources on stuff that really mattered. I suppose its a technology thing, nowadays films have CGI storyboards, and I recall ILM shot animatics as a guide for The Empire Strikes Back to help nail the pacing of effects shots/sequences like the Hoth battle.

But nonetheless, I still enjoy watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Many much prefer the second entry, Wrath of Khan, but for me there is always something special about the first. They aimed for greatness and largely failed but you have to admire that they tried, and watching it I often have a little mischevious fun berating the suits that enforced an unrealistic deadline agreed with theatres, and all the production cock-ups and crashing egos behind the scenes. Maybe this year’s version of the Directors Cut will indeed finally be the film it could/should have been; we’ll just have to wait and see…. (and yes, likely have to buy this film yet AGAIN).  So it seems I’m not quite finished writing about this film…

5 thoughts on “Star Trek: The Motion Picture

  1. As a young Trek fan I loved this just because it was a new adventure with a better budget. Enjoyable enough but not great. However over time it has aged well. Khan is still the best of all Star Trek films but The Motion Picture, thanks to the passage of time, is not too far behind. It is not without its flaws but a very good effort.

    I agree with you on the need to cut shots. I think they were trying to out Star Wars, well, Star Wars.

    1. Its a funny thing; immediately after Star Wars came out, every sci-fi film felt the need to have lots of effects shots and didn’t know when to cut them- missing the point that Star Wars really wasn’t effects shot followed by effects shot followed by effects shot- that didn’t arise until Lucas came back with his prequel trilogy. But certainly there was a time when lots of space films started with miniature spaceships passing overhead- its about the only thing that dates Alien, that tracking shot of the Nostromo passing overhead. In the case of ST:TMP, because they had three effects facilities cooking serious overtime doing three of four years work inside ten months, the effects budget was colossal and they likely felt indebted to use most everything they got.

      I shall be watching Wrath of Khan in 4K shortly, I haven’t seen the film for several years and am fascinated to see what I think of it.

  2. Pingback: Wrath of the creditors – the ghost of 82

  3. Matthew McKinnon

    Tat box alert for the DC 4K.
    I think I’ll pass, as it’ll just go up in the loft and I won’t actually watch the TV edit.

    1. Agh, I feel a ranting post of mine coming on. I was glad we were getting the DC 4K on disc at all, but didn’t think they’d stretch to a tat box. It amazes me how the consensus seems to reshaping ST:TMP as some unappreciated classic. I mean, its always been my own favourite but I recall well all the ‘Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture” criticism over the years and how it was acknowledged by all the wise that Wrath of Khan that ‘saved Trek.’ Now they release this huge box of love for this classic?

      Standard edition for me. I must admit I had a smirk at them releasing the tv edit as a Special Long Version bonus disc exclusive to the tat box. Those marketing boys can sell anything.

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