Sunday, April 19, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Note: We're doing something a little different here. With the release of JJ Abrams' revitalized Star Trek just a few weeks away, I thought it might be fun to stroll down memory lane with the movie Treks that preceded it, starting with 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture and working forward through the nine (!!) sequels. All of this will, hopefully, provide some helpful context once Trek '09 finally hits. Let's see how we do!

"The Human Adventure is Just Beginning"

Thus was the first silver screen adventure of the USS Enterprise proudly trumpeted by Paramount Pictures in time for its Christmas '79 premiere. I beat Star Trek: The Motion Picture into the world by only a few months, so I wasn't around to experience what it must have felt like for the die hards.

Here was Star Trek, reborn on the big screen in the post-2001, post-Star Wars age of special effects, all under the auspices of series creator Gene Roddenberry as producer and the direction of Robert Wise, who'd already done sci-fi "right" with 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still. Finally, the devotion they'd shown to their beloved series for the ten year dry spell (well, except for the cartoon show) would be borne out. Or would it?

It's easy in 2009 to think of Star Trek as something that's been part of the cultural and pop-cultural landscape for so long that, four years since the last TV show ended, seven years since the last movie, even when it's gone it's not really gone. But back then it was just a little-watched oddity featuring funny costumes and arch acting that had, a decade prior, coughed and gasped its way through three seasons and seventy-nine episodes before NBC finally put it out of its ratings-starved misery.

Who could have predicted that TV syndication would imbue Star Trek with unprecedented immortality, and that forty-some years after its premiere, the original TV run is merely starting gate for a property whose monetarily value reaches easily into the billions, and whose newest big screen offering is only the latest notch in a multimedia franchise that's gone where no blah, blah, you know the rest.

Viewing The Motion Picture three decades hence, acknowledging but separating it from the flow of history that followed in its wake, it becomes clear how much of a desperate gamble it was on the part of its parent studio to try and tap some of the Star Wars mojo that, just two years prior, had given Twentieth Century Fox a license to print money. More than anything, the feeling one gets from re-watching the firs movie Trek is one of schizophrenia; It's sometimes uplifting, sometimes ponderous, and sometimes just plain disjointed.

As conceived by Roddenberry along with sci-fi writer Alan Dean Foster, Star Trek: The Motion Picture concerns a mysterious energy cloud making its way through space, destroying everything in its path and (naturally) headed directly towards Earth. Into this mix comes Admiral James T. Kirk, two-and-a-half years removed from his time captaining the USS Enterprise through five years of outer space derring-do (of which we only saw three, of course).

Kirk uses the impending threat to Earth as his impetus to take command of the bright and shiny, refitted Enterprise away from its new captain, Willard Decker (7th Heaven paterfamilias Stephen Collins), and from there the stage is set for Kirk and crew, including DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy and eventually Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, to once again brave the unknown and tackle those "big" questions that send tingles down the spines of existentialists and sci-fi buffs alike.

As a story whose purpose is to reunite the crew of the original Star Trek and send them off on a new adventure, The Motion Picture does its job, but the big problem is how apologetic the filmmakers seem to be about Trek's TV origins and how desperate they are to turn it into something "important." The end result is that there's precious little humanity in this "human adventure."

It's pretty clear that the real star of the show is the special effects work by John Dykstra (who brings all his 2001-honed skills to bear), to which a considerable amount of the $40 million-plus price tag (back when that used to be a lot of money) was clearly diverted. And in that sense they got their money's worth. The initial "flyover" sequence, as Kirk and Scotty approach the Enterprise in its orbital dock is a six-minute special effects tour-de-force, helped by the much-missed Jerry Goldsmith's amazing "Enterprise" theme. Also, the visualization of the "V'ger" cloud remains an impressive feat, perhaps more so given the era's lack of CGI.

Sadly, when the characters aren't gaping widemouthed at whatever special effect Dykstra and his team have superimposed on the bluescreen, what passes for character development is Decker and Ilia's aimless "will they/won't they" flirtation, and Kirk's infantile fixation on marginalizing Decker (the captain who he recommended, mind you). As I watched the movie, I kept trying to look at things from the perspective of the Trek newbie back in '79 -- who hadn't seen the show but perhaps got lured in by the hype -- and trying to figure out how they must have reacted.

What's amazing is that, in spite of the questionable arc that Kirk is given in the film, the moment of his long-awaited return to the screen in the early goings remains a potent one (as do the respective moments of the rest of original Trek troika). In fact, I'd argue that Kirk's entrance in The Motion Picture is even more iconically powerful today given how long it's been since Shatner parted with the role.

Speaking of Shatner, while it had become popular in the decade before and has remained so in the decades since to mock his overly-mannered gesticulating and enunciating, there are few marriages of actor and character that have worked more electrically onscreen than with James T. Kirk, and whenever he interacts with fellow Trek All-Stars Nimoy and Kelley, that old magic comes sparkling back, providing brief, vivid reminders of what gave the original show such a devoted fandom.

As to the rest of the original cast, they don't have a whole lot more to do other than the aforementioned awestruck viewscreen-gazing (at which George "Sulu" Takei seems to excel the most, for whatever that's worth). Given slightly more to do than the original four supporting actors (also including James Doohan as Scotty, Nichelle Nichols' Uhura and Walter Koenig as Chekov) are Collins as Decker and the late Persis Khambatta as the bald, celibate, Ilia.

While their storyline wraps with the film's trippy climax (another in a series of apparent nods to 2001), the emotional payoff for said conclusion lacks the requisite punch due to our lack of investment. We don't know anything about Decker, and so how can we be arsed to care when he proclaims to Kirk during the final act, "Jim, I want this." "This," by the way, is the out-of-the blue decision to merge himself with the V'ger entity, in effect becoming a new lifeform. "As much as you wanted the Enterprise, I want this."

Really? Since when? About two hours ago he was plenty mad about losing his command, so what lead-up do we have to this decision to make it feel like anything other than plot mechanics and the necessity to wrap things up neatly in a bow? Oh, it doesn't matter, just step back and check out the neat whiz-bang. And here, again, it's the effects and Goldsmith's lyrical, beautiful score that to do the heavy lifting.

Again and again, the disconnect between the stunning visuals and the lack of character development cuts the legs out from under them, making what you get out of the film almost entirely what you bring to it. While it would have been hard enough to sustain longtime fans through the "Golly, would you look at that" stuff, I can't even imagine what it must have been like for an audience coming in cold without any prior exposure to the series. The Motion Picture can never quite figure out what tone to strike, and I'm not sure where to lay the blame for that.

On the one hand there's Robert Wise (who passed away in '05, four years after completing a revised improved "Director's Edition" of the film for DVD), whose decision late in the game to eschew the series' primary color scheme and velour costumes in favor of the pastel onesies for his Starfleet crew isn't exactly a lateral move (and poor fashion plate William Shatner models four variations throughout, including a dentist-looking number in the early going).

Still, while there were a few questionable creative choices by Wise, the lion's share of blame here must be heaped on the doorstep of the late Roddenberry who, as both producer and creator, had unquestioned authority on all matters Trek-ian, and seemingly wielded it like a bludgeon. Playing armchair psychologist for a second here, it strikes me that at some point between the cancellation of Trek TV and the beginning of Trek Movie, Roddenberry started drinking his own Kool Aid.

Instead of merely positing a world where man remained man no matter how far into the future we got, retaining both our best and our worst traits, he decided that no, man had to become better than we are now. And thus the passion and fire of the series, with the Enterprise engaging in gunboat diplomacy throughout the cosmos, gives way to the anesthetized, antiseptic world of The Motion Picture. It might make for a great message, but it sure is lousy for drama.

Of course, all these complaints would prove academic in the long term. The joy of seeing these larger-than-life characters return in a larger-than-life format remains exhilarating even now, and back then the pent-up demand for Trek product -- any Trek product -- was enough to ensure that, despite its then-exorbitant price tag, Star Trek: The Motion Picture would more than make back Paramount's investment, leading to a sequel three years later that took a far different approach.

As for Star Trek: The Motion Picture today, its relevance isn't so much as the "important" epic its filmmakers had no doubt hoped for, and from which it sadly goes wide of the mark, but rather for its place as the first earnest attempt to foster large scale public interest in a moribund property that had survived up to that point solely on the enthusiasm of its small, devoted following.

Thirty years later, it's funny how history repeats itself. C+


Ian Sokoliwski said...

Well, one thing I will say for this movie - it did bring a sense of scale to the setting. TMP was the first time you really get a feeling of just how big the Federation is, rather than just being a set of repeating corridors and matte paintings.

Now, in getting that scale, it did end up losing some of what made ST unique - no saturated colours, no space hippies...well, okay, I could live without the space hippies, actually :D

Also, and here's a really strange thing, the difference in style also reflects how the real world can change styles in that period of time. Yeah, the changes were best changed again, but it gave the world that ST inhabits more of a sense of reality, that fashions and styles can change in that world just like in the real world.

More, probably, due to even more cultures and races crashing into each other so often.

Don't get me wrong, I still prefer the warmness of the later movies to the sterility of this one, but it was an interesting experiment. Just not what fans were hoping for :D

Odd that they basically re-told 'The Changeling' as well...I mean, of all the episodes to remake.

...well, it could have been worse. Can you imagine a big-screen version of Spock's Brain? ;)

Zaki said...

I like that they expanded the scope and tried to do something bigger, but like you say, they left behind the integral TREK elements in the process. I don't hate TMP though. The special effects still hold up, and the music score is still tremendous after all these years. But boy is it slow, both script-wise and pacing-wise.

John Mietus said...

As someone who saw the film in the theater the night it premiered, I can say unequivocally that Kirk's first appearance on screen was met with lots of snickering and outright laughter from the crowd. I, a high school sophomore at the time, turned to my mother and angrily asked, "Why are people laughing?"

"His bad toupée," she replied.

Zaki said...

Wow, I never would have known. I still think his entrance is pretty bad ass.