Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979)

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979)
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley
Written by Alan Dean Foster and Harold Livingston
Directed by Robert Wise

"How come he gets the swanky short sleeve pajamas?"

What do you do when a smash hit blockbuster like "Star Wars" rolls around from a rival movie studio?  Why, you look into your own archives and say, "What've we got like that?"

For Universal Studios, it led to a greenlight of Glen Larson's godawful original "Battlestar Galactica."

For Paramount Pictures, it led to a revival of "Star Trek," a 1960s TV series that had gained a cult following in syndication after being canceled twice during its original network run.  Paramount had been working on bringing "Star Trek" back, initially as a movie, and then as a sequel TV series called "Phase Two."  After "Star Wars" raked in more money than God, Paramount shifted gears to bring "Star Trek" back to movie theatres.

Unfortunately, the movie would be something of a mess.  Plagued by all kinds of production problems, including increasing interference from bitter series creator Gene Roddenberry, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" would finally reach theatres while still incomplete.  Director Robert Wise would go on record calling it a failure, only becoming happy with the final product when Paramount gave him a couple million dollars for a new edit and new special effects in 2001.  But the simple fact is that despite all of its problems, "The Motion Picture" made money, and because it made money, "Star Trek" didn't take a break until almost 30 years later.

Set two and a half years after the events of the TV series, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" finds James Kirk, as a desk-bound Admiral, unhappy with his decision to accept promotion.  When a massive energy cloud enters Federation space, destroying a space station and a small fleet of Klingon ships and headed directly toward Earth, Kirk seizes the opportunity to regain command of the newly-refitted starship Enterprise.  In order to do so, Kirk marginalizes the ship's new captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins, who would later co-star with "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" co-star Catherine Hicks in the long-running WB TV series "7th Heaven").

Decker becomes bitter about Kirk stealing his command, and blames Kirk's inexperience with the new crew and equipment for problems that plague the Enterprise's launch and threaten the ship.

Meanwhile, on the planet Vulcan, Spock is undergoing an ancient rite to purge all his emotions when he begins to sense a great consciousness approaching.  Seeking answers, he leaves Vulcan and joins up with the Enterprise crew on their mission to intercept the energy cloud.  The crew is happy to see him, of course, but his time away on Vulcan has made him even more cold and distant than the man they'd known years earlier.

With the band back together, the ship intercepts the energy cloud and goes within it, finally making contact with whatever lays inside.  What will they find?   What threat does it pose to Earth?  What answers will Spock find?

If only anything in this movie were as dramatic as even the blase way I've described it here.  Unfortunately for fans, "The Motion Picture" ends up being a particularly dry film.  It's not a bad one, but it lacks energy.  The 2001 "Director's Edition" improves the pacing of the film quite a bit, but it still takes 40 minutes for the Enterprise to leave Earth, and another 15 before it finally makes contact with the threat the crew is supposed to be facing.  The movie spends a lot of time on lengthy, exploratory special effects sequences that are quite attractive but simply go on too long.  As a result, long stretches of the movie consist of alternating shots of extravagant special effects and then reaction shots of the cast staring forward.  It gets old.  Fast.

The script is decent, though highly reminiscent of past "Star Trek" episodes.  It has lofty ideas about the relationship between man and god, the balance between logic and emotion, all of which are well explored.  The problem is that most of the character work is minimal, with most of the cast not really having much of anything to do except stare forward at the bridge viewscreen.  DeForrest Kelley is the most lively performer in the entire movie, his ornery Doctor Leonard McCoy providing much of the film's heart and comic relief.  The man steals every scene he's in.

The character Ilia is brought into the cast, but never really explored.  She makes reference to an "oath of celibacy" that is never explained.  Beyond that, the real problem with Ilia is probably that Persis Khambatta gives a spectacularly bad performance.  I feel a little bad saying that, considering that she passed away at the young age of 47.  I don't know if she was a better actress in her native India, but on "Star Trek" she fails, delivering dialogue in an unsure, stilted manner.  The other new character, Decker, fares much better.   Collins sells the barely bottled frustration and expertise of his character well. 

"The Motion Picture" can be difficult to watch at times.  Whoever designed those terrible beige and pastel pajama uniforms for the crew... I hate you.   The whole movie looks like an intergalactic sleepover party, with the uniforms made even worse by all the dark cinematography.  The bridge of the ship is often cloaked in darkness, done so because of all the rear-projected display screens on the consoles.  This leads to an unfortunate look for the movie, and making it the most dreary and colorless of the now eleven "Star Trek" features.

What does go right in this movie?  Jerry Goldsmith's score is awesome, easily some of the best work of his career.  The movie's main theme would become a running motif throughout the future of the franchise, used as the main theme for the "Next Generation" TV series and movies.  The special effects, as mentioned, are excellent.  The redesigned Enterprise is a fantastic model, maybe my favorite space ship from any show or movie.

"The Motion Picture" is a problematic film.  While not terrible by any means, it's also not great.  It suffers from pacing issues, poor acting and some really questionable production design decisions.  But the script has lofty ideas that are worth exploring, and the extravagant special effects are quite well done.  The 2001 Director's Edition improves some of these issues, but still can't quite put it over the top.