It’s all about perspective, really. If you’ve watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture already, you’ve formed your opinion of the film. This review, penned some 38 years after I watched the movie for the first time, but only a day after I watched it last, won’t change your mind about it. But, I hope it will give it a bit more…perspective.
I saw this movie in the theater back in 1979. I was already a Trekkie, a fan of the original Star Trek television show in syndication. I had the Mego Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock dolls, with the plastic bridge playset. I was an avid reader of science fiction; my favorite authors were Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Dick, and Harlan Ellison, who wrote the teleplay for the famous Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.” When Star Wars premiered in 1977, I already had my eyes on the stars because of Star Trek, so I waited for the first Star Trek movie with anticipation.
I remember loving the movie back in 1979. I had also loved Star Wars, of course, and, if I must be honest, I loved Star Wars more than this one. It was action-packed. This first Star Trek movie was not. But it was a loving reintroduction of familiar characters and places, and Trek has always been more about character-driven stories at heart. I remember my 13-year-old self leaving the theater thinking that it was a good movie, with wild special effects.
Flash-forward a few decades, and I didn’t love the movie quite as much. I could see why I had enjoyed it so much then. There were long, lingering shots of space and starships—especially the Enterprise. The first Star Wars movie had whetted my appetite for special effects, and this first Trek movie delivered more of the same, even if these were more static and intended to inspire awe rather than exhiliration. As I watched the movie this time, I had to fight the urge to fast-forward it until characters began talking again.
If I had fast-forwarded every time I wanted to, the movie would have been maybe forty minutes long. That’s about right, I think. The length of one series episode, give or take. That’s all the meat that is really on the bones of the plot. Admiral Kirk returns to take over the captain’s chair during the shakedown run of the new Enterprise because some giant alien creature is approaching Earth and destroying everything in its path. The ship’s new young captain, Dekker, resents Kirk taking his spot, and, to add more spice to this stew, one of Dekker’s former lovers, the bald and beautiful Ilia, also comes aboard. Bones McCoy and Spock return to bring all of the old gang back together, and the Enterprise zooms through space to confront the alien known as V’Ger. Ilia the bald woman is taken over by the alien and turned into a probe. V’Ger is looking for its creator. Kirk and the others find out that V’Ger was originally the NASA Voyager probe which was sucked into a wormhole and found on the other side of the universe by some world completely inhabited by living machines. This robot planet gave V’Ger life and it has since been working its way back to Earth. It sees humans—we carbon-based units—as an infestation and is on the brink of destroying all life on Earth until Kirk and his team manage to hack into the ancient Earth probe. Then, for some reason, Dekker has to also sacrifice himself to join with V’Ger and Ilia the bald hottie to grant the god-like V’Ger some kind of humanity. It makes as much sense as space jellyfish holding tentacles as they leave Farpoint Station.
That’s the entire plot progression. Kirk returns….the gang’s all back together…confront V’Ger…V’Ger effectively kills Ilia and replaces her with an exact duplicate…educate V’Ger through computer hacking skills and sacrificing another human to the computer god…danger over, roll credits. And with Dekker conveniently eliminated, Kirk can remain in the chair and all is well in the universe again.
The rest of the movie is lingering pan shots of the Enterprise and of V’Ger’s apparently endless interior (in exterior wide-shot, it looks like one of those Seeing Eye pictures if you can remember going cross-eyed looking at those), along with an interminable series of character reaction shots, even though its obvious the actors aren’t seeing any of the same things that we are on screen. When I hear other people talk about how boring this movie is, I know that this is what they are talking about. And, it’s a perfectly valid viewpoint that I find myself now, somewhat reluctantly, sharing.
As I said at the beginning, though, it’s about perspective. When I was 13, I hadn’t experienced all of the better science-fiction movies that followed, and it scratched a Star Trek itch that many long-term fans were feeling. Our ship, our characters, were back. There was the promise of more stories to come, better stories. And with the arrival of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, that promise was fulfilled. Maybe the first Trek movie doesn’t stand up so well in hindsight, but it led to others that have, in my opinion.
That said, do I recommend this movie to you if you’ve never watched it?
No, I’m afraid not. Watch the original series, and then skip this one and go straight to Khan. You won’t miss much.