Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Review

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Director: Robert Wise

“Spock, did we just see the beginning of a new life-form?”
“Yes, Captain. We witnessed a birth. Possibly a next step in our evolution.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

After the cancelation of the original Star Trek television series, which lasted for three seasons from 1966-1969, Paramount decided to produce a feature film approximately 10 years later in 1979. Star Trek had since reached cult-like status in our culture thanks to the magic of syndication. At the time, Paramount was persuaded a film could be a hit after the monumental successes of sci-fi movies like Star Wars as well as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Inspired by themes of human purpose and mechanical emptiness, Star Trek reintroduces the original series to the big screen with inspiring gusto and applaudable pace. Its chief shortcomings are long extensive scenes where very little occurs, such as scenes of ships docking and other non-essential moments, however nevertheless this film is an inquiry-provoking delight in my view. Unfortunately, as a response to its snail’s pace, many fans have dubbed it the “slow motion picture” or the “motionless picture.” Regardless, Star Trek: The Motion Picture draws its inspiration, in part, from great science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, as well as from the Star Trek season two episode “The Changeling.” For this review I watched the brilliant Director’s Cut, and in some respects Jerry Goldsmith’s triumphant, majestic score steals the whole show.

The film takes place in the 23rd century. A massive, high energy cloud is moving through space destroying ships along the way. Space station Epsilon IX was able to transmit data back to Starfleet shortly before its own destruction. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco on Earth, the Starship Enterprise has been undergoing significant upgrades for eighteen months under the direction of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (James Doohan). Though it is not quite ready yet, the transporter is still experiencing a significant malfunction. Captain, or rather now “Admiral,” James T. Kirk (reprised by the one and only William Shatner) decides to reclaim his role as Captain of the Enterprise, which has been recently charged by Starfleet with the task of confronting this strange energy cloud as it rapidly approaches Earth. In doing so, Kirk replaces a young Commander named William Decker (played by a young Stephen Collins). Meanwhile, Spock is reprised by the great Leonard Nimoy, who almost refused to appear in the film because he felt underpaid for years of Star Trek royalties. Spock has been undergoing a Vulcan religious ritual called Kolinahr, which will purge him of all lingering emotions in pursuit of pure logic but he cannot complete the trial because he simply senses too much, like a human. He joins up with Kirk’s mission and resumes his role as Science Officer on the Enterprise. Other actors that reprise their roles include DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard McCoy, Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekov, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, and of course George Takei as Sulu.

One of the central questions at this point is whether Kirk is fit to helm the Enterprise when he has not logged a single star hour in over two years and he is mostly unfamiliar with many of the new upgrades completed on the Enterprise. Commander Decker embarrasses Kirk by having more in-depth knowledge of the ship’s phasers and photo cannons –though Decker does save the ship at a crucial moment. The tension between the two is central to the film. Despite how impressive I find this movie, there is something sterile about its portrayal of Starfleet that doesn’t strike a harmonious chord with the show –the crew all seem to be donning bland jumpsuits which would make make Mao Zedong proud. In addition, the characters appear to be cold and distant from one another. I can understand why this was not the inspiring return of Star Trek many fans had been hoping for in some respects.

In a series of long, dramatic scenes the Enterprise intercepts the floating cloud and they are promptly attacked by an alien force within. It should be noted, there is a new crew member aboard the Enterprise, a navigator named Lt. Ilia (played by Indian model Persis Khambatta). She is a bald-headed Deltan who was once romantically involved with Commander Decker (he left Delta IV without saying goodbye) but she has since taken a vow of celibacy as required by all Deltans who join Starfleet. When a ball of plasma suddenly enters the Enterprise as a probe, Ilia is abducted by the aliens. Shortly thereafter she returns –a reformed, robotic Ilia as a surveillance and reconnaissance mechanism sent to investigate the human “carbon-units” infesting the Enterprise yet she has been meticulously recreated and programmed with many of Ilia’s initial memories by the aliens. The crew of the Enterprise soon discovers that the aliens are, in fact, living machines guided by their leader named V’Ger (pronounced Vee-Jurr), a machine in search of its creator. Spock conducts a secret mission into the heart of V’Ger to discover the power of its creativity, and Kirk demands that the robotic Ilia take them to see V’Ger directly. Much to their horror, the Enterprise crew discovers that V’Ger is actually an old spaceship sent from Earth hundreds of years prior –the Voyager space craft (several letters of “Voyager” have been blacked out along the vehicle’s side). Its initial purpose was to document the universe and transmit data back to Earth. Eventually Voyager was intercepted by a planet populated by machines who have made it their mission to allow Voyager to complete its mission. The Enterprise crew allows this to happen by utilizing the “archaic” technology of radio-waves, while the robotic Ilia persuades Commander Decker to join together with the machine to form a new life form, thus bringing new purpose to the cold and empty life of machinery. Remarkably, the movie has no central enemy, such as a Klingon general. Instead, the enemy is a nameless, faceless collection of living machines –an echo of humans’ own creation finally returning home. Inn the end, a title reads:

“The human adventure is just beginning.”

2 thoughts on “Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Review

  1. It is definitely an underrated movie. I don’t get the bashing it gets from general audiences, or the fan base for that matter. I find the concept of a space probe from Earth going so far and deep into the reaches of Space, learning so much in the process that it becomes self-conscious, fascinating. Sure, it has a few slow scenes, and it’s a bit too showy for its own good (the horrible newly-designed beige uniforms didn’t help either) , but it’s a thematically interesting and visually stunning movie.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was quite impressed by the movie when I first saw it, since I was a childhood Trekker. I’m glad that it’s receiving even better recognition now thanks to a 4K re-release, along with the first Doctor Who movie I might add. It’s so much easier to appreciate movies and TV shows in retrospect in most cases despite their original troubles. For our favorite sci-fi franchises, that can be the best retrospect of all.

      Liked by 2 people

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