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Should I Watch..? Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Updated on June 26, 2018
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a full-time carer and former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films for over ten years.

Poster for the motion picture
Poster for the motion picture | Source

What's the big deal?

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a sci-fi film released in 1979 and is the first entry in the Star Trek film franchise. The film is a continuation of the successful TV show of the same name created by producer Gene Roddenberry that was cancelled in 1969 and the film reunites all of the original cast. The film is set in the 23rd century when mankind has developed warp technology to explore the rest of the galaxy and the threat posed by a deadly alien force approaching Earth, a threat that can only be faced by the crew of the starship Enterprise. After the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Paramount relaunched efforts to adapt Star Trek into a film and despite a ballooning budget, the film was enough of a success for a sequel to be developed. However, the film itself received mixed reviews when it was released with critics citing the lack of action and over-reliance on special effects.

Watchable

3 stars for Star Trek: The Motion Picture

What's the motion picture about?

In 2273, a Starfleet monitoring station detects a massive cloud of energy heading towards Earth - one that is possibly alien in origin. Such is the destructive force of this energy that three Klingon warships and the space station itself are utterly destroyed. On Earth, the USS Enterprise is undergoing a refit under the command of Captain Willard Decker while its former Captain, James T Kirk, has been promoted to Admiral and moved into a senior role within Starfleet. With no other ships in the vicinity, it falls to the Enterprise to head out and investigate this mysterious cloud.

Kirk quickly takes command of the Enterprise from Decker, who begins to resent Kirk's authority. With the rest of the crew using a largely untested starship, the stakes have never been higher - what can the crew of the Enterprise hope to learn about the mysterious alien energy cloud known as V'Ger and do they stand any chance of stopping it before it attacks Earth?

Trailer (caution - may contain cheese!)

Main Cast

Actor
Role
William Shatner
James T. Kirk
Leonard Nimoy
Spock
DeForest Kelley
Leonard "Bones" McCoy
James Doohan
Montgomery Scott
Walter Koenig
Pavel Chekov
Nichelle Nichols
Uhura
George Takei
Hiraku Sulu
Stephen Collins
Willard Decker
Persis Khambatta
Ilia

Technical Info

Director
Robert Wise
Screenplay
Harold Livingstone *
Running Time
132 minutes
Release Date (UK)
15th December, 1979
Genre
Adventure, Mystery, Sci-Fi
Academy Award Nominations
Best Set Direction, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score
* story by Alan Dean Foster, based on "Star Trek" created by Gene Roddenberry
The film employs a back-to-basics approach although it still finds time to add new characters
The film employs a back-to-basics approach although it still finds time to add new characters | Source

What's to like?

I have always said that Star Wars was for fans of action whereas Star Trek was for fans of science fiction, thinkers grappling with ideas and concepts that would overshadow The Force and brightly-coloured light-sabres. This film is not afraid of presenting a decent mystery at the heart of the story but combining it with the human element of drama, much like the original show did. And against all odds, it works - it's compulsive viewing because you want to see how things pan out. In George Lucas' universe, we all know that the good guys ultimately win but here, there is always an slight doubt. Victory usually comes a cost, after all.

Even if you've never seen the original show, the film makes it easy to understand everything going on here. It also helps with the casting as the crew slots together again as though they had finished filming the day before shooting this. New additions Collins and Khambatta take a bit of getting used to but they give audiences a way in to the story. Finally, the film looks the business - the somewhat crude effects of the show have given way to some genuinely amazing model-work while the score by Jerry Goldsmith has become iconic, even to the point of providing the future Next Generation series with its theme tune. It's an easy film to admire for the sense of spectacle it gives you.

Fun Facts

  • Doohan himself created the Klingon vocabulary heard in the film although linguist Marc Okrand would develop the full Klingon language based on Doohan's work for the third Trek movie, The Search For Spock.
  • The new uniforms for the crew were universally hated by the cast, especially Nichols. One of the conditions for the cast returning for any sequels was to have entirely new costumes.
  • Other ideas considered for this film was the Enterprise crew meeting God (an idea used for The Final Frontier), a black hole swallowing the galaxy (adapted for Star Trek) and going back in time to prevent President Kennedy's assassination. This idea was considered for The Voyage Home before being rejected again.

What's not to like?

Maybe there was an element of 'ring-rust' for the cast because the film lacks quite a bit of punch compared to the original show. It was almost ten years between the show ending and shooting beginning on this film so that may account for some of the missing camaraderie among the cast. But with Shatner and Nimoy being the only regular cast members to get significant screen time (and Shatner isn't exactly known as a great actor, if we're honest), it would be a while before they found their feet again. And while the film may offer a decent mystery, the ending felt bizarre and more than a bit anti-climatic - especially after what is quite a long, plodding build-up.

It feels like there is a real effort from the film-makers to avoid turning the film into a Star Wars rip-off - space battles are few and far between and there is little sense of urgency in proceedings, as if the crew had months to figure out what V'Ger actually is. But weirdly, it doesn't feel like Star Trek either - it actually feels like a reboot of the show, taking existing characters and pretending that all the stuff they'd been through as a crew didn't exist. There's not much fun in the film, compared to some of the later outings, and I reckon a few light-hearted moments here and there would have helped.

The shonky visuals of the TV show had been replaced by crisp, quality effects for the first time
The shonky visuals of the TV show had been replaced by crisp, quality effects for the first time | Source

Should I watch it?

The Motion Picture, unwieldy title aside, isn't a bad film but it isn't that great either. An intelligent story and impressive visuals square off against a cast lacking chemistry and a disappointing finale. As far as the franchise goes, it's not the lowest the series would go (see below) but it's a long way from the highs. However, fans of Trek will be grateful that it just about did enough to justify a sequel because the rest, as they say, is history.

Great For: Trekkers, bald women, anyone craving actual sci-fi

Not So Great For: fans of Star Wars, attention spans, anyone with small bladders

What else should I watch?

From uncertain beginnings, the Star Trek franchise would experience more highs and lows than a junkie flying with EasyJet. Arguably, the two best films are Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The second film offers a tighter, more tense experience than almost any other film in the series as Kirk goes one-on-one with the villainous Khan, memorably played by Ricardo Montalban, with the prize being a potentially lethal weapon. The last entry featuring the original crew, The Undiscovered Country is actually my favourite of the lot - it's ambitious but with effects out of the top drawer and a killer storyline that offers plenty of twists and turns, it was a fantastic way for the team to bow out. But even die-hard fans of Kirk and crew have a hard time justifying The Final Frontier, turning their heads in disgust at the very mention of the film and rightly so.

Sadly, no Trek film has proved to be as entertaining as those from another galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. True, Lucas hasn't always struck gold - Attack Of The Clones is a pretty boring and muddled effort while The Phantom Menace will always be plagued by the entity known as Jar Jar Binks. But for sheer spectacle and fun, there is little that can touch the original trilogy.

© 2017 Benjamin Cox

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