Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
December 16, 2015 5:09 PM - Subscribe

Come on, we're getting the band back together! (Oh sorry, wrong movie...) An alien cloud nears Earth, and only Kirk and the Enterprise can stop it. Shatner chews the scenery somewhat less than usual, and the cast spends a lot of time staring at impressive special effects.

Gene Roddenberry had first proposed a movie in 1968 and spent a good chunk of the 1970s on a script, fielding ideas and scripts from writers including Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. What came to be the screenplay was initially developed as a TV script after Paramount changed its mind on a Trek movie, then flipped back following the success of "Close Encounters."

ST: TMP had a huge budget ($46 million) and a mixed critical and box office reception.

Ebert: The presence of the Star Trek characters and actors who have become so familiar to us on television tends in a strange way to undermine this movie. The audience walks in with a possessive, even patronizing attitude toward Kirk and Spock and Bones, and that interferes with the creation of the "sense of wonder" that science fiction is all about.

Canby: Watching "Star Trek — the Motion Picture," which opens today at Loews Orpheum and other theaters, is like attending your high-school class's 10th reunion at Caesar's Palace. Most of the faces are familiar, but the décor has little relationship to anything you've ever seen before.

Richard Schickel (Time): Star Trek is, finally, nothing but a long day's journey into ennui.
posted by computech_apolloniajames (35 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's like all the worst parts of the 70s in one too-long, too-boring movie.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:44 PM on December 16, 2015

Seriously, the parts that stand out most about this film are the leisure suits uniforms, Spock figuring out that being spiritual doesn't actually solve anything, the look-we-can-do-special-effects-too shots of ships in space, bad slow-mo... I can't remember offhand, but I wouldn't be shocked if there were zoom shots instead of dolly-ins at some point.
posted by infinitewindow at 6:07 PM on December 16, 2015

I must be one of the few defenders of this film. I know it's got problems but I still feel like it's the most Trek of all the films. It's worth trying to find Robert Wise's special edition of the film that he put together about fifteen years ago. Sadly the new effects were only rendered in SD so there will never be a blu-ray version of it but it fix a bunch of the issues that were caused by them running out of time before the release date.
posted by octothorpe at 6:55 PM on December 16, 2015 [13 favorites]

I kinda love this one because Kirk acts like such a raging egomaniac, seizing control of the Enterprise from Decker (who seems to be a prototype for Riker), and then in the end Decker gets to make the big heroic sacrifice anyway. My partner: "Was this movie written by someone who hated Kirk?"
posted by thetortoise at 7:30 PM on December 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's interesting how the first film took a lot of it's plot from The Changeling and the second, of course, continued Space Seed. I enjoyed the continuation far more those this film was ok but entirely too familiar.
posted by juiceCake at 8:20 PM on December 16, 2015

Okay, this movie is bad on many levels (you can flat-out see Stephen Collins's penis through his space jammies, plus "Woooorrrrrrrrmmmmmmhhhhooooooolllllleeee!!!"), but at least it's not "Bad dude bent on revenge!!!!!" which seems to have become the basis of the entire franchise.

The Enterprise reveal sequence is stunning (no, it does NOT go on too long!!!) and Jerry Goldsmith's score is phenomenal. I didn't realize it until years later, but it manages to pay homage to the music on TOS while pushing into new, alien territory.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 9:52 PM on December 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Aah, I forgot this is the one with the Jerry Goldsmith music! There's no movie that couldn't be improved by one of his scores, really.

I always think of the story that Stephen King tells about Harlan Ellison working on the early stages of this script, pitching the Paramount executive this grand epic story that goes back to the beginning of time, and the executive says, "Could you put in some Mayans?"
posted by thetortoise at 10:05 PM on December 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

I really like this movie, sort of the same way I enjoy 2001 (although I'm not claiming ST: TMP is on par with 2001). There's something truly eerie about the film. Don't ask me to explain it, but I never get tired of those slow effects shots where we're drifting through V'ger, seeing all the weird glowing things and colossal structures, just miles and miles of mysterious, gargantuan stuff. (It's almost Jack Kirby-esque, now that I think of it.) I even love the loooong scene where Kirk and Scotty circle the Enterprise in that little shuttle pod. For this Trekkie there is something really powerful in seeing the ship given a showcase like that, it reminds you why Kirk loves the damn thing so much. And the model is just so great, with all those little panels and rivets and stuff, and it makes the ship seem so authentically immense. It really feels like we're having a tour of a full-size Enterprise, out there in space. It's far and away the most Roddenberry-esque/TOS-ish of the films. Love it or hate it, but this is what Roddenberry always dreamed Trek could be.

Thetortoise, my understanding is that this script began as the pilot for a new Star Trek series that didn't get picked up, and a lot of that series found its way into Star Trek: The Next Generation. So the uniforms, ship corridors and theme music were kind of reworked for TNG, and Dekker and Illya were changed into Riker and Troi.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:29 AM on December 17, 2015 [11 favorites]

at least it's not "Bad dude bent on revenge!!!!!" which seems to have become the basis of the entire franchise

It has to be said, most of popular cinema now boils down to "Bad dude bent on [something]!!!!!". If you don't have a bad dude at the heart of your story, it's generally considered your script has failed (at least when there are special effects going on).
posted by Grangousier at 1:32 AM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I love this film, both the plot and the pacing. There's something meditative and soothing about it.
posted by jbickers at 2:25 AM on December 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Enterprise reveal sequence is stunning (no, it does NOT go on too long!!!)

Even the then 16-year-old me disagreed vehemently. It seemed interminable.

and Jerry Goldsmith's score is phenomenal.

Now that I agree with.
posted by pmurray63 at 4:55 AM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm also a staunch defender of this movie, and I definitely put it in the same genre as "2001" and "Solaris". It isn't the masterpiece that those films are, but I like seeing TOS Star Trek go full SF at least once on the big screen.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 5:48 AM on December 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've always felt that Wise is an underrated director. I'm not sure if he had a personal style but he made some great films: Day the Earth Stood Still, Run Silent Run Deep, West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles, The Haunting, Andromeda Strain and uh, some people do love The Sound of Music.
posted by octothorpe at 6:02 AM on December 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I love this movie and always have.
I saw it when it first came out with a couple of friends and we dressed up in Star Trek uniforms for it - cosplaying was decidedly not a thing in 1970's Manchester and we got some hassles but it was worth it. Yes, we were 14 year old nerds and proud of it.
The plot is rubbish, of course, but it looks beautiful and hits the sensawunda button harder and more frequently than any ST movie since.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:49 AM on December 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's interesting how the first film took a lot of it's plot from The Changeling

It owes something to The Doomsday Machine as well. And countertemporally, to ST:TNG (Troi and Riker are Ilia and Decker renamed, to the point that a couple of the TNG scripts were lightly rewritten from ten-year-old Star Trek Phase II scripts).

I was a pre-teen when it came out and found it a bit ponderous. As a forty-something, when I see ads for a new Star Trek movie with a Beastie Boys soundtrack and some totally rad BMX jumps, I find myself re-evaluating the appeal of its ponderousness.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:00 AM on December 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Along with Troi and Riker being adapted from this movie, the Borg seem to be an extension of the machine planet that V-Ger encountered.
posted by octothorpe at 8:19 AM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I actually saw ST:TMP last of all of the Star Trek movies - I only finally watched it about a month ago. I really liked it, although it probably would be a hard movie to rewatch frequently (at least all the way through). As others have noted, it felt much more like a true sci-fi movie than the other Star Treks (and Star Wars, for that matter). One of the scenes that felt super sci-fi to me was when V'Ger was scanning the ship with a column of lightning. As has been pointed out so many times before, it's odd that sci-fi always has humans running into other humanoids. V'Ger felt truly, truly alien as did the crew's experiences the closer they got to V'Ger itself.
posted by Slothrop at 8:31 AM on December 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's a tough movie, but perhaps the film that is closest to the ideals of Trek as envisioned by Roddenberry. It's a mystery story, with an alien intelligence at the core - and in the end, that alien intelligence is one that was created by us. It is steeped in wonder and awe at the unknown and the unexpected, and is very much about using knowledge and insight to solve a problem as opposed to blowing everything up. It's journey of exploration directed inward, rather than "out there", which was an interesting choice.

Some great character moments as well, and two I find particularly of note - Kirk taking over command, which is more about ego than anything in this film. Decker calls him on it, so does McCoy It's an interesting insight into Kirk for this film to deliver, being that other parts of it (especially the long, loving outside tour of the Enterprise - which, let's face it, is a character in it's own right at this time in Trek) feels like a bit of fan service to a base that had been waiting for a long time for something new.

I also really like this moment, with the Enterprise planning to self-destruct to destroy V'Ger from the inside (from the script, can't find a clip):
Spock moves to face him, turning fully INTO the CAMERA
so we can see now, just under Spock's eye:

A tear! Welling fom the eye, rolling down his cheek.
Kirk is speechless a moment, glances at McCoy who has
also witnessed this phenomenon, and started toward
Spock; but Kirk gestures McCoy to stay back, as he
addresses Spock:

(quiet, feeling)
Not for us?

No, Captain, not for us... for V'ger.

Spock pauses as Kirk peers incredulously at him, then

I weep for V'ger, as I would for
a brother -- far more knowledgeable
than I -- and yet one step behind.


Listening, McCoy's face reflecting concern; Decker's
face compassion and understanding, with Decker step-
ping closer to Spock, as Spock continues:

As I was -- when I came aboard...
so is V'ger now: empty, incomplete.
Searching. Logic and knowledge are
not enough.

(with empathy)
Spock, are you saying that you
found, what you needed -- but V'ger

Has not, Doctor -- and now, because
of what we are planning... will not...
Anyways, I have a fond spot for this film, but boy do I have to be in the right mood to watch it.
posted by nubs at 9:47 AM on December 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's not a great film, but it was a necessary one. It's hard to adapt something from the small world of television to the big world of film, and Star Trek had to prove that it was cinematic, and that its characters worked as film characters.

For all its failings, it's a big, grand films with a huge idea at its core, and it did what it needed to: It made Star Trek big. Khan worked better, because it was basically a submarine adventure in space, and that's a genre that already worked on film, but I don't know if it would have been possible without Robert Wise reimaging Trek for the screen.
posted by maxsparber at 9:55 AM on December 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, forgot to add - I find it interesting that the story is about a human creation returning, bigger and more powerful, threatening everything. It feels a bit like the film is a metaphor for the franchise itself in some ways.
posted by nubs at 9:57 AM on December 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

I remember seeing this in the theater. Was a proto-nerd, 9 yr old obsessed with everything Star Trek. The main feeling I had from the film was: Cold.

Star Trek was always warm. No matter what happened, the core was the Kirk / Spock / McCoy love for each other. The respect and trust given to their other shipmates as well. Klingons, space amoeba, super powered aliens, tribbles, space nazis, doomsday machines, and whatever else, never overpowered the warm core and love of it all.

In this movie, the coldness does. The tone set from the very beginning. Even Klingons don't deserve to die in the terror of an immense unknown. The transporter accident (absolutely terrifying in my childhood memory). Spock's failure on Vulcan and being rejected completely by his people. Illya losing her existence and soul to this thing. The entity itself: enormous, unfeeling, uncaring.

I hate to use the term because it's so overused, but it's very Lovecraftian. Star Trek was always about exploring the unknown, but the unknown was always humanized and presented to the viewers through the comporting lens of American Values. This movie ripped the lens off. Space is really, really big. Doesn't care that any of us exist. Love itself is absolutely meaningless within its eternal enormity. And has things we will never ever fully understand. In some ways, I think ST:TMP communicates this message better than 2001.

And on a personal note, this movie played a small role in upending my own view of the world. I was raised in a very fundamentalist household. ST:TMP may have been the first profoundly atheistic film in my life. For all the reasons listed above, the film left me feeling quite nihilistic. God didn't exist in this cinematic universe.

On a final note: for anyone who liked this movie and wants to explore this particular facet of Trek further, the novelization is written by Gene Roddenberry himself. He expands the plot, does some interesting worldbuilding on what Earth is like in the 23rd century, builds on the characterizations of Decker and Illya. And, as one friend of mine later put it, the movie somehow received a "G" rating but the book is rated "R".
posted by honestcoyote at 11:32 AM on December 17, 2015 [12 favorites]

I also saw this when I was 9, and I actually have a soft spot for it because of something my Dad did:

My whole family went to see this together. I was much more of a Trekkie than anyone was; but not that my parents were clueless either, they were just indulgent. But I never really thought of them as liking this kind of stuff.

So we're all sitting in the theater, we've all been watching the whole thing - my parents laughing politely at any jokes, but otherwise just sort of sitting there. We got to the big climactic scene, where the Enterprise has reached the heart of the cloud and Kirk and Spock have carefully made their way to the metal structure in the middle of V'Ger, and Kirk is examining it closely, trying to figure out what it is.

And then - suddenly, I hear my father gasp - he's just realized something. And then he delightedly says " Voyager!" A second later, up on the screen, Kirk wipes away the dust covering V'Ger's side and reveals the Voyager panel - and my father laughs like a little kid.

Dad doesn't get blown away by movies often, but that moment he did a little bit, and that was really cool.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:44 PM on December 17, 2015 [19 favorites]

I really like this movie, sort of the same way I enjoy 2001 (although I'm not claiming ST: TMP is on par with 2001).

But that gets at the heart of the problem with the film: Roddenberry did want the film to be a grand, cosmic, serious science fiction film, in the league of 2001, which similarly featured a ruthless machine intelligence and what was supposed to be the next step in human evolution. (It should be noted that whatever Decker and V'Ger/Ilia turned into is never mentioned again in canon, although V'Ger is mentioned in at least one of the Trek novels.) But Trek at its best really isn't about the big cosmic concepts, although they do pop up from time to time; it's not about a human becoming one with an enormous energy cloud. It's very much on the human scale of things. The very first episode of TOS (the first produced, that is, not the first broadcast) was "The Corbomite Maneuver", in which the Enterprise is similarly confronted with a vastly more powerful foe, and Kirk refuses either to give up or to destroy the alien ship when he has a chance; the formidable-looking alien turns out to really be a goofy-looking little guy who invites them over for a drink. That's ideally the scale on which the franchise operates, and Nicholas Meyer (who had not previously watched the show) completely understood that principle, and made it very relevant to the sequel, both in the choice of villain and in the sacrifice which caps the movie.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:22 PM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know it's got problems but I still feel like it's the most Trek of all the films.

Absolutely. "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before" — This is one of the only ST films where they actually do that. STV being the only other one that really does that, but in a much less interesting way in that one. Not to mention that in STV they're hijacked into exploring a new world and seeking out new life, whereas in STTMP they go willingly, because that's what they do.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:23 PM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

whereas in STTMP they go willingly

Hmm, no. Big energy cloud of unknown origin attacks and destroys an outpost and some Klingon warships, and it's headed toward Earth.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:29 PM on December 17, 2015

The transporter accident (absolutely terrifying in my childhood memory).

It doesn't get any less terrifying as an adult. Seriously, is that not just one of the most unsettling scenes in the history of cinema?
posted by MrBadExample at 9:39 PM on December 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

"What we got back didn't live long... fortunately."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:42 PM on December 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

Re-watching the special edition now. Love the cold opening with the Klingons in a battle with V-ger and holy heck is the soundtrack great.
posted by octothorpe at 7:15 AM on December 18, 2015

Thoughts on the rewatch:

- Love Kirk getting teary-eyed at the approach to the Enterprise, you know it's his only love. Yeah, the slow circuit around the ship is basically porn and it stops the narrative dead but it's such a great character moment.

- Kirk is such a dick, he doesn't doesn't give a shit about Decker.

- Those uniforms are terrible, they look like a crew of dentists.

- Yeah, holy shit the transporter accident.

- Mountain man McCoy! "I need you Bones!"

- OK forty minutes before they even launch the damn ship is a long wait but I love the detail of the worker in a spacesuit doing cartwheels while it goes by.

- Woooormmm Hooole! You could have cut this whole sequence without much loss.

- Wise was a good director with not so great actors.

- Spock's here, we've got the band back together!

- Mr. Spock is hard-core stoic. "Will you please sit down?"

- The overhead shot of the tiny Enterprise crossing over the top of the alien structure is wonderful.

- Um, penetrating the giant space orifice

- Definitely draggy in the middle

- Radio!

- Kirk trying to out bluff V-Ger

- V-Ger could have cleaned up the nameplate itself

- McCoy: It wants to physically join with a human? Is that possible?
Decker: Lets find out!

- Kirk: Out there! Thataway.

OK, well the movie does have pretty much all the problems that people have complained about but I still love it.
posted by octothorpe at 9:24 AM on December 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

The film is definitely too in love with it's motion control-shot miniatures. That said, it made for a fascinating article in Cinefex #1. Apparently Douglas Trumbull was brought in late in the game when it became clear that the original, pretty inexperienced effects crew was dropping the ball. It ended up a real rush job, but it looks shockingly good.

You can read every issue of Cinefex on the iPad. It's pretty great. The Star Trek article in particular is interesting because it's pretty honest about all the troubles they went through. I don't think the modern magazine would get into that sort of thing.

I rewatched this movie recently and was struck by how varied Wise's career has been. Musicals, science fiction, horror, historical epics. Its kind of bonkers. He edited Citizen Kane for Pete's sake.
posted by brundlefly at 1:58 PM on December 18, 2015

I saw this when I was five or six at the cinema and, while confused in an acid trip sort of way I loved it.
As I got older I recognised its many, many flaws, but it's an artefact of its time and development process, and while I rarely feel the need to rewatch it, I'll generally defend it as being "not Star Trek V" (which is almost unwatchable) or NuTrek (which is.... ugh).
posted by Mezentian at 1:48 AM on December 19, 2015

I just realised this weekend that the awesome soundtrack music that's been stuck in my head for the better part of this year was from this movie. One of those delightful aha moments!
posted by TwoWordReview at 12:18 PM on December 21, 2015

Just rewatched the new 4k re-render of the Director's Edition and really loved it this time. Maybe it's been the last decade's parade of three hour blockbusters but this time, it didn't seem long at all and frankly I love the long flying sequences. It was a first watch for my wife and she liked it a lot.

The SFX look incredible now and the sound is great, especially that amazing score.
posted by octothorpe at 9:48 AM on October 9, 2022

So my wife and I just embarked on a mission to binge through the Star Trek movies in order, and got through the first three the other day before she had to catch a flight out to a week-long conference.

This one is kind of wild, in that it's "bad" for all the reasons mentioned above, but is only getting better in my memory. It's glacially paced, but that creates such a pervasive sense of tone for it that it kind of works in its favor? It's clearly going for a 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of profundity, and while it doesn't quite get there, I appreciate swinging for the fences there. Decker and Ilya are a mixed bag, because Trek has such a history of casting either people who utterly fill out roles in iconic ways, or else absolute wallpaper. Decker is wallpaper, bland as bland can bland, but Persis Khambatta brings so much to the role of Ilya (or, really, the V'Ger drone) that it's not a stretch to say that in as much as the movie works, it works on the strength of her performance. I will go to the mat to defend Marina Sirtis as Troi, but it made me really wonder what Khambatta would have done with (essentially) that role. Frakes as Riker is a strict upgrade, however.

I'm also generous to the slo-mo scene, because it used the slo-mo to heighten the orders calmly being called out during a very tense situation, including Decker's countermand. Highlighting the idea that everyone on the bridge is contemplating that they are likely about to die while nobody is panicking really makes you feel the training and competence in their bones, and I dug that. But yeah, the sound and visual effects there are a lot to get past.

I know that TWOK is the naval battle movie, and I get why that's the case (it was intentionally done that way, for one thing) but this one, with its languorous pacing and slow, creepy drifting through the unfathomably massive "body" of V'ger, really felt like a submarine movie, which is cool. Kirk doesn't have much of an arc, and Spock's arc isn't as foregrounded as I think it maybe should have been, but whatever. It made me think of a comment from a post I made a million years ago about the Doctor Who theme, where someone said that Delia Derbyshaw's original arrangement felt as cold and empty and mysterious as space itself, where there's just infinite open void between adventures, while the NuWho arrangements make spacetime feel too busy. Here, in the first movie, space feels very big, empty, cold, and most of all mysterious. There are a lot of things that don't work in this movie, but I'm left with the stuff that did work, which I'm happy for.

And yeah, the transporter accident is unsettling af. All the more so for how little we see of it. I guess the purpose, other than to get Spock on the ship, is to show that Kirk rushed the Enterprise out of dock before it was ready, but it still feels unnecessary to the plot, and thus leaving it to feel like something random that just also happened on the mission feels... I dunno, creepy. It's effective, is what I'm saying.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:41 AM on July 18, 2023 [1 favorite]

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