Saturday 2 May 2009

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Saturday 2 May 2009
Warp factor snore...

[SPOILERS] Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry promised fans a prequel movie to his sci-fi opus during a 1968 convention, intending to reveal how the crew of the USS Enterprise first met1. He tempted fate. A year later, NBC axed the show after a decline in ratings during its third season. Years later, Star Trek had gained surprising popularity in syndicated repeats; so much so that Paramount were encouraged to make a movie in the late-'70s, inspired by the huge success of Star Wars...

Various ideas were proposed by writers, but after failing to find an acceptable storyline, the studio opted to focus on a television sequel instead. "In Thy Image" was Roddenberry's pilot script for "Star Trek: Phase II", a story concerning a centuries-old NASA probe returning to Earth, having acquired sentience in deep space. Ironically, this story was considered strong enough to form the skeleton of the originally-planned movie, so filming on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (henceforth TMP) hit warp speed in 1978, course set for a 1979 release...

The movie reunited the original cast -- James T. Kirk (William Shatner), promoted from Captain to Admiral in the interim; half-Vulcan science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy, who only agreed to reprise his role with script approval); Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelly); helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei); comms officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols); weapons officer Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig); and chief engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (James Doohan) -- joined by bald alien navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), and the Enterprise's usurped Captain Willard Decker (Stephen Collins).

The story stayed true to the "Phase II" pilot idea, with Admiral Kirk assuming command of a refitted USS Enterprise, following the disappearance of three Klingon ships in the vicinity of a strange cosmic cloud. On his scorching homeworld of Vulcan, Spock senses an alien intelligence within the cloud, so reunites with his Federation colleagues to help investigate. The cloud is revealed to contain an enormous "living spaceship" (referred to as V'Ger by a consciousness that later inhabits crewman Ilia), built around an old NASA probe called Voyager 6 that achieved sentience after making contact with alien machines in deep space, before returning home to reunite with its Creator.

TMP is unarguably the most cumbersome movie in the Trek canon, based on a high-concept notion you could imagine Arthur C. Clarke thinking up. Or, indeed, John Meredyth Lucas, whose Trek script for "The Changeling" (about a planet-destroying space probe called Nomad) has obvious similarities to this inaugural big-screen adventure. While cerebral and epic in visuals, score and runtime, the concept is too thin and (to put it bluntly) boring to justify the languorous 132-minutes. Various hero-shots of the Enterprise itself eat up a considerable amount of time before the plot's even begun, and then we spend an interminable time journeying through a wormhole!

TMP feels especially stunted and solemn when compared to the frothy zing of George Lucas' Star Wars two years prior, of whose success this picture was intended to emulate. The film's aesthetic (notably its pastel uniforms, resembling futuristic wet-suits) are a drab '70s overhaul of the vibrant '60s designs -- although the revamped, metallic-silver Enterprise arguably never looked more genuine.

Performances are hobbled by a disappointing lack of the camaraderie that made the original series so appealing, particularly between the triptych of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. You also have to wonder why TMP bothered introducing two new characters (Dekker and Ilia), considering there was barely enough material for the regulars -- beyond the fact that the newcomers are proven to be expendable...

There are flashes of the '60s-era chemistry here and there, but most of the characters feel straight-jacketed by TMP's somnambulant tone. It's as if everyone considered the '60s series too frivolous to update faithfully, so they went in completely the opposite direction. They used the same ingredients, but cooked a different dish. The wit, excitement, humour and drama familiar to fans is notably absent from this debut.

Issues raised about a sentient being's need for evolution are worthy of the Star Trek name, but the soporific journey (while bookended by entertaining moments) unwisely coasts by on impulse power. Director Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain) was clearly aiming for something more 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Trek, which again felt even more old-hat in the wake of Star Wars fever. Thank heavens for small mercies like Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful, epic score... but even the soundtrack's just shouting into a yawning chasm for over two hours...

Paramount Pictures
Budget: $35 million
132 minutes (theatrical) / 136 minutes (director's cut)

Director: Robert Wise
Writer: Harold Livingstone (story by Alan Dean Foster)

Cast: William Shatner (Admiral James T. Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelly (Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy), George Takei (Hikaru Sulu), Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), James Doohan (Montgomery "Scotty" Scott), Persis Khambatta (Ilia) & Stephen Collins (Captain Willard Decker)

1. Four decades later, Roddenberry's original plan for a Star Trek movie will bear fruit in J.J Abrams' reboot of his classic sci-fi saga.