You know Star Trek. This isn’t it.
Audiences craving rip-roaring rakishness upon Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s 1979 release date were about as nonplussed as the film’s producers were. All of them, including many members of the film’s cast and crew, were united in a communal act of salivating for a new Star Wars as their Pavlovian ear perks were invited by the flotilla of space sequences in this film and then soundly, roundly trounced by a screenplay and a director who were vastly more invested in fashioning a new 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, deeply intercepted and compromised through The Motion Picture may be, the film’s willingness to desecrate its audiences’ expectations, to shuck and jive toward something more poetically-minded and disreputable in a time of frenzied all-out-action fantasias, is refreshing, even if it isn’t necessarily successful. The Motion Picture, the not-so-valiant but very-much-inspired, is a broken accident of a film, but it remains essential cinema nonetheless.
Director Robert Wise’s vision – handicapped by Paramount’s unflagging demand that the film be released before the turn of 1980 – is formidable in the Star Trek cinematic canon, a provocative melding of quasi-adventure and Kubrick-grafted cosmic confusion. The “narrative” is deliberately scanned from old episodes – a nebulous space cloud, V’Ger, wishes to “bond” with Earth to engulf the planet in its quest to overcome its cold machine logic by devouring the sometimes illogical warmth of the human species. Naturally, and almost semi-comically by this point, the USS Enterprise is the only Starfleet vessel close enough to conclude V’Ger’s maiden voyage prematurely and save humankind in the process.
A rip-roaring adventure in the Star Wars space pirate mode from the director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Haunting, and The Sound of Music, huh? Well, Wise’s dreams had plainly advanced with his age, and The Motion Picture found his dogged ambition shepherding a famously unmanageable and frequently turbulent film shoot driven by crazed dreams, mad dashes, and great losses. Plainly feeling a certain kinship with the thoughtful, placid pace of Harold Livingston’s “hard” sci-fi screenplay, the director’s take on the material visualizes Wise’s envy to replicate A Space Odyssey’s ice-cold philosophy and metaphysical languor. In proving his talent as a serious artist, however, The Motion Picture sometimes rushes (actually saunters, plods, and crawls are all more appropriate) headfirst into crystallizing Wise’s lust to control something that proves too undisciplined to survive.
That said, the talkative, frequently impossible screenplay is certainly not starved for bold cinematic language, with Wise’s talent clarifying the sometimes grotesque lugubriousness of the screenplay by imbuing the material with a terrible grandeur never glimpsed, or even threatened, in Star Wars or the comic riffing of the TV show. Certainly, Wise is no Kubrick, but for all the film’s obvious self-aggrandizing fetishization of its production design and special effects – masterminded by the dream team of 2001’s Douglas Trumbull and Star Wars’ John Dykstra – it almost earns the pomposity. The famed minutes-on-end trudge through V’Ger’s innards is an exercise in non-representational pure cinematic gold, psychedelic imagery, and bold, brazen defiance of the “stay quiet and tell the story” norm. It’s a little too celibate and manicured a film to not induce boredom from time to time – more like a diamond you admire from a distance than something comfortable and snug you’d ever actually dream of wearing on a ring – but it’s certainly “admirable” even when it isn’t successful.
Too often, admittedly, the admiration exists in parallel to the film’s dominant mode of comatose, gawking self-admiration. Self-masturbation, even. Wise exercises his clout to indulge in some fearlessly lengthy shots as the film routinely pauses to showcase. Damn. Near. Everything. An early “set-piece” is nothing but William Shatner’s Captain James Kirk and James Doohan’s Engineer Montgomery Scott in a space elevator as they, and Wise, gaze with slobbering affection at the newly christened USS Enterprise for minutes on end. Not to be outdone, the conflict with V’Ger is largely a waiting game as we engorge ourselves with the glistening hues and maximal magnetism of the special effects, which are tantamount to God (emphasis on the Capital G) in Wise’s vision.
Wise’s interpreter is the oft-undistinguished cinematographer Richard Kline, fresh off of Brian De Palma’s The Fury so we know we’re in aesthetically brazen waters, and The Motion Picture is vigorously devoid of investment in characters that simply trudge through the story. That I waited so long in the review to even mention a single character from the show (and that I will not mention any others) mimics the film’s disinterest in the human flesh that once characterized the ammunition of Star Trek’s hop-step into the great unknown. So it’s a difficult picture, but Wise’ ambitions pay dividends when the film’s courage is at its most unruly, such as a sequence where the lethargy of the film is literalized and visualized as the humans are enervated and light and layers of their physicality almost creep away from their flesh in streaks and shards of color. Unfortunately, the scene is also an accidental commentary on the film itself, with the human caliber of Star Trek largely absconding to nooks and crannies and slight character moments struggling to carve through the fat of the ungovernable visual solipsism. Considering the film’s implicit plea for warmth and emotion in a world driven by cold-hard logic, the alternately beautiful and hollow imagery vacillates between an embodiment of the theme and an ironic failure to understand it.
Despite the verbal hounding it usually receives, The Motion Picture certainly earns the title; this is a far sight from the television series, essentially a separate set of governing rules and regulations entirely. One silently applauds at the film’s willingness to step all over itself in its head-strong ambition to transform cinema into a light parade of sound and motion rather than human melodrama. So the drive is there, but the vessel – the car – isn’t always right; a film without any preconception of clarified characters at all would have crystallized the “pure” cinema ambitions of the piece with more focus, and the slivers of Star Trek present here run in the opposite direction of the film altogether. Jerry Goldsmith’s frighteningly charged score induces a Neanderthal, almost precognitive jolt of pure energy, but it is stunningly mismatched in a film with vested interests mutually exclusive to “energy”. This is an exercise in stasis masquerading as a parade of kinesis, a film torn into tatters by its very self-contradictions. As fascinating as it may be as a cultural object – and many of the film’s pleasures are more academic than anything else – it never survives the warp drive to feature film status.