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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Movie Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Hey there Chaos fans. I've been terribly busy lately, lots to do at work and home, as well as killing zombies in Dead Island (I'm about 80% finished with that game- its a great one, no doubt). I haven't done too much in Warhammer 40K, though that will change in the next few weeks when I'll get back to it with a vengeance.

At any rate, I have decided to do something different. I thought I might start reviewing some of my favorite movies and film series. After some thought, I've decided to kick it off with the Star Trek franchise. So, without further ado, Chaos Corner will begin with Star Trek: The Motion Picture...

Personal Background: I have been a bit of a Trekker forever. Now, I've never put on Spock ears or wielded a Klingon Bat'lith (in public, at any rate ;-), but Star Trek has been a part of my life since pretty much day one.  Both of my parents were regular Trek viewers, and had watched it when it first aired. My mom liked that intellectual aspects of the show, while my father liked the action. They watched it later when it was in syndication, and that is how I was introduced to the show at a VERY young age (WPIX-NY re-ran them at this point). Indeed, Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out a little over a year after I was born. Yes indeed, I grew up watching this, and the episodes. I had the toys, coloring books, etc. My parents even owned TMP on the old (ancient) RCA VideoDisc format... remember those? Haha!

The precursor to Laserdic and DVDs
In any event, I have been into Star Trek to varying degrees since, and TMP has been at the core of that. Now, that movie has been hugely divisive for Trekkers. Some say that it revived the concept, began moving Star Trek mainstream, made it legitimate sci-fi, and more. Detractors say that it is slow, ponderous, preachy, and, infamously, it has been called "The Motion-less Picture". So, let's take a look at this in detail...

Basic Plot: An unknown force of incredible destructive power is heading towards Earth. It's outward apprentice is that of a huge, swirling energy cloud. It has been "disintegrating" (for lack of a better word) everything in its path. Starfleet decides to send the Enterprise to stop it from doing the same to Earth. Of course, the old crew has been on different career paths since the TV series ended, and must now come together and figure out the mystery behind this entity.

An ominous mystery...
The plot unfolds very, very slowly indeed. For many, that is what breaks the deal for TMP. I am inclined to agree for the most part, but not fully. Now, I'm all for character development and all, but that is not what the problem is- the first half of the movie (AFTER the first V'Ger attack and Spock on Vulcan) is practically glacial. The plot moves SO slowly. Take the Wormhole accident, for instance. It's supposed to be an action scene, and how do they film it? In slow motion- the WHOLE time. Ugh. And when the Enterprise gets to the V'Ger entity, there are a MILLION shots of the cloud, the cloud interior, the cloud's interior interior, etc. Yes, this brings the movie to a screeching halt, and gives credence to the "motionless picture" criticism.

The... wormhole... slows...down...every...thing....
 However, the story, at its core, is solid sci-fi. The entity, V'Ger is shrouded in mystery, and is clearly dangerous. The crew is in peril, as is Earth. That's a pretty big narrative scope. Kirk and company must unravel this, and as they do it becomes clear that V'Ger is not what it seems, and certainly not a "villian" in that sense, which is very interesting. Once the Enterprise gets through the cloud, the movie picks up steam, and ends on a very strong note. The issue is getting to that point, which is hard for some.

"The Meld"- a solid conclusion
 Themes/Concepts: TMP is very high concept, sci-fi on a grand scale. Do machines have souls? What is humanity's responsibility to what it creates? Is there a god? Higher planes of reality? What of morality in a large and oh-so-empty universe? Yep, the movie asks all of these questions and more. The only problem is, they never really connect, on an emotional level. These themes are there, and they practically spell it out for you, but... you never FEEL it. Your brain acknowledges it, but your heart doesn't. With two exceptions, it comes across as cold as space. First, the themes tie in directly between V'Ger's journey and Spock's, and the only reason this is successful is Nimoy's acting (more on that below). The second, is when V'Ger stands revealed and "The Meld" occurs. The effects, themes, acting, etc, all come together here for a bit of a rousing finale.

Spock attempts to achieve Kohlinar, but can't...
Characters/Acting: Now, you either watch Trek for the Sci-Fi, or for your love of the characters (and the actors that became synonymous with them), and in this respect, TMP does fairly well. Like most Trek movies, the ancillary guys like Chekhov don't get much to do, but the big three get their moments to shine. The best here is Nimoy as Spock. In the time since the TV show ended, Spock has attempted to purge ALL emotion from him, studying on Vulcan to the exclusion of all else. Seeing Spock on the sands of his home world is great, but even better is his recognition that he STILL hasn't succeded, that no matter how hard he tries, he is still half human and emotional. For the rest of the movie, Spock remains more cold and aloof than usual, until he realizes that he is in danger of becoming like V'Ger. Now, he never embraces emotion, but he learns to accept it. Nimoy's acting is great here.

Shartner is also solid as Kirk. At this point, Kirk is an Admiral, and hasn't been a ship commander for years. He can feel time slipping away, and he decides to pull some strings to get to command the Enterprise to investigate V'Ger. Shatner plays his Kirk as angry and frustrated, even when he gets his way. He fights with Decker (the guy he's replacing) like a petty child, and even mouths off at Scotty. However, as Kirk gathers the old crew and McCoy and Spock join him in the mission, Kirk becomes more like his old self- a leader, a decsion-maker, a hero. Shatner does that transition well, and by the end, he's the Captain we recognize from the show.

"In simpler language Captain... they DRAFTED me!"
Finally, there's McCoy. Kelly proves once more why he may be the best actor in the series. If Kirk is the hero/heart, and Spock is the intellect, then McCoy is the humane soul, and he shows that here to great effect as he questions V'Ger's (and at one point, Spock's) motives. McCoy also represents us in this universe- a "simple country doctor" with a distaste with technology, etc. He's also a humanist: "Why is any object we don't understand simply called 'a thing'"? Terrific work!

One of my favorite Matte Paintings
Special Effects: This is where TMP was meant to shine. Millions of dollars were poured into this, to make it a larger than life sci-fi movie (thanks 2001 and Star Wars). Recall that this is being done without CGI and the like... these are practical effects. In some instances, it succeeds beyond imagination. The Enterprise has never looked better- you can feel the weight of it, the size. The Klingon ships at the beginning also look great. Vulcan looks appropriately other-worldly. The V'Ger cloud is intimidating yet beautiful, and some of the "interior" are great. The only problem is they tend to linger on some of the shots for far too long. I get that when we first see the Enterprise, we are supposed to feel chocked up. And we do. But the scene lasts like 5 minutes... you could trim that. Same thing with V'Ger- its great to see for a bit, but they keep showing more cloud shots, etc. Again, it looks great, but we need to keep the movie going, but we're stopping to see MORE special effects... Sometimes, less is more.

There are a million shots like this... and each of them are so slow and dull
Musical Score: Great work by Jerry Goldsmith. We get the "modern Trek" theme, the Klingon theme, and more. His cues for V'Ger are appropriately deep and mysterious and foreboding. His theme for "The Meld" is one of Trek's best- fearful, turning to hopeful, and always majestic. The score is one of the best things about the movie, giving the boring, slow pans a little something. Top notch here.

The Enterprise never looked btetter
 Lasting Legacy: And here's where it gets tricky. TMP, despite its weaknesses, set the tone for all Treks to come (movies and TV). The ship and set designs would inform all future Trek ships and interiors. It also sets up the idea that Trek could go BIG with both the effects and the themes. The Starfleet costumes look bad, but... look at first season TNG to see how this design influenced later. On the other hand, this movie made the "modern Klingon". The language, the uniforms, their bridge design, and of course, the ridges on their heads.

The first "modern Klingon" (interestingly, played by Mark Leonard)
 TMP also impacts other movies in terms of theme/plot. Spock comes to terms with his emotions- look at him later in Wrath of Khan to see this. Spock finds a measure of inner peace here. He remains a Vulcan, but he is not dismissive of emotional humans anymore, and he shows them more often (except for the minor speed bump in The Voyage Home, but who can blame him there?). Kirk also changes here- he gets his shot at one last adventure- but then it's over. He must go back to being a desk-bound Admiral. When we see him in Wrath of Khan,  his mid-life crisis in full swing- he knows he must accept that his adventure days are behind him now. The two movies tie together for Kirk very well in that respect too. As for Bones... well, he's as grumpy as usual. I guess some things don't change...

Will this be his last adventure?
Bottom Line: This will be the hardest one for me to rate. On the one hand, it is grand sci-fi, the actors do a great job, and it sets the standards for future Trek. On the other hand, it is ponderously slow at points, lacks the emotion of Trek, and, as a movie, doesn't have enough energy (slow movies CAN have energy- a slow burn, if you will). I'm going to have to give this 2 1/2 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. My nostalgia factor wants to give it a 3, but my heart knows it doesn't reach that height.

Hope you enjoyed this. Till next time...  


  1. I don't mind Star Trek: The Motion Picture's slow pace. In fact, it grew on me. The special effects are impressive. The questions raised are significant. Viewers should be patient and enjoy a great science fiction film.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Popcorn!

      I enjoy TMP, don't get me wrong. I agree that some movies benefit from a slower, more deliberate pace. TMP has fantastic effects and thematic elements. My issue is that this movie isn't a "slow-burn", which would be great. Rather, it is ponderous- going at the exact same (slow) speed throughout, which creates a feeling of lethargy rather than excitement, curiosity, or mystery. Emotions and thoughts which the ideas of this movie SHOULD generate, but the pace hinders that.

      I love the ideas of this movie- I just wish it was presented in a bit more urgent manner...