Retro-View: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Mr. Peel from his excellent Sardine Liquer blog reminded me that STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE premiered 30 years ago today on December 7, 1979 in one of the widest theatrical releases in history. Although the reviews tended to be critical of the extravagant effects and limited characters, the film made bank and launched the series back into popular consciousness. I was never a Trekkie or Trekker, but I enjoyed the show with its interesting cast (not to mention those incredible Starfleet skirts). I thought the Enterprise the most unique space ship design ever, followed the fandom of the series in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, The Monster Times, etc, and appreciated the devotion to the series and actors, yet sad they were typecast (James Doohan does not have a Scottish accent) and sometimes the devotion was just plain weird (the Kirk-Spock slash fiction comes to mind. Or shouldn’t) as William Shatner famously parodied on SNL.

So I wasn’t waiting with bated breath for the premiere of ST: TPM, but at the time, the marketing machine was enormous; it was the first fast food tie-in, the debut of the McDonald’s Happy Meal, for probably worse not better. The producers took a risk opening the film on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor since the bad reviews would invariably be prefaced with variations of “How ironic that this film opens on the date of another tragic bombing…” But open STAR TREK did and I saw it a month later at the local movie palace, the Roseville Tower, with a girl I was entranced with…on a double bill with ALIEN to boot. Nice. Still, she and the tween audience were bored by the film, as there’s no doubt it was long and slow-paced. I responded to the spectacular effects by the powerhouse team of Douglas Trumball and John Dykstra; the instant-classic Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack; and the pleasure of seeing the familiar cast on the 70 mm screen. The journey into the heart of V’Ger is the centerpiece of the film, the section most criticized for its alleged ponderosity, but I absolutely adore this staggering trip at the height of Trumbull and Dykstra’s optical and miniature skills, the undulating psychedelic waves of space and structure surpassing Kubrick’s 2001 at least in terms of visual, if not metaphysical, power.

What I didn’t respond to was the simple story recycled from various episodes, but lacking any emotional or intellectual catharsis (what exists is due to Goldsmith’s evocative score). The cast was short-changed to over-focus on the fantastic spfx, somewhat understandable in the wake of STAR WARS, yet this denied the essence of the show’s success: the unique characters themselves. Bringing in Stephen Collins and the much-hyped Persis Khambatta with a stilted romance diluted the other’s roles to the background. Only Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly transcend their screen time, with Spock going through a genuine transformative arc; the Director’s Cut restores more crucial moments that might have silenced some critics. As fer Bill Shatner, Harlan Ellison summed him up best in his thoughtful, critical essay on the film in Starlog magazine (reprinted in “Harlan Ellison’s Watching”):

He dominates as usual. Stuffy when he isn’t being arch and coy; hamming and mugging as if he actually thinks he is Kirk, overbearing and pompous. Yet occasionally appealing, don’t ask me why.

Given director Robert Wise’s awesome cinematic track record, he had a tough job of overseeing this 44 million dollar superproduction (the most expensive at the time), filmed in 70 MM Panavision. IMHO one of the great studio directors in Hollywood history, Wise managed to nail every genre he worked in (THE DAY THE EARTH THE STOOD STILL; WEST SIDE STORY; THE SAND PEBBLES; THE HAUNTING; THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN), and he gives the film style and scope. Using many split-diaptor shots (his signature) adds to the depth of field and the spatial choreography of the vessels is stunning, particularly the V’ger attack on the Klingon ships (also thanks to John Dykstra). The glorious re-introduction of the Enterprise leaving drydock is another high point, practically a musical space dance. Considering there wasn’t a finished script when they started filming, an experienced spectacle director like Wise was a…wise choice. Sorry.

Released at the tail of the 1970’s, ST: TPM represents the era’s last gasp of serious science fiction (and along with Disney’s inferior THE BLACK HOLE (1979), the final time an overture would be heard in an American film), an epic where the resolution comes from thought not violence — unlike the 2009 incarnation. In 1982’s THE WRATH OF KHAN, Nicholas Meyer would highlight the character’s relationships and provide an even more successful template. In 2001, Robert Wise went back to re-edit the film, updating effects and adding scenes, the most vital being Spock’s logical tears for V’ger, and one I can’t believe wasn’t in the release print (the fact the movie was finished the day of the premiere and given no editorial preview was likely a factor). Both versions have their virtue.

Ultimately, for all its story and character flaws, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE is my second favorite of the series. Only a Vulcan in the state of Kolinhar could not be moved by the penultimate, beautiful shot of the USS Enterprise gliding from the transformed glow of V’ger, signifying the cosmic benevolence of Gene Roddenberry’s perennial “Human Adventure” so that we may all live long and prosper.


15 Responses to “Retro-View: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)”

  1. Great post on this storied film. Glad you noted the issues regarding the theatrical cut (Wise’s cut should have been it, and Paramount’s rush really shortchanged this great director). RW’s take is more sci fi-like and cinematic in scope than the subsequent ones (though, each style has its strengths). I can still sit through the theatrical cut and be entertained, but that should tell you the DC is my favorite between the two. BTW, I was there at the theater in Westwood Village in L.A. that first weekend it premiere 30 years ago. Thanks for this.

  2. christian Says:

    Thanks. And yes, Wise definitely has the scope though I read that he was a overwhelmed by the conflicting factions of the production. Interesting that the Blu-ray of ST:TMP is the original release though!
    How was the premiere of the film in Westwood?

    And here’s a very cool feauturette from 79 that wasn’t included on the DVD release. Cool because there’s rare footage of discarded scenes like the “Memory Walk” and even alternate Klingon ships designed by the first spfx team who were let go when they fell behind schedule.

    • That is very cool. Thanks on including this.

      • Oh, and we showed up at least two hours before it started to get in a line that wrapped around the block. No such thing as advanced tix back then (one of us would go to the box office line to purchase, and the other would go to the wait line in hold that spot). Packed outside the theater, and inside. We went to Westwood because they had one of few 70mm projectors and requisite large screen. It was one of those events. Thanks.

  3. Rewatched this recently for the first time in 25 or so years… It’s sloppy, sometimes boring, and probably too torn between being STAR TREK and being 2001… And Kirk is kind of a prick in it, rolling in late and acting like a jerk through most of the movie. And NONE of the cast members benefit from the XANADU era discoed out MOONRAKER wardrobe.

    BUT really cinematic, well-shot, substantive… Obviously II and III are better “movies,” but the framing and production seems kind of television, whereas TMP seems HUGE on every level. Maybe it’s just an interesting mess, but worthy of a lot of respect nonetheless.

    • christian Says:

      Yes, it’s definitely influenced by 2001, hence the residue that would be gone by the 80’s. I think the DC does a better job of toning Kirk down, plus I kind of like his arrogance that Deckard objects too. I like it when Bones tells Kirk, “You’re pushing too hard.”

      But those 70’s LOGAN’S RUN/SPACE 1999 outfits…oy. Thank God Nick Myers rejected those disco-suits for a morre apropso Naval style.

  4. I really need to check out the director’s cut of this film ‘cos I remember going to see this film in theaters and falling asleep because it was so dull and plodded along, pacing-wise. I guess I should really give it another chance. Just watched WRATH OF KHAN again for the upteenth time a few months ago and man, does that film kick ass.

    • christian Says:

      Get thee to a DVD! Or wait until it pops back in a rep theater. I’d love to see a 70 mm version of ST: TMP again on a ginormous screen. The LSD will help.

      KHAN is still the champion ST film fer sure. And Meyers gets far more nuanced performances from the actors, particularly Shatner.

  5. THE FUTURIST! owns a DVD copy of The Director’s Cut. He did see it in its initial run and felt it aided him in relaxing in the dark … and losing attention. Your post has made THE FUTURIST! wish to re-visit the film … in the Wise Cut, so to speak.

    • christian Says:

      I would never recomend controlled substances to view a film, but it helps with ST: TMP. I read about other scenes never re-instated that I’d love to see, especially a moment where Bones insults Spock and he actually makes a threatening move towards him….

  6. […] Star Trek: The Motion Picture […]

  7. Wayne Dent Says:

    The actor who played Alyah was beautiful bald. She was so striking. Gorgeous. I am in love!

  8. Iliea I get sick of people calling this flick boring. It’s not… it’s a little too serious, but it’s needed, was needed to purge the material of the campy vibe. THE only Trek film with an acutal science-fiction story… Shatner is awesome, yes he is a jerk, but he IS Kirk. Notice how the big three are a mess while apart, but once they come together, they are a family again. And that score, that glorious, beautiful, fantastic score!!!! Oscar winner? Should have been… .easily.

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