Star Trek: the Motion Picture — single drama review

Premièred by Paramount Pictures
Star Trek: the Motion Picture
Written by Harold Livingston

From the very beginning, it’s immediately apparent that Star Trek: the Motion Picture is an unfinished production. Director Robert Wise admits this, and considers the director’s cut the final piece. But that’s irrelevant. I’m judging Star Trek: the Motion Picture by the edition released cinematically, because that’s the edition most people have seen. Unfortunately, Star Trek: the Motion Picture‘s a terribly vacuous film regardless, maintained only by its own momentum, with the continued story failing to justify itself.

In one sense, Star Trek: the Motion Picture‘s a visual accompaniment to Jerry Goldsmith’s score, like a screensaver or screen filler. On the other hand, that description is just a nice way of saying that the actual film is derivative, tedious, self-absorbed, pretentious and dull.

The approach taken to Star Trek‘s first feature adaptation is summarised perfectly in the subtitle: “The Motion Picture“. This is so far the worst title I’ve frankly ever heard, because it tells you nothing. The television series was a motion picture, because otherwise it wouldn’t be a television series. Even the animated seasons are motion pictures, and they’re only demi-canonical. The title suggests, without any knowledge of the film itself, that the taken approach is to make a Star Trek feature with as little imagination as possible. Is it right? I’d love to say “yes” or “no”, because then all I’d have to do is explain why that is and then we could all go home.

The problem is, imagination is the thing that’s abundant throughout. But that makes Star Trek: the Motion Picture a film that wants to be merited for its ideas and not for the actual film itself. No film I’ve seen hasn’t included some great idea at its heart… okay, so a few have, but they’re terrible anyway. My point is, I care more about telling a simple story coherently than an ambitious story haphazardly. As it happens, Wise cares about the opposite. He cares more about what ships look like than what they’re doing. What terminology the characters are using than what it means and what the sets look like than what they’re hosting.

A lot of people would praise Wise for not making a film just for the fans. He admits to not having seen an episode of Star Trek, and that’s not a requirement. But the ten-minute scene revealing the Enterprise is presented in such a way as to say “Look, it’s the Enterprise”. Except it says that for ten minutes just to really acknowledge that it’s the Enterprise. If Star Trek: the Motion Picture were a novel, that scene would be a whole chapter describing the Enterprise in minute detail, explaining absolutely everything even if most of it never becomes relevant.

And when the almost two-and-a-half plot is finished, you realise that Star Trek: the Motion Picture is a shaggy dog story. A tale described in mind-numbing amounts of detail even though it’s a very simple story. There’s a cloud heading for Earth, the Enterprise flies into its heart. They discover what it is and fix it. End of.

This could have been a fourty-five minute episode of Star Trek. But instead The Motion Picture is dragged-out so long that the final revelation of what V’Ger is and how it relates to Humanity is not so much a cherry on the cake but a single plum floating in perfume served in a man’s hat. It’s not a Star Trek film accessible by a wide audience. It’s not even a film accessible by wide audiences. It’s a very niche art film that’s just a little too arty for its own good.