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Star Trek: Star Trek: The Motion Picture / Star Trek

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I grew up watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture; I started long before I had any concept of what good or bad meant, and for the longest time, the ST:TMP wasn't so much a movie as it was a memory I occasionally revisited. It never even occurred to me to have an opinion about it. There were parts I didn't like, exactly, but I always assumed that was some fault on my part. It's just that I wasn't ready to grasp the amazingness of a ten minute sequence where we looked at something.

I've come back to the movie since growing a spine, critically speaking, and while I can understand the fondness some people have for it, it's really pretty lousy. TMP suffers from two big problems: it's waaaaaay too long, and it fails to capture the charm of the original cast. There are a handful of good ideas, and a few stunning visuals, but nothing can really shake the tedium that sets in even before the opening credits. (This movie has an overture, for crying out loud.) Star Trek can be thoughtful, socially relevant, thrilling, but the one thing it always has to be is fun. And there's precious little of that here.

After a decently spooky prologue in which a giant space cloud destroys a group of Klingon ships, we're reintroduced to James T. Kirk, scrambling to get his ass back on board the Enterprise. See, Kirk's been promoted out of the field—he's kind of old now—but he's determined to regain his captaincy, and this latest giant-space-cloud crisis is the perfect opportunity. As always, the Enterprise is the only ship available to check out the threat; and it's a threat that's headed towards Earth, so it's probably not something that can be easily ignored. Starfleet wants an experienced commander running things, despite the fact that the Enterprise has just been retooled, and Kirk forces his way to the top of the list. Now he just has to let the current captain know he's gone.

There's nothing wrong with Kirk wanting to be on the Enterprise; the universe doesn't seem quite right with him behind a desk. But TMP paints James T. as an aggressive ass from the very start. He's supplanting someone else (someone who may actually be better equipped for the job), and he's bizarrely pissy about it too, like he lost his sense of humor between now and the end of the third season. We're supposed to like Kirk, not vaguely tolerate him. Honestly, nobody in the movie comes off that well. McCoy does okay, and the secondary crew are more invisible than anything else, but Kirk's a sourpuss, and Spock, generally the voice of reason in all things, is distant and distracted. Worse, the two new characters, Decker (the man Kirk supplants, played by Stephen Collins) and Ilia, his doomed former love (Persis Khambatta), are boring, shallow, and don't fit in well with the regular lot. In a stronger movie, this wouldn't be as much of a problem, but given the amount of time we spend watching people watch things, that lack of charisma turns an already slow-moving pace into a crawl.

And how about that story, huh? As mentioned before, it's a riff on the second season original series episode, "The Changeling," but while that ep had Kirk and Spock figuring out the problem at the twenty minute mark, TMP takes a seemingly endless two hours to arrive at the point. Until then, we get a lot of special effects (some good, some really not good at all), a handful of so-so philosophical discussions, and one decent twist—the Xeroxing of Ilia. Reportedly, when the producers were trying to put together a Trek's first big screen outing, they demanded it be "big" and "epic." They has the first part right; it's just that there's nothing to fill all that emptiness.

Kirk gets his Enterprise, anyway, and we get to see him getting it. We even get to see him flying over to it, in a sequence that's easily the movie's most irritatingly indulgent; we see the shuttle craft, we see the Enterprise floating in space in a docking bay, we see the shuttle craft approaching the Enterprise, we see the Enterprise has sides and stuff, we see the shutffle craft circling it, we get to see the ship again in case there's anybody watching who blinked and got scared it had disappeared, and so on. It's a scene that aims for awe and fan goodwill—holy shit, that's the Enterprise up there on the big screen!—but overshoots the mark and becomes absurd. About the only thing to recommend it is Jerry Goldsmith's typically excellent score.

While the docking sequence finds the movie at its low point in terms of pacing, the mistake it makes is one that director Robert Wise makes again and again throughout the picture. Wise, whose eclectic career stretched musicals like West Side Story to The Haunting (arguably one of the greatest horror movies of all time), seems like a good match for Trek; he did direct The Day The Earth Stood Still, which is about as good as thoughtful cinematic science fiction gets. But his work here never really gels into anything signifcant, and the director's cut released to DVD doesn't fix what's essentially broken.

Eventually Kirk boards the ship, and he gets his crew—including a cantankerous-as-ever McCoy, who looks like he just came from a hippy commune. A tragic transporter malfunction kills off the original science officer, but hey, Spock got some mental messages from the giant-space-cloud, and meets up with the Enterprise to offer his services. So everybody's together again, including Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu, not that any of them get to do much. They head towards the space cloud, and one near fatal warp incident aside (that goes on for ages and has nothing to do with anything; it just reminds us that Kirk doesn't know enough about his retooled ship), they arrive unscathed. Then they go inside.

Of TMP's indulgences, the Enterprise's slow creep to the heart of the disturbance is the easiest to defend. It's a clear attempt to ape (heh) the mid-melting beauty of Kubrick's 2001 inside-the-monolith scenes, and it doesn't really succeed; the effects work isn't consistent, and the fact that every minute or so we cut back to the bridge, where Kirk and the others are staring open-mouthed, undercuts the alienness. But it comes close, and some moments work better than others.

The best of these moments is when Spock decides to leave the ship to do some exploring on his own. The reasons are… ill-defined; something about him seeking answers and so such. (There's all this silliness about Spock having some kind of connection with V'Ger, the consciousness at the heart of the cloud. It could be a commentary on the affinity the Vulcan has for logical beings, but it comes across more as forced mysticism.) But whatever his reasons, the image of him floating in a space suit through a series of models and images haunted me as a kid, and is still surprisingly effective even today.

To continue the praise, Illia's disappearance and resurrection works well. To moderate that praise considerably, it doesn't work as well as it should; Khambatta isn't a strong enough actress to make much of an impression before her transformation into V'Ger's avatar (she isn't helped that her only character trait per the script is "fuckability"), and her relationship with Decker is never as involving as it needs to be to justify its conclusion. For any Angel fans out there, remember Wesley and Illyria? That's what this could've been; sure, it could never have had the same depth or history, but any depth would've been nice here. Decker doesn't have the slightest reservation about getting friendly with the Stepfordized version of his former flame, and his final decision—to join her in the glory that is V'Ger and save the world—is ill-motivated enough that you can imagine him flipping a coin off-camera right before. "Okay, heads I go with the fake bald chick who sort of digs me, tails I go back into the seminary and have an improbably hot daughter."

But at least he does something. Kirk's biggest contribution is bluffing the death cloud when it finally arrives at Earth; it's an in character moment, and reasonably exciting, but for the movie's climax, he, Spock, and McCoy are sidelined into delivering exposition and commenting on the danger. V'Ger turns out to be one of the Voyager space probes NASA shot out into space. It got damaged somewhere along the line, and found a planet of machines that fixed it and gave it its astonishing power. But apart from information gathering, it has no purpose; the will to sentience and life, but not the necessary tools. So it's up to Decker to make the ultimate sacrifice, and join with fake-Illia tp become part of V'ger; their love (it being the fifth element and all) supposedly lets the machine to evolve to the next level.

This final release should be triumphant. It isn't. The only happy bit in the entire movie comes at the end, with Kirk in his captain's chair and the threat resolved. Sulu asks him where to next, and Kirk gestures towards the viewscreen. "Out there," he says. It's a light, carefree line, and it always stuck with me; it's just too bad we have to wait so long to hear it.

I had reservations about the new Star Trek film. Any reasonable person would. The same characters as the original series, but with a new cast? The whole "It's hip, new, sexy!" ad campaign? Even worse—that awful "This is not your father's Trek." tagline. The franchise needed some new ideas, no question (I suppose it could've been left to die with some dignity, but no way are we going to do that)(admittedly, after Star Trek: Nemesis, there wasn't a whole lot of dignity left), but everything seemed to indicate the worst possible "re-imagining," all flashy, hollow stupidity, with no substance or craft behind it.

It turns out, I was only a little right. The new Trek doesn't have much substance—it occasionally nods at complexity, but doesn't have the focus to follow through—but I don't think I'd go so far as to call it stupid. Brash, yeah; sometimes ill-advised, with a script that really could've used a few more drafts, sure; but stupid? Nah. There's a good amount of care here, and a generally likeable cast. I've got reservations with this one as a standalone, but as a franchise starter, it's a success. I'm definitely looking forward to the next entry.

The plot is a mixture of getting-to-know-you basics and time travel hokum. If you've seen J.J. Abrams' first movie, Mission Impossible III, you've got a good idea of what to expect; because while the two movies don't share anything in terms of story, both have the professional, solidly constructed feel of a director whose less an auteur and more a craftsman. In both cases we've got familiar elements, but you're mostly so happy that those familiar elements are presented well that it's easy to ignore their predictability. For the duration of Trek, I was reasonably entertained, and when the end credits rolled, I didn't feel cheated by the experience. It was entirely competent; and in a world where Tony Scott and Michael Bay keep making movies, that can be very refreshing.

Spoilers ahead: So, Kirk is a young man full of piss and vinegar because his dad's dead and his stepdad likes antique cars (or something), and Spock is all conflicted because his mother is Winona Ryder. Really, who hasn't been there. The two both wind up at Starfleet, where it's an instant hate-hate relationship, but then a distress signal comes out from Vulcan, and it's off to the races. All the appropriate personnel wind up on the Enterprise (minus Scotty, who'll be along shortly), and on the trip to Vulcan, Kirk realizes that the signal is a trap; a realization that comes to late to save every other ship that answered the call. See, there's this nasty dude drilling a hole into Vulcan, and he's got a grudge against Spock—against old Spock, although he's not too fond of the younger version either. And despite everyone's best efforts to stop him, that nasty dude (Nero, a Romulan played by a painfully under-used Eric Bana) destroys Spock's homeworld, right before his eyes.

It's the only really shocking moment in the movie. (Well, theoretically shocking; I had it spoiled for me in an article on the Spock/Uhura romance.) Still, it's slightly undercut by the fact that we only see a handful of people die, including Spock's mom; despite all the talk about Vulcan culture, Spock's mourning is focused on Ryder, enough so that the end of the planet seems almost redundant. In a way, this is in keeping with the original series, as despite the apparent epic focus, we're really just dealing with a handful of people. The best Trek movies knew to work around that; this one doesn't even bother.

In case you haven't realized, there's time trave afoot here, and it's frustrating just how thoroughly lazy that time travel is. The only reason it's here at all is so we can have a new version of old characters, and so we never have to worry about keeping continuity with the established Trek-verse. (Just think; it's a universe where Voyager may never happen!) The lack of imagination beyond that is disappointing. Nero is, in the history of memorable Trek villains, about on par with Sybok from Star Trek V, only less touchy-feely. He yells a couple times, he bitches about his dead wife, and then he loses. Once you get the explanation for why Nero is doing what he's doing, you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it never does. Even the climax seems rote; the heroes come up with a plan, and then the plan basically goes as expected. Where's the excitment in that?

Really, the whole story is under-realized, with a reliance on coincidences (Kirk gets marooned on a planet right in the same spot as the old Spock, which just happens to be a few miles away from the Starfleet outpost where Scotty's stationed; it's a lucky thing this universe only has a handful of people, because there's apparently only a few square miles to keep them in) and clunky plotting (Romulus is going to be a destroyed by a super-nova; Spock is the only person who steps up to save them; he has time to build a ship to do the job; and the Romulans don't have time to evacuate? Or maybe make some more calls for help?). Revisions could've helped—there's definite potential here, but it needed focus, a stronger, smarter villain, and a few more clever uses of time.

I'm not sure if it's a script problem or just Abrams' sensibility, but I was let down by a lack of effective emotional beats. I liked everybody (although Karl Urban needs to smile once in a while), but I didn't really care about them that much. Potential arcs are introduced for the two leads, and then fail to have satisfying conclusions. Kirk's need to prove himself should've meant more than it does—he's aimless and destructive at the beginning, and he's got the "save the day" gene built in, and it starts acting up as soon as trouble hits. Then any real character gets lost in the shuffle in the final act. Kirk does things, he's heroic and all, but I wanted a stronger shift from Kirk-the-brat to Kirk-the-captain. Spock gets more to chew on, including a nifty scene between his young and old self (points here for not killing off old Spock), but there still wasn't any real resolution. Worst of all, the Kirk-Spock friendship never really gets started; they don't hate each other at the end, but after all that build-up, shouldn't we get at least a glimmer of connection?

But I did like the movie well enough, right? I think I said that a few paragraphs ago. To the positive, it's a good cast. Chris Pine is charming, getting the right balance between humor and determination, and Zachary Quinto does right by my favorite character, so good on him. Out of the ensemble, I'd say Simon Pegg and Zoe Saldana actually manage to improve on the originals; Pegg is more charming than Doohan ever was, and Saldana is probably the closest the movie comes to having an emotional center. She and Quinto sell the Uhura/Spock romance (something I was dreading beforehand), and I'm interested to see how that develops; although no more make-out scenes on the transporter, please and thank you.

Really, what saves the new Trek, what prevents it from being bogged down by an often indifferent screenplay and a director whose obsession with lens flares borders on the pathological, is that it actually wants you to have fun watching it. It doesn't always work—the two big comedy set-pieces here are wincingly bad, although given that this is from the guys who gave us robot urination in Transformers, I guess it could've been worse—but there's an enthusiasm here that would do the original series proud. The first Trek movie fails because it forgot that enthusiasm, that sheer, unadulterated joy that comes from seeking out new worlds, and new civilzations. This latest version could do with a few more smart ideas, but at least when it hits warp speed, you get pulled along for the ride.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture: C
Star Trek: B

Stray Observations:

  • New Chekov was annoying. Yeah, we get it, he's got a craaaaazy accent. Move on.
  • Why the hell was Winona Ryder in this movie? Is she supposed to be maternal now?
  • At the start of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Spock is interrupted after completing the Kolinahr ritual; in Star Trek, he mentions the ritual to the Vulcan High Council. So it's all connected, really.
  • Next week, we're moving to Thursdays, and continuing into the second season with "Catspaw" and "I, Mudd."