Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Retrospective)

One month to go until the new Star Trek movie. So I thought I'd spend the month leading up to its premiere doing a retrospective of the previous Trek films featuring the original series cast. Why? Because I've got nothing better to do - that's why.

So, before we begin with The Motion Picture, let me explain to you what kind of Trek fan I am.

* I own every film, save Insurrection on DVD. And I own a good portion of the DVDs for the TV shows, with the complete Deep Space Nine collection and a complete lack of Voyager. Star Trek II and VI are two of my sick movies - so, being the gimp I am, they get a lot of play in this house.

* I have never been to a convention. I don't read the books, collect the memorabilia, or write fan fiction. I just like the TV shows and the movies, and the stories they tell.

* Thanks to DS9, I know way too much about Klingon politics, religious beliefs, and mating rituals.

* I can argue successfully why Kirk is a better captain than Picard in ten words: double karate chop, drop kick, making out with green aliens.

* I don't know the difference between a "Trekkie" and "Trekker." And, frankly, I don't want to know.

* The wife and I may use the word "Qapla' " at anytime during an average day, even for very minor daily triumphs.

So, that being said, let the retrospective begin:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

If you're still reading this, I assume you're familiar with the films, so I'm going to skip writing a plot synopsis or chronicling the history of each film's production. Also, for this film, I'm going completely off the 2001 Director's Edition. It is, without a doubt, the best version of The Motion Picture.

Mad props go to the late Robert Wise, a consummate professional, who wanted to deliver to fans the best possible version of the film he could with the existing footage. And, no doubt, Wise wanted a sense of closure for what was probably the most turbulent production in his eight-decade long career. The Director's Edition mixes elements from both the theatrical cut and the longer home video edition into a tighter, more cohesive story - a story that almost gains momentum and emotional resonance as it heads to an interesting climax. The new digital effects mesh almost seamlessly with the original optical effects and successfully clarify some of the more confusing sequences in the film - especially in the second act when the Enterprise first encounters V'ger.

The Director's Edition is unable to fix the fundamental flaw of this film: that this story could have worked - and worked better - if it was not a Star Trek film. Only Spock's character arc, which provides what heart and soul the film has, makes The Motion Picture a Star Trek story. The final shooting script could've been easily rewritten as a stand-alone sci-fi film with new characters and a new setting and play out almost exactly the same way. The classic characters feel off throughout the entire film, lost in a story in which they don't fully belong. And buried under the endless effects sequences, needless reaction shots, strange, stilted dialog, and pastel outfits (because nothing says "command authority" like baby blue), is the seed for a truly great, thought-provoking story.

Forgive me for getting all English Major here, but I find it fascinating that V'Ger's search for identity and spiritual belief is so violent, impulsive, and destructive - not to mention the fact that it's prejudiced against anything that isn't like it. Few stories illustrate so well a fundamental truth about our search for a "creator": deep down, we want God to be in our image, not the other way around.

But all this gets lost in the translation to the screen. It lacks the drama and relevance of the best of Trek. All the characters, save Spock, merely react to the plot. One essential element of a good Trek story is having the captain take command, to make hard decisions, to make sacrifices, and since it's Star Trek, to learn and grow. Besides spending the first act being a complete dick in his pursuit to get the Enterprise back (another idea with potential that goes nowhere), Kirk has nothing to do but keep the Enterprise alive to reach the climax, in which he plays only a small part. Kirk has no stake in the story, besides, obviously, saving the world - but that's something he does, like, every other week, so that's not interesting by itself.

The supporting cast doesn't fare much better. Only Bones, an unstoppable force of cantankerous nature, rises above the script. Worst of all is the casting of Persis Khambatta, a model turned actress, as Lt Ilia, who is abducted by V'Ger and becomes the physical personification of the creature. With a different actress in the part - and a quick rewrite removing all that weird Deltan nonsense - some real stakes could've been added to the story.

Personally, I'd call the film an interesting failure, with some beautiful effects sequences, a stirring score, and a handful of memorable character moments. But its effect on Star Trek - and science fiction films in general - is monumental. The Motion Picture completely redefined the look of Star Trek, with only the uniforms getting a complete redesign in The Wrath of Khan (thank God). Certainly the look of each Star Trek film and TV series evolved over time, but its point of origin comes more from The Motion Picture than The Original Series.

More importantly, The Motion Picture is one of the last "old-school" science fiction films ever made by a major studio, in the vein of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Day the Earth Stood Still (the latter directed by Wise). From the beginning overture (Jerry Goldsmith at his best) to its introspective conclusion, it is a slow, thoughtful picture short on action and humor, a film out of touch with what audiences wanted in 1979.

A lot of people blame Star Wars completely for reshaping sci-fi. Some would even accuse of it "dumbing down" the genre. But the success of Alien in 1979, the critical failure of this film (The Motion Picture made a lot of money - but few people liked it), and the initial financial failure of Blade Runner in 1982 are also instrumental to the "summer blockbuster" mentality that sci-fi films are still stuck in to this day. Though it has its failings, I wish studios still made films like The Motion Picture.

Also, 1982 saw the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, quite possibly the very best Star Trek story of all time, full of action, humor, and poignancy. Qualities that The Motion Picture often lacks.

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