Star Trek: The Motion Picture review
The year was 1979. I was five years old, my parents had gotten divorced in June, and I had just started Kindergarten. However, I still had my bi-weekly weekend visits with my dad to look forward to, and on a day in December of that year, he excitedly took me to the movies, while my baby brother was ill. The film Dad was so excited to take me to see: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
I wasn’t nearly as excited about what movie we were going to see as much as I was about having one-on-one time with my dad. Star Trek, at that point, didn’t hold a candle to Star Wars in my mind; it was just one of those old shows that my dad liked (along with Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Land of the Giants). But it did have spaceships in it, and my five-year-old mind was all over anything with spaceships.
As the theatre darkened and we moved through the trailers of I-Don’t-Even-Remember upcoming films and moved on to the feature, I instantly recognized the silhouettes of three Klingon ships. Although I had seen Klingon ships before, I’d never seen them like this. These Klingon ships were so BIG on the screen, and so real, you could almost touch them. Both the Klingons and their fate by a mysterious “cloud” filled me with morbid fascination.
Then came the familiar faces. The first was Spock, albeit with long hair, on Vulcan, then Kirk, looking heroic as he stepped off an immaculately sleek shuttle in an immaculately sleek San Francisco. Then, we saw Scotty, as he took Kirk on what was to be a tour of the newly designed Enterprise.
And then, we saw the Enterprise. Thus my affinity for Star Trek began, not from the familiar faces of the show my dad liked (although they were nice to see on the big screen) but from that ship in its intricate drydock. She was sleek, functional, majestic, beautiful… and wherever she voyaged, I wanted to be aboard her. I was completely hooked on the sensory experience. Being on board the Enterprise, whatever the familiar faces of the crew were doing or talking about, was like a Disneyland of functionality and engineering; it became the subject of my first true appreciation of art. A last, beautiful, sweeping shot delighted us, as we looked “up” to the very big and beautiful Enterprise engage her warp drive to her next voyage.
A fan had been born that day. I only had a single complaint about the film, which was that it seemed to lack ship-to-ship combat action. I really wanted to see the new Enterprise up against one of those new Klingon ships. Aged five, I had a child’s taste for excitement, even though I still loved the film.
Admittedly, The Motion Picture does feature some similarities to plots from previous Star Trek episodes. “The Changeling” is the most obvious, with the two stories involving machines in search of their “creator”, which turns out to be Human. When I first saw The Motion Picture, though, I had not yet even seen “The Changeling”, so my young mind wasn’t aware of the plot similarities between these two productions until years later. The Motion Picture also includes elements of “The Doomsday Machine”, similarly featuring a mammoth machine of immense power (it, too, threatens to swallow the Enterprise) as well as a character named “Decker”; and “The Immunity Syndrome”, in which the Enterprise penetrates an outer “cloud” layer to get to an interstellar threat facing the ship. However, Star Trek borrowing plot elements from other sources or even from itself is hardly unique to this film, so I don’t think recycled plot elements is a problem here. Every plot comes from somewhere, you just have to do variations on the theme not seen before, and The Motion Picture did so spectacularly.
Gradually developing a knowledge of and an interest in Star Trek, my brother and I saw the film, with Dad, two additional times at the local drive-in theater. I will concede that The Motion Picture’s slowness of pace and cerebral plot may have contributed to its relatively lacklustre performance with critics of the time, but my brother and I were definitely in the category of fans who thought it was simply epic. When one looks at how this film has aged gracefully since its release, how it has grown in esteem with the release of new cuts (one in 1983, and a spectacular Director’s Edition in 2001), it’s quite clear that The Motion Picture is a film that has withstood the test of time quite well. In fact, I believe it was simply ahead of its time, and needed that time to get the recognition it deserved.
During the course of the film, both Kirk and Spock go through significant character arcs that I, for one, have been able to identify with at different points of my life, Spock’s especially. As he goes from believing his Human half to be a weakness responsible for his pain to embracing it and finding new strength, we too find strength in embracing new ways of thinking that we have previously been rejecting. This, in turn, can lead to a better understanding of others and even of the universe and our place in it.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not only one of my favourite Star Trek films but also one of my favourite films of all time. I could not have asked for a better introduction to the Star Trek universe, and I predict that our ever-increasing understanding of the universe may prompt future Trek writers to look to this introspective adventure as a brilliant example of what to aspire to.
A freelance writer, Douglas has several years experience writing newsletters, sales copy and movie reviews. He is also the author of the screenplays Supralight and Bloodstone: The Sorceress and the Warrior. His reviews of Star Trek films (as well as a DS9 retrospective) have been published on the TrekSphere website.