The implicit message of most of Star Trek has been the value of reason against the immobile force of logic. The triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy almost always allowed for a series of differing viewpoints that contrasted humanism, hubris and duty as it applied to the survival of an elite group of men and women.
“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” gets a lot of shit for being really, brutally dull. It’s one of those barely justified opinions, such as people who damn “Spider-Man 3” for being “emo” or people who say that “Aliens” is better than “Alien” because there are fucking guns in it. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is a deeply flawed, incredibly dated, overly trippy near-masterpiece, one that has received more flack than it could ever possibly deserve.
“The Motion Picture” makes almost no attempt to draw in new fans but it’s almost better for it. It’s a movie that is so dramatically different from the show that came before it that giving newbies a working base is almost pointless. Characters are introduced and reintroduced all over the place, with characters such as Chekov and Sulu barely being introduced at all.
It’s a movie that’s more about atmosphere than characters or plot and it actively challenges the viewers to care about what’s going on. This is a movie that wants to be about three characters, Spock, V’ger and Decker but it becomes more about stoic logic bumping up against an unknowable universe.
The beginning of every episode of Star Trek has Kirk, and by extension the audience, standing against the unknown. We’re boldly going where no one has ever been but in a show that went as long as Star Trek in its varied incarnations, a lot of the gaps slowly get filled in. I have a pretty solid idea about almost everything that happens in the Alpha Quadrant. The Klingons and the Romulans both have understandable, even predictable goals and societies, the future is almost written. What “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” tried to do was to give audiences a look at something they hadn’t seen and couldn’t understand. It was a bold move, one the movie doesn’t entirely pull off. The big third act reveal is far too similar to “The Changeling,” the idea of a semi-sentient space cloud is a threat that has come up a few too many times and the threat of a consuming machine is one that Star Trek bumped up against far too many times.
What I’m trying to say is that the less audiences analyze “The Motion Picture,” the more fulfilling it is. Much like the film it drew from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” this coasts on atmosphere. There are near 10 minute, masturbatory shots of the outside of the Enterprise, an 8 minute sequence of the ship entering the cloud paired with silent reaction shots and a series of garbled audio cues that contrast with the crisp, clean and beautiful revamped musical score and terse dialogue. As I said earlier, it’s a film about contradictions. The dissonance isn’t something that distracts from the film as much as one that helps to create a compelling product.
The dissonance is clear from the beginning. As Spock finds himself without the Enterprise, he’s embraced his Vulcan obsessions. He’s tried to fully immerse himself in logic and still struggles with what he’s taken from his time with Kirk. As he returns to his ship and friends, he’s cold, disinterested and trying to get back into who he wants to be. The further he goes, the more he has to embrace who he is, trying to mind meld with the alien ship, dealing with the inhumanity of the herald of V’ger and facing off with a challenge he hates how much he cares about. Spock’s realization of what he needs to be to help the crew is heartening and lovely, a great transformation for a character experimenting with who he wants and needs to be.
Dekker and Ilia’s relationship is possibly the weakest aspect of the film. We receive hints of a past they once had her transformation into a herald of the V’ger is a tragic moment for both. That being said, it’s hard to buy into Decker’s decision at the climax. We’re meant to believe that his love of Ilia drives him into their sacrificial bond and it’s clear that he has feelings for her even after her rebirth. It’s just a little much. When he makes it clear that he’s dreamed of being a part of a new life-form, it’s hard to believe that he’s anything other than horny.
I adore most of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” mostly for the reasons that others hate it. It’s a trippy, bizarre film, filled with a distinct lack of humanity and a focus on the unexplainable. It’s a movie rich with meaningless subtext, visual flourishes and style for its own sake. It’s dated, meandering, and reeking of an over-budget, over-blown mess. It is, however, in these moments that it shines as a piece of unadulterated, unbearably earnest piece of space age melodrama.
Next Up: We’re back to the series proper with “The Deadly Years,” which is like The Wonder Years but deadlier.