The Motion Picture aims for the embodiment of what we want out of a Star Trek movie. It only somewhat achieves that aim, but we like the good aspects enough to give The Motion Picture a 9 out of 10.
As a reminder, we’re using a different scale for our movie reviews (out of 10 rather than 5), and we’ll eventually rank them all. Full review –
This is inevitably one of our more controversial ratings for a Star Trek film. The Motion Picture quite frequently appears near the very bottom of most Trek movie rankings, often labeled as an overlong, pretentious 2001 rip-off. I think the 2001 comparison is kind of a fair one, but I also think that Trek should aspire to that level of science fiction. In a lot of ways it probably just comes down to the subjective experience of the film, as you’ll probably gather from the notes below, but strangely I also think The Motion Picture gets a bad rap because it doesn’t play by the action sci-fi blockbuster movie rules that Trek fans have such a complicated relationship with. Of all the Trek films, The Motion Picture stands out as the most ambitious, beautiful and awe-filled entry into the canon.
• Hands down The Motion Picture has the best score in the entire Trek franchise. Not only is it the origin of The Next Generation theme, it includes the gorgeous “Ilia’s Theme” as well as a great theme for the Klingons.
• The opening sequence featuring the Klingons is relatively lackluster. Technically it sets up the threat the cloud poses, but it doesn’t really register the way it should. I guess they thought showing the cloud destroy Klingon ships, the most well known Trek villains, would be enough to establish the threat to earth but… eh it’s just alright.
• It should be noted that this is the first appearance of the Klingon’s updated design, one that I think is pretty great, and obviously became the standard for the franchise going forward.
• This scene of Spock on Vulcan is the first indication that the scope of The Motion Picture is going to be pretty wide, and not just in the way any movie will feel bigger than the television that it originated from.
• I like the overall design idea for Kirk’s uniform. The more elegant, muted direction works well, but it’d be nice if it looked like the uniforms were made from a more substantial material, and if they dropped the bulky, floating belt buckle type thing.
• This is maybe the only Star Trek film where space actually feels like outer space. It’s big and open. The vessels and the camera move through the environment at a believable pace.
• There have been a lot of jokes made about the amount of time devoted to the reveal and circling of the re-fitted Enterprise. It’s true, it’s a really long sequence, but I love every second of it. Aside from the fact that the scene reflects how Kirk is feeling about getting command of the Enterprise again, to go on a new adventure, it also conveys how majestic and incredible a space ship should feel. It allows the viewer to have a real experience of this object in space. The music is great, and the cinematography is great.
• The introduction to the bridge and the rest of the crew is also pretty fantastic. It sets the tone of how this movie handles ship operation. It’s unfussy and dry, like there are real jobs being carried out. I think this helps to ground everything in a nice way.
• Shatner’s performance during these early parts of the film (his first visit to the bridge, breaking the news to Decker that he’s taking over command) is great. He plays the professionalism like Kirk is barely keeping a lid on the excited ache that he’s back in the place he’s been missing for so long. Kirk is finally returned to fulfilling his purpose, but he also sees that things will never be the way they were.
These are character themes that will come up like a million times in the TOS movies, most notably in the following film, The Wrath of Khan. The sentiment is perhaps more explicit in Khan, arguably for the better, but I love the kinda darker side of Kirk’s desire that surfaces in his interaction with Decker in this one. I think its a shade more complex here than it is elsewhere.
• How incredible does Bones look in that big beard and medallion?
• The sequence where the Enterprise gets underway has a nice balance of operational reality and reverence. Not reverence for the franchise necessarily, but for the act of exploration and interstellar travel.
• In a very nice, nerd-pleasing touch, the Original Series theme is sprinkled into the soundtrack when Kirk reads his starlog.
• Shortly after going into warp the Enterprise encounters a warmhole. Mostly it makes everything look all streaky and it slows down people’s voices. The silly voices and people rocking back and forth kind of distracts from, rather than heightening the threat of an oncoming object. They successfully blow it up and then… that’s it? It was all just a way to show that Decker knows the new Enterprise better than Kirk.
• It does lead to a nice enough scene where Kirk diplomatically defers to Decker.
• Decker and Ilia’s shared sexy past is ok, if it didn’t give Decker something to do once V’ger got a hold of her it probably wouldn’t be worth it.
• I like how Spock doesn’t even say “hello” when Bones comes up the Bridge to see him for the first time in however many years. In general the first sit down of Kirk, Spock and Bones is pretty good, but doesn’t sizzle the way their best scenes sometimes can.
• When the core of the cloud is revealed it’s pretty spooky, especially with the organ music. This is the only movie in the franchise to connect beauty and awe, I’d wager. The amount of time that’s dedicated to the approach on the object, and to the crew just observing and trying to figure out the thing really heightens the stakes of the film. It conveys the sense that the crew has never encountered anything like this, even if Trek fans know the Enterprise has run across all sorts of weird alien business over the years. Additionally, the time spent on the grandeur of the Enterprise earlier in the film works to set up the magnitude of the object. Seeing the tiny Enterprise as a speck against the scope of the alien structure is pretty disconcerting.
• It’s been noted by many others that The Motion Picture is essentially a movie length episode. That’s often used in a derogatory way, but I think the film takes common Trek ideas and attempts to really fill them out and use them to their fullest potential. In a lot of ways I think it succeeds.
• Spock sneaks out of the ship to try and make direct contact with V’Ger. His journey deeper into the alien is probably the coolest looking stuff in the entire franchise. I like that Kirk reluctantly lets Spock go, but in general TMP is pretty light on good character interaction.
• Spock learns from his mind meld that V’ger comes from a computer like intelligence. It doesn’t understand emotion or feeling! It wonders if there’s something more! This is basically the extent of The Motion Picture’s ambition. It doesn’t exactly crumble at the end, there’s still a lot of good stuff and serviceable stuff, it’s just that this is the point where the viewer realizes there isn’t going to be much thematic substance waiting at the end of this pretty compelling journey the movie has taken us on so far. That’s something that can happen in a lot of Trek episodes throughout the franchise. They often build to the same old conceits.
• Hey, surprise, V’ger is Voyager 6!!!!!! Ok, so the reveal is pretty silly, but I do like the idea that an old Earth probe is made sentient and wanders around. I wish they plunged a little deeper than “It’s like a child that has deep questions to ask its creator” There’s some pretty heavy mumbo jumbo about V’Ger transcending logic and the physical universe in order to progress, but I’d say it seems to have plenty to still learn without having to leave the universe quite yet.
• Not surprisingly Decker sacrifices himself for kind of loopy movie type reasons, and the Earth is saved and the Enterprise flies “Out there, that-away.”
So, in conclusion, The Motion Picture has a certain level of pretense that understandably deters a lot of viewers, and there isn’t a whole lot of substance to back it up in the end. But then, there isn’t really much substance to any of the movies, and The Motion Picture aims high and is suspenseful and beautiful in the right ways all the way through.