Was this a hidden gem cruelly forgotten by time and replaced by legions yelling žKhan!Ó with childish glee? Or did it completely lack the cheesy fun of the original series?
Inspired by the hype surrounding the latest Star Trek film, I finally broke down and watched the series' often derided opening film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This wasn't my first time seeing the 1979 big-budget opener; I have slim memories of a theater showing as a kid. Vague images of a bald woman and some crazy lights don't really paint a vivid picture. This feeling might be shared by some members of the general public. My friendly neighborhood librarian saw the DVD at the check out and gave his expertise on the žcute bald chickÓ and confusing plot. It was time to get to the bottom of the story. Was this a hidden gem cruelly forgotten by time and replaced by legions yelling žKhan!Ó with childish glee? Or did it completely lack the cheesy fun of the original series?
I should make it clear that I viewed the director's cut, which contained better effects and other changes to the original version. But the main structure of the story remains the same. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returns to The Enterprise and reunites with familiar characters like Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) to battle a cloudy menace and save Earth. Sounds like fun, right? Well, not really. I couldn't imagine that the cynics would be right about the serious tone. But this film definitely struggles with TNG syndrome. I understand that Earth's safety is at stake, but a few more smiles couldn't have hurt. Shatner gives it his best shot, and Nimoy makes Spock's journey the most interesting part. They just can't overcome the often-dreary atmosphere.
Thankfully, the visual effects are stunning, especially by 1979 standards. The crew gets every ounce out of the Enterprise miniature and depicts the giant enemy brilliantly. Even better is Jerry Goldsmith's grand score, which refuses to leave your brain for days. I had no idea the main theme was used for the TNG credits eight years later. But here's the problem. The great effects and music can only get you so far. Early on, Kirk and Scotty (James Doohan) ride a shuttle on their way to the Enterprise. This scene starts wonderfully, then it keeps going, and going, and going. There are only so many times that Director Robert Wise can cut back to the characters' blank expressions before we start checking our watch. The other ridiculous scene involves the ship's entry into the massive cloud. While the crew watches the viewscreen for eternity, impressive effects are shown. It's maddening to watch the editors ruin a perfectly good scene by dragging it on forever. Apparently inspired by long sequences in 2001 and Alien, Wise tries to outdo them with a crazy-long set-up.
There are some definite similarities between this film and this summer's Star Trek blockbuster. Both were released after extended breaks since the last franchise entry and don't continue an ongoing crew story. They also involve an apparently unstoppable enemy heading directly towards Earth. And Spock appears at just the right time mid-film to keep the story moving forward. Of course, the new release is easily the most light-hearted of all the movies. It does veer too far into silly territory a few times, but ends up delivering an enjoyable ride. I respect Wise's vision, which brings grandeur to space and provides some great moments. It's not the worst Star Trek film (that honor goes to The Final Frontier) by a long shot. Just bring a few doses of caffeine if you're going to add this one to your next movie night.