Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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Robert Wise directs William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley in this first big screen continuation of the classic space exploration adventure series. 

A strange beast of a blockbuster… narratively unambitious, drawn out, ponderous and completely enthralling. While no die hard Trekker, I have a massive soft spot for the original series. 20 years past its sell by date by the late 1980s and yet we as a family watched it pretty much whenever it was repeated during my childhood. I couldn’t tell you the philosophical difference between a Klingon and a Romulan but when I do catch an episode it is as familiar in my memory as my first bedroom. And I must have wasted a forgotten youthful afternoon watching this first attempt to translate Kirk and Co to the big screen at some point before puberty rebooted my priorities.

The plot has Shatner (Wig? Girdle?) retaking command of his old crew and ship when a mysterious drifting interstellar cloud threatens to wipe out all life it encounters. And it is headed straight for Earth! The eventual answers behind what is at the centre of this destructive nebula will be familiar to anyone who has casually watched even just a few episodes of the sixties’ syndicated programmes. There’s not much more plot here than your basic 45 minute Trek story. Only streeeeeeeeetttccchhheeedd over a bonus two hours.

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The Enterprise has a new captain (not for long) and sexy navigator who have ‘Third Act Red Shirts’ written all over them. Every one in the old gang gets their comeback entrance scene. It fills an hour nicely. Spock temporarily has hippy hair and Bones temporarily has a tramp’s beard. Nobody mentions it has been decades since they last worked, especially awful Yeoman Janice Rand (she lasted only a handful of stories in the 1967 season before being mysteriously written out)  even makes a glaring one scene return where her actions instantly cause 2 deaths. A gruesome transporter fuck-up that lingers in the fear receptors.

But once everyone is settled on the bridge… they stay on the bridge. It is just another work day with very little sparkle. They stare at the viewcsreen for pretty much 90 minutes. The Enterprise floats slowly further and further into oblivion. Bridge, viewscreen, float. Bridge, viewscreen, float. Bridge, viewscreen, float. Bridge, viewscreen, float. They FINALLY reach the root of the problem, red shirts sacrifice themselves, everyone you care about zips off, away from the Federation in their old iconic space jalopy. “THE HUMAN ADVENTURE CONTINUES” Have the codgers just stolen the Enterprise on a pensioners joyride? Minimal excitement, minimal action, minimal banter even.

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This must be an awful movie, right? No.

Yes, it essentially is a filmed play set in the cockpit set of an old TV cult classic where no notable big events occur. But during that languid journey there is a strange beauty. Douglas Trumbull’s galactic miniature work and spacescapes are eye poppingly gorgeous. At times the meteor dust and radiation vibes look like those Magic Eye paintings from the 90s. Sure nothing happens in these expansive vistas either, apart from the Enterprise slowly floating across them ominously, but they are unlike anything committed to cinema before. Not the stark, star speckled abyss of Lucas’ Star Wars… these are colourtastic special effect masterworks. And while the endless bridge scenes lack emotion, agency or camaraderie, again that trippy FX work intrudes for occasional bursts of marvel. A warp anomaly makes Kirk and Co. go disco. A lightning bolt of pure energy investigates the crew like a glowing bandsaw of the Gods. Spock goes on a 2001 inspired space walk through the death cloud’s psychedelic heart.

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The film is the last Golden Age Hollywood epic. The last David Lean / John Ford / William Wyler old fashioned afternoon devourer. It happens to be set in space. It happens to be based on the type of cheap, episodic TV that almost killed cinema. It happened to come out in the movie brat era. But it is classical in its form and its bold anachronistic intention. It starts with an overture for fuck sake. What does old school,  twilight years Robert Wise (journeyman director of The Haunting and The Day The Earth Stood Still) bring to this strange production? Grandeur and scale. He adopts this diluted and ill fitting reboot episode of a cancelled TV show and nurtures it like it is galactic Gone With Wind. The sheer majestic size of it overwhelms. Jerry Goldsmith’s score abandons the famous wooing theme tune of telly and creates an adventurous belter of orchestral superiority. So good they nicked it for The Next Generation.

I reckon back in 1977 Robert Wise wouldn’t have been able to pick the U.S.S Enterprise out of a police line-up. But by 1979 he know instinctively that the old girl deserved a ten minute glamour sequence where James T. and Scotty approach and circle her like the revered empress of the stars she is. The reverence. The sheer goddamn, patient reverence. “Welcome to Jurassic Park!” Perhaps Spielberg was taking notes about how the old hack approached framing, respecting and promoting to legend the icons of this abandoned cult novelty. He turns the trivial into testimonial.

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Wise elevates, rises up his source material. Makes  Doctor Zhivago out of “Wagon Train in space”, treats the middling TV name cast like they are Olivier and Guinness and Brando and Tracy all together at last. To watch the sheen and craft and respect leant to a show that used to be mainly be about a cocky space shagger, his pointy eared first mate and, more often than not, a monster in a rubber suit chasing them around the desert is truly a sight to behold. Who cares if it is a slog? It boldly slogs where no intellectual property has ever slogged before.

PS… My highlight is when Kirk’s learns that one of his crew and the form of  “villian’s” probe takes had a relationship once, his instant reaction is that the bloke should seduce it. Some things never change. Surprised he didn’t try himself first.

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