Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Regarding the immense, murky, superintelligent cloud that threatens to destroy the planet Earth, one anonymous spaceperson remarks, “There must be something incredible inside generating it!” I wish the same could be said for the immense Star Trek—The Motion Picture, which disappoints by seeming to have no driving force at its center. The “something incredible” that the Enterprise goes up against during Old Home Week Among the Stars is a living machine wishing to collect all human knowledge and to link up with its Creator. It’s called … well, phonetically, Veejer—so that the cast sounds very silly when addressing this almost godlike entity. I wouldn’t dream of spelling out the explanation of that name, but it almost seems to have been suggested by the title gimmick of Zardoz (the name of an old book called The Wizard of Oz compressed into the futuristic word). It’s clever, anyway, and the whole Veejer episode is pretty engaging, just as the really good episodes of the old Star Trek TV series are.

There’s the old emotion-vs.-logic battle again, with Spock caught in the middle as usual. This stuff is fun; the problem is, we’ve had to sit through a slackly paced, indulgent first hour. Seeing the Klingons get zapped is satisfying for any series fan, and Spock does a nifty turn among the hot springs of Vulcan, rejecting the “symbol of total logic,” but…. There’s an unintentionally hilarious bit when the Enterprise gets sucked toward impact with an asteroid, as the actors jiggle around in their seats, lights are distorted, and voices are slowed down (the sequence more resembles Saturday Night Live’s takeoff on Star Trek than any genuine space turbulence). A reverential ride around the revamped Enterprise by Kirk and Scotty is simply too long, and the warm glances and handclasps exchanged by the two men are embarrassing because they’re overdone. William Shatner always managed to keep Kirk relatively charming on the small screen, but the film unattractively exposes his swagger. (Actually, an examination of this other side to Kirk could’ve been the means to an interesting film. But the ambiguities are merely hinted at. After McCoy tongue-lashes him for being “obsessive” about the Enterprise, we see Kirk standing alone in his quarters, as a darkly-shaded glass door slides across the widescreen to cover him—dynamite effect, except that it doesn’t grow organically out of the film and is not followed through on subsequently.) Nimoy looks awful but keeps his cool as Spock; DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy does his aging Jed Leland imitation, and is as enjoyably crotchety as ever. And speaking of Citizen Kane, that film’s editor Robert Wise has continued the use of the earlier film’s deep focus, in the scenes of the crew on the bridge of the starship. More often than not, it isn’t real deep-focus but the use of mattes to produce a comparable sharpness of near and distant figures; unfortunately this results in a fuzzy no-man’s-land in the middle ranges of the screen. The disturbing thing about this, and about the pretty, completely unexciting special effects, is the easy superficiality of this endeavor. To look for any kind of meaning, intellectual or emotional, in Star Trek is to be confronted by a black hole.

© 1980 Robert Horton

STAR TREK
Direction: Robert Wise. Screenplay: Harold Livingston, after a story by Alan Dean Foster. Cinematography: Richard H. Kline. Production design: Harold Michelson. Special effects: John Dykstra, Douglas Trumbull. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Production: Gene Roddenberry.
The players: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Stephen Collins, Persis Khambatta, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett, Grace Lee Whitney.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.