The first Star Trek, like all the odd-numbered entries in the original run of movies, gets a harsh deal. When Star Trek II came out a few years later, it wasn’t even originally credited as ‘II’ as though it didn’t want to have anything to do with its predecessor! Anyway, I don’t entirely agree with the ‘odd = bad/even = good’ logic, as I love The Search for Spock and Insurrection. Besides, Nemesis was hardly a classic, was it? The Motion Picture is usually regarded as a false first-step – too long, too slow, too pretentious, and yes, when you put it next to the tighter, more dramatic, exciting and gutsy Wrath of Khan, it does feel somewhat sedate in comparison. It received a mediocre reception upon release, and I suppose coming after the phenomenon that was Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien, this might have felt like a step-down in big-screen excitement. To be fair, Robert Wise’s film isn’t entirely riffing off those two films – if anything, the film it resembles the most is 2001: A Space Odyessy, what with the many (some would say tiresome) extended sequences of space travel visuals. There’s what seems to be an attempt to deliver a meditative, awe-inspiring experience that takes the time to gaze at the stars and all of its wonders. There’s even a musical overture before the Paramount logo fades in. Yes, a minute and a half of on-screen darkness! I have no problem with this – it’s great these days to see a film that really savours its spectacle, and I suppose your tolerance for such sedate travelogues will depend on the size of your TV.
Another possible reason for its so-so reception may have been because it heralded the long-awaited reunion of the crew of a television show cancelled a decade earlier, which might have only resonated with its fans and nobody else, a concept that doesn’t exactly scream cross-over appeal. The thing is, I’ve never watched a single episode of the original TV show all the way through, but I have seen all the films, so coming to this retrospectively meant that the whole reunion element still meant something to me, because I’ve got to know all the crew since. Yes, it lacks the excitement and the darkness of the next two instalments, yes it is slow, yes the uniforms don’t look as good first time round and okay, so there’s not a scenery-chewing villain, but try to enjoy the first film for what it actually does offer rather than what’s missing. This is an impressively grand film, probably the most beautifully visualised and epic of the entire series – some of the special effects (such as when the Enterprise shifts to warp speed look a little crude) but the sights of the enormous hostile lifeforce that threatens to devour Earth look astonishing, and when the crew delve inside it, it’s quite beautiful, abetted by Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful score. See, at least this film bothered to come up with its own music, unlike Kubrick and his library of classical themes!
William Shatner is Kirk, and William Shatner is William Shatner, know what I mean? It’s a performance beyond parody, beyond anyone else’s capabilities. I’ll leave it at that. The dynamic between him and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Bones (DeForest Kelley) is as perfectly judged as ever. The supporting crew do their thing – Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekhov – they’re there, they don’t get to do an awful lot, but it’s good to have them on board. More substantial performances come from two new recruits to the ship – Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), whose command of the ship is rudely taken over by a returning Kirk, and striking navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta). Decker could have been a straight-forward rival to Kirk, but their dynamic does develop beyond mere hostility and they end up recognising each other’s faults. Actually that makes it sounds like every buddy-buddy movie ever, doesn’t it? Ilia’s character barely registers as much more than window dressing in the first half, but the plot gives Khambatta a lot more to do around the halfway mark, even if she does have to spend it in unnecessary revealing attire. By the end, all the spectacle and razzle-dazzle might not have amount to anything near as profound as the filmmakers were probably hoping for, but The Motion Picture is a noble, ambitious venture. Just try not to judge it against The Wrath of Khan too harshly.