Sunday, May 4, 2014

Star Trekking: The Motion Picture

2001: A Space Odyssey is not a film that has been made famous for its story.  It is a film that one judges like a painting; you interpret your own meaning, dissect what's there to death, and enjoy the surreal ride. There's no human story to get behind, no real characters, and truth be told, no fun (sober, anyway).

Star Trek is not like that.  Yes, symbolism is there for further interpretation, but everything is grounded within a strong story and is the world is populated likable characters.  Those two factors always gets the forefront, whether in the best or worst episodes of the original series.  So then, can someone please explain to me WHY IN GOD'S NAME THEY TRIED TO TURN STAR TREK INTO 2001?!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Star Trek's ratings were never high during its initial run from '66-'69.  The popularity of the show happened when it was put into reruns, garnering fans and acclaim from all over the world. Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator, desperately wanted to make a film adaptation while morale was high.  With the original cast interested, plans were set in motion, but production was delayed for years, nearly a decade in fact.  Finally, the film fans had been waiting all that time premiered after a rushed production and endless rewrites. It was to be called Star Trek: The Motion Picture, because I guess Star Trek: The Movie might be too tacky.

The film opens with some really nice shots of Klingon ships in space, being attacked by a strange, cloud-like entity. The incident gets the attention of Starfleet, and they decide to investigate the matter.  Captain Kirk (now Admiral Kirk, reprised by William Shatner of course), is given orders to helm the Enterprise once again and find out what the strange entity known as V'Ger is and what it may do to Earth if it gets too close.

Throughout this journey, we are reintroduced to the Enterprise crew in a reunion-style manner.  McCoy (Deforest Kelly) is called aboard reluctantly while Spock (Leonard Nimoy) feels the impending doom that V'Ger is radiating, so he joins the crew as well.  Those that apparently never left the crew to begin with are Scotty (James Doohan, sporting a hilarious mustache), Chekov (Walter Koenig), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and Sulu (George Takei).  Newcomers to the cast include a rival of sorts for Kirk in the form of Willard Decker (Stephen Collins) and the bald-headed alien beauty known as Ilia (Persis Khambatta).  Disappointingly, Decker and Ilia are much more important to the overall story than any of the main cast, but that's just a small part of what's wrong with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  But let's start on a positive note.

There's plenty to enjoy here. It's very interesting to see the cast 10 years later to see how they've changed--and they've all changed.  Their acting is cool and confident, as though all those in-between years of conventions and ego boosting helped them slip into their characters even easier.  Their interactions, however, aren't made very warm happy.  There's very little sentimentalism abound in The Motion Picture, and that would be fine if the crux of the show didn't depend on the chemistry between its leads.  Not to say that their character traits are absent entirely, but something is certainly lacking.  There's no time for much character development, seeing as how we've got a miles-long cloud to fly through.  Hooray.

The first few minutes of the film are pretty solid, setting up clear stakes, assembling the crew, seeing Starfleet (and the future Earth) for the first time, and getting treated to some great visual effects, especially for the pre-CGI era.  But as soon as I saw the new costumes and set for the Enterprise, I could feel that this was going to be lacking the heart and humor of the show.   The costumes are muted and prison-like, without a trace of color or personality.  The new Enterprise interiors are stark and uninteresting, supposedly to give the film more "realistic credibility."  It may suit the film's serious tone, but a little vibrancy may have helped it at least feel like Star Trek (and would have lent it some much needed charm).

Not resembling the source material is a problem with the film, but it would all be forgiven if what they went with was something good all on its own.  Unfortunately, what fans and the uninitiated get is a Star Trek episode being drawn out far too long under the guise of being a thought-provoking sci-fi 2001 imitator.  Why does the scene where the Enterprise leaves the space station need to take what feels like a year and a day? Besides making a certain joke from Galaxy Quest retroactively much funnier for me, I just don't see the point. Unlike 2001, which is all about symbolism and interpreting the non-narrative, The Motion Picture does have a cohesive story that cannot be interpreted in any other way.  It also doesn't start until about an hour into the film.

Beautiful as some of the visuals are, it is an absolute chore to get through that first hour.  There are hints of tension between Kirk and Decker concerning who should really be running the ship, and there are of course the reunion moments while the cast is getting reassembled.  But traveling though that cloud is absolutely yawn-inducing, and it feels more like filler than I'm sure director Robert Wise intended.  Only once V'Ger's origins start to unfold and the plot gets going does it begin to resemble Star Trek, and even then it would only be a so-so episode.

Robert Wise is a masterful and versatile director, don't get me wrong.  He has crafted some of the most influential and astounding films of all time, including The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music (not exactly chained to one genre, was he?).  He was even an editor on Citizen Kane. However, the script he was working with doesn't allow for the depth that a slow build requires; what we essentially have here is a script that doesn't require any slow build for its ultimate reveal, so the enormous amount of time we spend getting into the heart of V'ger doesn't pay off in the slightest.  His directing is fine, and as stated, the actors are given freedom to just "be" their characters.  But my God, if only Wise had a better story.

Now, with all that bashing out of the way, it's time to talk about the only thing that I absolutely loved about The Motion Picture: its music.  Jerry Goldsmith is an outstanding composer, with work ranging from Planet of the Apes to Poltergeist to Total Recall, Jerry Goldsmith has made some of the most memorable film scores of all time.  The score for this film is truly one of his best, giving the film a much needed sense of majesty and wonder.  I'd even go so far as to say it makes the film watchable, hell, even enjoyable. I cannot wait to hear it before every episode of The Next Generation when I binge watch the show.

The visuals are very nice, but they wear out their welcome and serve no purpose to the story.  It's great that the cast was assembled for a feature length film, but how disappointing that they are given so little to do.  I feel as if the promotional poster for the film is trying to make up for what the movie lacks, with its bright rainbows and its tagline, "The Human Adventure is Just Beginning."  Don't I wish.