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Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Watched this again and some comments are in order.

The first hour is simply wonderful. The pace is measured, harking back to 2001 rather than than Star Wars, and - thanks to Jerry Goldsmith's magnificent score - not even the infamous four minute Enterprise flyby gets boring. (Incidentally, no Enterprise has ever looked more substantial than in this scene, and the shot of the big E leaving orbit as the sun rises past Earth is possibly my favourite starship shot ever. Hey, Entertainment Tonight used it in their credits so it must have been good!)

It's at the sixty minute mark that the film runs into problems, and it's not (just) the rightly-criticised interminable Vejur cloud sequences (mercifully curtailed somewhat in the director's edition) that are to blame.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it resolves the primary conflict too soon.

The TOS movies have always been Kirk movies (The Voyage Home possibly excepted), and TMP revolves (or is supposed to revolve) around Kirk's obsession with regaining the Enterprise and the effect this has on his command ability. And so the early scenes where he spars with Decker and McCoy have real energy. Unfortunately this conflict is to all intents and purposes resolved less than one hour into the film: McCoy gives him a good talking to and when he acknowledges that Decker's responsibility is to offer alternatives he shows that he has learned that lesson. There are some minor tussles with Decker afterwards ("How do you define unwarranted?") but nothing that impacts the plot in any way. Heck, he and Decker start exchanging lovey dovey smiles and Decker even starts calling him "Jim", so clearly the old dog/young dog tension has gone away; and with it our interest in Kirk's character.

Contrast this with TWOK where Kirk's conflict - his inability to face ageing and mortality - isn't resolved until the very last scene ("Young. I feel young.") and where the external plot is directly responsible for this change.

Spock has his arc as well, one that lasts for two thirds of the movie, but his search for fulfilment via logical perfection is more esoteric and isn't expressed in dramatic conflict as clearly as Kirk's. His best scene is where the crew is trying to penetrate the shield he has erected around him, rather than the two where he acknowledges the futility of his quest ("This simple feeling" and "I weep for Vejur as I would for a brother"). Conflict is almost always more interesting than enlightenment in drama. Or, rather, scenes of enlightenment need to be earned in order to resonate, and, in Spock's case, this wasn't done.

The possibility that Spock might be working for his own interests more so than the missions never really amounts to anything and, well, would we have ever really believed it anyway?

What this means is that the primary internal conflict (Kirk's) goes away after 60 minutes and the secondary internal conflict (Spock's) isn't sufficiently dramatised and in any case goes away after 90. What remains is the external conflict, the Vejur threat, which by itself doesn't have the momentum to carry the movie.

(Roddenberry's novelisation essentially provides a third internal journey - Decker's "New Human" search for fulfilment. It's actually actually quite an interesting subplot, but this is so internalised that it never comes out on screen either.)

Shatner gives a very good performance, foregoing the hamminess that characterised some of his later movie outings and almost all. of. theovert. Shatnerisms from. his. TV days. He has a great subtle reaction in the scene in his quarters when Spock says that his presence on the Enterprise is to their mutual advantage.

Nimoy is his usual accomplished self. The sadness he conveys after McCoy greets him on the bridge is understated but palpable.

Kelley is charming and gets all the best lines, but McCoy doesn't really have an opportunity to demonstrate change (other than reaffirming his friendship with Kirk and shaving his Grizzly Adams beard early on).

Stephen Collins is one of Star Trek's most underappreciated guest stars - he invests his scenes with believable earnestness, playing well off both Shatner and Persis Khambatta (whose acting ability shall go uncommented upon... though I did like the scene as they cross the cloud boundary where Ilia leans forward and folds her hands together).

The rest of the returning cast have little to do but do it well... unlike a couple of the bit players who come across as very stilted.

From a production standpoint TMP remains the most cinematic and classy of the Trek movies. The photography, the understated design aesthetic (though the uniforms aren't quite as good looking as I remember them... I guess they do look like pyjamas in some shots), the epic scope of the special effects. And while some visuals show their age, others - like the wormhole sequence - continue to rock even twenty five years later.

It's a shame that they couldn't have cleaned up the transfer for the director's edition release, I spotted many film artifacts, starting in the very first scene. Some of the new effects were integrated really well (eg the exterior shots of Vejur sans cloud) and others not so. For instance the new CG background to Starfleet Headquarters makes the old matte painting insert of the two parked shuttles even more painfully obvious.

Still, despite its flaws in construction and production, Star Trek: The Motion Picture goes down as one of the few successful attempts to make an intelligent SF movie.

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Comments (1)

denodaeus:

Well said.

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