Third on my #nerdy9th list of slow movies: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
I’ll be the first to say TMP feels a lot like someone rushed an old Star Trek Phase II script into a movie production after the smash success of Star Wars, because that’s pretty much what happened. It also feels like it’s trying to be either 2001 or Close Encounters, which are both fine films to aspire to. It’s languid and light on action and takes its own sweet time getting anywhere. As a result, it’s not exactly a darling among critics or fans — but I love it so.
What I love most about Star Trek, historically speaking, is its sense of exploration. The original series had a mandate to send us to “strange new worlds,” to explore new ideas and venture out into the Wild West of unexplored space. This may seem ironic, since my favorite Trek series is Deep Space Nine, but I maintain DS9 is still about exploration… just about the exploration of the tropes and assumptions of Star Trek itself. But that’s a topic for another day.
The early explorations of Trek were heavily limited by budget and technology; the scripts often relied on ideas because they had a couple of cardboard sets and ten bucks worth of makeup. TNG, while a fun continuation of the series, eventually turned less exploratory and more technophiliac, solving most of its problems by reversing polarities and “souring the milk.” Later movies would get pretty hazy on the whole exploration idea altogether, eventually abandoning it entirely in favor of all monster truck action.
And some of those movies are great! Wrath of Khan is tremendous and still my favorite. But TMP cuts off a big, chewy hunk of unleavened exploration and just drops it right into our laps with no apologies. Kirk and company face a grand mystery in the guise of V’Ger, a strange alien cloud that threatens Earth. We’re shown early on that brute force has no place here, as some Klingons try solving the V’Ger problem by blasting it, and are handily vaporized.
The Federation calls in the Enterprise to handle shit. (Vaporizing Klingons? That’s Kirk’s job!) This early bit of the movie is keenly divided. On one hand, we see the old Trek formula kind of shook up for the first time: Spock has gone off to be more Vulcan, Kirk is no longer captain, the Enterprise is undergoing a refit and has some slight crewman-vaporizing problems in the transporter. Kirk obviously resents Decker and assholes it up through the next third of the movie. In its own way, it’s pretty bleak.
On the other hand, we get that lovely, borderline pornographic sequence where the shuttle does a flyby of the Enterprise, and holy God is this shot in love with itself. The score sweeps and soars majestically as we pan over the Enterprise, as if the movie is saying HEY REMEMBER THE ENTERPRISE OH MY GOD LOOK AT IT IT’S ON A MOVIE SCREEN IT’S HUGE. And this is sort of the root of the film’s problem, really: it was more in love with Big Space and Awesome Effects than the humans inhabiting the film. But this is a weakness I can easily overlook.
V’Ger is an absolute mystery, and in between not making much headway in solving it, the crew talks about how little headway they’re making. Everybody is frustrated and disagreeable. There’s a ton of bickering on the bridge over procedure. In a lot of ways, I think it’s the most realistic Star Trek film ever made. A terrifying alien entity might destroy all life on Earth, and everyone’s caught up in one shitty board meeting after another.
My absolute favorite bit of this film is in the middle, where Spock decides to go out on his own and explore the interior of the mysterious V’Ger. He passes through a portal and sees sprawling, massive wonders: entire planetary systems replicated in full scale, mysterious structures, a gargantuan representation of fallen crewperson Ilia. It’s beautiful and bewildering and big. Special effects wise, I think it’s the most ambitious and thoughtful thing Trek’s ever attempted.
Again, what I love about this is that it’s pure exploration. Spock isn’t trying to beat up the alien cloud, or find a way to thwart it. He goes out, alone, to try to understand. This plays right to what I want out of a Trek film. I love all the Horatio Hornblower submarine-battle antics of Wrath of Khan and everything, but TMP is the mandate of the original series writ very, very large, and we will never see its like again.
I can’t let any discussion of this movie pass without talking about my other favorite thing, which is the iconic Blaster Beam. The Blaster Beam is a 18-foot long metal beam, under which are high-tension wires and guitar pickups. It’s what produces that loud, alarming BWANNNNGGGG sound you hear all over this film, Wrath of Khan, Battle Beyond the Stars, and a handful of other movies. It was also behind the sound of the seismic charge in Attack of the Clones. If I had enough money and space, I would just get one of those for my house. BWANNNGGGGGGG.