Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), a recap (part 1 of 10)

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Is there a movie that more intensely divides Star Trek fans than Star Trek: The Motion Picture? To some, it’s a slow, boring, drawn-out film, with interminable special effects sequences, and a crew having weirdly awkward interactions with one another. To others, it’s the very best of the Star Trek films, a misunderstood masterpiece that’s epic in scope, and the purest distillation of creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of what Star Trek truly is.

Surely, part of the incongruity is how the word “masterpiece” is thrown around a bit too freely these days (a cursory internet search on “masterpiece + [terrible movie title]” reveals such horrors as Independence Day: An Underrated Masterpiece and A Misunderstood Masterpiece: Celebrating 10 Years of The Core) but what the “TMP is a masterpiece” boosters are really forgetting—or more likely, are too young to remember—is that there was a good solid decade where The Motion Picture was unquestionably the worst entry in the Star Trek movie series. And then came 1989’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, followed five years later by Star Trek: Generations. And then came Insurrection, and Nemesis, and the JJ Abrams films, with each one establishing a new low for the franchise. So it’s not terribly surprising that The Motion Picture now looks like a work of genius in retrospect.

And to be fair, there’s a lot to like about this film, particularly the reunion of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew that takes up the first act. But once the film moves into its actual plot, it’s unfortunately every bit as slow and drawn-out and aloof and awkward as its critics suggest. It takes a lively TV show that was all about action and adventure and karate chop fistfights and ogling alien babes and selling color TVs and turns it into a bland, beige, more glacially-paced version of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Essentially, it’s the pilot episode for an aborted TV series that was mercilessly stretched out to over two hours to give people more of that f/x magic they craved after seeing Star Wars. It’s a movie that began shooting without a completed script, where pages were constantly being rewritten during filming. Story arcs are set up for the main characters, which then dissipate. Plot points happen with no real purpose or payoff. So the big question is, can the term “masterpiece” really be applied to a movie where the filmmakers themselves didn’t know where they were going with this thing until they were well into filming it?

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Multi-Part Article: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), a recap
Tag: The Star Trek Movies

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  • Grumpy

    “To some, it’s a slow, boring, drawn-out film, with interminable special effects sequences, and a crew having weirdly awkward interactions with one another.”

    That’s not divisive. Merely descriptive.

  • Jerry Fritschle

    In my twenty year-old exuberance, I saw the film multiple times. By the second time, exhibitors had figured out the overture thing, and waited before dimming the lights and opening the curtains (for these were the days of big screens that still had those :-) )

  • Thomas Stockel

    Ah, this takes me back years, to when I created my first ever video where I vehemently defended The Motion Picture. To this day I still say it’s a great film. Flawed, yes, but still more Star Trek then JJ Abrams’ eye candy trash. And there’s no shame in being in some people’s minds the worst of four Star Trek films when all four Star Trek films are great.

    • Marcus

      “More Star Trek then JJ Abrams’ eye candy trash”

      Now that’s damnation with faint praise if I’ve ever seen it.

  • danbreunig

    So Winston, Thomas, and Co. As long as we’re talking original Trek, what’s up with the remaining Animated Series recaps? There are two left if I do the math right.

    • We’ve talked about it. I think Tom was supposed to do the Tribble episode and I was supposed do the series finale to close the whole thing out. I guess right now it’s not a high priority for either of us. But there’s a couple of new animated Star Trek shows and an animated Short Trek coming out next year so that should be a good time to finally get around to it.