Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The reaction shots that stopped time
Released: 
1979
Director: 
Robert Wise
Starring: 
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Stephen Collins, Persis Khambatta
The Setup: 
The crew of the Enterprise reunite to take on some mean ol' space cloud.
Discussion: 

Since the new Star Trek movie, I have essentially become obsessed with all things Star Trek. I am watching the original series for the first time, and bought the new boxed set with movies II – IV. So I knew it wouldn’t be long before I had to face the lugubrious reality of Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, the first of the films and generally a giant bust in every way. I was interested, but reading the fascinating Wikipedia page, which details the long struggle through a potential second TV series and finally the long, laborious process of making this film, I was possessed to see it again immediately. I had seen it in the theater when it was out, and a few times on video, and I have to confess that during none of those times did it seem so horrendously awful as it did upon recent review. So let’s rip into it!

The film opens with a three-minute orchestral overture. This was apparently one of two films from 1979 to 2000, the other being The Black Hole, to have an orchestral overture. Then the long, dull credits, and finally we cut to V’Ger, this big blue-green space cloud. Every time we see V’Ger for the first half hour, its appearance is accompanied by a “Gunnngh!” guitar hit on the soundtrack. We then see three Klingon ships approach and fire into the cloud. Their torpedoes disappear, but soon an energy ball comes out of the cloud and dissolves their ships. You will notice that although there were three ships, we only see two destroyed. The other cut out early to stop by KFC. Starfleet is alerted after the altercation is witnessed by a nearby space station. And the cloud is heading straight for… EARTH!

Cut to Vulcan! Spock is there, having grown his hair out and gone hippie. He hears a V’Ger guitar hit and we are to learn he senses the presence of this big interstellar consciousness. He goes to this ceremony he has been training for, in which he will repudiate all emotion and be logical only, in exchange for a collectable pendant and a free iPod shuffle. Now I watched the Director’s Edition, which added a few special effects, one of which is seen here, in this cool matte painting of these giant sculptures on Vulcan. He appears before this council for emotion-abdication, and is about to receive his pendant when—he refuses! The woman in charge puts her nasty Long Island dragon lady fingernails on Spock's face for a mind meld and announces, for those who have just joined us, “our minds are as one.” You kind of want Spock to say “Uh, yeah, I think I know what a mind-meld is.” She then acts all superior and tells Spock he’s not ready and to go run along and play with his puny human friends, despite the fact that HE refused first. I think we’ve all met types like this in bars. This is all conducted in subtitles presented in a “futuristic” type face, which is more distracting than anything.

We now have the first of our many scenes of the visual glory of spaceships in flight, more of which we will have later. Kirk, massive toupee in place, arrives on a space station where he meets Scotty and takes a shuttle to the Enterprise. He tells Scotty that he got his command back in order to go take care of this whole space-cloud matter. Now I am only 10 episodes into the original series, but it occurred to me that this would have been the first sight fans would have had of these characters in about 10 years, and I became fascinated with how they were presented and the life changes that are assumed to have taken place. For example, Kirk has been out of command for a while, and it is assumed that we understand he yearns to be back in command, and we are later to understand that he quite pushily pulled strings to gain control of the Enterprise again. The movie seems to assume that viewers would know these changes have taken place [like Spock back on Vulcan giving up emotion, as well—why would he do that?], rather than introducing them to us. So I would be fascinated to know what fans at the time thought about all this.

Now we have the big Enterprise fetish sequence. Scotty flies Kirk all around the newly-redesigned Enterprise as it sits in space dock. Literally nothing happens for four full minutes [kind of an eternity in movie time] as we get many awestruck views of the Enterprise and poor Shatner has to deliver multiple reaction shots. One of the documentaries on the disc says that director Robert Wise didn’t really understand special effects, and hadn’t planned for them, so he just filmed a ton of reaction shots and figured they’d figure the effects out later—a bit of knowledge that adds a great deal of context to what we end up seeing throughout the rest of the film. Personally, I think he was trying to recreate the glorious space-ballet sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and counting on fan enthrallment at seeing the Enterprise, but the effect is to stop the film dead and completely kill off any story momentum that might have built up.

So this new Enterprise is not ready, but Kirk needs to take her out in 12 hours. He meets Uhura [now with a ‘fro], Chekov and Sulu on the bridge, as well as Stephen Collins as Decker, current Captain. Kirk has to tell Decker that he is taking over his command, which does not sit well, especially as Kirk specifically recommended him for the position. It also seems like Kirk is using the whole V’Ger deal as a way to force himself back into the Captain’s chair, and interesting character shade that doesn’t really go anywhere. Then it’s down to the transporter room, run by Janice Rand, who I now recognize as being a major crewmember in the first episodes of the original series. The transporter isn’t quite working yet and two people trying to beam up get turned into nasty Brundleflies as they watch—it’s actually pretty horrifying.

Kirk then assembles the entire crew in order to show them the first few minutes of the movie, played off as though they are probe footage, of the Klingon ships being destroyed. Then, why, who should happen to call in RIGHT THEN but that nearby space station, just in time for them to be eaten by V’Ger right in front of the whole crew. Those interested in such things [not ME, of course] may notice a large amount of man-bulges as the crew wears these clingy jumpsuits. Space is the place!

Kirk beams up McCoy, now bearded and wearing a white jumpsuit making him look every bit the late-70s San Francisco hip liberal. We also meet Persis Khambatta as proto-Sinead O’Connor Ilia, who had a relationship with Decker, and is now on the crew. Persis Khambatta’s only other major role was in the horror of Megaforce.

So they take off! Thus follows the second, two-minute Enterprise fetish sequence. This new Enterprise has these spotlights on it, creating illuminated sections of the ship, which I hated when I was eleven and I still hate now. Apparently the reason for this is that one of the special effects guys got hung up on what would illuminate the ship out in space [uh, STARS], and so gave it its own illumination, like a cruise ship. What really annoys me is that there are sections that seem to be spotlighted from areas where there is no light to shine on it. But, like with so many things in life, I suppose I’ll have to just swallow my bitterness. In here are several shots of the crew smiling warmly as they see how much Kirk is enjoying being back in the captain’s chair—including Decker! “Sure, he shafted me out of my first command by underhanded means because of his megalomania, but awww, who can be angry when he’s enjoying it so much!” By the way, Stephen Collins seems too afraid to really commit to any facial expression that might make him look silly, and thus his entire performance is muted and his character comes off as quite milquetoast.

Kirk wants to try the warp drive! But it’s not ready! But he orders it anyway! Then—wormhole! This is an Atari 5200 video effect that appears outside their window and apparently causes all the lights to blur and the crew’s voices to become distorted. Other than that it is left unexplained, so the sequence doesn’t work at all. WHAT is it? WHAT is it doing to them? WHAT is the problem? Without understanding any of this, the sequence lies there dead, with all of our characters looking exceedingly silly. Turns out there’s an asteroid in the wormhole [did it cause the wormhole? Or it just happened to be there?] and they have to shoot it. The director’s version unfortunately [but wisely] alters my very favorite line of this film, Chekov’s distorted delivery as he says “Phooooootoooooon tooooorpeeedooo… ssssSSSSSAAWAAAAAYYYYYYY!” So they shoot it, the wormhole collapses, and they’re fine. What was all that about? I guarantee you that this was the exact point at which the majority of the non-fan audience completely gave up on this movie.

Soon after this, a mysterious ship requests to dock. It’s Spock! Only he’s quite cold to Kirk and the crew. All that logic-training, I guess. He does spill that he has sensed this consciousness, and he wants to go with them to study it. Kirk of course says no prob. Now the warp drive is working, and we see the ship-stretch warp effect that would be common to all the films and the Next Generation. We’re off to see the V’Ger!

So they finally reach V’Ger, which draws a host of further reaction shots from the crew. They talk, then go in, beginning another four-minute sequence of many V’Ger images, all of which soon grow quite monotonous, intercut with more and more silent reaction shots. I swear, a full twenty minutes of this film is nothing but reaction shots. Anyway, they finally reach this giant space-sphincter that clenches and will let them pass no further. And at a certain point Spock is found crying because V’Ger is wonewy, so wonewy, and is all bewildered and confused.

SPOILERS > > >
Then this big column of light appears on the bridge and starts downloading the ship’s plans, and electrifying anyone that gets in its way. It then takes a shine to Ilia and snarfs her up in a burst of energy. She’s gone! A few minutes later, she shows up again, with one of those glowy crystals from Logan’s Run right in her neck. She’s a probe from V’Ger that has taken on Ilia shape. She tells them she wants to meet the creator.

Soon Spock slips out for a little spacewalk and slips through the space-sphincter for a little tête-à-tête with V’Ger. He sees all the ships V’Ger has absorbed, and soon comes upon a giant Ilia. He tries to mind-meld with V’Ger, but ends up getting his brain fried. He floats back unconscious, making it QUITE amazing that he drifts back the seeming miles he came, RIGHT through the rather small sphincter, and DIRECTLY to Kirk, who has come out to get him. Sometimes things just work out that way! By the way, a previous version of this film added some unfinished footage of Kirk spacewalking out of the Enterprise, where you could clearly see the model end and the plywood and wooden beams holding up the set. It has been excised from the director’s edition.

Spock wakes up in sick bay and seems to have been jolted back to his old self, calling Kirk “Jim.” Kirk takes his hand and Spock tells him that “This simple feeling,” i.e. the hand-holding, “is beyond V’Ger’s comprehension.” Then more stuff about how V’Ger is confused and seeking answers, and that’s why he wants to meet the creator. It also, we can surmise from Ilia, regards the Enterprise as alive and the crew as “infesting” her.

Anyway, now they’ve reached Earth and V’Ger starts sending out these energy balls ready to destroy the Earth. Kirk bluffs and says he has the answers V’Ger is seeking, but he was to come to him face-to-face. They go out onto the hull, and in this version an effect has been added which shows a walkway being built from their ship to V’Ger. In past editions they were just suddenly and inexplicably docked on this surface. So they walk over to this depression that has V’Ger in the middle, and—are you ready for the buttload of exposition that explains all of this?

Turns out a little tarnish remover lets us know that V’Ger is Voyager 6, sent out from Earth in order to gather information about the universe. Eventually it gathered so much information that it actually attained consciousness. It fell into a black hole and was transported across the universe, where it was intercepted by this planet of living machines, who took it in as one of their own [Are you my mother?], built it a zippy big ship and sent it back across the universe to continue its mission. Now it’s ready to transmit all its data, but there’s no one to tell it to. Which is why its seeking its creator on Earth. I don’t recall how Spock SUDDENLY knows all of this, but just go with it. Kirk tells V’Ger that humans are the creator, and then V’Ger abruptly decides that it has to merge with the creator. I’m sure we’ve all encountered someone or other who lures you to their place under some pretext or other, and once you’re there, suddenly wants to “merge with the creator.” Anyway, Decker volunteers, and he and Ilia have space sex, right there in front of everybody. They turn into light, and this big light wave spreads—supposedly V’Ger transmitting all its data [no word that anyone made preparations to receive it all]—and finally the whole space cloud just disappears, leaving only the Enterprise. Back on the bridge, Kirk asks “Did we just see the beginning of a new life form?” and soon after, we’re done.
< < < SPOILERS END

Reading the Wiki page supplies a lot of clues as to why it turned out the way it did. Apparently they began filming before they had an ending. Changes to the script were coming from the writer, the director, and all the major stars. Apparently script updates were coming so frequently they had to note the HOUR the script pages were revised, as opposed to just the day, as is more common. There was a huge time crunch to get the film ready for a Christmas release, and everything was rushed forward without anyone having a plan. Special effects weren’t even begun until about 220 days [including weekends] before release. So it was a massive clusterfuck. Apparently a lot of the definition of what V’Ger is all about, including most of the explanation at the end, were supplied by Leonard Nimoy. After this film, Nimoy was dead set against ever returning as Spock, and the only way they got him back for Wrath of Khan was with the promise that his character would die at the end. And after this film, control of the series was ripped away from Gene Roddenberry, who was booted up to an “Executive Producer” role where he couldn’t really affect anything.

It’s too bad, because as it finally turned out, it’s a pretty good story and solidly in the intellectual sci-fi tradition of Star Trek. But the film itself is a disaster. Chief culprits are the deadly Enterprise and V’Ger fly-bys and their attendant endless reaction shots, the incomprehensible wormhole sequence, and the fact that the whole secret of V’Ger at the end is extremely hard to understand. This viewing is the first time I understood it all, and that is largely because I had read several synopses beforehand. In the film, the explanation is quite dense and occurs long after most viewers will have completely tuned out.

I’m surprised the director’s edition didn’t cut down on the fly-bys [throw ‘em in deleted scenes] and rearrange other things, as I think this film could be largely salvaged through judicious editing and re-arrangement. But alas. As it is, it remains a not-entirely-unpleasant curiosity notable failure and major disappointment. But soon enough the brilliance of The Wrath of Khan came along and made us forget all this. So let’s just leave it in the past where it belongs.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re a huge Star Trek fan... but if you were, you’d already have seen it. If you’re just coming to the films from the J.J. Abrams Star Trek film, skip this and start with The Wrath of Khan.