“Why is everything we don’t understand always called a thing?'”
No, come back! Before you all start groaning and running away, hear me out. This is an odd one, yes, and it’s not terribly beloved by fans, but I really like it.
The problem with this one is that director Robert Wise (Of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), and The Sound of Music (1965) fame) decided to take the 2001: A Space Odyssey approach and present the story as a meditation on a theme rather than an action story. Seeing as how this came out two years after Star Wars and the same year as Ridley Scott’s Alien, it’s obvious why sci-fi audiences weren’t as impressed with the film’s unhurried pace and abstract themes.
There are a few huge stretches without dialogue, and the editing is a bit awkward in parts in its original form. That is why I will be discussing the 2001 Director’s Cut of the film, which is a brilliant cleaning up of the original story with some new digital effects and tighter editing (you’d be surprised at the effect such small changes have to the entire feel of the film). There was also a TV version which was a few minutes longer, released in 1983, but it didn’t really fix anything; it just added scenes for the sake of adding them. The Director’s Cut was supervised by Robert Wise himself and was more in keeping with the film he really wanted to make without the rush of studio deadlines. This article does a great job of breaking down the Director’s Cut’s virtues in more detail.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
The Ship: U.S.S. Enterprise (Constitution Class refit)
The Captain: Willard Decker (for about ten minutes until Admiral Kirk shows up and goes, Ahahaha, nope!” and takes over). No hard feelings, Decker!
The Premise: An enormous entity/ship/doom cloud is on its way to Earth, taking out everything it encounters along its way, including a deep space Starfleet research station and a trio of Klingon vessels. Taking command of the newly refit Enterprise, Kirk (now a rear admiral) races to confront the cloud before it destroys Earth.
Also, on Vulcan, Spock is about to undergo a ceremony which will cement his devotion to the pure logic of the Vulcan way (abandoning his human side completely) when he senses the powerfully complex mind of the doom cloud (which later identifies itself as V’Ger), causing him to return to the Enterprise to face the source of his profound fascination head on.
The Best Moments: I love Kirk’s introduction to the new Enterprise. A clear homage to the “Blue Danube” scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it uses a soaring rendition of Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek theme which builds and builds and builds as we (and Kirk) get to see our favorite starship for the first time in years. I love the look of absolute love in Kirk’s eyes as he sees the ship. There’s no dialogue, but the whole thing is told through Kirk’s eyes and Goldsmith’s iconic statement of the theme, which I love. The whole thing has an operatic quality to it. Before this, the only shots of the ship’s exterior were the shaky and blurry shots from the Original Series. In this sequence, we get to see the new ship from every angle (and in widescreen). It set a standard for similar sequences in future films and series.
I also love Spock’s story in this. There’s this great sequence where he steals a thruster suit and flies into V’Ger’s inner chamber and encounters a vast holographic display of V’Ger’s entire journey. He also encounters an avatar of V’Ger itself and tries to mind meld with it, but the power of V’Ger’s mind overwhelms Spock and sends him tumbling back out, delirious and shaken. It’s like Spock is wrestling with the concept of deity and in his desperation to understand something so beyond his conception, he ends up endangering himself and having to face his own limits.
Also, it’s a small scene, but it had a massive impact on me as a kid. The scene where the current Vulcan science officer dies in a horrific transporter accident really hits home just how unprepared the ship is for launch. It’s a chilling scene, even though it doesn’t really show much aside from the contortions of the shimmering form halfway between materialization, but the Vulcan’s unearthly screams followed by the communication from Starfleet command that “what we got back didn’t live long…fortunately” really punches the audience in the gut. It’s a terrifying moment that helps to establish the spooky, ominous tone of the film later on.
Why It’s Awesome: Visually, it’s a gorgeous movie (if we can forgive the blah-oatmeal-colored walls and the 70’s burnt orange upholstry) and the Director’s Cut does a wonderful job of sharpening the indistinct V’Ger interior matte paintings into something truly awe-inspiring and massive. There’s an entire sequence that’s basically “Holy Crap, this thing is huge…” and the sharper effects do a great job of conveying this.
I also like the character arcs of the central trio of characters. They’re all looking for meaning in a world where they don’t quite fit. McCoy is more sarcastic and bitter than his usual self, having been dragged out of retirement into a world where he isn’t familiar with any of the technology and his more traditional approach to medicine makes him feel outdated.
Spock finds himself stuck between worlds in this one, unwilling to fully commit to the Vulcan way, but still feeling awkward and out of place aboard the Enterprise, even though his shipmates are overjoyed to see him again. He’s searching for answers, until he realizes that V’Ger is just as stuck and confused as he is. My favorite line of his occurs while he’s trying to understand V’Ger: “Each of us… at some time in our lives, turns to someone – a father, a brother, a God… and asks…’Why am I here? What was I meant to be?'” It’s just brilliant character work..
And Kirk, having been promoted to a cushy desk job, does everything short of mutiny to get back on the bridge of his ship (even though the refit Enterprise is nothing like the ship he once commanded). His battle with an overwhelming sense of obsolescence will come to a head in the next film, but it’s interesting to see Kirk feeling so insecure in his interactions with the younger Decker, even though Kirk has the greater experience as an explorer.
Don’t discount this movie just because it’s “slow.” It’s a symphonic, primarily visual exploration of how individuals fight to explain their existence and the struggles inherent in creating identity. It’s pretty abstract “pure sci-fi” (as one writer explains it) but it’s worth a second glance from fans and non-fans alike. But be sure you watch the Director’s Cut!
So long for now! Next week we’ll be looking at the masterpiece that is The Wrath of Khan!