Airing between 1966 and 1969, the original Star Trek series is best-remembered for its warm camaraderie between the crewmembers, its fast-paced action sequences and its light humour. When the franchise made its way onto the big screen ten years later (for the first of - so far - thirteen theatrical installments), the curious decision was made to almost entirely remove these elements in favour of elaborate special effects sequences, minimalistic dialogue and lengthy, weighty considerations of what it means to be human. Fans waiting for the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture feared it would be a too-fast-paced, action-heavy movie made under the influence of Star Wars, which had been released to great success two years earlier. Instead they found a film which tilted much more heavily towards the tone and style of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a stunningly simple narrative. A strange alien vessel, surrounded by a vast cloud, is heading towards Earth, vapourising everything in its path. An untested, upgraded version of the Enterprise is sent to intercept it. There's some mild character conflict as Admiral Kirk replaces Captain Decker in charge of the mission, to Decker's annoyance (given Kirk's lack of familiarity with the new ship), but this is quickly resolved. The Enterprise intercepts the alien ship, narrowly avoids destruction in an initial communication misunderstanding, then enters the ship, learns how to communicate with it properly, and resolves the situation. The end. Told with verve and economy, this story could have easily filled one or two forty-five minute episodes of television; unsurprising really, as The Motion Picture's script had been repurposed from a planned pilot episode for a new Star Trek TV show.
To pad out the film's length to two hours, the producers decided to resort to visual effects. Lots and lots of visual effects. Most of the film's first half-hour is dedicated to sweeping, grand flybys of Klingon warships, Federation starbases and the very best iteration of the Enterprise herself, who gets a majestic introduction as Admiral Kirk conducts a visual inspection by shuttlepod, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's outrageously good soundtrack. Later in the film we get almost-as-long sequences as the Enterprise passes through the alien cloud, then over, behind and inside the giganormous spacecraft inside. These sequences have been criticised as being interminable, leading to the film's inevitable nickname as Star Trek: The Slow-Motion Picture, although in reality that is somewhat overblown. The effects sequences are certainly longer than any sane movie would get away with these days, but they are also visually stunning achievements, remarkable given they were shot in-camera using gas tanks, weird lighting setups, animation and intricately-detailed three-dimensional models, long before CGI was a thing.
The film is light on character work, but what there is, is well-handled. William Shatner plays Kirk as grumpy and obsessed, so desperate to get back control of the Enterprise that he inadvertently puts the ship in jeopardy because he doesn't know how its new systems work. There may also be early signs of the mid-life crisis more thoroughly explored in The Wrath of Khan here: Kirk seems to resent the younger, more handsome Captain Decker for taking over his job, and seems keen to get his friends back on the ship rather than the next generation of Starfleet's best and brightest. This is all fascinating stuff (and well-played by an unusually restrained William Shatner), but the movie resolves it all pretty quickly: after Decker's superior knowledge of the ship's weapon systems saves the day, Kirk agrees to work cooperatively with Decker and the whole character arc is put to bed immediately. Similarly, a storyline revolving around Spock having purged himself of his few remaining emotions to embrace a Vulcan philosophy of pure logic, resulting in him acting cold and alienating to his shipmates (Leonard Nimoy gives the best performance of the film, impressively given it mainly requires him to stare impassively at people), starts intriguingly and peters out long before the end.
Most of the rest of the crew get short shrift, with Chekov, Sulu, Uhura and Scotty reduced to their standard expositionary roles, though DeForest Kelly does great work as usual as Dr. McCoy, given a wider role here as the only person whom Kirk will listen to when he tells him he's being an ass. New players Persis Khambatta (as Ilia and later the alien probe) and Stephen Collins (as Decker) also give solid performances. To be honest, apart from the "big three" and the two guest stars, there's not a lot of opportunity in the film for great acting or dialogue scenes as the script doesn't call for it.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not - by absolutely no means - the best Star Trek movie or instalment, but also not the worst. It may be the weirdest, and arguably the most interesting. If Gene Roddenberry had complete, unfettered control of the franchise, you imagine that all of Star Trek would look like this: slow, talky and odd, with characters endlessly debating the morality of how to talk to aliens even when it appears that Earth is about to be imminently destroyed. That would have killed the franchise, but as a rare example of Roddenberry's unfiltered vision (outside of a few episodes of The Next Generation's first season), The Motion Picture is fascinating. The film builds up a genuine sense of hard SF existential dread as the Enterprise encounters something so utterly powerful and so far beyond the crew's comprehension that they are genuinely flummoxed by it (even Spock's gambit to communicate with it is an absolute desperate gamble). V'Ger is one of the most successful depictions of a "Big Dumb Object" (an inscrutable alien object, usually of stupendous size and unknown origin, like Arthur C. Clarke's Rama or Larry Niven's Ringworld) ever seen in a film, and seeing how Kirk and the crew can investigate a phenomenon they can't shoot at or (for most of the film) talk to is actually quite enjoyable.
But it's hard to discount the common complaints. There's long periods in this movie where not a lot is going on and, though Robert Wise is an excellent director, he's not Stanley Kubrick, and he can't quite make the longueurs work as quiet moments of art like Kubrick on form could. It's a cold film, with almost no sign of the franchise's trademark character banter and warmth (which would return, with interest, in the sequel). There's no villain or antagonist of any kind, which is a bold move but one it feels like Star Trek struggles with; three films later, The Voyage Home would do a more successful job of delivering a villain-less Star Trek movie.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (***) is vast in scope, gaining a sense of sheer epic scale that the franchise would rarely ever reach again. It's slow and simple, not really justifying even a standard two-hour running time. But the cast do good work with the material they are given, and the visual effects are still often breathtaking, more than forty years after the movie's release. The soundtrack to the movie is also absolutely outstanding and arguably the best its ever had. Most notably, The Motion Picture has a unique and weird atmosphere and tone that the franchise never had before and has never had since, but remains quite fascinating. Not the absolute disaster it's often dismissed as, but certainly not the franchise at its best, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains an intriguing, unique oddball of a Star Trek movie.
A note on versions: Star Trek: The Motion Picture is available in two distinct editions. The Director's Cut, released on DVD in 2002, represents Robert Wise's preferred vision of the film. Many scenes are recut and some of the lengthier vfx sequences have been trimmed, whilst some cut scenes focusing on characterisation have been restored. Foundation Imaging also provided new vfx clarifying some confusing points in the original film. This version of the film is, unfortunately, no longer officially available, as the DVD was removed from sale and the original mastering work was all done in standard definition, and is not suitable for a high definition re-release. Rumours constantly state that Paramount are preparing a HD/4K rebuild of The Director's Cut for release in the near future, but nothing has come of this.
In the absence of this edition of the film, the definitive version remains the 2009 remastered Blu-Ray release (available both independently and as part of a box set with the other nine films featuring the original and Next Generation crews). This is a standard film re-scan and clean-up, but has been done extremely well, restoring some colour to the prints that had been lost over the years and resulting in a brighter, more enjoyable picture. However, this is also the original, long cut of the film complete with extremely long vfx sequences.