Friday, February 18, 2011

The Final Frontier

As a special treat today, I'm sharing this weekend's review with that of my fellow Steve's book blog Stevereads. If you've been reading his blog (and if you haven't, it's just to the right in my links) you might be aware of his ongoing musings concerning a series of novels very close to his heart: Star Trek! The next book he's reviewing in that vein is the novelization of the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first film based on the famous television series. Since Mr. Anderson is slowly becoming everybody's favorite film writer and always taking recommendations, Steve asked if I would want to review the film for my site. I was intrigued for more than a few reasons. I don't make it public often, but growing up I was pretty much the biggest "Trekkie" I knew. Of course, I wasn't alive when the original Star Trek aired on NBC in the late sixties. Not having been born until 1981, my first taste of Trek manifested in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I faithfully watched from the first season to it's conclusion in 1994. For me Star Trek meant Captain Picard, not Captain Kirk. That said, I have gone back and seen most of the original series, and while I personally hold TNG to be the superior version of the show, I've always respected the originality of the sixties' series and enjoy most episodes either for their camp value or - in the case of the truly exceptional episodes - masterful storytelling and amazing characters. It's been at least twenty years since I've seen this film, and all I seem to remember could be boiled down to a particularly large ship and a particularly bald female Starfleet officer. Though just about everybody I spoke to of this project believed Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be a terrible movie (including The Opinioness, Southland Dan and several co-workers), I still looked forward to seeing the film that first put everything fans loved about the canceled series on the big screen, and was the precursor to classic film sequels such as The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home.

Only these people know who they are, but they can all say they were in the first Star Trek film
The story to ST:TMP started out as a pilot to a new Star Trek series entitled Phase II... well, actually, that's not right. Before Phase II, series creator Gene Rodenberry had been trying to continue the franchise on the big screen, but those plans had been curtailed and turned into the new television series. After the success of science fiction films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, plans were changed again and Phase II was pushed aside to become The Motion Picture. A ship from parts unknown is on a course with Earth, and everything in its path is being eliminated with calculated precision. Starfleet has one ship available to combat this threat, a completely renovated USS Enterprise, and it's experienced crew. Assuming command is Admiral James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner); he, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Deforest Kelly) and the rest of the original crew must work to stop this menace before their home planet becomes the latest victim of this killer ship.

"Bones... what CAN.. be done... with my VOICE?"
There are two things you can tell from watching this film. One: there is a LOT of fan service on display here. Besides the obvious joy for fans to see the entire original show's cast on the big screen for the first time, there are numerous references that only Trekkies would even remotely understand. Two: there's just not enough story here for a full-length feature film. Both are obvious when you consider the sequence in which we first see the revamped Enterprise. It's exciting for the first minute in which we see the new starship in drydock, but then the scene continues without pause for an additional five minutes. That's far too much time wasted, and while I'm sure hardcore fans appreciated seeing the legendary ship from every conceivable angle, it hardly makes for impressive storytelling. And there are times when statements are made that make perfect sense to highly knowledgeable Trekkies, but alienate casual viewers being presented without any context. TMP appeals mainly to the franchise's fan base with a story structure that is reminiscent of Trek episodes, but fails to expand on any of the show's ideas to make a feasible full-length movie.

After about ten minutes of this, I woke up
The show DOES have its moments, most notably in the performances by the film's stars. Don't worry, I'm not going to praise William Shatner's heavily overwrought performance. Bill has long been a parody of himself. All these years later he has become practically revered for this silly persona, but back then "Meta-Bill" was still in its infancy. His body is really starting to go, he emphasizes all the wrong words, his dialogue muddy and poorly delivered. And yet he's so undeniably Kirk that you can get past his faults and eccentricities for the most part, tolerating his presence. Nimoy and Kelly are as wonderful as ever as Spock and McCoy, especially the classic verbal battles they wage over the importance of logic and emotion. The film naturally focuses on these three, as there would be no Star Trek without them. Unfortunately, that doesn't quite extend to the supporting crew. While it's good to see Scotty (James Doohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei) and Chekov (Walter Koenig), the film has them just standing around doing the same jobs they'd been doing ten years earlier. While the big three characters got promoted or retired, the rest of the crew pretty much stayed in the same job roles. It makes one wonder about how a crew so renowned for its cultural diversity couldn't muster a single promotion over so long a period of time. Maybe Starfleet isn't such an equal opportunity promoter after all. Slightly better are the newcomers who arrive for this story, Steven Collins and former Miss India Persis Khambatta. Collins plays executive officer Commander Decker, who had originally been assigned as Enterprise's new captain before Kirk took over. It's never explained if Decker is related to Commodore Decker, who appeared in the excellent Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine", but again this is something only highly knowledgeable fans would ask. Khambatta plays Lt. Illia, the Enterprise's Deltan (which is apparently why she's bald) navigator who has a romantic history with Decker. While Khambatta does a great job with what she's given (she was nominated for a Saturn award for her role) and has one of the film's best lines, I can't help but feel the character was sorely underutilized and the relationship between Decker and Illia grossly underrepresented in the main story. Both would have benefited from additional face time, but end up instead as slightly elevated redshirts.

Alright, who forgot to install the HD drivers??
The special effects are sadly inconsistent from scene to scene, with some really coming out spectacularly but others not nearly as impressive. In many scenes, I caught myself thinking - to quote Terry Gilliam in Monty Python and the Holy Grail - "It's just a model." For a film that overly relied on these effects, it's an unhappy day when not all of them turn out well. And before you point it out, yes I understand this movie was made over thirty years ago. But if Star Wars and Close Encounters can make more realistic effects with less money spent, I'm not going out of my way to praise expensive mediocrity. Almost worse are the new uniforms, which are drab and dull. I can understand that the brightly-colored go-go outfits of the original series might not have been as acceptable at the time of filming, but the alternatives were no better, colorless unisex clothing with no appeal whatsoever. Really the only good "effect" was the score by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith's Star Trek theme eventually went on to become the official theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation eight years later, and it was much to my surprise that it first appeared here.

I guess the "Hair Club for Women" hasn't been founded on her planet yet
The film has a reputation for being a failure at the box office, but that doesn't seem to quite be correct. True, it WAS a highly criticized movie, with most reviewers giving it low scores based on the weak story and over-reliance on special effects. The fans turned out in droves however, and while it's eventual $139 million in worldwide ticked sales fell below studio expectations, it really shouldn't be considered a failure. After all, it was enough to convince Paramount to make a sequel, although Gene Rodenberry's creative control was stripped for that to be doable. The biggest knock against Star Trek's moneymaking ability seems to be its budget, which had started at $15 million before delays and other setbacks ballooned it to over $35 million. No big deal, you say. After all, these days there are independent films with bigger budgets. However, if you put that number into context for the time, Star Wars and Close Encounters were made for a COMBINED $31 million, and both made at least twice what Trek pulled in. While not a failure by any stretch, it was hardly a success worth writing about when compared to these giants.

The big secret of Starfleet: They only have ONE SHIP
In closing, let me reiterate that I am STILL a Star Trek fan. Even though I've never professed to love the original series, I always thought the show had an undeniable appeal all its own, and enjoyed seeing the original crew man their stations one more time for the sake of nostalgia alone. But that's where this first film in the series fails, by taking that nostalgia and doing NOTHING of value with it. Tons of fan service can't mask a film that has little story, poor character development, and mediocre special effects that run on an epic scale until you are quite sick of them. While I don't regret seeing this film again as an adult, I can see myself going another thirty years before being tempted to see this first Star Trek movie again.

Mr. Anderson out.

1 comment:

THE Real Estate Analyst!!! said...

As I mentioned last night ... wonderful story telling. A few minor corrections an editor would see, but, as always .. "Bravo"!