Why Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an underrated classic

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?

Star Trek is a show I have almost endless respect for & some episodes still dazzle just as much as they did over 50 years ago.

But unfortunately there’s a good chunk that haven’t aged well or aren’t paced well at all, which is the main criticism I had heard about The Motion Picture. I was scared.

When the credits rolled & Jerry Goldsmith’s score filled the room, I realized I watched one of the most ambitious science fiction films ever made.

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What’s crazy is that this feels like a hybrid of early Spielberg, Star Trek at it’s most serious, & a dash of Andrei Tarkovsky.

What makes the film work is that endless possibilities of what’s out in Space is the antagonist of film. Captain Kirk always said Space was the final frontier, and it’s refreshing to see how an all consuming power that seemingly can’t be reasoned with or understood is what brings our crew back together.

Thankfully this wasn’t a wish fulfillment movie and they didn’t just give the fans everything they wanted. That would’ve made the film feel boring and safe.

Robert Wise, a director known for The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, tries his hardest to find the visual wonder of space and the pathos of the iconic enterprise crew all within the confines of Gene Roddenberry’s iron grip.

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The special effects and production design, which have more in common with Solaris instead of Star Wars, go for a more awe-inspiring aesthetic instead of pulse pounding popcorn entertainment.  The actors look in awe at colorful warped objects located in space instead of engaging in highly visual space battles.

It’s a gamble that doesn’t always pay off, but it shows a lot of restraint that Robert Wise trusted the effects teams and actors to sell moments where all we see is a ship slowly pass through the existential dangers of space.

It’s also a miracle that the crew found ways to inject new life into a crew of characters that were in danger of becoming parodies of themselves.

The crew is in shambles, on a personal level. Kirk has let age bitter his ego, Bones still would rather be anywhere else, the floor crew are cogs in the machine wanting the old days back, and Spock is a supreme asshole. It’s beautiful.

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I love that Spock has become more alien this time around, which creates a divide with him and the crew. It’s a nice thematic angle to go in & made me realize how strong these characters really are.

Leonard Nimoy has always been the MVP of the original series and his character here gets some much needed depth.  Without getting into spoilers, I was very impressed with how they pulled off his arc here, because it could’ve felt cheesy and over the top, but it’s sweet & gives a certain gravitas to Star Trek that wasn’t there before.

There are two things that really carry Star Trek: The Motion Picture are William Shatner’s subtle yet stern performance & Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which might be one of the best I’ve ever heard.

Shatner takes back his ship in the first 20 minutes which makes his old crew happy but the acting captain, one far more suited for the newly designed Enterprise, gets demoted in the process. This action has some scary consequences for the crew & Kirk.

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I’m aware Shatner’s performance on Star Trek has become a subject for parody and satire for decades, but there’s almost nothing to laugh about his performance in this film. He is a man on a mission to get back the meaning from his younger days and fortunately for the audience, it’s a compelling arc to see him struggle to get The Enterprise under control.

Last thing that needs to be mentioned, although it’s been mentioned in almost every review of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which blows most modern films out of the water.

The score is feels like another character in the film, underlining every action yet never dictating the feeling away from the production and actors. There’s layers and layers of music going on & I was floored, especially when Kirk approaches the newly designed Enterprise, which lasts about five slow but glorious minutes.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture has pacing issues, but it also has so much more, like a wondrous sense of adventure and discovery not only in space but in our main characters.

It’s time to re-evaluate this film & how many science fiction films don’t attempt this kind of story (or characters) anymore.

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