With a franchise as big as Star Trek the quality of material tends to land on both sides of the “great to terrible” spectrum. When considering the movies of the franchise you have classic hits (The Wrath of Khan) and absolute disasters (Star Trek: Insurrection). You also have some movies that unfortunately get regulated to the sidelines. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the lesser watched and little discussed films of the Star Trek franchise. While it was the first Star Trek movie released, contemporary audiences tend to view The Motion Picture as the “boring movie” or the “slow movie” or the “movie with the bald alien chick.” The fact that The Motion Picture is usually forgotten is quite unfortunate. Of all the Star Trek films, this is the most cerebral, and closest to the original idea of the franchise. In fact, I consider The Motion Picture to be a great film, one that is in desperate need of rediscovery.
The Motion Picture starts with three Klingon battle cruisers investigating a mysterious cloud near their space. As they are investigating, weapons from the cloud destroy the cruisers in a flash of light. A nearby Federation space station monitors the engagement and realizes that the anomaly is on a direct course for Earth. All other Federation ships are out of interception range, except for one: the USS Enterprise. Kirk (who is now an Admiral) takes command of the Enterprise in order to intercept the mysterious object that will come to be known as V’Ger.
In order to fully appreciate The Motion Picture it is important to look at the core idea of Star Trek. The fundamental theme of the series is discovery. Especially in The Original Series and The Next Generation, most of the episodes revolved around coming across a strange anomaly or a new civilization and learning about what it. Often times there was some sort of problem, the ship and crew are put in peril, but ultimately come out on top with a greater understanding of both humanity and what it means to exist in our large, uncharted universe.
It is easy to see why The Motion Picture is the perfect continuation of the core principles of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future. As much as I love the other Star Trek movies (well some of them) it always has bothered me that no other film in the franchise besides The Motion Picture focused on the key mission of the Enterprise: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” No other movie in the franchise has revolved around the idea of discovering what is “out there” and what it means to us. Only in The Motion Picture are we given the feeling of the vastness of space and the mysteries that lie outside of our galactic neighborhood.
The emphasis on exploring and coming in contact with new forms of life also allows The Motion Picture to have subtext. Subtext is the underlying message and tone of a story. It is what makes a movie stick with us. We are drawn in by the events of the movie, and thrilled by the adventure, but ultimately it is the message and themes of a movie that change who we are and give us perspective. Star Trek always works best when there is subtext. For example, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is not only a movie about two rivals fighting it out; it is also a movie about loss and finding one’s place in the universe. Kirk is forced to come to terms with the inevitability of death and we are reminded that all of our actions have consequences.
The Motion Picture is chalked full of subtext. On the surface, the film is about coming in contact with other forms of life, specifically V’Ger, the giant sentient machine bent on destroying Earth. But that is not what the movie is really about. Underneath the events of the story, The Motion Picture is really about the search for both a higher power and a place in the universe. V’Ger is on a quest to come in contact with its creator, leading it to confront the Enterprise. Spock is forced to reject the principles of logic that form the foundation of his civilization and look for his own, individual path in life. Commander Decker, while not initially searching for anything, finds that his desire in life is to transcend the material and become a higher power. And Kirk… Well Kirk is not actually looking for God per se in this film ( we will have to wait for Star Trek V for that, and we don’t need to be reminded how that movie turned out) but he is looking for where he fits in the universe. He is getting older and is forced to come to terms with what all of his adventures actually mean to him in the long run, a thematic arc that will follow him throughout all of the Star Trek films. These themes allow us to look at our own lives and what it really means to determine our own destiny. What do we wish to find in our adventures and travels? Are we searching for a higher power to give us meaning to life, or are we simply looking to transcend the material and find a higher plane of existence?
As much as The Motion Picture is about search for a higher power or higher purpose in life, it also is about how we go about it. The two factors in our search for purpose are logic and emotion. V’Ger is a machine, and therefore only thinks logically. V’Ger cannot feel and cannot experience anything resembling faith, which ultimately makes it unable to find its higher purpose. The same applies to Spock, who at the beginning of the film rejects the paths of pure logic in order to find his own destiny. In order to find one’s purpose in life, a bit of emotion and faith need to come into play. Life cannot be built entirely on what is logical or what has the highest chance of success, sometimes we need to take a leap of faith into the great unknown. This is the ultimate meaning of Decker’s sacrifice at the end of the film. At some point in all of our lives we will need to make a decision that leads us down a completely unknown path because we believe that somewhere down the line we will be given great truth than that which we currently have.
So at its core The Motion Picture is a big philosophical allegory, which is generally when Star Trek is at its best. Besides the themes and ideas, The Motion Picture is also a beautifully shot film. The special effects have stood the test of time well. The two big special effects shots (the inspection approach of the Enterprise and the flyover of V’Ger) are as beautiful and thrilling as they were back when the film was released. Fortunately, Robert Wise paces the film so that the viewer has time to enjoy the visuals and think about what is going on in the scene.
Is The Motion Picture slow? Yes. But slow does not necessarily mean boring. Unfortunately modern movie goers have been conditioned to expect fast paced, whiz-bang action in all of their movies. It is a great change of pace to go back and watch The Motion Picture and enjoy as the movie gradually unfolds. I do not think The Motion Picture is a perfect movie. Sometimes the slowness is unnecessary, I could have used just a little more action, and the uniform designs are just awful (thank heavens they were replaced in Wrath of Khan). However, between this film and The Wrath of Khan we are able to see the two distinct sides of the Star Trek universe. Sure space has the prospect of swash-buckling adventure but it also is a place of exploration and discovery, where we will find great mysteries that ultimately will teach us what it means to be human.