JB: I agree with you, at least in terms of the effect; most of the time, nostalgia and sentimentality are the only things these films are successful in achieving. Furthermore, sometimes those feelings are the limit of the attempt as well, particularly in stretches of The Voyage Home and The Final Frontier. What’s so odd about The Motion Picture is how desperately it strives for nostalgia and sentimentality without much actual success. The inaugural Star Trek movie suffers from an identity crisis. Based on a TV series that Roddenberry modeled after Gulliver’s Travels, in which each episode was entirely self-contained, with no significant character development over the course of the series, The Motion Picture is stuck between trying to do what it’s always done (only larger and longer) and trying to compress three-seasons worth of magic into a little more than 2 hours. It’s a film trying to stay true to its roots while also reinventing itself for the big screen. It’s a film intent on achieving the mysteriousness and peril of space as defined by 2001, which came along more than a decade prior, while also tossing in some attempts at gee-whiz futuristic gadgetry in order to keep pace with Star Wars. Thrown together, it’s a sci-fi pot pie that’s almost entirely inedible.
It’s safe to say that very little of The Motion Picture plays well for audiences in 2009, given the film’s languid pacing, goofy outfits and far-from-special-anymore effects. That isn’t surprising. What I can’t get over is the hunch that this must not have played well in 1979 either. The ship-ogling sequence we’ve mentioned is designed to stir the nostalgia of Trekkies, sure, but it’s also a rather surprising miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers, who failed to consider the cultural shift that happened in the decade after the original TV series went off the air. When the Star Trek series debuted, the United States was in the heat of the space race. In that context, shots of the Enterprise suggested that man wouldn’t just reach the Moon (still a far-off concept for many Americans until it actually happened); someday man would conquer space (how thrilling!). In that respect, the TV series as a whole and the Enterprise itself were promises of what was to come at a time when developments in real-world space exploration were happening rapidly. The Motion Picture suggests that its filmmakers failed to recognize that the U.S. hadn’t (and still hasn’t) put a man on the Moon since 1972, that America’s fascination with space was waning and that Star Wars had swept in to fill imaginations with stories from a galaxy far, far away.
In that respect, The Motion Picture, which treats even the most mundane aspects of space travel as if they make for thrilling action sequences, came along 10 years too late. The effects trickery clearly designed to wow audiences fails to match not just 1977’s Star Wars but 1968’s 2001, too, making Star Trek a sci-fi brand poorly going where better films had gone before. Still, in fairness I’d like to call attention to a remark Roger Ebert makes about The Motion Picture in his 1982 review of Wrath of Khan: “Although I liked the special effects in the first movie, they were probably not the point; fans of the TV series wanted to see their favorite characters again.” Ebert’s observation confirms the idea that Star Trek has always aimed itself at a very passionate target audience, but at the same time it suggests that the film’s futuristic appearance wasn’t dead on arrival.
EH: That’s a fantastic point about Star Trek playing off of people’s expectations and fantasies about real space exploration. One of the primary differences between Star Trek and Star Wars is that the latter is pure, straight-up fantasy, while the former consistently attempts to relate itself back to the real world. On its surface, Star Wars is also about imagining a time when humanity has become just one of many alien species living in a galactic society, but it defuses these expectations by establishing its setting in the distant past rather than the future, and by placing Earth distinctly outside its universe. It’s not really about a future where humanity travels through space; at heart it’s more like mythology than true sci-fi. Where Star Trek aims itself towards the real world and the future, Star Wars responded primarily to other movies, engaging in a dialogue with adventure serials and samurai epics. This is probably why Star Wars seems so timeless while Star Trek is much more of its time. Star Trek doesn’t just want to tell a rousing fantasy story, it wants to tap into the zeitgeist, though as you point out it often comes along a bit too late. This is true not only of the space travel utopianism of the first film but of the strained political/social references in The Undiscovered Country, which takes the bold stance of coming out against Nazis, race prejudice and Cold War hysteria, all of this in 1991, at the height of glasnost and on the brink of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
At the same time, even the first Star Trek film is perhaps more sophisticated in its engagement with nostalgia than we’ve suggested thus far. This film actually contains an acknowledgment of the failures of the space program, in that its “villain” is actually the restructured remnants of the Voyager 1 space probe, launched just two years before the film was released. This suggests that the great scientific and space travel advances of the Star Trek universe are not the extension of then-current late 1970s scientific thinking. It presupposes that the Voyager program will be a failure, that the entire NASA program is a dead end and that space travel will only progress to the level shown in these films due to massive changes in technology. In other words, it’s not entirely the utopian dream of the future it sometimes seems to be on superficial examination. And to the extent that it is utopian, its hopes for the future are predicated on a profound distaste for the present, especially as seen in The Voyage Home (the best of the series, if you ask me), which thoroughly mocks late 20th Century medicine, technology, social conventions and ecological preservation.
On another note, it’s funny that Ebert actually singles out the special effects in the first movie as worthy of praise. It’s easy to forget just how much our standards for movie effects have evolved over the years, and this is a striking reminder of how quickly these things can change. Effects that were once acceptable or even stunning can seem dated and cheesy just a few years later. Then again, I do seriously question whether the ridiculous warp sequence in the first movie—during which everything becomes distorted by wavy lines and everyone’s speech is slowed and slurred—was ever considered top-of-the-line filmmaking. This underlines one of the difficult things about judging this series. It’s sometimes hard to tell, from the vantage point of 2009, what about these films only looks bad now because of the developments in film technology and aesthetics over the past three decades, and what would’ve looked bad in any era. Did audiences at the time see that warp scene as exciting, or did they see it the way we mostly do today, as silly and unintentionally hilarious?
These kinds of questions are especially hard to answer with Star Trek, because to some extent the cheesiness and datedness of these films are actually built-in. They’re meant to be somewhat chintzy and rough because that’s what people found appealing about the campy original series. That’s one of my big problems with camp in general: it’s an absence of critical and aesthetic standards, a willingness to laugh at a film rather than with it. And too often the Star Trek films encourage this kind of enjoyment where what you’re enjoying is not the film so much as making fun of the film.