Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Less Star Trek, More 2001

Genre: Science-Fiction

The plot is somewhat baffling in it's construction and use, although it is certainly a solid sci-fi premise. An unknown alien object is approaching earth, having destroyed three Klingon warships and a Federation outpost, no contact can be made and it's intentions are still unknown. From here, we see the Enterprise, yet again the only ship within intercept range, being deployed to try and make contact with the intruder and prevent the destruction of Earth. In possible the best aspect of the film, we see the original crew of the Original Series have aged and moved on in their careers, except Kirk, now an Admiral, takes back command from the fresh Captain Decker, using the emergency as a pretext, but as Bones points outs, reflects his desire to remain aboard the Enterprise as Captain.

We get an indication of it's nature through Spock, who having attempted to purge all his remaining emotions in order to achieve a state of pure logic, feels a keen affinity for the 'thoughtwaves' emanating from it. The alien object then destroys a newly introduced crewmember and sends back a facsimile to communicate with what it refers to as 'carbon-based units'. We gradually learn that the object is, in fact, a deep space craft named Voyager 6, a successor to the Voyager craft launched in real life, in order to gain as much knowledge as possible. The craft has encountered a civilization of pure logic and with their help achieved consciousness. It is now returning to Earth to seek it's Creator.

The final setpeice of the movie involves the core crew beaming down to the surface of the Voyager 6 probe (it's nameplate having been partially covered to read, as previously referred to, as V'Ger) and attempting to convince it that the 'carbon-based' units as, in fact, it's Creators. Hastily retrieved NASA codes don't do the trick, and eventually Decker chooses to be absorbed into the probe's consciousness, thus rejoining the previously absorbed crewmember with whom he is clearly in love, to share his thoughts and memories and avert the destruction of Earth.

The problem with the plot is perhaps the exact opposite of the problems encountered by many modern blockbusters. The personal aspects of the story, the interactions between the crew and the quieter character beats, range from decent to excellent. The Original Series' crew has always done well with maintaining interest in interpersonal relations and the nice touch in naming the new Captain Decker isn't left unnoticed. However, the heart of any screenplay has to be conflict, and the situation with V'Ger is simply not given enough drama to be compelling.

It is an interesting premise, and  solid 'hard' sci-fi story. But as a major movie, rather than a quieter, reflective episode of the TV show, it does fail pretty badly. While there is no need for large-scale space battles or a myriad of action scenes, there is a need for compelling human drama as well as a cool premise, and almost all the human drama here is relegated to character beats rather than the plot. It results in a somewhat boring progression through the cloud, and an emotionally lacking payoff at the end.

In watching the Remastered Edition's special effects, I was genuinely blown away. This isn't to say that the effects look modern, they are identifiably dated, relying on scale models and mostly in-camera effects rather than modern CGI and digital trickery. However, they hold up remarkably well, giving the movie a sense of grandeur and weight that is surprisingly still potent.

The oft-mocked sequence of Kirk and Scotty approaching the docked Enterprise certainly does seem to be a case of drawing attention to the budget and finally giving the Enterprise the care and attention to detail it was never able to get on the TV show. But it also works wonderfully in establishing a believable, immersive environment, one that is critical for the slow paced cerebral tale the film is attempting to tell.

The Enterprise is certainly impressive, it may be simply a personal preference of mine rather than a universal sentiment, but I always thought that a well done (and well-lit) scale model carries far more visual weight and presence than the majority of computer rendered models. Here the Enterprise is graceful, imposing and looks solid and grand, compared to the fairly weak CGI rendering of the Enterprise in The Next Generation for example. While the time devoted to admiring the model in the first act may be excessive, and almost insanely so by modern pacing standards, the effects themselves still hold up excellently.

The array of effects shown when the Enterprise enters into the V'Ger cloud however hold up slightly less well. Perhaps this is an indication of where computer generated effects have a significance edge over older camera and visual effects, rather than losing some semblance of 'weight', as in the case of rendering ships, CGI now is able to produce far better looking clouds, particle effects and light shows than anything at the filmmakers' disposal at this time.

Rating: 5/10

The overall impression I was left with at the end of this movie is that this is less a big-screen outing of Star Trek than it is the familiar Enterprise and her crew being placed in a completely different creative universe and plot. While some will protest that this was made under the influence of Gene Rodenberry himself, a look back to the Original Series shows the strong marriage of philosophical curiosity with drama, action and humour.

That wonderful mix of drama, action and humour as largely missing here, even as the characters themselves are thankfully intact. Instead we have an almost single-minded focus on philosophical questioning and an atmosphere more reminiscent of 2001: A Space Oddessy than Star Trek.

It is certainly is still well worth watching for anyone with a substantial interest in Star Trek and/or movies exploring grand themes. It is, however, not particularly entertaining beyond sporadic moments. Not a bad film by any stretch, we're not talking about Star Trek V here, but certainly a oddity in Star Trek canon.


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