Film Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1973)
Updated: Oct 26, 2022
First film based on the legendary series is odd, yet intriguing.
"Who or what are we dealing with?" This is a question that is asked by Spock (Leonard Nimoy), a mixed human-Vulcan Science Officer of Starship USS Enterprise, near one hour, forty minutes mark in this two hour film.
It is also a question the audience will probably be asking themselves at this juncture.
The modern iterations of the franchise might lead today's audience to think of Star Trek as an action-oriented spectacle stapled together with but watching the first film based on the series is a reminder how it played as a true-blue space opera with it's main focus on genuine curiosity and discovery of what universe might have to offer.
Mid-section onwards, USS Enterprise enters the insidious cloud heading towards earth and remain there till the end. Yet, director Robert Wise (of the classic The Haunting fame) either resists the temptation to turn it into a haunted house picture or simply lacks the imagination to do so. The key to defeat the abstract enemy here becomes figuring out what exactly it is. This aspect makes the film more of a mystery than anything else.
The journey up to this point also has been comparatively relaxed despite a clear goal stated: to intercept a lethal cloud possibly hiding dangerous life-form approaching earth. When we come aboard the USS Enterprise, the ship is unprepared even for safe time wraps, leave alone such an intervention, Kirk (William Shatner) is rejoining the ship as Captain, replacing Decker (Stephen Collins). This last change leads to initial tension between the two men as Decker believes that Kirk is obsessed with his post and he has deliberately orchestrated this change, a doubt echoed by Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) when Captain Kirk almost gets the crew killed by ignoring Decker's advise at a critical moment.
This leads to some introspection on Captain Kirk's behalf. Kirk's psychology is not probed deep enough but this is still an interesting take on what I went believing in was your typical hero.
The film also presumes that the reason why you're watching it is because you were already charmed by the series. It does not bother laying any sort of introductory groundwork for USS Enterprise and its crew. You are meant to recognize and nod simply because a character has turned up. This is further underlined at Spock's first appearance on the ship. Everyone is full of guarded glee and fawns over him. Fans would cue in immediately at his stony responses as his idiosyncrasy, a part of the charm of the character, but someone encountering the characters for the first time will have to catch up.
Such indifference is thrown out when the ship itself is being shown. The whole sequence takes about six-minutes as Kirk and Dr. McCoy travel in a vessel staring admiringly at it.
When the ship actually intercepts the dangerous cloud and some action is expected, Wise, working against audience expectations goes even slower. As the enemy has not been seen or understood, the crew is supposed to mirror audience's confusion. They travel inside the giant cloud expecting the worst. As noticed, this is a long sequence in which the majority of the cast is seen staring at their screens while muttering technical ship-speak.
That the main villain is a machine trying to get to its creator is a machine makes its debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey clearer. The lengthy travels inside the cloud with several shimmering patterns also become much clearer.
The unique thing about this film is that it plays more like a sci-fi mystery than an action film. Wise's instincts to stick to making everything more and more philosophical might be a kill joy for some, but it offers a much more interesting take on the genre. The main solution emanates slowly from the love angle between Decker and Ilia (Persis Khambata), a Starfleet officer who has taken a vow of celibacy while Decker still pines for her.
Star Trek feature film series might have not started with a bang, but it offers enough glimpses of the possibilities of the series, and perhaps, the genre itself.