Shiny Shelf

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

By Shiny Shelf on 03 May 2009

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

There’s a long-outmoded and obscure piece of studio kit that was popular during the 50’s in music production called ‘Hollow Cosmos’. It was used to add a vast and echoing reverb sound to the instrumentation that was at once empty-sounding like a vast metallic canyon but also filled up the ear with pleasantly eerie striations of reflected noise. It gave the relatively throwaway singers of the time a sense of almost-weird otherworldliness and simulated scale that belied their populist bent. As a parallel to the nature of ‘Star Trek the Motion Picture’ I’m quite happy to labour the comparison – upon viewing with a contemporary head on the film has a fitting sense of epic spacious grandeur but an equally empty belly hungry for the simple, catchy fare that so beloved the world to the television series.

Comparisons to ‘2001’ are plentiful: The pleasantly swoopy mood-setting intro music and plunging starfield as you file into the theatre; the burn-and–drift orange spacesuits hanging in the vacuum; the vast, yawning emptiness of space (something the TOS visual effects understandably found difficult to convey without some belief-dangling) and the periods of quiet followed by jarring interstellar clangs (its predominantly quite a hushed film, permeated by sudden spurts of jangling sound that can jerk a drowsy reviewer from his unintended late-evening reverie (redolent of ‘The Andromeda Strain’, also by the same director). Space is an ongoing motif, literally of course, but also regarding the expansive of time it takes the film’s warp factor zero pace to get anywhere – it shows a slowness eager to fill the temporal legroom of a celluloid movie as opposed to the necessary snappiness of the original show’s 60 minute slot (with adverts). Likewise not very much actually occurs in a traditional plot sense to fill in the expanse – essentially v’ger arrives and clumsily uploads a bunch of starships like an over-eager puppy, the Enterprise voyages to meet it, they fly right up its “orifice” (without even buying it dinner first!) And then Humans Teach the Machine the Meaning of Love. It’s lucky the sense of scale and place and Jolly Bigness fill in the spaces like a bloody great indistinct cloud with a knackered old satellite inside it, so to speak.

On the human scale the various entrances of the leads are all notable by their wildly varying degrees of reverence and wit – we see Kirk introduced basically peering through a porthole (a moment lampooned in ‘Airplane! 2’) who then alight from what’s essentially a bus to gripe at a lackey, more in the manner of a petulant line manager than a star-crossed leader of men and materiel. Scotty at least gets to fly his podule about and beam like a proud father at sports day over the newly angular Enterprise (the ship itself gets the longest and lovingest entrance of any character, and rightly so). To be fair Spock is allowed a Vulcanised precursor intro on his dry-throated home planet and then a ‘real‘ arrival later on with the old gang (but the drollery there is provided by his comrades’ collective crests falling due to him being so goddamn green-blooded about it) while Bones at least gets a wry hello, replete with anti-establishment curmudgeoneering, Rip Van Winkle Beard and fetching 70’s lounge lizard beltwear.

Crucially though, at no stage does James T get to particularly show his dashing side, plus nearly trashes the ship in a wormhole thanks to his Grumpy Dad–like lack of instruction manual-reading and in the end has the Big Decision of the film made for him (Decker actively wants to become bytes in v’ger). For shame! Only Ricardo Montalban’s plastic chest, heaving in the future will provide Kirk’s with a worthy adversary that he can spark off…hereabouts he comes across largely as a bit of a selfish git having a mid-life crisis, nabbing the red convertible sports car that is the NCC 1701 away from Decker in a hunt to retrieve past glories and using the threat to Earth as a pretext for said, as Bones gruffly points out.

As the film stretches its limbs it’s also notable how little meaningful story-function the lesser cast members get to perform – Uhura luckily has the switchboard to keep busy with, Chekov manages to get fried by a reassuringly lethal console eruption and achieves little else, while Sulu, erm…works the TV remote. The lack of interaction between the crew is notable and when it does occur amidst the gulfs of interstellar trekking these moments are most welcome and serve to give a glimpse of where the necessarily grand scale of the project could have nicely met the flavour and tones of TOS. On reflection in this sense the film is the inverse of ‘The Voyage Home’; here it’s all mission, cosmos and mucho Enterprise with scant chuckles and intra-crew banter. For a piece with such roomy swathes of time to kill it’s ironic they were forgotten amongst the notoriously bigger deals at fray during production – particularly script creep, lack of time (paradoxically) and what can only be described as soul-searching as the creators labour to find a human interest heart to the film but criss-cross the void missing the point whilst the toolbox is sat right there at the Enterprise’s tastefully beige workstations, gamely reacting (at quite some length) to the inevitably as-yet-unfinished bluescreen FX.

[Other random nuggets that snagged the attention on re-view were the genuinely quite icky transporter accident (it seems Bones’ paranoia was well-founded); the first appearance of lumpy-faced, Klingonese-barking Klingons; Security officers dressed up like they’re about to play some ultraviolent futuristic ball sport (I guess all the dead Red Shirts from episodes of yore made them extra-jumpy) and sexy baldy Deltans and their voluntary vow of celibacy (presumably to avoid sending mere humans into paroxysms of ribald mind-boggling).]

In summation: It’s life, Jim, but not quite as we know it.

Christian Slater

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By Shiny Shelf

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