- Year: 1979
- Director: Robert Wise
- Series Rank: #11
- Year Rank: #75
- Oscar Nominations: Original Score, Art Direction, Visual Effects
- Nighthawk Nominations: Original Score, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
- The Enterprise Crew: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Stephen Collins, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett, Persis Khambatta
There’s a scene early in the film that emphasizes everything right with this film and everything wrong with it, all at the same time. Admiral Kirk has just beamed up from Earth to Space Dock (because of problems with the transporters, he can’t beam directly aboard the Enterprise). He has a nice conversation with Scotty about how they’ve just given the Enterprise back to him so that he can go out and save the Earth. Then they depart in a shuttlecraft along the length of Space Dock to board the Enterprise. The score is magnificent (more on that below). The special effects are so vastly superior to anything that had ever been done on the show (Trek fans, of which I have always been one, should be grateful that the first film took so long to come about so that Star Wars could come out in the meantime and revolutionize visual effects). They show great sweeping shots of the Enterprise, a truly impressive model, not just the little thing hanging from a wire on the original show. Then they show more. And it goes on. And on. For several minutes. It feels never ending and it’s not the only scene that feels like that.
Back in the 40’s and 50’s, there used to be a category at the Oscars called Best Original Story. That’s because there used to be writers who would think up stories for studios and they would get passed on to other writers to write a script. That still happens sometimes for a variety of reasons and it happened here. The original story was by Alan Dean Foster, the talented science fiction writer who was the ghostwriter for George Lucas for the novelization of Star Wars, wrote the first Star Wars spin-off novel (Splinter of the Mind’s Eye) and just this year wrote the novelization of The Force Awakens. It was intended to be the pilot for Star Trek: Phase II, the second go around for Kirk and the Enterprise on television. But, with the success of Close Encounters, Paramount suddenly decided that Star Wars hadn’t sucked all the Sci-Fi energy from movie theaters and decided to change direction and make a feature film for Star Trek instead. So, the idea from the pilot was turned into a script, which, sadly, was not written by Foster and that’s where the problems come in. The idea at the heart of this film is a great one – one of the unmanned spacecrafts from NASA bounced off something after a couple of centuries, gained intelligence, and started heading back home. But the script itself meanders and lingers and takes far too long to get anywhere. Thus the scene above. There wasn’t enough time spent to whittle the screenplay into a more manageable piece and because of a planned premiere, there wasn’t enough time spent on editing the film down. So we’re left with a film that embodies much of what the final season of the original show did: great ideas that aren’t utilized very well.
Is there anyone who is truly pleased with this film? I’m not saying there aren’t people who like it, and every time I watch it I find things to admire in it. But then we start to get to the middle of the film, when the Enterprise has actually encountered the strange menace called V’ger and it enters the cloud of energy. And it moves on. And on. And on. It’s just like the earlier scene – they got so focused on the special effects that they forgot to provide enough of a screenplay to hang those visual effects upon.
But maybe I should focus on some of the things that the film does well. It brings the original characters back together in an interesting way. We see our first glimpses of Earth (never seen in this century on the original show), we get hints of a new crew (the new Vulcan science officer), we find out that things have changed (Kirk is now an Admiral, Scotty has grown a mustache, Spock has gone to Vulcan and gotten the galaxy’s worst haircut). But the characters start coming together.
Unfortunately, even in the midst of the good, comes the bad. We see the characters on the newly outfitted Enterprise (which looks great), but we also see their outfits (which are hideous beyond belief). We get a great character moment like Bones beaming up and lambasting Kirk for being pulled back in to Starfleet, but the direction from Robert Wise undermines the moment by not giving a pause between Bones’ humorous lines for us to relax for a second. Likewise, when Spock finally comes aboard, everything is pushed together so quickly that we lose the character moment, presumably so they could devote more time to the visual effects (which are good, but not good enough to warrant how much time we focus on them). They even screwed up one of the new characters (Ilia), making her someone who is supposed to ooze sexuality, but then making her bald for some ridiculous reason.
One thing the film does do well is how it utilizes the character of Will Decker. Though it is never mentioned explicitly in the film, he is the son of Matthew Decker, who was the guest star character in one of the better episodes of the show. Decker’s interactions with Kirk are some of the better moments in the film and he provides some of the few nice moments that don’t just focus on the original crew. The background for his character, the use of a younger character as a foil for the experienced commander (and even his relationship with the empath) was such a good idea that they would go back to it and use him as the basis for Ryker in TNG. For a long time I considered this the weakest Star Trek film and given its faults it’s incredible that a second film was allowed to be made and save the franchise. But, in the end, it really is a better film (by several points) over the fifth film (more on that when I get to the fifth film). It is far from a great start to the franchise, but there are moments where it really comes alive. And at least it’s not complete crap like some Paramount films made from television shows that I enjoyed as a kid (GI Joe and Transformers, I’m looking at you).