This film is one of the most maligned in the Star Trek franchise. Released in 1979, Star Trek: TMP was an attempt to revive the classic TV series that had gained a massive following through syndication since its cancellation in the 60’s. Through a turbulent development, it premiered as a bloated mess that fans had no choice but to try to love, and with the release of subsequent films has become a black sheep.
Gene Roddenberry had tried throughout the 70s to get his baby back on its feet. A stint as an animated series ensured that memory of the show didn’t wither away completely, and Star Trek was thus juggled between producers who wanted to make a movie or a new series.
1977’s Star Wars proved that sci fi films could make money, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind confirmed that sci fi could be something other than Star Wars and still succeed. So all plans made for a new series, Star Trek: Phase II, were scrapped and rolled into the new film, and some of those scraps eventually took root in Star Trek: The Next Generation (which at this point wasn’t even a preconceived notion yet).
Star Trek: TMP got a huge budget, and everything got a lush treatment, but unfortunately having so many egotistical cooks in the kitchen, as it were, led to so many paralyzing creative differences that the film’s focus was hamstrung and the result was an over-indulgent mess.
You can’t blame them, to an extent. At this point, Star Trek was dead, and having a chance to resurrect it was a rare gift. Why not go all out?
On a positive note, the film has some gorgeous special effects. The soundtrack is also sweeping in an old fashioned way (the opening fanfare was later used as Star Trek: TNG’s opening). The problem is that so much time is spent showcasing these assets that it becomes obvious that the plot is thin. Who wants to sit through an overture without even any credits to read, and those minutes and minutes of flybys of the Enterprise’s exterior?
Speaking of the plot, it’s not terrible. A strange cosmic invader that threatens Earth may seem cliche, but seeing the Enterprise crew using their wits to explore this thing and find a way to save humanity is essentially Star Trek. The main problem with the plot is its presentation. The story is convoluted and fragmented, and extended scenes of space travel and ironically boring “ooh ah” moments spoil the fun.
But there is some fun, occasionally. At the film’s start, we see a brand new iteration of Klingons, the ones we know to this day. Unfortunately, the concept was still coming together and these Klingons seemed excessively stupid, and the make up still needed work. You get the impression that these Klingons are inbred and suffer from congenital mental handicaps.
Another fun scene is when the bridge is invaded by a probe in the form of plasma. It meanders around while the petrified crew helplessly watches, except for Spock. He attempts to prevent the probe from gathering data, and even tries to save the bald Deltan beauty Illia from “assimilation”.
A failed transporter beam frighteningly shows that not all deaths in space are pretty. This is a surprisingly dark scene in an otherwise celebratory film. This scene stuck with me throughout my childhood.
Unfortunately, several other plot threads just fray the film’s focus. Kirk’s unfamiliarity with new technology, Riker-esque Commander Decker’s unrequited love for Illia, and McCoy’s distrust of Spock’s hyper-logical motives exhaustingly cannibalize screen time so that when the actually interesting twist that the invader is an Earth probe returning home is revealed, you just wish it was all over, already.
It must also be mentioned that the uniforms in the film are horribly awful. Whoever decided that no one should wear undies underneath their pajama-like uniforms certainly had issues. There’s more peen in this film than in a sci fi themed porn flick, and some of the characters look exceptionally sweaty in their scenes.
There is nothing sleek or space worthy about this film. It is opulent, and crowded with “all the things” that people had been working on since the original series ended. It’s a shame that it was so poorly executed, because this movie does have some interesting elements.
Commonly this film is compared to Star Trek V, another miserable Star Trek film. The debate rages on as to which one is worse, but it’s safe to say that if you’re wanting a taste of Star Trek movie goodness, then skip this one and start with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
It’s interesting that the start of Star Trek’s film franchise echoes the beginning of the original series. Both had an initial installment, or pilot, that just didn’t please, but the second installment became a success. Perhaps something as grand as Star Trek needs a couple of tries to get things right.