Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Star Side-Tracked

Sometimes I feel like I ignore this blog, and leave it pretty much unattended between  announcements of new Chrontendo videos. So here's a quick little project I'll throw into  the works (my previous little project, reviewing all of Russian River's 'religious' beers got cut short due to the fact that those beers are now impossible to find.)

This particular project was inspired by the estimable Bill Mudron, an artist you might know from his illustration of movie reviewer Mr. Plinkett. He does all kinds of art based on videogames and other nerdy stuff. He was talking about the Star Trek movies, and I mentioned I had not seen all of them, and probably have not seen any of them since their original release. Bill let me know that all the movies were currently available on Netflix streaming, which seemed like a good excuse for me to flesh out my Star Trek knowledge and then serve up my terrible Star Trek opinions. I'll start this today with 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One caveat: I am not a Star Trek fanatic.  I think Star Trek is OK. I will only be covering the six original ST movies, since I do not give one shit about the various spin-offs such as Next Generation, Babylon 5, Enterprise, etc. I will not engage in any Star Trek geekery here and will look at these movies with the cold, clear eye of a man who has no special attachment to any of them.

Of the six Star Trek feature films, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the weirdest, and in some ways, most interesting, of the bunch. It was also the biggest money maker of the six, based on the original theatrical runs. It's the only one directed by a renowned filmmaker, namely Robert Wise, winner of two Best Director Oscars. Wise was an editor before he became a director, and one of his editing credits was Citizen Kane. Let that sink into your skulls for a moment. The guy who made the first Star Trek movie had Citizen fucking Kane on his resume. His lengthy directorial credits included the early sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Just to remind you, The Sound of Music is, to this day, the third biggest money making movie of all time. Wise mostly made big, high budget, all-star movies, so bringing him aboard was a sign of Paramount's seriousness when it came to this movie.

Classic Bob Peak artwork on the poster.
A bit of backstory: the original Star Trek series ran for three seasons, from 1966 to 1969. It was cancelled due to low ratings but quickly began a second life in syndication.  Now as a person who was born in the 70s, I can assure you that every single kid in the country was familiar with Star Trek at the time The Motion Picture was released. Star Trek was inescapable in the 70s. Syndicated reruns aired constantly. ST novels hit the shelves starting in 1970, and an animated TV series aimed at kids debuted in 1973. Mego launched a line of Star Trek action figures in 1975. Gold Key published a Star Trek comic throughout the 70s.  Star Trek fans launched a letter-writing campaign to change the name of the new space shuttle to The Enterprise. Gerald Ford agreed to the name change. So by 1976, Star Trek was such a established cultural institution that the president was cool with naming a multi-gazillion dollar aerospace project after the show.

Star Trek was hugely popular among kids in the 70s

Resurrecting Star Trek was a foregone conclusion by this point, and a protracted attempt to do so had begun around 1972. Plans to make a Star Trek film were jettisoned, but Paramount attempted to launch a new Trek TV series in 1977.  In addition to the original cast, roles for new characters were created, such as Will Decker, and Ilia, who was to be played by Indian actress/model Persis Khambatta.  The new series obviously never happened, since Paramount decided to opt for a theatrical movie instead, following the huge success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The intended first episode of the new TV series, "In Thy Image," was expanded into a film script. The new characters, Decker and Ilia were carried over. Gene Rodenberry was given the position of producer. Sets were hastily rebuilt.  Paramount felt they were in a race against time, as they assumed the post Star Wars sci-fi movie fad would soon run its course.

Persis Khambatta in a test shot for the TV show project.

Aside from Robert Wise, Paramount brought in some big names like special effects guy Douglas Trumbull, who previously worked on 2001 and Close Encounters. (Interestingly, his father worked on Star Wars.) Also Richard Yuricich from Close Encounters was hired and John Dykstra, from Star Wars, had some involvement. (Dykstra got the Star Wars job because Doug Trumball was already committed to Close Encounters.  Special FX was an incestuous scene at the time.) The point is that Paramount was dedicated to making a Close Encounters-sized hit. The resulting picture was more expensive than Star Wars and Close Encounters combined.  When it finally premiered in December 1979, it had the best opening weekend of the year. Star Trek: The Motion Picture made a nice chunk of money, but it wasn't exactly Star Wars money. It was generally considered a bit of a disappointment at the box office, since it only made $150 million, instead of $300 million. By comparison, it made more money, adjusted for inflation, than American Sniper or Guardians of the Galaxy.

Despite its relative financial success, the involvement of names like Roddenberry, Robert Wise, Doug Trumball and Syd Mead; its state of the art special effects, and fact that it succeeded in reuniting the original cast and restarting the franchise, Star Trek fans tend to really dislike The Motion Picture. As I mentioned at the top of this post, it's a weird movie, closer in some ways to Kubrick's 2001 than the rest of the Star Trek movies.  It begins much like Star Wars, with special effects shots of spaceships flying through space, in this case Klingon battleships.  Everything in this opening sequence looks expensive. The Klingons have more elaborate makeup than they did in the TV show; the interiors of the Klingon ship look great compared to the drab design and flat lighting ST fans were used to.  The Klingon ships attack some mysterious space cloud and very quickly get themselves disintegrated by the cloud's unstoppable plasma bursts. We then cut to Earth, where Kirk, now an admiral, is preparing to return to active duty and take the Enterprise out to meet the mysterious cloud, which is headed on a course straight to Earth. Simultaneously, Spock is hanging out on Vulcan with a hippie haircut, doing Vulcan things.

Vulcan looks very matte-painty in this movie.

The first third of the movie is the 'getting the old gang back together' bit. Kirk has bulldogged Starfleet command into giving him control of the Enterprise again, (this is not shown) then runs into Scotty who drives him to the recently-updated Enterprise in a little space shuttle. The scene of the shuttle approaching the enterprise it quite interesting. It lasts about 5 minutes, and mostly cuts between shorts of Kirk getting teary-eyed at the sight of his old ship, and impressive special effects shots of the Enterprise as it sits in some kind of space drydock. This sequence is all visual spectacle. There is virtually no dialog, just shots of the Enterprise from every angle, set against orchestral arrangements of TV show's theme music, as the audience gazes in wonder at this new, post-Star Wars imagining of the Enterprise.

This sequence is a tour-de-force of cutting edge, post Star Wars special effects.

Once Kirk is aboard, Uhura, Sulu, Chekhov, etc, all greet him, expressing wonderment at his unexpected appearance. A grumpy, bearded Bones is quickly brought aboard, against his will, and then a bit later, Spock somehow tracks down the Enterprise and flies in using a another little space shuttle.  Now that the original cast is completely reunited,  the Enterprise sets off to stop the giant killer cloud. The remainder of the movie mostly consists of the journey to the center of the cloud, as the crew attempts to solve the mystery of the cloud before it reaches Earth.

Fans, critics and the cast itself generally did not like The Motion Picture.  In theory, the story of an all-powerful yet unknowable alien lifeform menacing Earth could make for an exciting movie.  Yet TMP is almost completely lacking in action and excitement. The crew of the Enterprise are reduced to spectators, watching passively as they drift through the alien cloud. Unlike most episodes of the TV show, the crew remains shipbound for the entire movie. Aside from one scene where the Enterprise gets sucked into a wormhole and has to fire photon torpedoes at an asteroid, everyone mostly sits in their chairs and stares at the bridge's big monitor screen. No phasers are fired, no red shirts are killed, Kirk doesn't engage in any fisticuffs or make love to any alien ladies. The returning cast had complaints about the script not giving them much to do. Uhura, Sulu and Chekov sit at their stations and do nothing other than provide the occasional reaction shot.  Scotty remains stationed in the engine room and makes various comments about the engines not being at full power, etc. The only returning cast members who get any noteworthy dialog are Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Bones exists pretty much to squabble with Spock (which is fine) but mostly stands around on the bridge looking lost. Spock is the movie's deus ex machina, who had an unexplained psychic link to the cloud, and spends the movie telling Kirk what his next move should be.

Psychedelic effects are used for the wormhole sequence.

First time viewers of TMP may be surprised at how much time it spends on the two new characters,  Stephen Collins' Captain Decker and Persis Khambatta's Ilia.  The source of the film's main dramatic conflict is the tension between Kirk and Decker after Kick re-assumes command of the Enterprise. Ilia herself is one of TMP's central images. With her shaved head and high collared white bathrobe outfit, she cuts a striking figure, and she was featured heavily in the film's promotions. Check the movie's poster up there: her face is plastered front and center right between Kirk and Spock's.  It appears she was briefly being positioned to become a major star, with Star Trek TMP as her breakout role. She was considered for a role in an upcoming James Bond movie, but this never came to pass, and she mostly ended up in low-budget flicks after this. MST3K fans will recall her from Warrior of the Lost World, where she was upstaged by Megaweapon. 

People who were around in 1979 still think of ST:TMP as the "one with the bald lady."

Ultimately, I'd say that Star Trek TMP's strange passivity is its greatest failing.  I'll tie this in with a cinematic mini-trend that I have just now thought up: "The Cinema of Spectators." 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind may be the greatest examples of this genre. In the Cinema of Spectators, characters are always staring, wide-eyed and opened mouthed, at some amazing sight unfolding before them. A character's goal may simply be to see something, rather than interact with it. Astronauts travel to the moon to look at the monolith in 2001. Later in that movie, Dave witnesses the secrets of the universe unveiling themselves, just as we viewers do. Dave acts as a stand in for the viewer. Compare Close Encounters with Spielberg's other films, which all involve some kind of spectacle, but non-passive characters. In Jaws, they want to kill the shark; Indiana Jones wants to steal the Ark, Eliot wants to help ET get back home. In contrast, Richard Dreyfus' character in Close Encounters leaves his entire life behind just to get a chance to witness the alien spacecraft again. The classic shot construction in such films is cutting back forth between the character's motionless gaze and the spectacle they are viewing.

Some moments almost feel lifted straight out of 2001.

This is exactly what happens in Star Trek: TMP.  First we have Kirk and Scotty's surprisingly long shuttle trip around the Enterprise. The cloud's attacks on the Klingon warship and a Federation space station are both witnessed by people looking at viewscreens. Once the Enterprise enters the cloud, they cannot attack it or even really communicate with it. All Kirk can do is ponder the cloud's vast and wondrous interior spaces. These special effects scenes are the meat of ST: TMP.  We are treated to countless expensive special effects shots of the enormous alien spaceship in the heart of the cloud. Deigned by Syd Mead, all this stuff is pretty amazing looking, but is treated mostly as background scenery.  Even the film's ending finds Kirk and Spock behaving in a uncharacteristically passive way. Captain Decker sacrifices himself to save the Earth, while everyone else just stands there.*

Countless scenes like this made ST:TMP cost more than Star Wars and Close Encounters combined.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture's over-reliance on spectacular visual effects over action and characterization makes it an interesting failure.  I wouldn't call it boring, per se, but it is a bit frustrating. In some ways it resembles the original series more than the later films (it was sort of a rewrite of a TV episode called "The Changeling.") Regardless, it was not the mammoth success Paramount hoped it would be. The studio reacted by shit-canning Roddenberry, hiring new production staff, and slashing the budget for the sequel by 75%. The result was a film loved by fans young and old, which we'll cover next time.

Lens flares, years before JJ Abrams.

*Spoiler alert! At the center of the gigantic space cloud is an enormous alien spacecraft piloted by a mysterious being called V'Ger, who takes over Ilia's body (sort of.) V'Ger is guiding the cloud to Earth to meet "the creator." Eventually the Kirk and the gang manage to come face to face with V'Ger, who turns out to be an old Voyager space probe (with dirt covering up the "oya" part of the logo) who went thru a black hole to the other end of the universe and somehow merged with some super-advanced race of sentient machines or something. Decker, as one of the human "creators," fuses with V'Ger, perhaps infusing him with human intelligence, and creating a new form of life. Spock stupidly muses that they may have just witnessed the next step in human evolution. Kirk, having completed his mission, decides to immediately hightail it to furthest reaches of space just like they did in the old days, despite having no orders to do so, and not taking into consideration that his crew members might have family members on Earth they might want to check on. (Earth was literally minutes from being vaporized by a super-powerful space being. I assume some crazy end-of-the-world shit went down on the surface while all this was going on.) The End.


Ray Hardgrit said...

It'd be fair to say I'm probably a Star Trek fan, but I can't find fault with anything you've said here (apart from your disregard for the greatest Trek spin-off, Babylon 5).

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is Star Trek really trying to be 2001, and that was doomed to fail from the start because the series's main strength was the interplay between the characters as they discussed the big ideas, instead of watching them fly past on their big HD TV on the bridge. The movie's arc is about the heroes transforming from miserable jerks back into the people audiences wanted to see from the beginning, and that's kind of missing the point. Or at least missing what was entertaining about the crew on the small screen.

Still, it at least feels like a proper grown up movie, which is more than some of the sequels managed, and the visuals are pretty incredible for their time (when you can make out what you're looking at).

Skymaster T said...

Funny you would start this project now, because I just a few days ago added Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country to my Netflix que because someone told me it was a good movie. And I'm not even a Star Trek fan, really. I only have seen a few of the movies, and really only enjoyed one: part 4.

GarrettCRW said...

TMP cost so damn much for two reasons: all prior development (the various proposals in the '70s that Bluhorn shot down because he wanted-and got-the show over and done with the instant Paramount bought Desilu, the costs related to Phase II, which already had multiple scripts ready to go) was tacked onto the film's budget, and because the original effects contractor fell massively behind (which Roddenberry, having witnessed such a breakdown at the start of the first season, recognized immediately). That's why the movie plods so much: it was built around the effects sequences, and then barely finished in tim for the premiere.

Those factors gave Paramount the freedom to call the film a disappointment and definitively pull Roddenberry off of Star Trek. In fact, that was the plan from the start: Harold Livingston was assigned to Roddenberry for Phase II as someone to do Paramount's bidding (much like Rick Berman with TNG), but all they ended up doing was squabbling and writing dueling drafts of the screenplay. Then David Wise was brought in and installed as producer and director, and Gene only had the script to work on. About the only right thing Wise did was to get Leonard Nimoy on board, solving Nimoy's dispute with the studio over royalties, because the effects situation blew up in his face, the uniforms stunk (Wise fired Bill Theiss and brought in his own person), and the set design was ultimately too bland (though Nick Meyer fixed that pretty nicely).

Hillary Clinton said...

You really should review the Next Generation; it is that good. Babylon 5 sucks, Enterprise sucks, every thing else sucks etc.

killias2 said...

The Next Generation (TNG) is probably the best thing to come out of Star Trek, and I like a lot of stuff associated with TOS. Don't get me wrong... TNG isn't perfect, but there's a lot to it. However, if you ever decide to give it a try, don't start with the first few seasons. They're terrible.

dezm101 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dezm101 said...

reat posts recently!

I finally picked up the first star trek film and I was expecting something pretty bad from what I had heard, but was pleasantly surprised. It definitely has a kind of theme park feel to it but I thought the visuals paid off pretty well in comparison to the flat story

Anonymous said...

DS9 (from about the time Worf joins the cast on) is the best, not TNG.

I hope everyone's joking about Babylon 5, a great show in its own right but not at all connected to Star Trek.