Cinematically Induced Coma
Directed by Robert Wise, Written by Harold Livingstoni
I can’t imagine how much it must’ve sucked to be a nerd back in the day. In 2019 and moving into 2020, nerd culture is the dominant culture in American media. Multiple subscription services are built entirely around attracting the nerd demographic, from DC Universe to Disney+, though obviously one of those is a bit more successful than the other. I caught the early days of this in high school, vividly remembering that fateful day when I went from not daring to admitting to liking Star Trek, having been mercilessly mocked for it in middle school, to suddenly overhearing ostensibly “normal” kids talking about how much they liked the 2009 reboot. But this golden age, where Avengers is the biggest film ever made and even a movie just about the Joker can make a billion dollars, it was built on the foundations of those that came before us, those who had to survive when comic books had not yet matured as an art form, and where the chances of you catching quality sci fi on TV were next to nothing. If you missed that rerun of Battlestar Galactica, tough luck, because you were just going to have to hope it came back around again at a later date. These are the people who had to wander through the wilderness after the original Star Trek went off the air, who had to suffer for a decade before Paramount finally brought the franchise back. And as a movie no less! Finally, Trek fans would get their big budget, big screen moment. After years of watching Star Wars completely conquering the nerd and science fiction landscape, Gene Roddenberry’s vision would finally return to remind everyone of who was really in charge.
And oh my god it is just so, so terrible.
The film that can be blamed for all of this, ironically, isn’t Star Wars. You’d think it was, given the absolute craze it caused, forever altering the media landscape, a release so monumental that it still shakes our collective popular culture today. So much trash was pushed out to try and capitalize on that success, from the hilariously bad cult films like Starchaser or Yor: The Hunter From The Future to long lasting properties like Battlestar Galactica, suddenly every executive in Hollywood wanted their chance at science fiction. But not here. Obviously Star Wars being a massive success didn’t hurt TMP’s chances of getting made, but in terms of what actually ended up getting made, the movie we can really blame for what a disastrous bore Star Trek: The Motion Picture turned out to be 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Stanley Kubrick was a genius, and in 1968 he released arguably the most important science fiction film ever made. In terms of special effects, visual style, heady ideas presented, it was something that had never been achieved before. But here’s the thing, that sort of thing is difficult to replicate, and its influence over TMP is so difficult to ignore that it drags the whole film down, and it’s flawed execution shows how close to danger Kubrick really was on 2001. There are a lot of surface elements to 2001 that I think could lead to someone coming away from that movie thinking that they were its sum total. Fantastic visual effects and models, slow long shots of ships traveling through space with a beautiful score, and surreal imagery balanced with questions of origin. The problem is that with 2001, Kubrick was an utter perfectionist. He assembled all of these bits so meticulously that he created a masterpiece that is essentially required viewing for fans of the genre. But what Kubrick really managed to do was to make a film that has a slow pace, and yet not uninteresting. With TMP, all those same elements are there, but they’re cripplingly, impossibly boring.
That’s really the main piece of it. TMP is sometimes called “The Slow Motion Picture” and holy shit it is impossible to argue that nickname isn’t warranted. I’ve seen some people try to argue that this is actually one of the better Star Trek movies because of its slow pace, because it “feels like Star Trek” rather than a big dumb action movie like the later movies with The Next Generation cast turned into but nah, fuck that. First Contact has massive, gaping holes in its script but you know what? Shit happens in that movie! People actually do things! That movie has thrilling special effects, a cool villain, great action, fun bits of comedy. The Motion Picture has nothing. Much of the first half of the film consists of the Enterprise breaking several times, and the rest of it consists of long slow shots of the Enterprise as it slowly, painful inches its way forward. Then we get contact with the alien, and our villain is essentially just a faceless cloud with no real personality surrounding a piece of machinery that also has no personality. How could it! When if it did, that would spoil the twist!
But I suppose it would be lazy of me to just write “it’s boring” for six paragraphs and call it a day. Let’s get to our plot then, at least. Years after the end of the Original Series, James Kirk is now riding a desk at Starfleet, until a mysterious cloud appears and destroys multiple ships, and is on a direct course of Earth with only the Enterprise to stop it. Newly refit, the Enterprise heads out with faces new and familiar to go make contact and find out what the mysterious alien cloud wants. With that explained, I suppose I’ll at least give this movie credit for having a Star Trek like plot, rather than the alternative already laid out, a big dumb action movie with lasers and explosions. I’m sure at least one suit at Paramount wanted a script where Klingons build a Death Star and the Enterprise has to destroy it by firing a torpedo down its thermal exhaust port, but cooler heads prevailed. This really is more authentic to Roddenberry’s vision of the future than anything coming out of George Lucas’ mind, at the very least.
But at least if it came out of Lucas’ mind circa 1977 it would have been, you know, good. I get that this isn’t that same sort of sci-fi movie that Star Wars is, I get that it’s trying to do something different. It wants to ask deep questions, it wants to say something about bigger topics rather than just shoot lasers at TIE Fighters. But it just gives me nothing to work with. Boring, slow, dull, I’m running out of room in the thesaurus here but you have to see my point. While it does tackle questions of meaning, of what life is, of our place in the universe, but it doesn’t tackle these questions in interesting ways, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and it certainly isn’t anywhere near as progressive or as innovative as the Original Series often was. It’s just dull, in every possible regard, even when it‘s trying to examine topics more heady than anything over in Star Wars.
It doesn’t help that the movie’s “villain” is so uninteresting to the point that it is barely a character. It isn’t a character! It’s a piece of set, an oversized prop whose motivations have to be told to us by other characters rather than revealed in the story naturally. And in a way, this is very true to the nature of Star Trek. It’s easy to see why the villains in Star Trek ‘09 or Nemesis are often dismissed as basically being superhero movie villains, angry bald guys who have doomsday weapons and want revenge. So at least TMP doesn’t have that. No, it has a space probe that has become self aware and is only a cataclysmic threat to Earth by accident and happenstance. Awesome, just awesome, really compelling stuff. Darth Vader was fresh in the public mind at this point, and Star Trek responded with a confused satellite. Movies can often get away with having weak villain characters but when a movie has so little else going on, a deficiency here becomes all the more glaring.
So the story sucks and the villain is a series of circuit boards with delusions of grandeur, but what about our characters? After all, what is a piece of Star Trek without its cast of lovable characters? The gang’s all here at least, Kirk and Spock and Scotty and all the rest, plus some new faces! And hey, the performances are whatever. I’m not going to sit here and dump on any of them, they’re fine enough. The one interesting thing here is the new additions, namely Commander Decker and the alien navigator Ilia. But it’s not that I find the characters themselves interesting, oh no, that’s not it. Decker and Ilia are interesting to me only because they serve as a pretty clear blueprint for Commander Riker and Counselor Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. These characters were created for the failed Star Trek: Phase II show that never materialized despite being in development for years, and many concepts and characters from that series were subsequently cannibalized for The Motion Picture and The Next Generation, these two characters probably being the most significant examples. So it’s kind of neat to see the pre-beta versions of what would become iconic characters, it’s like seeing an unrevised first draft of an idea that still needs to be tweaked, like those old Star Wars concept art pieces where Han didn’t exist and every Stormtrooper had a lightsaber. So from that aspect I find them kind of fascinating, but as characters in their own right they don’t hold a candle to the rest of the gang, despite Ilia being on the movie’s poster. They’re adequate in the film itself, but in the larger context of the franchise they’re only worth remembering for archeological reasons.
I’ve seen Star Trek fans desperately trying to justify this movie’s place in the franchise, trying to jam it into the wider continuity in a way that it was never meant to. I’ve seen more than one of these theories try and explain how it’s connected to Q or the Borg but all of that is just fan theory nonsense. Really, the simple fact of the matter is that The Motion Picture is a boring film that is completely nonessential. None of these events are referenced again, and the subsequent film, The Wrath of Khan, is superior in every measurable capacity. A stronger script, better character work, more exciting action, higher emotional stakes, a better story, better connections to the Original Series, I could go on and on but you get the point, it doesn’t even hold up well when compared to other Star Trek movies, let alone anything else in the genre. It’s completely skippable, unless you’re looking for something to put you to sleep, because this shit is basically NyQuil in movie form.