Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The dirty little secret that “Star Trek” holds is that it took “Star Wars” to bring Gene Roddenberry’s vision to the big screen. Once word got around that George Lucas’ “little” $10 million outer space fantasy was quickly becoming the top grossing film of all time, film studios took action. Suddenly, lavish outer space fantasies were getting the green light around Hollywood and Roddenberry’s cancelled cult TV series was looking to be Paramount Pictures’ answer to The Force. As Trekkies no doubt know, plans to make a new “Star Trek” revival TV series were suddenly upgraded to a major motion picture, helmed by no less than Robert Wise, the director of “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.”

While it can’t be denied that someone would someday have eventually adapted “Star Trek” as a movie, it seems unlikely that it would have happened in 1979, let alone 1980, without the nudge from the success of “Star Wars.” When “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” premiered in December of 1979, it famously was projected on a “wet” print (the edits were completed at the last possible moment) and without a preview to gage what did or didn’t work. Wise’s initial release can be considered a first draft, which he later fine tuned in a subsequent “Director’s Cut” on DVD decades later.

Despite Wise’s adding new visual effects and making minor editing shifts, the criticisms against the film remain the same from the day it opened. Complaints that the film is too slow, joyless and lumbering come up as frequently as the film’s cruel nickname, “Star Trek: The Motion-less Picture.”

The incessant whining hasn’t ceased over time and the film is strangely unloved by most Trekkies, who view as a starter work that led to the solid, if TV-sized and far campier “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” Apparently, Ricardo Kontalben’s rubber chest plate was an improvement for some. For me, Wise’s film, despite its imperfections, is a thrilling experience, the kind that should be witnessed on the largest screen possible.

The plot: Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew Boldly Go…do I need to recap this? It’s worth noting that the story involves the presence of “V’ger” and winds up with a great twist right out of Rod Serling. Every member of the classic Trek cast makes a strong entrance (arguably the best coming from DeForest Kelley, looking like Disco Bones). Shatner, the late Nimoy and Kelley, and the remainder of the traditional Enterprise ensemble perform well, though the movie is stolen by the hypnotic Persis Khambatta in a key supporting turn.

I’ve been a big fan of Wise’s film since the first time I saw it during my childhood. No, it isn’t “Star Wars” (despite efforts by Paramount Pictures to have an action figure line and other Trek-related merchandise readily available when it was in theaters). Yes, it’s bigger than the TV series ever was and, some rightfully argue, the production may be too big for something that was charmingly small on television.

Made right after “Star Wars” but paced like a 70’s epic made years before it, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is in no rush to get to the action sequences and makes character and story its prime directive. With its opening Overture (with one of Jerry Goldsmith’s grandest, most soaring film scores), gorgeous, vivid special effects and a scale that suggests “this is Trek for the BIG SCREEN,” Wise’s film wins me over with it serious presentation and impeccable production values.

It’s probably not hip and definitely not popular to defend “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” but it’s one of my favorite space epics and rewards a patient, imaginative theatergoer. Only the recent, J.J. Abrams-directed and produced “Star Trek” films match Wise’s film in its massive scale (I love most of the sequels but they’re more TV-ready in size, whereas this is cinema in the most majestic, wide reaching sense). The screenplay’s clever third act twist is in line with Roddenberry’s forever-optimistic vision of the future and the fate of humanity. The closing on screen title is just right and an affectionate nod to Roddenberry’s approach to “Star Trek” overall: “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning.”

Four Stars

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is playing at the Maui Mall Megaplex for two days only- this Sunday, Sept 15th 1pm and 4pm, and Wednesday, Sept 18th, 4pm and 7pm.