In addition to being one of the more intentionally boring films ever made, Star Trek: The Motion Picture features some of the more amazing science fiction special effects. The work Douglas Trumbull does in this film is without equal–he makes the unimaginable visual. It’s astounding (and I was watching the pan-and-scan only “Special Longer Version” and it still looked amazing). So, since Trumbull did all the special effects and Jerry Goldsmith’s music went to all those special effects, it was kind of hard to figure out what–if anything–Robert Wise contributed to the film.
Simply put, he made it real. The Enterprise actually seemed to function on a believable level, people walking around doing menial, but necessary, tasks. Shatner and Kelley have a cup of coffee at one point, because they’ve been up forty hours straight. That cup of coffee is a significant contribution, because even though Star Trek fails in the final act, the film’s more about the journey than the outcome. But Wise also gets some really good performances out of the usually neglected supporting cast–Nichelle Nichols is good, but it’s really James Doohan (and, in a strange coincidence, usually with Shatner) who turns in the best performance. He doesn’t have many scenes, but he does a great job with them.
As for Shatner… Wise only knows how to direct him when he’s not talking. When Shatner looks at people with warmth in his eyes or wonderment (when he’s looking at the retrofitted Enterprise), he makes Star Trek work. Nimoy’s got problems throughout, DeForest Kelley is good as usual (though some of his dialogue makes absolutely no sense and suggests a cut scene involving Romulan ale–not really, but it’d help… Star Trek: The Motion Picture has an utter lack of humor for the first hour and a funny scene would be totally alien), but the real trouble comes from the new additions. Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta are both terrible–Collins being so bad, he makes Shatner look great in their scenes. Khambatta manages to do better as an android than in the (supposedly) emotive part of her role… I’m not sure how much they affect Star Trek, however, besides simply annoy.
The film is in two distinct parts–little surprise since it was originally a two-hour pilot–and neither part particularly wins over the other. While the first half does offer the deliberately paced, boring but competent (enough qualifying?) look at life in Star Trek’s future, the second half does feature Trumbull’s best work in the film and the “action.” As the film enters the final act and the big revelation, which might not have surprised audiences in the 1970s but is probably fine today since NASA is less familiar than Nabisco), Star Trek becomes rushed and silly. Wise managed to make it anything but silly–not a small feat given an entire cast in their pajamas–but he’d obviously checked out, mental involvement-wise, by the conclusion. Then there’s the summing up scene on the Enterprise bridge–another television throwback–and it almost undoes any positive regard for the film. Luckily, Trumbull’s back for the close and the Jerry Goldsmith music doesn’t hurt.
Oddly, I think Star Trek: The Motion Picture is far more influential than Star Wars. No one of any serious concern ever attempted to ape Star Wars, but bits and pieces of Star Trek–particularly its storytelling (which everyone says they dislike) and the special effects integration–have entered the standard film lexicon.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of those films (and there are not many of them) to partially succeed simply because it does not entirely fail.