Stars: ** Stars out of Four
Summary: A mediocre plot doesn’t have the power to drive this sprawling two-hour space opera to glory, despite some great moments and breakthrough special effects.
Review: Though it was canceled after only three seasons, the 1960s television show ‘Star Trek’ had attracted a huge following, encouraging its creator, Gene Roddenberry, to attempt to revive it. After the next ten-or-so years he wrote several possible follow-ups, mainly focused on a new TV show, but in 1977 Paramount suddenly became interested in transferring the story to the silver screen after the unlikely success of a little movie called ‘Star Wars’. Roddenberry consulted with scientists and science fiction writers as he endeavored to get the concepts right, but he made some bad choices as to what advice to throw away. The resulting film, released in 1979, is mixed.
It has a fairly promising start, a sweeping, adventurous Jerry Goldsmith score as an overture (the existence of this rarely used introductory technique hints at the film to come), and then we see a massive cloud in space, like a nebula or something. Three Klingon ships approach and stupidly try to engage it (for reasons which are never quite justified in the script), and are absorbed by globes of energy. So, okay, fairly promising start, right? Well the next thing we know, there’s a Federation outpost warning the audience- indirectly, of course -that the thing is headed towards Earth. Now it seems to me in these first few minutes that the energy cloud wasn’t malevolent, and was reacting to being screwed with by insanely stupid Klingons. It doesn’t make a particularly threatening intro… but don’t worry, it gets better! Ish.
So then the brief reintroduction of each of the principal characters. But none of the characters are afforded the introductory screentime as much as… the ship. That’s right, they chose to give a (fantastically designed) model more loving attention in its first moments that any of the characters. If that isn’t a bad sign, I don’t know what is. The Enterprise is shown, standing still in space with little people flying around it (it’s being prepared for launch, and the effects are quite gorgeous) for a straight 6 minutes. No dialog. Just brief reaction shots from Captain Kirk, as he stares at his ship. Now, I may be completely wrong, but my understanding of film was that each scene is chosen for its importance to plot & character, with the essential element of being interesting. A lot of scenes in this movie completely fly in the face of this idea.
The plot is utterly boring for the first half, lacking interest and tension. It’s not that it is inherently bad, but it’s obviously a television script that’s been stretched on far too long. Soon enough, the Enterprise is going after the cloud, but there’s so little plot going on that they throw in some of the most arbitrary danger possible, and it’s not even scientifically accurate (or excusable). After successfully passing through this minor roadblock, they finally reach the cloud, and things become interesting again. And then, frustratingly, they choose to show about ten minutes of gratuitous footage of the cloud’s interior, with, again, nothing but reaction shots from the crew to give it any sort of dramatic weight. And while, again, the footage is quite marvelous and adds an excellent fog of mystery to the plot’s direction, it seems unnecessary to have it drag on for so long without any real tension.
The third act of the film actually does pick up the pace, however. There are some great character moments that you won’t see coming based on the mediocre-at-best material to this point. The philosophical questions raised are excellent, and some of the answers work well, too, and surprisingly, this part just works. All the plot threads, though thin in the previous acts, really mean something here and they work as marvelously as the special effects. The final act, to me, is excellent, and is indicative of a film that-might-have-been, were it not for constant mid-production rewrites and a lack of judgment on the creators’ parts.
For a film coming from a critically disliked (but very, very fun) show, it’s remarkable that it was even made. It has little love in the critical and fan communities. The follow-up, ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’, on the other hand…