[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Harold Livingston, Alan Dean Foster | Director: Robert Wise | Aired: 12/07/1979]
SPOCK: Each of us, at some time in our life, turns to someone — a father, a brother, a god — and asks, ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What was I meant to be?’ V’Ger hopes to touch its Creator to find its answers.
KIRK: ‘Is this all that I am?’ ‘Is there nothing more?’
This, gentle readers, is an example of science fiction at its best. Laser beams and space battles certainly make for good popcorn entertainment, but without any resonance — human resonance — they ultimately ring hollow. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the scope and ambition to explore the limits of human knowledge and the majesty of creation through the lens of an emotionless machine with incomprehensibly vast amounts of knowledge and data. This feels quite prescient for our time considering that we’re currently in the midst of the Information Age, where data is being collected at an unprecedented rate and in higher quantities than ever before in human history. In the middle of this is a tale of love, creation, divinity, logic, beauty, and the indissoluble value of the human spirit.
Despite how rich Star Trek: The Motion Picture is in its symbolism, themes, music, and visuals it is, in any iteration, not a well-regarded film. “More like Star Trek: The Motionless Picture“, the popular joke goes. Sure, this Director’s Cut version is edited a bit more tightly, adds some nice character beats, and clarifies some of the visuals, all culminating in the best version of the film, but at its core it’s essentially still the same widely panned film as the theatrical version. Despite this negative climate, I have always been extremely fond of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (ST:TMP) — a fondness that has only grown as I’ve gotten older and come to understand it in more depth. This is a film with a measured — some might argue glacial — pace that would be impossible to imagine being made in today’s climate of slick and quick editing, action scene after action scene, and endless ‘splosions. It’s a relic of another time, but one that I’m thrilled to finally explore in the here and now.
The key to fully understanding what ST:TMP is about is to examine the relationship between the crew of the Enterprise — humanity’s futuristic representatives — and V’Ger. Beyond just being a clever plot revelation, V’Ger being the old NASA Voyager 6 probe serves the film on a deeper level as well. Voyager 6 is what you might call a generational descendent of humanity’s scientific ingenuity and knowledge. At some point it gained enough knowledge to become self-aware and knew it needed to return to its Creator to complete its mission — to complete itself, despite not even knowing what that means.
V’Ger’s capabilities, though vast, are yet still a subset of the range possible within human beings. It’s an issue of depth versus breadth, to which V’Ger is overflowing with the former but is quite lacking with the latter. To search for something — to touch something — that is beyond our understanding is the very essence of humanity’s relationship with God, which generally manifests through religion. Just as religions offer a way to touch our Creator, V’Ger tries to reach out to its Creator the only way it knows how: radio! It could almost be said that V’Ger’s radio signal to Earth is akin to that of a lost soul praying to God for response and guidance. As Spock says, “It knows only that it needs. Like so many of us, it knows not what.” These parallels are quite fascinating, and they tie nicely into what Spock is dealing with throughout the film.
Naturally, because V’Ger is a machine, it initially disregards the notion that us humans — “carbon-based units” — could possibly have the answers it seeks, even going so far as thinking humanity is “infesting” machines like the Enterprise. There’s an incredible irony at work here, what with V’Ger assuming that its actual Creator is instead an infestation preventing the response it seeks. Everything about V’Ger serves as a thematic warning to us in the present. While humanity’s thirst for knowledge and boundless curiosity to explore the unknown can be wonderful things, they can just as easily pose a threat to our continued survival. Knowledge and logic can only take us so far. Will we consider the ramifications of our creations? Will we use all of this data responsibly? This all adds up to a clever story and a wonderfully thought-provoking antagonist!
If V’Ger represents a subset — the knowledge, logic, and intellect — of humanity, just what is it that makes us humans so special? What is V’Ger missing?
SPOCK: V’Ger must evolve. Its knowledge has reached the limits of this universe and it must evolve. What it requires of its God, Doctor, is the answer to its question, ‘Is there nothing more?’
McCOY: What more is there than the universe, Spock?
DECKER: Other dimensions, higher levels of beings.
SPOCK: The existence of which cannot be proved logically, therefore V’Ger is incapable of believing in them.
KIRK: What V’Ger needs in order to evolve is a human quality. Our capacity to leap beyond logic.
DECKER: And joining with its Creator might accomplish that.
Where V’Ger is locked into its devotion to logic and knowledge, it’s the crew of the Enterprise (eventually including Spock) that have the missing spark of emotion and the spirit of limitless possibilities that V’Ger lacks. The character arcs throughout ST:TMP emphasize the human element, both good and bad. There’s Kirk’s aggressive ambition to take command again and his genuine love of the Enterprise and what it represents; Spock’s re-discovery of his human half through V’Ger’s inarguable limitations, despite how hard he’s worked to purge his emotions; Decker overcoming a scarred ego and embracing his love for Ilia; Ilia’s dedication to purity and love for Decker, which remains present even after being copied; McCoy’s cranky affection for both Kirk and Spock and how he keeps everyone in check; the general comradery and trust of an elite team that’s been reunited after a long absence. These are all very human struggles, joys, and ambitions that V’Ger must experience to evolve.
The refitted Enterprise launching despite not quite being ready speaks to humanity’s drive to overcome difficult obstacles. We’re never quite “ready” to expand our horizons or to encounter the unknown, but we push forward anyway, despite our flaws and fears. It’s humanity’s compassion, sense of exploration, and ability to embrace and grow from that which we cannot quantify that best encapsulates our spirit — it’s this soulfulness that make us so unique.
The Enterprise itself is a representation of humanity’s progress; it’s an example of what we can achieve when we overcome needless war and suffering and see nations band together in the service of a larger good. This is what the United Federation of Planets represents in its most pure form. It’s a beautiful, optimistic vision of our future, courtesy of the late Gene Roddenberry, that is deeply refreshing in the here and now. I can be as cynical about the challenges of ours times as the next person, but sometimes what we really need is a spark of hope for the future, and I think Star Trek as a franchise, particularly The Original Series, The Next Generation, and the older films, often provide just that, and not without some intelligence to boot.
KIRK: Spock! Did we just see the beginnings of a new lifeform?
SPOCK: Yes, Captain, we witnessed a birth.
An aspect that both V’Ger and humans share is the ability to reproduce: creation! In fact, the entire design of the V’Ger ship appears to be for two primary purposes: mass data storage and reproduction. Throughout ST:TMP parallels are drawn between V’Ger’s quest to join with its creator, Kirk’s courtship with and love of the Enterprise, and the rekindled connection between Decker and Ilia. Through these pairings and the film’s consistent symbolism we see the various ways love flourishes, children are conceived, and a new generation is born. In a nutshell, we’re being shown examples of love, marriage, and reproduction.
It’s interesting to consider Spock’s attempt to merge with V’Ger on his own. Where Decker will later succeed, Spock fails and gets wholly rejected. Why is Spock not acceptable to V’Ger? Well, it’s because he’s only half human and is consumed with the pursuit of pure logic. What Spock offers is already known to V’Ger — he is not the Creator — but, to his amusement, he does discover that they are actually searching for the same thing.
When the Enterprise first approaches V’Ger the message coming out of the cloud is sent so quickly (a millisecond) that the ship’s instruments didn’t even register it as communication. I kind of see this as analogous to dating: signals sometimes come at you quickly and, when missed, interest can be lost. Yet once a rapport is established, a connection can begin to form. V’Ger and the Enterprise establish that they understand each other. Kirk then chooses to explore that connection further.
As the Enterprise enters V’Ger’s interior, the symbolism quickly becomes reminiscent of the female reproductive system — albeit a purely mechanical recreation of one. “No vessel could generate a power field of this magnitude,” Kirk says. The same could be said of the female body and its immense power in being able to grow, birth, and nurture new life. As the Enterprise makes its way deeper into V’Ger, we’re essentially witnessing a symbolic sequence of copulation, fertilization, pregnancy, and birth. This is all done in an accelerated time frame, of course, but it’s definitely there.
The creation of this new life is made possible by the Enterprise delivering the gift of humanity to V’Ger, but it’s through Decker and Ilia’s love for each other that conception actually occurs. They are effectively joined for life — a marriage of sorts — and then create life together. It’s all a wonderful allegory for human relationships and the incredible creation that emerges from them.
A good question to ask in all of this is, if a new life form was born, why is it we only see the Enterprise emerge from V’Ger at the end? Well, it’s because the Enterprise is both literally and figuratively a descendent of the Voyager 6 probe. Centuries after Voyager 6, humanity built the Enterprise with a very similar directive, only less focused on simple data collection (i.e. “to seek out new life forms and civilizations…”). Rather than being a crewless probe, as Voyager 6 was, the Enterprise is capable of bringing humans along for the ride and offer them safety in the harsh vastness of space; rather than simply reporting back data, the Enterprise is capable of also returning experiences, emotion, and art through its crew. So V’Ger effectively gave birth to its descendent, the Enterprise. How beautifully circular and thematically tight is that? Awesome!
To bring it all together, this beautiful act of creation gave V’Ger what it had been unknowingly seeking all along: both logic and love. Isn’t it amazing how having a child can change the way one views existence? Without that spark of humanity, V’Ger would remain soulless and persist with a bewildered emptiness. But no longer! The Enterprise and her crew are now humanity’s child, left to go forth and explore both the breadth of the universe and the depth of the human soul.
DIFALCO: Heading, sir?
KIRK: Out there. Thataway!
The final shot of the film is the Enterprise heading out into the great unknown, which perfectly brings us back to what Star Trek is about. I couldn’t think of a thematically better way to launch the film version of this franchise. The credits read: “The human adventure is just beginning.” Indeed it is! 🙂
KIRK: Two and a half years as Chief of Starfleet Operations may have made me a little stale, but I wouldn’t exactly consider myself untried. They gave her back to me, Scotty!
SCOTT: Gave her back, sir?
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is at its best when reveling in its grand themes, stunning visuals, and sumptuous sounds. While character depth is not something I’d admit to being a strength of the film, that doesn’t mean it’s barren of it. There are two primary character arcs at play here: Kirk and Spock. There’s also a mini-arc involving Decker. The good thing about these arcs is not only how they tie into the larger themes of the film, but also how they work to set up a film franchise, which is particularly apparent with the two leads. The reconnection of Kirk and Spock will pay off in a major way come Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and beyond.
Both of these characters enter the film unsure of their place in the world and whether they are living up to all that they are capable of. This is represented by Spock’s discernment of the Kolinahr and Kirk’s restlessness as an Admiral. McCoy, although he doesn’t get an arc of his own, serves an important role as both the mediator that keeps the two of them in check and the gel that will help unify them… plus providing a healthy dose of crotchety comic relief, of course!
Kirk’s arc is a subtle one. The Admiral needs to knock the rust off, remember how to be a good Captain again, and that being a Captain — exploring the galaxy and the unknown — plays to his strengths far more than being stuck in an office every day. When he does take command again, it’s obvious how much it lights his eyes up and rejuvenates his spirit. His experience with the unknown gives him confidence to neutralize this threat but also an arrogance that allows him to, initially, ignore the counsel of his closest advisors (e.g. Scotty with the warp drive problems and Decker with the ship’s redesign). But even at his brashest Kirk’s humanity still shines through, which can be seen in his giddy exchange with Scotty while being escorted to the Enterprise. This reminds us of his warmth and affection towards these old friends and is precisely why bringing McCoy — Bones — on board was a stroke of genius.
The reason The Original Series works at all is largely thanks to the easy chemistry of its three leads: William Shatner as Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, and DeForest Kelley as McCoy. Perhaps ST:TMP doesn’t focus on this trio as much as we might like, but that magic is still very evident here, such as when McCoy tells Kirk like it is: “The point, Captain, is that it’s you who’s competing. You rammed getting this command down Starfleet’s throat. You’ve used this emergency to get Enterprise back. … It’s an obsession, an obsession that can blind you to far more immediate, and critical responsibilities. Your reaction to Decker is an example.”
Having Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in a room together again makes everything feel right back at home, with McCoy mediating between Kirk and Decker and Kirk mediating between Spock and McCoy. It’s the interplay between these characters and McCoy’s very pointed outbursts (that only he can get away with) that force Kirk to gradually soften, begin to listen to others with less ego, and finally ease back into what he’s best at. Kirk’s ability to restrain his ego, show discipline, and admit when he’s wrong are among his best qualities, and will be a big reason for the success of the mission. It’s a true team effort to get Kirk there though.
SPOCK: On Vulcan I began sensing a consciousness of a force more powerful than I have ever encountered. Thought patterns of exactingly perfect order. I believe they emanate from the intruder. I believe it may hold my answers.
It’s ironic that the most emotional arc of Star Trek: The Motion Picture comes from a Vulcan who begins the film attempting to achieve Kolinahr (“Through which all emotion is renounced and shed”). The problem with Spock’s goal here is that his pesky human half is emotionally touched by V’Ger’s presence. Despite the time and effort he clearly spent to work towards Kolinahr, he simply can’t entirely shut off the humanity within. This is what motivates Spock to rejoin the Enterprise, and it’s what forms the backbone of his arc throughout the film.
After boarding the ship it’s obvious that Spock is still in all-business ‘logic mode’ and not in any mood for pleasantries. Seeing his totally cold reaction to a warm welcome, even from McCoy, is quite amusing. Spock’s journey is interesting because he initially views V’Ger as an intelligence that has already attained that which he has sought to achieve — he senses no emotion whatsoever in the cloud, only “pure logic.” One could say that Spock initially looks up to V’Ger, as though it were a teacher and he its student. Yet, as he learns more and more about this living machine, something begins to feel off. He attempts to mind meld with V’Ger and, despite getting a case of information overload, it results in a key revelation:
SPOCK: V’Ger has knowledge that spans this universe. And, yet with all this pure logic… V’Ger is barren, cold, no mystery, no beauty. I should have known. (Chuckles.)
KIRK: Known? Known what?
SPOCK: (Holds Kirk’s hand.) This simple feeling… is beyond V’Ger’s comprehension. No meaning… no hope… and, Jim, no answers. It’s asking questions: ‘Is this… all I am? Is there nothing more?’
Spock hoped to find his answers from V’Ger, but he instead realizes that V’Ger is even more lost than he is! Through V’Ger, Spock learns that he must embrace his human half — the half that feels, explores, and wonders — in order to find the fulfillment he’s been so desperately searching for, just as V’Ger needs to join with humanity to obtain the same. Within Spock already exists what V’Ger is still searching for, he simply needs to embrace it! Once he realizes this, V’Ger’s continuing longing brings him to tears.
KIRK: Spock? (Sees him crying.) Not for us?
SPOCK: No, Captain, not for us… for V’Ger… I weep for V’Ger as I would for a brother. As I was when I came aboard, so is V’Ger now: empty, incomplete… searching. Logic and knowledge are not enough.
Is that a massive epiphany or what? “My task on Vulcan is complete,” Spock concludes. Indeed it is! Spock’s arc is both compelling and genuinely moving. From a characterization standpoint, it’s probably the film’s strongest asset.
A discussion of Star Trek: The Motion Picture cannot end without talking about its directing, visuals, music, and scope/scale. In all of these areas, it has aged exceedingly well, more so than all the other The Original Series films. Contrary to the impatience many feel, I absolutely love ST:TMP‘s calculated pace. It may take its time, but it rarely does so in a lazy manner. Director Robert Wise is very precise in creating the right tone: one of mystery, beauty, and grandeur. This gives the film room to breathe deeply, unlike most modern films, particularly in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. (The reimagined Star Trek films contain plenty of examples of rushing scenes and cutting away when I’d really like to soak it all in.)
One of the key visual motifs throughout ST:TMP is that of contrasting scales. Even in the opening of the film we see several examples of this at work. Take the very first thing we see: a shot of a vast mysterious cloud in space to the sound of a loud synthesized gong, thus implying something of a mechanical origin. The scene then abruptly cuts to a trio of Klingon war ships aggressively approaching it. Notice how the camera initially shows us these ships alone within the frame? The camera then swoops over top of one of the ships, emphasizing its bridge/command center (which we’re about to go into), and then slowly turns our view around showing us both the ships and V’Ger in the same frame. The difference in scale between them is massive.
The shuttlepod tour of the Enterprise at dry-dock is another instance of this motif. At first thought, I can certainly understand why one might see this scene as a little bit gratuitous, perhaps even as ‘fan service’. Thankfully it isn’t just that and actually offers quite a bit more as: (1) an important visualization that helps us understand Kirk’s motives to take command of the mission, (2) thematically relevant in how it revels in humanity’s achievements and evolution as a society, and (3) offers key visual setup (by emphasizing just how huge the ship is) for when the Enterprise enters V’Ger.
This stirring scene basks in the Enterprise’s glory and gives us time to absorb and appreciate all of its angles and curves, as if in the presence of a stunningly beautiful, albeit imperfect, woman. This beauty is reflected right back onto the faces of Kirk and Scotty, the former of which is simply in awe, the latter of which showing a humble pride for what he’s a had a hand in creating. When we see Kirk’s face through the reflection of the ship in the window, he’s almost in tears. It’s quite moving how genuine this feels, which is a compliment to both Wise and Shatner. There’s also a sense of nostalgia and longing in Kirk’s eyes, likely reminiscing over the events of The Original Series (alongside older fans who grew up with the show) and its landmark 5-year mission. If it’s not already obvious, I absolutely adore this scene — it’s one of my all-time favorite magical movie moments!
With how much time ST:TMP spends adoring the scale and beauty of the Enterprise, it’s jaw-dropping how powerfully Robert Wise snaps us back to Earth when the ship enters V’Ger. The scale of V’Ger is incredible and makes the Enterprise — what we were not-too-long-ago seeing framed as massive — look like just a single grain of sand on a large stretch of beach. I eat up these ‘to scale’ shots, so when the Enterprise makes it to V’Ger’s vast inner chamber, I think my heart might be skipping a few beats at the sheer awe of it all. The entire cloud entrance sequence is genuinely stunning! It launches a section of the film that feels like a moving painting. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is wonderfully expressive and captures every nuance of how foreign V’Ger feels and what it’s like for the crew of the Enterprise to be trapped inside of it. The visuals are dazzling, yet they also do an incredible job of evoking the womb-like environment that will play a key role in the endgame of the film. Real kudos to the people that worked on the production design for V’Ger’s interior: very imaginative work!
As amazing as the visuals throughout ST:TMP are, they wouldn’t strike nearly as intimate a chord if it wasn’t for Jerry Goldsmith’s truly stirring and sublime score. It’s an original masterpiece of orchestral composition that leaves me moved each and every time I listen to it, even when separated from the visuals. The music highlights the beauty, mystery, danger, majesty, and quirks of the story in an intricate, yet simultaneously intimate, yet simultaneously bold orchestration. During the cloud fly-through there’s even a slight gothic vibe subtly mixed in. Add to all that the fact that the central musical refrain that is introduced here ends up being used in nearly every other Star Trek film along with The Next Generation, and you have one memorable score.
Could there be a more perfect cinematic moment than when, in the shuttlepod sequence, Kirk sees the refitted Enterprise head-on for the first time and the score triumphantly explodes into the bold proclamation that Kirk has returned home? The story being told by the music in this whole scene is that of a shaky launch, a little mystery, a child’s playfulness, followed by a resounding statement of maturity, grandeur, and triumph, with a little romanticism thrown in to boot. It leaves me breathless every time I see and hear it.
Okay, enough gushing already! For as much as I love this film, it is not without a few rough edges. There are a few scenes that legitimately overstay their welcome, and a few others that feel redundant or unnecessary. In the former category would be the wormhole that forms due to the engine imbalance, which drags a bit and goes on longer than is necessary to make its point (i.e. Kirk pushing too hard). I’d also toss in the sequence that happens when the Ilia probe first appears on the ship. It serves a purpose in establishing communication between Kirk and V’Ger along with setting up Decker’s fate but, again, there is a bit of excess in some of those scenes that drag down the pace of the film a bit. In the latter category, I’d throw in the Epsilon 9 station’s encounter with V’Ger (redundant) and losing the science officer to transporter failure (unnecessary considering the wormhole later).
In all, though, these flaws feel mighty inconsequential when put up against how much ST:TMP gets right. It’s a beautiful film packed with a lot of imaginative music and visuals; it’s got solid (albeit minimal) characterization; perhaps most importantly, it’s thematically tight and quite emotionally resonant. ST:TMP‘s themes: get at the heart of what it means to be human, embrace the power and beauty of creation, acknowledge the importance of spirituality and the uniqueness of the human soul, and offer a sense of hope and optimism for the future of our society. Any film that can accomplish all of these things, both intellectually and emotionally, deserves a heap of praise.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the most underrated and unfairly maligned films I’ve ever known. It’s a wonderful Star Trek film, as it represents what this franchise is about in its purest form; it’s a beautiful piece of science fiction that has really stood the test of time; it also happens to be a really good film in general! It is my genuine hope that it will be looked upon more fondly as it continues to — gracefully, yet boldly — age.
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Bones making quite an entrance, saying Starfleet “drafted him” back into service. Haha.
+ Kirk’s relationship with the Enterprise strikes me as very much like that of the girl that got away. They shared epic adventures and tender moments together, but Kirk let her go to focus on his career. Only now, years later, both ship and man have matured and are ready for their next adventure together. Decker is like the new boyfriend, fresh and eager, knowing her superficially but not intimately like Kirk does. As Uhura points out, it’s Kirk’s connection — his love for the ship and the unknown — that give them the best odds of returning alive.
+ Nice little touch having a guy in a spacesuit doing a backflip and waving at the Enterprise as she leaves dry-dock.
+ Seeing the sun rise over the horizon of the planet right as the Enterprise passes by is staggeringly pretty!
+ The numerous ova-like objects that can be seen during the Enterprise’s interior fly-through of the V’Ger vessel. This is one of many brief visual cues that subtly hint at where the story is heading.
+ Decker showing the Ilia probe all the historical vessels named ‘Enterprise’. Gives us a subtle hint that V’Ger’s answers lie in Earth’s history.
+ Recreation has no meaning to V’Ger. The Ilia probe, though, still has some buried attachment to a game, just as she does with Decker.
+ NERD ALERT! Could the machine planet V’Ger got adopted by possibly be a Borg world? Woah…
+ I appreciate how Decker is never portrayed an an idiot or buffoon for frequently challenging Kirk. His words of caution have real merit.
+ Kirk cleverly bluffing V’Ger into leading them to its ‘brain’ while also buying more time.
+ Kirk, always with a backup plan, has the ship ready to self-destruct and take V’Ger out with it if they can’t resolve the situation any other way.
+ The walkway forming outside the Enterprise is really cool. Such imaginative visuals.