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‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ Is the Best ‘Star Trek’ Film for Non-Trekkies

A restored version of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ starts streaming Tuesday, and the underrated first feature film is a slice of ’70s sci-fi that differs from its swashbuckling sequels

Getty Images/Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a lie. Imagine never having seen a frame of Trek in your life, then deciding in college that you want to watch all the movies with your friend—maybe to make fun of them, but then who knows, maybe you’ll emerge a baptized Trekkie. You rent the first one from the nearest Blockbuster, pop the DVD in … and you get a patient, proper science-fiction film, a lengthy tone poem of visual and musical wonder with a compelling story about a search for the Creator.

I loved The Motion Picture. And for me, every film that followed was a disappointment.

This is the opposite experience of most Trek fans, who seem to love TMP the least. There’s a dumb adage about the odd-numbered films (I, III, V) being bad and the even-numbered ones being good, and most Trekkies rank this first feature, from 1979, at the bottom of the old Captain Kirk films, alongside 1989’s The Final Frontier (also about a search for the Creator). That’s where it shook out in a 2020 ranking by Collider, which argued that the “biggest problem with The Motion Picture is that it lost Star Trek’s sense of identity. The film is trying to ape 2001: A Space Odyssey, and so it thinks that what the audience wants is a slow, meditative motion picture, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it loses Trek’s greatest strength.”

The film that detractors call “the motionless picture” gets a new hearing on Tuesday, Star Trek’s “First Contact Day,” as the 2001 director’s cut debuts on Paramount+ in a 4K restoration. (The 4K cut will also play in theaters in late May and come out on Blu-ray in September.) Whether a beautified print and a (now-dated) upgrade to its special effects will win any new converts is debatable, but if you’ve never seen it and you’re not a Star Trek fan, this is the movie for you.

Of course, it was only because of the fans that the movie existed in the first place. In a 1978 Boxoffice article that had no idea what was about to happen to Hollywood, it was touted as “probably one of the few pictures, if not the only one, made by overwhelming public demands by its fans.” The original Star Trek TV series went off the air in 1969, but as the show lived on in syndication its fandom only grew—a fire fueled by conventions. In 1975, roughly 15,000 Trekkies converged on Chicago to sit at the feet of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and the gang in the largest con yet. Paramount was paying attention, and that year the studio announced it would make a Trek film, with creator Gene Roddenberry writing the script.

But the journey to the big screen was hardly warp speed. There were reports of a “multi-million dollar” film in the summer of 1976, now scripted by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant (the team behind Don’t Look Now), to start shooting in the spring of ’77. (Trekkies also wielded their power that fall by engaging in a massive letter-writing campaign that convinced NASA to rename its new shuttle the Enterprise.) Phillip Kaufman, who would reanimate another classic sci-fi story with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was announced as director. But those plans fizzled, too, and the motion picture idea devolved into a new TV series to air on a proposed “fourth network” that Paramount intended to launch as a competitor to the big three. (The O.G. Paramount+, you might say.)

Then came Star Wars. Out of nowhere in May 1977, the biggest disruptor in the history of movies convinced every high-rolling studio executive that high-tech sci-fi was the next gold rush. Paramount (slowly) realized it was sitting on a mint, and by that December the small screen went back to big—very big. Under president Michael Eisner, the studio ultimately spent a then-whopping $35 million on The Motion Picture.

Star Wars may have inspired the suits to make a Star Trek movie, but screenwriter Harold Livingston—working from a story conceived by Roddenberry and sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster (who ghostwrote the novelization of Star Wars)—ignored the mysticism and kid-friendly adventure of George Lucas’s universe and instead plunged into mankind’s quest for meaning. For all the flak the film has taken for being too heady, it actually employs an admirably lean, focused concept for a sci-fi blockbuster: a mysterious object in space, the clash and competition between an old-school captain and a whiz kid, forbidden love between old flames, and a contemplation on the dynamic tension between emotion and logic, between carbon units (humans) and machines.

The screenplay was cleverly designed to welcome the uninitiated while tickling the nostalgia bones of the faithful at the same time. It has staggered, dramatic introductions to swaggery Captain Kirk (Shatner), then the Starship Enterprise with its diverse below-the-line crew and transporter room, then gruff Dr. Bones McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and finally Mr. Spock (Nimoy). It sets up the simple, central mystery—a deadly energy force called V’Ger that emanates pure logic—which instigates the reunification of the old team for a new mission. Attractive newcomers represent the next generation: Captain Will Decker (a pre-disgraced Stephen Collins) and navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta, Miss India 1965), whose unrequited love serves as a pivotal plot device.

One of the key appeals of the old series was the triangle of Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Kirk represents impulse and passion, while Spock is exasperatingly logical. Their yin-yang dichotomy is at the heart of The Motion Picture, a metaphor writ large with hyper-logical V’Ger causing all the commotion. It’s established right at the outset that Spock left Starfleet to go through the Vulcan ritual of “Kolinahr” to renounce all remaining animal passions and emotion. This effectively operates as an origin story and almost a reset of the original series, even though the characters are also clearly established, older, and enthusiastically reuniting.

The movie is sort of brilliant in how it acknowledges and ports the basic setup and character relationships that fans knew while drawing in new recruits, without speaking past or down to anyone. It may have been generated because of the fans, but it doesn’t act like a modern franchise movie that’s ruled by them; it’s not stuffed with Easter eggs or inside lingo, and it’s not a widget that interlocks with a million other widgets in some cinematic universe. It merely transports Kirk and Co. into a new, movie-sized Enterprise, bringing the essentials and nothing else for a strong, self-contained adventure that cuts right to the core of the human mystery.

Director Robert Wise was more of an Old Hollywood craftsman than an auteur with his own remarkable style, but he brought some serious pedigree: He edited Citizen Kane before directing a sci-fi staple, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and two mid-century musical classics, West Side Story and The Sound of Music. In fact, he treated this film like a roadshow musical spectacular—complete with an overture and several lengthy set pieces where Jerry Goldsmith’s music takes the wheel, only instead of song and dance routines, they’re choreographed numbers for animated energy fields and ship models. One of the chief complaints people have about this movie is epitomized by the roughly five-minute, wordless sequence where Scotty (James Doohan) slowly flies Kirk around the parked Enterprise. For a film that had a rushed postproduction and was plagued with visual effects crises (the first VFX team was fired halfway through postproduction), you’d think Wise would cut around the effects as much as possible. Instead he glories in them, letting the audience leisurely drift through space and gape at the wonders in awe, mirroring the many, many reaction shots of Kirk and Spock.

In this way, The Motion Picture is much more a cousin to 2001 or Close Encounters of the Third Kind—with their shared effects wizard Douglas Trumbull, who died in February, at ship’s helm—than the whiz-bang dogfights in Star Wars. The visuals in The Motion Picture, which include everything from vintage matte paintings to animated light streaks for a wormhole scene to elaborate models, are absolutely of their time—no matter how much Wise was able to gussy them up with 2000-era CGI in his director’s cut. But it’s part of the movie’s vintage 1979 charm that it sits smack between Close Encounters and Blade Runner in a heyday of tactile, handmade illusions before computers ruled the earth. And it’s the mood of these hypnotic, psychedelic space sequences that’s timeless—mostly thanks to the symphonic majesty of Goldsmith’s cosmic French impressionism, in one of the greatest film scores (and main themes) ever composed.

So not everyone wants a mood-altering mind trip through the heavens—fine. But Stanley Kubrick defined a very specific and very powerful template with his 1968 space movie that many others wanted to follow and revise in their own image, from Spielberg to Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve’s epic Dune may have more jaw-droppingly realistic visuals, but it’s every bit as much a glacially patient and somber slow movement for spaceships and (electronic) orchestra.

That said, The Motion Picture is as much a character story as it is spectacle; it’s fundamentally about the necessity of “foolish human emotions,” to quote Bones. Wise managed to get far more naturalistic, grounded performances from Shatner, the Hamlet of hams, and his cohort of TV actors than they ever gave on the small screen or in later movies. This feels like a 1970s movie, and not just because it introduces Bones in a chest-hair-and-bling-bearing tracksuit and a shaggy Bee Gees beard. It drops the go-go camp of the TV show, and the performances here resonate in a similar key as the wave of smart, adult ensemble dramas by Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola that helped define the decade. Shatner’s still gonna shat, of course, but of all the performances he gave as James T. Kirk, this was the most … human.

Despite its modern reputation as a dud, Star Trek: The Motion Picture actually destroyed at the box office when it came out on December 7, 1979, breaking the opening weekend record and going on to make $139 million around the planet. Adjusted for inflation, that’s something like $515 million today—which makes it the second-highest earner in the entire franchise. It was also well liked by many critics. Variety called it “state-of-the-art screen magic. Exploits of Capt. Kirk and company should thrill the legions of TV Trekkies while ensnaring a galaxy of new admirers. ... The expert hand of director Wise is evident in the rising suspenseful tempo of the action and the deft blending of performances.” In a mostly positive review, The Hollywood Reporter did pick up on the main critique: “While Robert Wise’s direction keeps the human action moving briskly enough, he has a disconcerting way of letting his characters gaze off at the phenomena of outer space with a ‘gollicky mo!’ expression that is in odd conflict with their presumed experience and sophistication.”

And so it became derided as “the motionless picture,” and when the Enterprise revved its engines again in 1982 for The Wrath of Khan, these increasingly portly old TV actors went on a swashbuckling adventure with more explosions, hand-to-hand combat, and mugging. One of the most popular of their escapades, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, had the gang beaming back in time to 1986 and doing fish-out-of-era shtick with punks and pizza and a young love interest for Kirk. It’s my least favorite of them all.

These days, the fans are in charge. Directors and studio heads kowtow to their every outcry, which is how we get Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Filmmakers like Rian Johnson are excoriated for daring to do something different and irreverent, and we’re stuck with bland, bloated Easter egg baskets designed by committee with all the creativity of a hostage negotiation. Trekkies succeeded in keeping their series alive, and The Motion Picture gave birth to another 40 years and counting of films, spinoff series, and a whole entertainment ecosystem (which has at times, on the small screen, offered some of The Motion Picture’s cerebral, slower-paced appeal). But if that Byzantine empire, full of its own languages and goofy aliens and often outrageous scenarios, never spoke to you … consider embarking on the very human adventure that began, and ended, in 1979.

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.