The Motionless Picture is a pejorative people have used against the first Star Trek movie since its release. This has to do with the fact that the movie has very little plot and takes a long time to get there.
There’s a reason for that. The Motion Picture actually started life as a script for the aborted attempt to bring Star Trek back to television called Phase II. It was supposed to be a single episode in length, but when the opportunity arose to turn it into a movie, Gene Roddenberry never really fleshed out the script in a conventional way.
You see, Gene Roddenberry was never a very good writer (one writer from The Original Series said that there was no script that Roddenberry ever touched that he didn’t make worse), but he did provide two unfiltered versions of his vision of the future in Star Trek. The first was the original pilot to the television show, “The Cage”, while The Motion Picture was the second. The Cage” also happens to be my favorite hour of Star Trek because I am under the impression that science fiction should be weird, and that episode does capture that feeling while also telling a cogent story at the same time.
I feel much the same way with The Motion Picture. It’s not a great movie (for all of my defense, I am happy to acknowledge the film’s flaws), but I do think that there is genius to it.
What is the basic plot of this movie? A giant space cloud is heading to Earth, the Enterprise intercepts and keeps it from carrying out that mission. It’s really not much, but the point of this movie isn’t plot, but theme.
The theme of The Motion Picture is that we are small in the face of the enormity of the unknown. That idea is both terrifying and awe inspiring at the same time. Whether what is out there is friendly or not is actually beside the point. The point is that while we may be making bold steps forward, there’s stuff out there that’s been there for much longer.
That’s easy for me to say, but how does the movie go about saying that? Do characters mention it? Does Spock have a speech towards the end where he solemnly says, “We are but small creatures in the face of such enormity? ” No, nothing that obvious. Characters marvel through dialogue about the cloud’s size, but they never make the comparison to their own smallness explicit. It’s actually accomplished visually.
Look at the below sequence. This is one of the most derided sequences in the movie, but I think it’s actually very key.
That flyby of the Enterprise takes about 5 minutes of screen time. For many people that feels like 5 minutes where nothing is happening. “Yes, we see the ship, can we move on, please? ” But what are the visuals telling you? The way the Enterprise is shot is to convey a sense of scale. The humans are small in comparison to the great ship, and the triumphant music is meant to underline that fact. What we’re being told is that the Enterprise represents a crowning jewel of humanity’s engineering abilities. It’s big, it’s impressive, and it’s spectacular. Maybe the film could have conveyed that, still visually, in less time, but still, the effect is there. In fact, that was pretty much what the shooting script says it should be:
The great ship dwarfs everything. The drydock becomes a fragile filigree framing the ship’s great curved bulk. The tiny pod continues to move along it.
The second half to this visual puzzle comes in the below clip. But before we get to that, look at this image:
The Enterprise is framed with the space cloud so that they are of similar size. The cloud is bigger, but not enormously bigger. We know that they aren’t the same size, but we’re told visually that they’re comparable. And then the Enterprise actually moves closer to the cloud. Below is part of the Enterprise’s journey into the giant space cloud. While the idea seems silly when phrased that way, it should seem much less silly as this sequence progresses.
Obviously, it’s more than a space cloud, but it’s also more than just giant, it’s immense. The scale of this alien thing is so much larger than anything we can imagine creating (there’s a line of dialogue earlier in the film that describes the size of the cloud as 2 AU, which is roughly the size of Earth’s orbit around the sun). This is where the previous sequence comes into play. We’d been told, visually, that the Enterprise is one of the great feats of human engineering, and as the ship flies further and further into V’ger, it becomes more and more obvious how small our great feat is in comparison. The below shot is perhaps my favorite in any piece of filmed Star Trek.
Do you see how small that great feat of human engineering is in comparison? It’s puny. If it came down to a shooting match between the Enterprise and the giant space cloud, would the Enterprise stand of chance of annoying the cloud as much as a mosquito annoys a grown man?
This impression is also explicit in the shooting script:
CAMERA TRAVELING WITH ENTERPRISE as it moves on a parallel–closing course — Alien continues to GROW IN SIZE. Although it already seems an impossibly large vessel compared to the Enterprise, in reality they are still tens of thousands of kilometers apart; the incredible size of the Alien is nowhere near being realized yet.
The fact that that impression and theme is played out completely visually is impressive. That is why I think the movie is a work of genius.
The Motion Picture was made in the wake of the success of Star Wars and Roddenberry took his rather large amount of control of the project that Paramount allowed him to push the first Star Trek movie in as far of the opposite direction as he possibly could. Where Lucas provided popcorn entertainment in space, Roddenberry wanted to provoke thought like Kubrick did in 2001. Where people think he failed, I think it’s because it’s a big budget studio movie that doesn’t really have an antagonist. The conflict is more nebulous than something like some of the classic Original Series episodes provided. “Space Seed” had Khan. “Balance of Terror” had the Romulan commander. Even “Arena” had the Gorn while dealing with similar themes as The Motion Picture. The movie has a space cloud that possesses a young bald woman. It’s not quite as viscerally satisfying as Kirk pounding a rock over the head of a rubber suited stuntman.
As I said earlier, the movie’s not great. The sequence with the asteroid is curiously filmed (perhaps funnily) while adding nothing except an “action sequence” that changes nothing. The ending of the film undermines what I see to be the central theme. Instead of V’ger remaining this vast and unknowable thing, it becomes very human and knowable (it’s looking for its creator, which is understandable). Decker is arguably the main character of the movie while Kirk is sidelined a bit more than he should be (a result of Phase II looking to cast a new lead in case William Shatner didn’t want to come back). And, we get to see Gene Roddenberry write out his fantasy of having sex with a computer when Decker merges with V’ger. Seriously:
Still, I love the heady quality, and how it’s done mostly wordlessly (there is dialogue demonstrating the character’s awe at the size, but it pales to the impression the visuals give themselves). Combine that with one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best musical scores, and you have a movie going experience that I find very engrossing, if a healthy couple of steps from great. With over 700 hours of Star Trek, it’s hard to say what Star Trek is. It’s taken on so many forms over the years that to say that it’s a Western in space seems facile and ignorant of most of Star Trek. It’s not really one thing, so I’m happy to have one iteration where’s it’s 2001’s less intelligent younger brother.
Part of me wishes that the movie series had continued in this vein: throwing millions of dollars at the screen to be heady and weird. But then we got Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan which is one of those movies that I have a hard time calling anything other than perfect. I’m happy with what we ended up with afterwards, but still, I wonder how Star Trek would have manifested in the movie theaters had The Motion Picture been more accepted by audiences and critics. We would have probably avoided Star Trek: Insurrection, at least.