Real quick, what’s the most successful Star Trek movie?
The easiest way to measure is ticket sales. (To clarify: we’re in the original timeline here because a discussion about the new Star Trek movies – with their toned bodies and depleted brains – is a whole other galaxy to explore.) The overall box office winner is that endearing whale-saving romp, The Voyage Home, sitting on a comfortable lead over second place finisher (and Next Generation champion), First Contact. But Star Trek movies were produced over the span of 23 years. When we recalibrate for box office inflation there’s a new winner – Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Also interesting, if we do include the new Trek movies, The Motion Picture comes in a close second when adjusting for inflation only a relatively scant $16 million shy of the top spot held by the first film in the new timeline.
Of all those films, The Motion Picture is probably the least likely knee-jerk answer. And I’ll wager the most common answer isn’t any of those titles. When defining “successful” as having the most cultural impact, the answer is obvious. The second entry in the series, The Wrath of Khan set up a story arc for the next two Star Trek films and lives well beyond the series in parodies, homages and the general cultural consciousness. Even civilians who can’t describe the Genesis Project have seen a character drop to their knees and scream to the heavens: “Khaaaaan!” How many moderate fans can even describe what happens in The Motion Picture aside from the reveal that V’Ger is a Voyager satellite? This is a trick question, of course. Nothing happens in The Motion Picture aside from that.
Okay, the cheap shot has been made. Here’s why this gentle giant of a film is worthy of its position as box-office champion: it functions in three ways that no other Star Trek movie of any variety does. The film works as a movie, as a piece of science fiction, and as Star Trek. One would think these three tenets would be a given in any big screen enterprise (upper or lower-case E), but the franchise is often highly illogical.
Appending a portentous designation like “The Motion Picture” announces the movie’s intentions out of the gate. Not content to be The Movie, The Motion Picture promises a Star Trek event to reward the $2.50 premium. Coming ten years after the series was cancelled and after several false starts, The Motion Picture was greenlit largely thanks to a persistent fan base that grew as the original Star Trek television series refused to die in syndication. The success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the phenomenon of Star Wars demonstrated there was a sizable general audience for this space stuff. Then The Motion Picture confounded expectations by eschewing both those films and reaching back to 2001: A Space Odyssey for its influences,a movie popular when the original series was still in production.
The Motion Picture wants to be 2001 very much. The influence is most obvious in the leisurely (some philistines would say “slow”) pace, particularly in the back half as the characters drink in the spectacle of the endless V’Ger (no other Star Trek adversary has been unable to be photographed in a single frame). The languid pace is a common criticism of the movie – and it’s not 2001, to be sure. But the effects that the film lavishes over are quite good, astonishing compared to what the series had to work with, and the drawn-out sequences add something the original television show couldn’t ever bring – scale.
The Motion Picture mines the big screen for every opportunity. There is an early, utterly conflict-free shuttle craft journey. Scotty takes Captain Kirk (and us) on the scenic route around the hull of the Enterprise which we are obliged to view from every angle for five full minutes of screentime. If fans liked to think of the Enterprise as a character herself, this scene borders on pornographic. But it’s a loving, detailed rendering of a ship previously only seen on 19” square televisions. We’re granted the time and distance to marvel at the tiny workers floating around her hull and contemplate the feat of engineering we’ve accepted as given to this point. The scene pays off later when the Enterprise herself is dwarfed by the size of V’Ger, justifying the awed expressions of her crew. Trek movies would get sleeker but they would never again have this sense of proportion. Rather than treating ships and planets as props in establishing shots, The Motion Picture’s images grapple with the enormity of space.
And grappling with something larger than humanity, figuratively as well as literally, is what the original series did week after week and an aspect many fans found waning as early as The Next Generation. Few episodes of the original series (or Next Generation for that matter) dealt with direct combat with enemies, an aspect taken as given in nearly every movie since. The conflict of The Motion Picture is so within the original Trek wheelhouse that many have noted the plot bears a resemblance to season 2 episode “The Changeling,” another adventure where Kirk and Co. deal with a sentient probe who seeks its “Creator.” While the superficial similarities are hard to ignore, it’s another case of the movie scaling up the series. It does so in a literal sense – Nomad, the tin-and-spray-paint probe of “The Changeling,” fits easily in the halls of the Enterprise – but also thematically. Nomad is defeated when Kirk outsmarts its mechanical logic. V’Ger is discovered to have evolved into a living being and neither the Enterprise nor the Earth have the resources to defeat it. Revealing V’Ger as part of the Voyager program taps into and further humanizes Star Trek’s recurring fascination with creators and creations.
Importantly, The Motion Picture returned the core cast of characters intact, with Kirk being brave and brash, Spock being stoic and McCoy grumbling as they confront the expanse. It’s more of everything (even Stephen Collins’ Captain Willard Decker is a red shirt with the most lines and the highest rank) and nothing denigrates the spirit of Trek before it. Containing recognizable Star Trek characters seems like the least to ask of a Star Trek movie. Indeed it became the strongest element of the original cast movies that followed (to an absurd degree). And yet the Next Generation films struggled to deliver on this, often bending characters to fit into the molds of action heroes and broad comic relief.
The Motion Picture’s success at the box office was diminished by its $30 million budget overrun. It failed to meet lofty studio expectations but it did earn a low-budget sequel. The movie is now cast as a false step with the Wrath of Khan the mulligan shot that renewed the franchise for the next twenty years. Wrath of Khan is a fine film and the most successful at integrating action into the Star Trek ethos, but the whizz-bang action would prove too irresistible a formula in a post-Star Wars universe and the franchise never quite regained the balance of head, heart and spectacle. The movies struggled more and more to respect the original vision of Star Trek as a series of hopeful, inquisitive and accessible encounters with hard sci-fi concepts.
In the finale of The Motion Picture Kirk orders the Enterprise to continue its journey “Out there… thataway.” The Enterprise enters warp through a tunnel of rainbow light – a warp effect never witnessed again – and a title card promises us The Human Adventure is Just Beginning. New adventures awaited the crew of the Enterprise, but no other movie would fully capture the potential of Star Trek on the big screen.