Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Not all cheese is poorly produced. Some of it comes from the greatest of budgets and the loftiest of goals. No high-gloss film is a better example than 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. While a later writer for Paramount’s home video division would claim it was willed into existence by the fans, its real origins start with the same source of so many cheesefests: Star Wars.
As I mentioned when Starcrash was your weekend cheesy movie, Star Wars inspired a lot of imitators. But none of those also-rans could claim the clout Star Trek had behind it. Since fans organized a successful campaign to spare it from cancellation in 1968, it became a rare rally point for the emerging geek community. That rally point would soon prove to be an economic engine when it became the focus of a thriving convention circuit. Star Trek never died the way other shows of its time did. That groundswell of support kept creator Gene Roddenberry on the Paramount lot in the early 1970s, where he would continue to develop a Star Trek script in which Kirk and company fought God.
But maybe that story is better served when Star Trek V: The Final Frontier gets the cheesy spotlight.
Instead, let’s skip to the film Star Wars’ success forced Paramount to unleash on moviegoers. Set sometime after the end of Star Trek‘s five year mission, it opens with a now-Admiral James T. Kirk chomping at the spacebit to get back into the action. We’re told he accepted a promotion to Starfleet chief of operations, but the sudden appearance of an Alien Death Cloud prompts him to wrestle control of the Enterprise back from his hand-picked successor, Captain
William Riker Willard Decker. I realize that makes it sound very dramatic, but it’s really not. Kirk manages to retake the Center Seat (my favorite euphemism for the captain’s chair) during an unseen meeting he says “will not last more than three minutes.” He breaks the news to Decker even faster. And then we’re off to a thrilling space adventure of mystery and action!
Oh, I kid. It’s at least forty-five minutes until the Enterprise leaves drydock. Instead, we’re treated to a lovingly rendered flyby of the newly refitted Enterprise. It’s a genuinely beautiful model and I think it still stands as the best version of the ship ever designed. It was meant to look that way and director Robert Wise is determined to prove that by making you watch Kirk and Scotty fly around the thing for a good six minutes. Or a bad six minutes if you lack the patience for it. I always imagine the scene must have been a revelation for fans in 1979; starved for new Trek, they were as thrilled as Kirk to see the old ship spruced up with state-of-the-art special effects. For most of the people I’ve exposed this movie to, it’s really boring unless they enjoy Jerry Goldsmith superb musical accompaniment.
Once aboard, Kirk briefly says hello to some familiar faces, tells Decker he’s getting demoted — a hilarious idea when you consider the Enterprise would later have three captains serving aboard it simultaneously — and greets the new navigator Lt. Ilia. Played by Persis Khambatta, Ilia was meant to be a series regular when the movie was meant to be a TV series pilot. As a consequence, she gets a hero’s introduction that is both baffling (she refers to an oath of celibacy Roddenberry planed to develop in the series) and a waste of the film’s precious time. Remember that Alien Death Cloud? It’s on its way to Earth and Kirk has little more than a day to intercept it before it reaches the Solar System. But there’s never a sense of urgency. So character introductions and a malfunctioning warp drive get in the way of Kirk and his team investigating the ship at the center of the cloud.
But, and this might be surprising, that death-knell pace is part of the film’s charm. The bastard child of a prolonged development process, which saw the script morph from a feature, to a series pilot, to a TV movie, back to a series pilot and then back to a feature, The Motion Picture‘s script contains competing and orphaned ideas which never really serve Wise’s vision of the film. As he would later explain on a director’s edition DVD commentary, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture is about putting everyone where they belong.” Instead of a lean film in which that concept is served by character conflicts and sense of momentum toward the Death Cloud, the film is littered with strange asides which end up becoming interesting in their own right should you find yourself ready to deal with the pace.
Or, like me, you used the “Special Longer Version” VHS release as a cure for insomnia and found something to love within it.
In that mindset, the film is series of interesting but undercooked ideas. Spock is reintroduced as having finally repressed his human emotions, but finds himself compelled to rejoin Starfleet because the Death Cloud stirs his human half. The tension between Kirk and Decker makes for an interesting mini-arc in which they find themselves trading poker metaphors throughout the mission. Ilia’s barely-mentioned empathic abilities are part of the reason the Death Cloud abducts her and sends a probe in her likeness back to the ship. These incomplete ideas contribute to performances which tend to be more wooden than the sets; another strangely charming element of the film.
Besides the half-baked plot elements and stilted performances, the movie is gorgeously produced. Well, okay, the uniforms are terrible and the ship interiors lack for color, but the space shots are seriously great. They rival 2001: a space odyssey in terms of quality, ideas and technical ability. While the journey inside the Alien Death Cloud is long, its abstract notion of what an energy cloud in space would look like is interesting. The ship they find inside is another amazing model designed by the great Syd Mead to conjure up notions of a seedpod with six-sided symmetry. Spock’s attempt to contact the aliens inside the ship is a 2.0 version of 2001‘s Stargate sequence. That last element is no accident as both sequences were designed by the same person: Douglas Trumbull.
And throughout this stew of great design, shoddy writing and bad acting is Goldsmith’s terrific score. To him, space is as romantic as 19th century sailing ships and he brings a nautical edge to the score; which often serves as the only emotional connection one can find within Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Unless, of course, you just let it play as background noise and let its strange qualities worms its way into your brain.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is available on Hulu, its own Blu-ray release and a number of collector’s edition box sets.