Star Trek The Motion Picture

True believers have a hard time accepting nonbelief. They always want to argue that if you give their particular obsession one more try then you'll discover why it is so great...

My worst case of this happened about ten years ago when my old roommate tried to convince me that I couldn't write Woody Allen off without seeing all of his movies - although I still contend that if you've seen twenty plus movies from a specific filmmaker, you have every right to write them off, even if they do have another twenty under their belt.

My most recent case of true-believer fever concerns my friend Brendan and Star Trek. Now, Brendan doesn't look like your stereotypical Trekkie - although the Trek-themed tattoo he just changes that a little - but he is seriously into the series, and he convinced me to give the various Trek films another try after years of ambivalence. For my first attempt at getting into the series I picked a random movie and it left me underwhelmed. However, we both knew that being unimpressed by one late-period trifle wasn't quite enough to justify writing off the entire franchise, so I gave it a second try - and this time I chose the Wrath oh Khan, which many Trekkies consider to be the best film in the series. And I was also unmoved.

Now, a lesser fanatic would have let me off the hook. But Brendan was a true Sam-I-Am, and he was still convinced that I would like his Green Eggs and Ham if I just tried them in a box. Err, I mean, if I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first - and in his opinion best - film that was made starring Kirk, Spock and crew. I had never seen it before because I had heard that it was pretty slow and dull, and that didn't sound appealing to me... But I have survived slow and dull before, and it was Brendan's birthday, so why the hell not?

...And it turned out he was right; I actually did like the Green Eggs and Ham this time.

In fact, I actually liked it because of its slowness. My problem with the other Trek films was that my mind couldn't bridge the huge gulf between their high minded ideals and their pulpy execution. I'm fine with their vision of a utopian future full of galactic exploration, and I'm fine with a scenery chewing William Shatner falling to his knees and yelling "KHAAANNN!!!" at the heavens, but I don't really see how those two extremes really connected.

However, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is much more consistently devoted to the utopian future ideals than the other Trek films I've seen, and it doesn't give into nearly as much cheesiness. The first act is mostly devoted to trying to convince the audience of the grandeur of the USS Enterprise's mission - it is full of lingering shots of the ship in an effort to convince us of its size and heft. And while I can appreciate why some people would think that all of that was a little excessive, I liked that for once they committed to being epic without undercutting themselves with silly phaser battles - that they were actually trying to give the audience a reason to believe in their particular brand of optimism.

The meat of the plot - which concerns a mysterious alien craft named V-Ger which is on collision course with Earth - is also enacted in a refreshingly earnest manner. You can tell that Robert Wise (who directed the film) had been inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, because many of the sequences borrow visually from Kubrick's masterpiece - particularly a scene where the Enterprise falls into a wormhole, which has a bright-trippy-lights-going-everywhere look that is straight out of 2001's conclusion. But ST:TMP is better off for that influence, because 2001 is serious sci-fi and Star Trek's world is a lot more compelling when it curbs its campier instincts. In particular, the acting is better here than it is in the other Trek films - the fact that the script doesn't indulge in a lot of broad emotional beats means that there aren't a lot of excuses for Shatner to start chewing the scenery.

Of course, ST:TMP is still a Star Trek film, and thus it can't completely commit to being solemn; a certain amount of silliness is just hardwired into the franchise's DNA. I don't really buy the film's end where we discover V-Ger's origin, and a lot of Spock's scenes indulge the "emotions vs logic" trope that Trek maestro Gene Rodenberry clearly loved but which I've always found hamfisted. But I can excuse both of those story elements because they are meant to illustrate a certain idealism about humanity's place in the universe, and thus they are a lot easier to reconcile with the franchise's overall intentions than (say) the magic brain-washing ear worms from Khan, which are trifling through and through.

Some part of me regrets having to admit that I liked this film because now I'm afraid that I'm going to get roped into watching a lot more Star Trek. But I think Brendan knows not to push his luck; I don't really get the sense that the rest of the franchise is this heartfelt - (although I know that some of them try - and overshoot, landing in sentimentality) - and so I expect my high opinion of this film might be a bit of an outlier for the overall franchise. But still - getting to admit that I liked even the one film should be enough of a victory for my dear old pal. After all, if you've gotten someone to admit that they like green eggs and ham in general, do you really need to get them to like it in boxes and with foxes and in trains and on trains and every other possible iteration?

Well, probably, because we're talking about a fanatic here. Oh, God, my life is about to become a hell of space exploration flicks... Well, better that than Woody Allen; I hate to say it, Seth, but if I manage to go to my grave without having seen his twenty least loved films then I'll die a happy man.

Winner: Me

Star Trek: The Motion Picture on IMDB