Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn't just a film that should be important to original series fans, but it's a film that's influenced media (Star Trek or otherwise) for the next 30 years. Here's our review.
The plot could be described in one sentence: "The new Enterprise goes out to investigate an alien being that's threatening to destroy the Earth." That's it. But how Roddenberry executed such a simple premise shows why this man was a visionary that George Lucas couldn't even dream of comparing himself to.
Since it's been years since you've last seen the movie—about 15 years for me—I'll give a short recap. Admiral Kirk comes back to take command of the Enterprise, a ship that's spent the last 18 months being retrofitted, in order to intercept a giant gas cloud that demolished three Klingon Warbirds with ease. The film spends the first half of the movie assembling the cast, showing off the Enterprise exterior, and basically letting everyone settle in to their roles. It then spends the entire second half of the movie journeying from the outer edge of the gas cloud into the center. What's there? The Voyager 6 space probe. (There's no actual Voyager 6 probe in our reality, in case you're wondering.)
Turns out V'ger (Voyager 6 with space dirt on its nameplate) was lost after it hit a black hole, which dumped it in the vicinity of a "machine planet". That planet? The Borg fucking homeworld circa 300 years ago. (The Borg aren't mentioned by name, but material deemed canon claims Roddenberry designated the species as the Borg.) The Borg fitted V'ger with "advanced" technology and sent it back to Earth to fulfill its mission of relaying information back to its creator.
Kirk manages to stop this thing by connecting V'ger with Voyager 6, recognizing that the now-sentient machine is looking for HUMANS as its creator, and tries to send the proper codes for V'ger to finish its mission instead of killing everyone on Earth. Kirk fails until the handsome Captain Decker, who was demoted to Commander because both he, Kirk and Kirk's ego couldn't fit into the same chair, merged with V'ger and created a new advanced life form. The life form explodes into another dimension and the movie ends.
So what the hell is this movie about? Quite a lot of things, but none of these plot lines or themes are satisfactorily concluded. Besides the obvious religious analogies that involve the creator and God and meeting the maker and somehow finding a purpose to life, there are a few weird subplots that all end as abruptly as V'ger does.
There was the Decker/Ilia relationship, which symbolized a man finally being able to "physically" be with a woman—the avowed celibate woman—who tormented him years before by not allowing his photon torpedoes anywhere near her docking bay. Then there's Spock's journey to find out the meaning of life, trying to decide whether he's going to go with Logic or Emotion (big L, big E). A mindmeld with a sentient machine that has the entire knowledge of the universe makes the decision for him, and it's the latter. No real explanation of this either; Spock just wakes up from swapping minds with a robot to realize that he's not one.
And of course, there's the theme of growing old and obsolete. Everyone's 10 years older than when the series ended, carrying around a little more paunch and a little less muscle. Even Kirk has been replaced by a younger, better looking version of himself. Only by strongarming his way back into the hot seat does he manage to prove that yes, he IS out of touch, and needs someone younger to save his ass repeatedly.
All of this is buried under $49 million of special effects. That's $139 million in today's money. In comparison, the similarly effects-laden Star Trek 2009 movie cost $150 million. Both were pretty good LOOKING for their time, with Star Trek 1979 spending (what seemed like) a larger percentage of the film just flying around and looking at stuff. The influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey weighs heavily on the way the movie-makers did things, even 11 years later.
But what's the point of this movie? Like I said, it was in part a big thank-you to long time fans, as evidenced by old characters popping up to say hello. Nurse (now Dr.) Chapel, played by Roddenberry's wife, who also was the voice of the computer in TNG and JJ Abram's Star Trek movie, makes a few appearances. Yeoman Rand, the blonde sexpot from the first season of the series, also pops up in order to screw up a transportation sequence and kill two people. She may hold the record for longest time without a promotion in Star Trek history.
That was half the reason. The other half was because Roddenberry had more to say, and now he had the money to say it with. Gone were the cheap purple sets and cardboard rocks of the '60s series; in are the clean, sterile lines we've seen in many "traditional" space operas of the last 30 years. You may think that the only reason why the movie eschewed the lived-in, half-assed quality of the original was because they finally had money, but you'd only be half right. They also did this for a reason; because space needs orderliness. Why? Because space is fucking scary.
The movie is littered with reasons why space is "the final frontier". Kirk rushes a jump to warp—normally an everyday occurence in the Star Trek universe—before Scotty says it's ready and creates a temporal wormhole where the ship almost eats it in a near-hit with an asteroid. The villain is a piece of technology we sent out, basically telling us that even benign actions like the search for information may come back (by way of the Borg) to shoot us up the ass. Transporting, a relatively safe way of traveling, won't just kill you, it'll turn you into a disgusting, screaming blob of tissue if there's just ONE circuit board malfunctioning. Hell, the seductively bald female Lieutenant that V'ger abducts, kills, and machine-clones was doing nothing more than just standing there. In order to combat all the chaos out there, outside your raised shields, you need to make sure your system in here runs with military precision.
The Next Generation, arguably the best iteration of Star Trek, continues the train of thought started by Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There wouldn't be that without this. No Picard, Data, Riker or Geordi without a movie that basically amounts to as a dealer test drive of the new Enterprise. No more romping around the galaxy having your way with this or that alien. It's judgement time; time to prove that Humanity actually belongs in space and is capable of handling what's out there. Encounter at Farpoint, here we come.
So go back and watch the movie again, this time on Blu-ray in the comfort of your own home. Hell, if you've put a little bit of money into your home theater it may be better than the actual theater you saw this in in 1979. But this time, watch with the knowledge of the last three decades of Star Trek with you. [Star Trek Movie Collection]
Gizmodo '79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analog age gave way to the digital, and most of our favorite toys were just being born.