“The human adventure is just beginning,” reads a title card at the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s a bold statement at the close of a big movie. And until now, it was frequently met with rolled eyes.
Paramount+’s latest version of the 1979 resurrection of the interplanetary adventures of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director’s Edition, is actually the fourth iteration of this enormous movie. While it does come with a lot of baggage for longtime fans — and we’ll get into that in a moment — the crystalline 4K imagery and Dolby Atmos audio are so impressive that even the Star Trek agnostic will be blown away by the sound-and-light show. More than anything else, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a “head film,” deeply influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey, but intended for an even more I’m OK You’re OK-attuned 1970s audience. It’s always been an incredible artifact, now it’s one you simply must see.
By 1979, Star Trek was one of the most famous cancelled shows on all of television. Programming snafus kept its ratings low from 1966 through 1969, but its fanbase was (as it is today) extreme. It was nearly junked after its second season, but a letter-writing campaign (among the first of such events in pop culture) begat a third season. Alas, the “five year mission” of the opening voiceover never happened, but that third season got the series past a certain numeric threshold—there was enough material to sell the program into syndication.
This, of course, is where things took off. (A short-lived animated series also kept the flame alive.) Soon there were conventions, and, in time, a deal in place for series creator Gene Roddenberry to develop a show called Star Trek: Phase II. Then Star Wars hit and everyone saw dollar signs. Phase II was repackaged into The Motion Picture.
As anyone who has seen both films can tell you, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Wars are galaxies apart. Star Wars is a high fructose romp through ‘30s serials. ST:TMP, for better or worse, is sober, serious, and intentionally heavy. The look is also a relic of its time. From the texture of its film grain to the orange hue of the carpet on refit Enterprise recreation deck, it bellows out “late ‘70s!”
“Star Wars is a high fructose romp through ’30s serials, while Star Trek: The Motion Picture is, for better or worse, sober, serious, and intentionally heavy.”
The reason why this is the movie’s fourth draft isn’t all that sexy. The theatrical version simply had a December deadline that director Robert Wise, working with state-of-the-art special effects, simply couldn’t meet. Much of the disdain surrounding the film stems from the fact that what was lingering for years was essentially a working cut. Many shots would eerily begin before any movement. This has a psychological effect on the viewer—one that can put you to sleep.
Then there was a Special Longer Edition (actual name) made for television, absolutely the wrong direction to take this in. (It also included non-sequiturs and continuity errors.) This is what was released to VHS, in a grotesque, cropped form.
In 2001, a team working directly with Robert Wise made appropriate edits to the movie and created special effects that worked for the standard definition DVD format. It really helped the story move along, but some of the visual gags (not so much the costumes, colors, and all the whiz-bang light-up panels on the ship, but the outer space stuff) still looked hazy. Finally, in 2022, it has all come together.
Photo: Paramount / Everett Collection
The funny thing about this movie is that people think it was a total flop. It wasn’t. It made decent money ($82MM worldwide on a budget of $35MM), just not what the studio was expecting. It was successful enough for Paramount to roll the dice a second time and make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a pop culture masterpiece that put dilithium back into the franchise, bringing us sequels, The Next Generation, and the wider Trek universe still expanding today. TMP was even nominated for three Oscars. (How Jerry Goldsmith lost for his miraculous original score to A Little Romance is a far greater scandal than anything Will Smith did.)
As far as the plot? Okay, the truth is not too much really happens in this 136-minute movie. A bunch of people get together on a ship, fly away to go inspect something, and then some trippy consciousness-expanding mumbo jumbo happens. Along the way a woman stands on an X and very eerily points at something no less than four times.
What it’s really about, however, is a somewhat counter-intuitive rebuke of technology in favor of human connection. Easy to say when you’ve got transporters and warp drive, eh Starfleet? Still, despite the unusually cold spin to the performances, when there are cracks of humanity between these characters, the emotion really jumps out. It’s a big diss to the Vulcan pursuit of mechanical logic, even suggesting that this philosophy can lead to genocidal destruction.
For decades fans have cherry-picked the best parts of this movie. At conventions you will always see a woman rocking an Ilia Probe look (that’s a bald head, white robe, and ruby crystal on the throat) or trying for a “Disco Bones,” the bearded Dr. McCoy in the 23rd century equivalent of a leisure suit. There’s always been a sheepish quality around loving TMP. “Yeah, yeah, I know it’s boring, but I dig it.”
I think, with this new coat of paint, those days are gone. If you put aside your skepticism and don’t wince at the very feelings-first scenes, there’s enough spectacle that even “regular” people will like it. Yes, it’s one of the least energetic entries in the entire Star Trek canon, but it’s also the only one with a lengthy, near-fetishistic survey of the Enterprise in spacedock, begging for you to hit pause. In 4K, it really goes where it’s never gone before.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer and critic in New York City. His work also appears in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, and the Times of Israel. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, and tweets about Phish and Star Trek at @JHoffman.