Thursday, June 19, 2014

The longest interval

If you'd asked me last week what was my oldest movie that I'd seen only once, I would have had an easy answer for you.

Now, I'd have to stop and think about it.

You'll note I said "my oldest" rather than "the oldest" in order to steer you clear of movies like The Great Train Robbery, which I have indeed seen only once. And instead steer you toward the movie I saw longest ago, only that one time -- which wouldn't have been quite so easy to phrase as an elegant question.

That movie had been Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which I saw in the theater in 1979 and only just revisited this past Sunday night. I wish it had been a summer tentpole, rather than a holiday release, because then it could have been a true 35 years since I'd seen it. Instead, it's just 34 and 1/2.

But yes, that pretty definitely constitutes the longest interval between viewings of the same movie in my lifetime.

There are only three or four movies I can really be sure I saw in the 1970s at all. Actually, only two for 100% certain. I was born in October of 1973, and the first movie I saw in the theater -- or at least, that's what I've been telling myself all these years -- was Star Wars in 1977. The Rescuers came out a month after that, and I know I saw that in the theater, but I also believe I've seen it again since then -- and I may very well have seen it on a re-release. The Black Hole came out at the very end of 1979, two weeks after Star Trek, but I know I've seen that again because it was a movie my friend owned on Betamax, impressing us all greatly. And then there were any number of older Disney movies I may have seen in the 70s, which would have all been on re-releases.

I know I haven't seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture a second time, because I could barely stand to watch it the first time.

I went in expecting something like Star Wars, and I'm sure that's why my parents took me to it. Instead, it made up half of a 1-2 punch of sci-fi boredom with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which my parents also rolled the dice on sometime around then.

I now love 2001. Star Trek? Not so much.

It remains a miracle that this series ended up continuing -- and in fact, is still going today. Credit is due entirely to the superlative Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which I have now confirmed can be considered the most influential sequel in the history of the movies. What other sequel took an otherwise moribund franchise and more or less directly spurred into existence ten additional movies?

As with my recent discussion of finally re-watching Superman for the first time in decades, in which I promised to catch up with Star Trek next, there were a lot of things I forgot about the first Star Trek movie. One of them was not how boring it was. If I told you that this was the most boring movie ever made, it would only be a slight exaggeration.

How boring? How about the fact that there isn't a single phaser in this movie, set for stun or otherwise? How about the fact that not a single person throws a single punch or kick? How about the fact that dozens of minutes are spent on just flying the Enterprise toward a giant electrical phenomenon in space?

It's clear that how to pace a modern science fiction movie eluded director Robert Wise and his crew, but that might not be such a surprise, even with Star Wars there to provide a perfect template. After all, this is the same Robert Wise who directed my dad's favorite movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 28 years earlier in 1951. He wasn't exactly some young turk trying to prove himself, though I should also say he wasn't over the hill either -- he was only 64. But he may not have been exactly the right guy for the job, considering that this movie isn't even half as exciting as The Day the Earth Stood Still -- a movie that actually celebrates inertia in its very title.

In fact, the movie is so boring that it was an exceptionally poor decision of mine to try to tackle it after 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, when I'd imbibed three to four glasses of alcohol over a leisurely Sunday lunch. I recovered from that in order to do all my bedtime duties and even cook dinner, but I couldn't recover from that and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I could think of plenty of other ways to tell you how boring it is, but I'd only be repeating myself.

However, I do want to tell you some other things that I learned/remembered about the movie:

1) How much more than three years before Star Trek II does this movie seem? The actors look like they are ten years younger than in Star Trek II. Nichelle Nichols, for one, seems like a leftover from the late 1960s with her dated hairdo. Only three years later she has already become somewhat grandmotherly. The uniforms are entirely different than the red uniforms that I've gotten accustomed to from my ten or so viewings of Wrath of Khan. It goes to show you how much they tried to change for the second movie -- while, curiously, still keeping things fairly modest in terms of traditional action.

2) The dad from 7th Heaven is in this movie. That's right, Stephen Collins is Decker, the erstwhile captain of the Enterprise whose authority Admiral Kirk casually usurps. It's interesting how little is made of this blatantly political and frankly somewhat cowardly move by Kirk in order to regain control of a starship.

3) This movie has an exceptionally odd scene of the Enterprise teleporter technology failing. Ever wonder what happens when Scotty doesn't beam someone up correctly? I had entirely forgotten that this film offers an answer. Because the Enterprise is pressed into service to go confront the alien energy cloud before it is finished being refurbished, some systems don't work properly. Much to the chagrin of the short-lived science officer and one of his comrades, the teleporter is one of them. In what, as I said, is a very odd moment, you see a blurry image of the two figures half beaming in, and hear their screams. They then return to their point of origin, where someone grimly reports to Kirk, "What arrived didn't live very long." Bleak. Made me instantly think of that scene in Galaxy Quest where the alien warthog gets beamed up inside out, though that scene was of course played for laughs.

4) Almost none of the characters have anything to do in this movie, let alone have character arcs. Sulu's only purpose seems to be to ominously read out the increasing warp speeds. Uhura occasionally reports on something. Spock returns from a self-imposed return to Vulcan, but without much explanation for his change of heart, and seeming to be a bit miffed at the crew -- for reasons that may have been explained in the last episode of the TV show, but certainly aren't explained here. Bones wisecracks. Scotty offers some nice Scottish blarney. (Do Scots have blarney?) Chekhov ... was in this movie I think. Even Kirk doesn't do anything, not even answering for his naked ambition about getting control of a starship again. That's one big thing they correct in the sequel, giving Kirk an arc. His anxiety about getting older is front and center in that movie.

5) What this energy field actually turns out to be is sort of interesting, but it takes an hour and 45 minutes of treading water, of nobody shooting anyone with phasers, of nobody successfully beaming anywhere, and of only about ten seconds of Klingons at the beginning to get us there.

Like I said, the sheer existence of any other Star Trek movies is nothing short of miraculous.


Travis McClain said...

We discussed the movie privately already, but I did want to respond to your specific, numbered observations.

1) If you really want the full effect of how peculiar the aging of the cast is, put the movie next to "Turnabout Intruder", the final episode of the original series - which aired a full decade prior to The Motion Picture. DeForest Kelly in particular looks and seems a bit younger in The Wrath of Khan to me.

2) Not only is the dad from 7th Heaven in this movie, but the mom (Catherine Hicks) is Gillian in The Voyage Home...meaning Jim Kirk screwed both parents from that show!

3) That transporter failure scene isn't just unnerving to watch here, but once you've seen it, it imbues pretty much every transporter scene in any other movie or episode with a certain hard edge. Even when it's a seemingly routine beaming, in the back of my mind I'm aware of what happened to Commander Sonak and that other person.

4) As we discussed elsewhere, I think it's important to note that the idea of Star Trek as an ensemble show didn't exist until The Next Generation. The original series was very much structured around the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. They're clearly the focus of The Motion Picture, too, though really it's even more specifically about Kirk and Spock and less about McCoy.

I see Kirk's arc here being one of reconciling that being captain is a young man's game, and he's not a young man anymore. He's been promoted and lauded with respectability and all those things that most people anticipate and expect with longevity in whatever work they do, and he's completely miserable there.

Likewise, Spock's arc is about having to accept that he can't purge himself of his humanity, and that he has to reconcile those two aspects of himself.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is thematically about not just balance, but balancing some uncontrollable things. Kirk can't control aging any more than Spock can control his DNA and heritage. But they're reunited because the common ground they share is on the bridge of the Enterprise. There, Kirk can be Kirk and Spock can be Spock.

You're right that their individual character arcs are pretty cut and dried, but I think it's really their relationship that has the arc this time. It's an unusual approach to storytelling, but one that I think was earned by the original series rather than manufactured in this film on its own.

It's a mature way of addressing the decade that had elapsed since "Turnabout Intruder" aired in 1969, since they could have just said, "Everything is just like we left it except we have new sets and costumes." As I've grown older, I've identified more with it, and in recent years I've come to feel a bit wistful that we'll certainly never see the likes of this kind of film again. Maybe for an original movie, but in an established franchise? Never gonna happen again. No studio would risk a billion dollar box office and even more in merchandise on something this cerebral and, yes, sluggish.

5) I dig the reveal at the end, but I always saw that as more just tidy wrap-up, rather than a relevant part of Vejur's role in the film. The Motion Picture isn't about Vejur; it's about getting the band back together again.

Vancetastic said...

I love Catherine Hicks in The Voyage Home. So charming. That is indeed funny that they both wound up on the same show. What's even funnier is that I also know one of the guys who was intimately involved in the production of that show. Wait, that's not all that funny.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. As mentioned in our offline discussion, your perspective does make me appreciate it a little more. So maybe I'll watch it again ... when I'm 75.

Travis McClain said...

Yeah, it needs time to breathe. That Goldsmith score, though...That's some gorgeous music. I could listen to that score at pretty much any time. I also loved his scores for The Final Frontier and First Contact, but neither is as elegant as The Motion Picture.