Star Trek: The Motion Picture Isn't Boring – You're Just Not Watching It Correctly

Historically speaking, sci-fi geeks have long held certain truths to be self-evident. Specifically, all the even-numbered "Star Trek" movies are the good ones, and all the odd-numbered "Star Trek" movies stink out loud.

Looking back, it sure seems that way at a glance. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" was the badass adventure with all the death and destruction and villainy. "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" was the funny one with the fish out of water story and the whales, um, in water. "Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country" is a thrilling Tom Clancy novel in outer space. "Star Trek: First Contact" is the one with all those cool cyborgs in it.

The tried-and-truism falls apart when you get to the relatively stinky "Star Trek: Nemesis," but for nine movies, every other "Star Trek" film was largely written off as a mistake of one kind or another. And that all began with "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," a gigantic blockbuster production that was measured, even ponderous, and almost completely devoid of the kind of laser battles and blood oaths and wacky jokes that mainstream audiences seemed to crave.

But what if I told you that "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" isn't boring at all? What if I told you it's actually riveting if you just watch it through the proper lens?

Well, you don't have to speculate about that because it's exactly what I'm telling you. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" isn't just good, actually, it's exciting and interesting cinema, and a fascinating adaptation of all the "Star Trek" that came before.

The motionless picture

What we now call "Star Trek: The Original Series" (formerly just "Star Trek") ran for 79 episodes across three seasons, briefly becoming a cultural phenomenon, and attracting a legion of die-hard fans, before — like so many beloved genre shows — it struggled to keep its ratings up, and eventually got canceled, arguably too soon.

But here's the thing: There were plenty of successful multi-season television shows in the 1960s that never became a blockbuster franchise, unless there's a "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" extended universe that somehow flew under our collective radars. (Okay, okay, there was a 1988 TV movie called "Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis," but are you really happy now?) 

Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" survived and thrived in second-run syndication. It may have been canceled but it never went away, and audiences continued to watch and explore the universe with the crew of the Enterprise for over a decade before "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" finally came out.

The story of how "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" arrived on the big screen is long and convoluted and involves several abandoned projects (one of them was about fighting Jesus), a failed attempt to create a sequel series, and even a feature film that was allegedly put on ice because "Star Wars" was coming out, and surely audiences wouldn't be interested in more than one sci-fi/fantasy franchise, right?

Anyway, when it finally did premiere in 1979, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" found itself struggling with a world that suddenly had a very different idea of what a space opera should look like. Instead of dashing adventures with sexy young stars, wacky robots, and laser swords, Robert Wise's film was a mature, serious science fiction drama about middle-aged men mulling over the ineffability of the universe and their tiny place within it. 

And that wasn't necessarily what everyone was in the mood for.

Star Wars, this ain't

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" picks up years after the conclusion of the television series when the aging crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is called back into action after an unthinkably gigantic artificial life form called V'ger starts making its way towards Earth, consuming everything in its path. Instead of waging war on the vessel, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) attempts to communicate with V'ger by venturing inside its nearly infinite space and joining minds with the strange life form.

The film features eye-popping visual effects and a sense of fantastical scale rarely achieved by other motion pictures, even the ones that are more beloved for their CGI enormity. Robert Wise, who had previously directed classics like "The Sound of Music" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," uses that vastness to explore mankind's — or any sentient species' — place in the universe. It is a film about serious science-fiction considerations, regarding the nature of consciousness and existence itself, and thanks to the film's final twist, the strange butterfly effect that even we in the present day may have on events in the distant future.

So yeah, an audience that equates sci-fi filmmaking to space wizards fighting space nazis isn't necessarily going to glom onto that right away. And although the first "Star Trek" movie made quite a bit of money, it performed below Paramount's expectations, so much so that the sequel, "The Wrath of Khan," was given a much lower budget and a whole new, action-centric tone. It worked, and the film was a major success and is still considered one of the best films in the "Star Trek" franchise (even-numbered or otherwise). Whether you're comparing "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" to "Star Wars" or "The Wrath of Khan," the film is undeniably slower-paced and less eventful.

That's why you shouldn't do that.

Eyes on the Enterprise

The first "Star Trek" movie may take place in outer space, but unlike other hit sci-fi films like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and (at the time) "Star Wars," for audiences, it did not exist in a vacuum. It was a continuation of an ongoing story with characters who had already been introduced, defined, and tested. And unless you watch the film with that context in mind, you just might miss what's so incredibly wonderful about it.

For over a decade "Star Trek" fans had been watching the television series, with all its good episodes and (frankly) bad episodes, on their cathode ray tube television sets. It was a low-budget series and by modern standards, audiences could only have watched it on low-budget formats. The Enterprise was a spaceship, sure, but it was also clearly a model, and its interiors were clearly sparse soundstages held together by duct tape and a dream.

When "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" finally came out, the money was finally available to make it look real, for the very first time. One of the most frequently mocked sequences in Wise's film is an incredibly long montage of shots of the Enterprise itself, as the camera lovingly glides over it, the music swelling in the background, for about five minutes. That's interminable if you just want to get on with the story, but if you're seeing the Enterprise in all of its glory for the very first time, as though it was real and you could fly around it, taking in all of its splendor, it's practically a religious experience.

This, at last, was "Star Trek" writ large — in more ways than one.

Where NOMAD has gone before

One of the criticisms lobbed at "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" is that the film borrows elements from previous installments of the series. The vast destructive power of V'ger seems to stem from the episode "The Doomsday Machine," where the Enterprise encountered another gigantic juggernaut in space. When the crew finally meets "V'ger" as a character, it has a lot in common with the episode "The Changeling," where they ran afoul of a space probe from Earth called NOMAD, which had also gained sentience and threatened mankind.

Some might argue that this repetitiveness is a flaw, but that's not meeting the film on its own wavelength. Not only is "The Motion Picture" the first time fans saw the Enterprise in all its splendor, but it's also the first time fans saw what every episode of the show would have looked like this whole time if it actually had the budget to realize its ambitions.

Wise's film is the biggest "Star Trek" episode ever produced, and although Roddenberry's creation could encompass a variety of tones and genres — with great episodes incorporating action, humor, horror, philosophy, politics, and beyond — it seems that ur example of the series "The Motion Picture" wanted to recreate was an episode about space, the final frontier, and the place sentient beings have against the backdrop of infinity. Hard sci-fi, not escapist thrills.

The best way to watch "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" isn't in the middle of a marathon with the other movies, it's at the tail end of a marathon of the original series so that its visual wonders can provide the starkest of contrasts, and so all the "Star Trek" that came before it can be reconsidered. The show was always this epic in concept, but now it was epic for real.