Movie Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Part 3–Pretty Sounds and Colors!
The theme of the original series (TOS)–the familiar dah dah DAH dah dah dah dah DAAAAHH–was composed by Alexander Courage. Gene Roddenberry wrote lyrics for the theme. They were never sung or performed in any of the series or movies of the Star Trek franchise, nor were they intended to be. Roddenberry, chronically short of cash (until much later, after the franchise was re-started with this movie), did so merely to claim 50% of royalties on the theme. He did so without consulting Courage, who long held a grudge against The Great Bird of the Galaxy (Rodenberry’s nickname among the cast) for this reason.
Veteran film composer Jerry Goldsmith was hired to do the score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (STTMP). Goldsmith was talented and well-respected in Hollywood. Goldsmith was also known as an innovator, always on the lookout for new sounds and methods. A good example is his use of unique instrumentation in this movie, particularly the peculiar sounds used as a theme for V’Ger. Goldsmith made two audacious moves for STTMP.
First, the film had an actual overture. The overture was mainly based on “Ilia’s Theme”, and ran several minutes. Overtures were rare at that time, and STTMP was one of the few to have one (in fact, even back in the day, few non-musicals had overtures). I remember when I first saw it, at the age of about sixteen–a black screen with a faint starfield, and music that seemed to drag on forever. Watching it in my late 40′s, I find it oddly consoling, beautiful with a sort of sweet melancholy.
The second, and in my mind most audacious move, was to write a totally new theme. Star Wars had come out only two years previously, making possible big-screen, big-budget science fiction extravaganzas like STTMP in the first place. For nearly a decade afterwards, bold, large-scale orchestral music, in imitation of John Williams‘s seminal Star Wars score, was de rigeur for science fiction movies, and STTMP was no exception. Still, it was surprising for fans at the time that Goldsmith went for a totally new theme (later recycled for Star Trek: The Next Generation, the now familiar DAH dah dah DAH dah dah DAAAHH). Careful viewers will notice quotations from the original theme at one or two points in STTMP; but by and large, Goldsmith wrote completely new music. This score was well-received, with critic Bruce Eder stating, ”…one of the new tracks, ‘Spock’s Arrival,’ may be the closest that Goldsmith has ever come to writing serious music in a pure Romantic idiom; this could have been the work of Rimsky-Korsakov or Stravinsky – it’s that good.”
In the 70′s and early 80′s, I bought every science fiction/fantasy movie soundtrack that came out. I owned the LP’s of all the first three (in terms of production) Star Wars soundtracks, the various Superman soundtracks, the soundtracks of ET, most of the Star Trek albums, and so on. At that time, I gravitated more towards John Williams, who, after all, ruled the 80′s in terms of film scores. I liked Goldsmith’s score all right, but I preferred the works of John Williams, especially my two favorite scores of his: Superman: The Movie, and The Empire Strikes Back. I’d still put those two at the top of my personal movie-music canon. Over the years, though, I’ve come to appreciate Goldsmith’s score more and more, and I would now put it above some of Williams’s weaker work (e.g. the original version of Return of the Jedi). All in all, a great score.
Douglas Trumbull, who directed the ground-breaking special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and John Dykstra, who had done the effects for the original Star Wars two years earlier, both did special effects work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. At the time, the budget of $46 million was the largest for any American movie in history, and special effects were a large part of that budget. Though not bad for the era, the effects and sets of TOS have a deserved reputation for cheesiness. Paramount obviously intended to show what Star Trek would look like with a real FX budget. Watching the movie, one can certainly see where the money went. It is generally said of STTMP that they went a bit overboard with FX, in fact, and there is some legitimacy to this. I’ll save that for later discussion. Here, I want to touch on a few things about the effects as such.
Visually, the effects are both stunning and gorgeous. To this day, I think that out of all the various iterations of the Star Trek franchise, the refitted Enterprise of this movie is the most beautiful and realistic of all. There is also a wealth of visual detail that makes one feel that this is a real world that exists beyond the borders of the frame. There are slow shots of dockings, brief flashes of displays, computer screens, instrument panels, and controls, and small, subtle shots (e.g. the crewman standing on an obviously anti-gravity disc to work on something in the ceiling in the scene where we first see the bridge). Another example is the warp drive effect. Note in the photo above: the streaks are blue near the center (in the direction the ship is moving), white in the middle, and red towards the end. This is a visual reference to the Doppler Effect. At speeds near that of light, the frequency of light in the direction one moves would be shifted to the blue end of the spectrum, and the light from sources you’re moving away from would display a red shift. Of course, at the speed the Enterprise is doing, this shift would be into the invisible range on either side; but it’s neat that they thought of doing this at all. With a greater emphasis on action and pacing (STTMP to date is longest Star Trek movie, counting the original, Next Generation, and reboot versions), succeeding movies have largely de-emphasized such detail. I can understand the logic, but I think the films have been thereby impoverished.
Something I realized as I’ve worked on these review essays is that the look of STTMP is far more reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey than it is either of Star Wars (an influence in that it raised the bar for FX for all succeeding science fiction movies) or for that matter of the original TV series. FX are a part of this: compare the two docking scenes (Kirk and Scotty in the shuttle, and Spock’s shuttle) to the one in 2001, or the evocative exterior of the Enterprise when Kirk and company exit it to meet V’Ger with the scene of the monolith on the moon in 2001. Art design and direction lay a part, too: there is definite similarity in costumes, and the long takes, wordless reaction shots, and leisurely pace definitely call to mind Kubrick’s film from a decade earlier.
I should add that while I join most fans in deploring the costumes, I do think the design of the bridge is one of the best in the Star Trek franchise. The bridge on TNG looked like a lounge. The bridges in the later movies and series became increasingly darker, while that of the 2009 reboot was to my taste glaringly bright, looking more like a medical lab than a starship bridge. The 360° set and the lavish detail make the bridge look real; and the beige color scheme and medium lighting make the bridge look like something actually built for use and functionality–something you’d see in a real ship. All in all, a very good verisimilitude of what the Enterprise would be like if she were real.
In a sense, the three posts thus far have been preliminaries. Next we’ll plunge into the nitty gritty by looking at the script.
P.S.: Appropriately enough, this post is my 800th–I’m glad it came on a Star Trek post!
Posted on 26/01/2013, in Entertainment, movies and tagged 70's movies, Alexander Courage, DeForrest Kelley, entertainment, Jerry Goldsmith, Leonard Nimoy, movie reviews, movies, music, neo-classical music, science fiction, Star Trek, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, William Shatner. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.