It’s difficult to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture and not see the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film moves at a slow pace. It is filled with long shots of spaceships that are meant to inspire awe and reverence. Its plot lacks a real villain and instead focuses on a mission of discovery. This last bit has more in common with the original Star Trek series than 2001, but both focus on exploring big, cosmic ideas rather than setting up direct and traditional antagonism. The film is decidedly clean, clinical, and cold.
Once upon a time, this was the only Star Trek movie people had. It came out in 1979, a decade after the original series ended. Imagine what it must have been like to see the Enterprise in all that puffed-up cinematic glory after only knowing the ’60s small screen version. The presentation may seem a little overdone and showy now, but you can see the logic behind such an aesthetic.
The Motion Picture was a larger hit than you might expect. But it also cost a lot more than you would think. (Stop it with all that assuming, people!) Profits weren’t as great as Paramount wanted, and as a result, they decided to go a different direction with the next Star Trek movie, booting Gene Roddenberry from creative control and giving the reins to producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer.
Their answer? “Hey, let’s Star Wars this shit up a little!” (Not a direct quote.) Wrath of Khan couldn’t be any more different than The Motion Picture. Gone are the long, languid shots of spaceships. The bland, almost pajama-like outfits have now been replaced with regal military duds. Instead of exploring a completely mysterious object, we get an all out battle between two cunning adversaries. You have a big-ass spaceship! Why isn’t it shooting anything? C’mon!
You can feel Star Wars at the edge of these decisions, which is interesting since the first Star Wars was released before The Motion Picture and had no bearing on that film whatsoever. When Wrath of Khan came out, Empire Strikes Back was already two years old. It isn’t like Star Wars made its mark on Star Trek right away.
Pulpy and full of great antagonism, Wrath of Khan should be a Star Trek disaster but succeeds because it somehow retains a strong Star Trek identity in the face of this influence rather than bend to its will. There is a space battle, but it’s far more a game of Chess than Cops & Robbers, retaining the original series' strong naval hook. Kirk succeeds by being smart and resourceful far more than by shows of strength. The film’s central struggle supplies both immediate entertainment and thematic commentary on the characters involved.
The newer Star Trek movies, on the other hand, chase Star Wars with far more zeal than Wrath of Khan and have lost a lot of what makes us love Star Trek in the process. Wrath of Khan got it right. These movies could be fun and smart at the same time. While hardcore fans of the original series can find a lot to love about The Motion Picture (I love it), it’s hard to deny Khan’s place as the best Star Trek movie. Sometime’s it’s okay to give in to what all the cool kids are doing. Just a little. Seriously, not too much.