Special effects in movies have become so common place that most rom-coms now have some kind of visual effect that is nigh imperceptible. This is only a fairly recent development, as computer technology became ubiquitous and we often take it for granted now. However, as late as the 1970s, movie visual effects were a bit of a rarity, especially when it came to awards. Before 1962, visual effects were lumped together with sound effects for the Academy Awards, and thereafter, there were at most two nominees; some years just had a single film which was given a “special achievement” award. However, in the late ’70s, films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, and, most importantly, Star Wars ushered in a golden age of visual effects in movies, based on models and trick photography.
The banner year for this was 1979, a year which saw five films nominated for Best Visual Effects at the following spring’s Oscars. This series will go talk about each of these nominated movies, about the effects themselves, and about how well they’re integrated into the story. It’s quite fitting that four out of five of these films involve spaceships and laser battles, proving once again that Star Wars paved the way. The films in question are: Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Lewis Gilbert’s Moonraker, Steven Spielberg’s 1941, Gary Nelson’s The Black Hole, and the winner, Ridley Scott’s Alien.
To begin with, I’ll be talking about Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first big-screen outing for Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise from the popular 1960s television show. Interestingly, this movie, as with a couple of the other nominees, were still basing a lot of their tone on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from a decade prior, even though it was Lucas’ space opera that paved the way.
The film reunites the original crew of the Enterprise and has them team up with the new crew, led by Captain (and then Commander) Decker, played by Stephen Collins. The movie’s script was an adaptation of the pilot that was being developed for Star Trek: Phase II, which would have seen the original series cast hand over the reins to a new group. However, because of Star Wars, and the myriad starts and stops the show’s developers were facing, it was decided a film was to be made instead. To direct it, Fox turned to Robert Wise, the veteran director of such genre staples as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Haunting.
In what I think is actually quite a good adaptation of the TV show, the crew is going to try to intercept a mysterious cloud that has already destroyed Klingon and Federation ships as it makes a bee line to Earth. After heading off the cloud, it sends a probe that attacks Spock and abducts Ilia, the ship’s navigator, with whom Decker had a romantic history. She is replaced by a robotic version sent by “V’Ger,” the entity controlling the cloud and the massive ship inside it. While the robotic Ilia attempts to learn all it can about the Enterprise, and Decker attempts to reawaken Ilia’s memories and feelings buried within, Spock takes a spacewalk to mind-meld with V’Ger, discovering that the massive ship is V’Ger itself, a huge living machine.
Kirk, Decker, Spock, and Bones go to the center and find that V’Ger was once Voyager 6, a NASA probe from the 20th Century. It had been discovered by a race of intelligent machines and evolved as it learned what it could about the universe. Eventually, V’Ger became despondent at having achieved its purpose and decided to return home. It demands to interface with its Creator, and Decker, knowing it will be the only way to reunite with Ilia, offers himself as a substitute, creating a new life form and disappearing into another dimension.
Like the best Star Trek, TMP is all about ideas, about the future of the human race, about unknown alien species, and about figuring out the meaning of the universe and our place within it. It’s also incredibly slow and dull. But, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. While most people point to The Wrath of Khan as the best of the film series (and no arguments here; it’s a masterpiece), they also call it the best version of the TV show, which it isn’t. TOS was never that action-filled and was always much more about the characters and learning things about new races. Sure, it gets pretty ethereal, and it does have big stretches of sequences where nothing happens besides things looking cool, but that’s kind of why I like it.
The slow pace of the movie is part and parcel to why the effects work so well. A team led by Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra took a great deal of time and a massive level of detail to get the ships looking as beautiful as possible. Wise lingers on the ships so long, they have to look great or whole sequences won’t work. For the film’s opening, which sees three Klingon ships approaching and then being destroyed by the V’Ger cloud, the effects crew blend together all of the terrific ships and model work that Dykstra and company used on Star Wars and the awesomely weird strobing video coloring of space that Trumbull employed on 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a very creepy and engaging way to open a sci-fi film, and brings the audience back into the universe Gene Roddenberry created in the 1960s.
Another thing the models of the ships are able to do is express the grandeur of the Enterprise as well as Kirk’s fixation on it. In the storyline, Kirk’s been stuck at a desk as an Admiral for the past several years and when he sees the ship for the first time in quite a long time, his longing stares at it in drydock are accompanied with enormous vistas of every nook and cranny as well as a triumphant score from the great Jerry Goldsmith.
Later, when Kirk is in the Captain’s Chair again and tells Sulu to engage thrusters, we see on Kirk’s face the satisfaction and, to be honest, arousal that this man has at the prospect of sailing off on another adventure. Wise again takes several minutes to show us this moment and to let us bask in it the way Kirk is. The Enterprise is cool looking; it’s the best ship in the fleet, and nobody’s seen it on the big screen before. Let’s eat it up!
A really awesome visual strobing sequence happens when the Enterprise passes through a wormhole. The film of the crew aboard the ship is blurred while outside we see the ship passing through what looks like vector graphics put through a Spirograph. It’s very reminiscent of Trumbull’s work on 2001‘s final, and trippiest, scene.
A sequence which I adore for its ability to make us feel the absolute enormity of V’Ger, and of outer space in general, and the tininess of a single person, is when Spock goes for a space walk through the V’Ger orifice (it’s a sex metaphor, you guys!) and floats by various pieces of machinery, planets, stations, tunnels, and more, all located inside V’Ger. Spock (pretty quickly) learns that V’Ger is a living machine and is projecting images from its journey. It’s a beautiful, trippy, and quite ominous journey the half-Vulcan takes, and it is a really lovely visual representation of a person figuring things out.
The last sequence I want to point out is the melding of Decker and the Ilia probe at the end of the film. The sequence itself is a melding of in-camera and post-production techniques which really give the impression that people are merging with an alien entity. It’s pretty damn cool.
Ultimately, Star Trek: The Motion Picture might be a bit too long and a scoch too slow, but it’s nevertheless a triumph of visual effects techniques that brought the cutting edge ideas of the script, and of The Original Series, up to a higher level. Whether you like the film or not, you have to agree that the visual effects were wonderful.
Join me next week as I look at a film with visual effects that are great, but seem completely out of place in the film at hand. That, of course, is the final James Bond film of the 1970s, and arguably one of the worst they ever made, Moonraker.