A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Epic science-fiction stories, with their cosmic themes and fast truths about the nature of mankind, somehow work best when the actors are unknown to us. The presence of the Star Trek characters and actors who have become so familiar to us on television tends in a strange way to undermine this movie. The audience walks in with a possessive, even patronizing attitude toward Kirk and Spock and Bones, and that interferes with the creation of the "sense of wonder" that science fiction is all about.
Let's begin with the toy for the eyes. The Star Trek movie is fairly predictable in its plot. We more or less expected that two of the frequent ingredients in the television episodes would be here, and they are: a confrontation between Starship Enterprise and some sort of alien entity, and a conclusion in which basic human values are affirmed in a hostile universe. In "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", the alien entity is an unimaginably vast alien spaceship from somewhere out at the edge of the galaxy. The movie opens as it's discovered racing directly toward Earth, and it seems to be hostile. Where has it come from, and what does it want?
The Starship Enterprise, elaborately rebuilt, is assigned to go out to intercept it, with Admiral Kirk, of course, in charge. And scenes dealing with the Enterprise and the other ship will make up most of the movie if the special effects aren't good, the movie's not going to work. But they are good, as, indeed, they should be: The first special-effects team on this movie was fired, and the film's release was delayed a year while these new effects were devised and photographed. (The effects get better, by the way, as the movie progresses. The alien ship looks great but the spaceports and futuristic cities near the film's beginning loom fairly phony.)
The Enterprise, perhaps deliberately, looks a lot like other spaceships we've seen in "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Silent Running," "Star Wars," and "Alien." Kubrick's space odyssey set a visual style for the genre that still seems to be serviceable. But the look of the other spaceship in "Star Trek" is more awesome and original. It seems to reach indefinitely in all directions, the Enterprise is a mere speck inside of it, and the contents of the alien vessel include images of the stars and planets it has passed en route, as well as enormous rooms or spaces that seem to be states of a computer-mind. This is terrific stuff.