(Note: this intro ran longer than I thought it would. The next 4 paragraphs are about the history of this film's journey to the screen, and have fuck-all to do with the movie under discussion. Feel free to skip them.)
Star Trek originally ran for 3 fairly unsuccessful seasons on NBC from 1966 to 1969, and then was unceremoniously canceled because its ratings were shit. Even non-Star Trek fans probably know this basic outline, because Star Trek's success as a franchise fits neatly into its underdog narrative. The unwanted child went on to become a multi-billion dollar empire. I mention this because I want to focus a little bit on how remarkable the existence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture actually is. After the cancellation of the TV series, there was a (low-quality) cartoon series that ran on Saturday mornings for two seasons, from 1973-1974, and then was also cancelled with little fanfare.
This is the normal order of things. Something comes on TV, is only popular with a tiny, dedicated audience that can't sustain it as a series, makes its way down the food chain from proper series to cartoon to syndication and, eventually, dies an unloved death as fan fiction written by cultists who can't let go. The funny thing that happened to Star Trek is that its syndicated rerun numbers were big, really big, big enough to suggest to the people running Paramount that there was still money to be made in this universe. Keep in mind that this happened in a world in which essentially only word of mouth could keep the memory of something alive. There were no ancillary projects like video games or books (two original novels were created within the Star Trek universe between 1966 and 1976, neither of which was anyone's idea of a massive success. Novels mostly came later, after the syndication numbers made Star Trek a thing again). And there was no internet, to bring fans together to obsess over the series, and perhaps harness their energy into bringing it back. There was only the cold, unconnected darkness of catching an episode here or there in syndication, and yet it managed to be enough. This certainly speaks to how thoroughly the show's aesthetic connected to an entire generation of TV watchers, something I can marvel at even if I don't share in it.
They commissioned a movie first, and when they couldn't come up with a script that anyone liked, they decided to aim a little lower and create a brand-new television series, featuring most of the old characters (and their actors) along with a few new creations. The fact that they could get just about everyone to come back for a new TV series is perhaps less remarkable, as the actors on the series were (famously) type-cast by being on the show, and bringing them back together for a new project was not as difficult as it would have been otherwise. This show, Star Trek: Phase II, was meant to launch a brand-new, Paramount-backed network, in the same way that Star Trek: Voyager eventually did for the UPN network once Paramount finally scraped together enough money to put the plan into action (and given that UPN no longer exists, it is probably the case that they were right to scrap it the first time.) In any event, Star Trek: Phase II disappeared into oblivion when Paramount backed out of the idea of creating a new network.
This, of course, is where Star Trek gets rescued by the villain that helped to create this monstrosity, and I'm sure the irony won't be lost on people to note that Star Wars saved Star Trek, because it proved that science-fiction on film could make a ton of money for everyone involved. So everyone went back to the drawing board, and 10 years after it was cancelled (after an ugly, budget-gutted 3rd season that saw it shunted off to the wasteland of Friday, because no one at NBC believed in the show and they just wanted rid of it) Star Trek was reborn, not as another low-budget TV series, but as theatrical movie with a reasonably robust budget. And this is an amazing thing to have happened, a thing that shouldn't and doesn't happen. Sure you get the odd Serenity here or there, but that universe sank back into nothingness after the film came out. Star Trek has been a fairly consistent part of the cultural landscape for the past 30 years, and this is sort of where the whole thing started.
So all that nonsense out of the way, let's get to this sucker, shall we? The Enterprise is currently stationed near Earth, at the tail end of an 18-month retro-fitting. Admiral Kirk (he is, at the moment at least, an Admiral) comes on board to lead the ship on a mission to intercept a Gigantic Blue Cloud of Doom that is barreling down on the Earth. He replaces the current Captain, Will Decker, and demotes him to First Mate, a situation that Decker is not at all thrilled about. Neither Spock nor Bones are currently part of the crew, but Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekhov are all still hanging around. In addition to Decker, our other new crew member is Ilia, who comes from Planet Bald, and she and Decker have some sort of (non-sexual) history, because she's taken a vow of chastity. The Enterprise goes out to meet the Gigantic Blue Cloud and in the process Ilia is captured by it, essentially hollowed out as a person and rebuilt as a cold, unfeeling probe of the Cloud, who is now going by V'ger. At some point both Spock and Bones join the crew, bringing the old gang completely back together. Further exploration of V'ger reveals it to be, at its heart, one of the old Voyager probes, itself captured by a race of intelligent machines and upgraded into the Gigantic Blue Cloud. It is trying to fulfill its original mission, which is to gather data about the universe and send it back to its Creator on Earth It regards the people of Earth as obstacles standing between it and its mission, and threatens to murder them all if it doesn't meet the Creator in person. Decker chooses to stand in for the Creator, melds with the machine, the Earth is saved and the Enterprise flies off to its next adventure.
If I had to choose a single word to describe this movie, it would be "unambitious". It's not that you can see the seams where a script for a single, 46-minute episode of television was expanded out into a 2+ hour movie, it's that the seams are actually enormous chasms over which have been erected a handful of rickety bridges. Long stretches of the film basically play like a bottle episode, with everyone hanging around on the bridge and deciding how to proceed, and those parts that don't (particularly the opening section, with Kirk re-joining the Enterprise, and the climax, where our main characters get off the ship and visit face-to-face with V'ger) could very easily be jettisoned entirely, or re-written in such a way that they could happen right on the bridge too. The whole thing is thoroughly padded out, suggesting a rush job on a script that, quite frankly, does not have enough meat on its bones to be given the feature-length treatment. The character beats for Kirk, Spock and especially Decker are completely rushed through (Decker, in particular, could have been excised right out of the movie without doing any real harm to it), afterthoughts obviously tacked on to the film because this is a movie and movies require multiple character arcs. Thanks to the generous padding, the film feels totally hollow and sterile, and that is not a great way to kick off a film franchise. But we shall continue along in this endeavor, and it can only get better I guess. As always, it's bullet point time.
It's very weird that they went with a new song, given how important to the brand the original theme is. This would probably not happen nowadays, because fans would throw a total shit-fit about it. The theme to this movie, of course, is much more famous now as the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme song.
There's good miniature work on the ships in this movie (primarily the Enterprise) but really, really shitty blue screen work. Everything has a very distinctive halo effect.
We meet Spock early on down on Vulcan, I guess. Very weird-looking place, very late-70's. Some old Vulcan lady is threatening to don Spock with a truly ghastly necklace that represents his final break from emotion or something, but then it turns out he sucks too much and he doesn't get to wear it.
The matte painting work in this movie really dates it badly. At Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, there's a matte painting background of the city and part of the HQ, and there are little tiny people on the painting that are frozen in place.
The Enterprise transporter is broken, conveniently forcing Kirk and Scotty to take a transport shuttle to the ship for Kirk's first return to it in some number of years(?) This allows the camera to swirl around the model of the Enterprise while the theme plays. It's an incredibly sexually-charged moment, two men gazing lovingly at the curves of The Only Woman They've Ever Loved for 5 solid minutes. Of course, every time you see a long shot of the shuttle, it's obvious that it's just a shot of the two of them projected on a screen, because they look completely flat. I'm not going to be too harsh on the effects of this movie going forward (they are what they are) but these shots really stand out badly.
Everyone stares beatifically at Kirk when he first comes on board, and Christ knows what actorly part of themselves they had to delve into in order to pretend they were happy to be stuck in a room with Shatner again.
When Kirk swipes the command from the dad from 7th Heaven (aka Will Decker), Kirk weirdly acts like a total cock about it.
More padding - someone tries to beam two people aboard the Enterprise, despite the broken transporter. They can't materialize and get sent back to their original destination, where it is implied that they came back in some gruesome form. It's actually a pretty cool moment all things considered, giving the movie a rare jolt of visceral emotion, but it's also totally unnecessary.
Kirk gives a presentation about the Gigantic Blue Cloud to the assembled Enterprise crew. Among the crowd are a man and a woman in full Native American regalia, a guy with a big blue head, and some dude with a head like a butt. Mostly just late-70's era humans though. Disappointingly light on mustaches.
Little things - after leaving dry dock, the Enterprise makes a flyby of Jupiter. Why? Because. The flyby includes a bunch of its moons all bunched together, too, as if everything was just within spitting distance.
The Enterprise enters warp and immediately goes into a "wormhole" entirely for the purpose of adding some life into a so-far completely inert movie. And then the wormhole slows down time, which is basically the opposite of what you'd want to be doing with the movie at this point. This whole part, which goes on for what feels like 30 minutes but is probably only 5 at most, is really unspeakably awful, with the crew getting this weird flaring effect and everyone moving and talking really slow as they try to fix the problem.
The arc that they attempt with Kirk is that he comes back to the Enterprise both unfamiliar with the crew, and not really in any sort of shape to be a Captain of a starship, and has to work through those problems. They mostly have his dickishness bounce off of Decker, but the film's attempt to make a point about Kirk's recklessness is constantly undermined by the fact that Decker is a huge pussy about basically everything, Ackbar before Ackbar.
The Enterprise travels into the cloud and as it does so, the camera is constantly switching between long, 2001-esque light show special effects of the inside of the cloud and shots of the crew looking on in wonder. The distrust of the audience is palpable; not trusting them to be completely amazed by the effects (and they shouldn't trust them to be, because the effects are boring), they have the crew be amazed for them. The voyage into the cloud takes 10 solid padded minutes, with only a couple of short dialogue scenes to break up the monotony.
When the Ilia probe is returned to the ship, she wears an outfit that comes down about as far as a medium-sized T-shirt. Why are her legs completely exposed? Maximum value from actress and former model Persis Khambatta, that's why.
Spock goes rogue! He goes flying into the heart of V'ger to gather information (he mind-melds with the cloud, which is pretty much just him holding his hands up to the empty air around him) and to get there he has to go through an opening that looks not a little bit but a lot like a gigantic space anus (the space anus prevents the Enterprise from proceeding any further into the interior of the cloud.)
Spock's short character journey takes him from superdick who's trying to rub out all emotions forever to enlightened half-human who sees the hopelessness of V'ger's cold machine logic and rejects it. It basically happens in a single scene, where Spock gets religion from the mind meld and realizes he's tired of being a superdick to Bones.
V'ger finally sucks the Enterprise through the space anus, and then basically the entire leadership apparatus of the ship goes down to visit with the machine. Why is there an atmosphere here, in the heart of a gigantic machine-based lifeform? It's never explained.
So we get our big reveal, that V'ger turns out to be one of the Voyager probes (Voyager VI, we're told) that had had the O-Y-A blocked by space tar or whatever. Both Voyager spacecraft were sending back pictures of the Jovian system in 1979. There was, of course, no Voyager VI, only a I and a II, but Star Trek is always very optimistic I guess. This reveal possibly played as interesting in 1979, when Voyager was probably in the news a lot. Nowadays, it doesn't play as dated so much as, okay, that's something vaguely interesting I guess. This came from Earth, not sure why they're making such a big deal about the stupid name. (When I was a kid I had one of those big glossy books all about the Voyager missions, so this means slightly more to me than it does to pretty much everyone else in the universe, and it still doesn't really mean that much to me. Voyager, hooray!)
They don't call black holes black holes anymore in whatever year this is. I don't know what they call them, but not that. Decker says that Voyager VI went through what used to be called a black hole, which is a weird thing to say if you think about it. Why wouldn't he just use the current name of them?
V'ger wants to meld with its Creator in order to become more human. Decker, in what amounts to a fit of adolescent impulsiveness, decides that this is all of a sudden what he desperately wants out of life. This allows him to space-bone Ilia, which is pretty clearly why he signed up for the deal. He and Ilia meld together in the second-most sexually-charged moment of the film, and then they are gone, becoming part of V'ger.