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Star Trek: The Motion Picture opens with a long pull back from a field of stars, for almost three minutes, with music playing. The first time I saw it, I kept expecting something to happen, but nothing does. It eventually just fades to black, then we get the opening credits and another field of stars.

Why did they put that part at the start of the movie?

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  • Wasn't the visual effect similar to Star Wars and Superman?
    – FlaStorm32
    Aug 25, 2022 at 15:40
  • @FlaStorm32 Similar to Supermann and to the old spacefield screensavers. Star Wars used a fixed starfield in the background of the opening title/crawl. Aug 25, 2022 at 18:31
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    @SpaceWolf1701 I think, this movie predates the screensavers.
    – Holger
    Aug 26, 2022 at 8:29
  • @Holger is right, this film came out before there were even IBM PC's and the need for screen savers had been established. And back then, this sequence was just so cool as were all the rest of the special effects in the film. It really raised the bar for special effects even though by today's standards they don't seem that impressive any more. I seem to recall a starship coming into view at the top at the end of the sequence though (also totally cool back then). Aug 26, 2022 at 8:49
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    I have “The Sound of Music” on DVD. It not only has an Overture (I’m pretty sure it does, I haven’t played it in a while), but also an “Intermezzo”. Yes, literally orchestral music playing over random helicopter views of hilly landscapes por like 5? minutes straight. Theater-goers had a chance to take a break. It’s an interesting experience. I have no idea how common it was. Aug 26, 2022 at 19:04

2 Answers 2

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It's called an Overture, in this case a piece of music called Ilia's Theme.

The overture is a piece of music, usually containing the main themes of a production's score, that plays prior to the actual production but after the audience has been seated, to help set the mood.

Originally they were part of ballets, operas, et cetera but were adapted to film once the medium took off.

You don't see them very much anymore but as you can see from the list in the link, a lot of the older epic films from the 1950s and 1960s (like Spartacus, Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and Lawrence of Arabia) had them. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is on the list in the “After 1970” section.

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    I think this is the best answer and I think it’s worth noting that this overture is much shorter than the ones that preceded it in both film and stage works. Aug 26, 2022 at 1:57
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    Some, yes. It's only a little shorter than El Cid (less than 20 seconds depending on the OST version), for example, but half the length of Ben-Hur's. But it seems most are quite long at four minutes or more. I guess that back then, you didn't have all the ads and things before the film came on, so it let people a bit late to get a seat before the titles rolled. Aug 26, 2022 at 2:14
  • someone please give one more upvote to this answer and make it perfect
    – shanu
    Aug 29, 2022 at 14:34
  • Robert Wise, a very "old school" director, was a fan of overtures and many or most of his other filems -- including West Side Story (1961) and The Sand Pebbles (1965) -- also begin with these long stretches of music. (The composer for ST:TMP, Jerry Goldsmith, also did the track for The Sand Pebbles.) The theatrical release of ST:TMP did not have the receding starfield -- that was added for the 2001 director's cut -- so it played while the screen was blank or still covered by curtains. I do recall seeing the movie in the theater as a child and thinking that the projector must have been broken. Aug 29, 2022 at 16:18
  • I recall that in movies such as Ben-Hur and Gone with the Wind, there is text "OVERTURE" displayed on screen while the overture is playing. But for Star Trek TMP there is no such text, leading to people such as the OP being confused.
    – Kidburla
    Dec 17, 2023 at 23:08
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In addition to SpaceWolf1701’s details in their answer, a film overture like this had a more practical reason as explained in this 2018 Atlantic article that focuses on overtures in film; bold emphasis is mine:

“The movie overture—music set against a blank screen or still images before the drama unfolds—all but disappeared from film sometime in the 1970s. Once a Hollywood mainstay, overtures evolved naturally from their use in opera and road shows, giving moviegoers time to find their seats and settle in before the main feature. But these musical pastiches also served an important cinematic function: They allowed audiences a chance to put aside their thoughts of the outside world. With curtains drawn and house lights dimmed, overtures drew moviegoers in, and inward, toward a space of anticipation.”

You need to think back to 1979 when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out: Cable wasn’t as pervasive and easily accessible as it now is and video tape players were not as common-place either.

Unless you were located in an area where cable was common-place — or you were financially well off — video tape sales/rentals and cable were not the normal ways the vast majority of people watched movies. And yes, movies were broadcast on plain-old broadcast TV. But if you wanted to intentionally see a new film that was not on TV — and not interrupted by commercials — chances are you had to go to a movie theater.

For the vast majority of people, if they wanted watch a movie in 1979, they simply had to go to an actual movie theater and sit down in a seat and wait for the film to start.

So the purpose of an overture in this case was to allow the expected crowds of people swarming in to see the highly anticipated first Star Trek film on screen find a seat and sit down. And it would also serve as s signal for anyone in the lobby to come into the theater because the movie was about to start.

Flash forward to now, and this overture seems incredibly tedious and ponderous. But in my humble opinion, the whole of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is incredibly tedious and ponderous. With pacing and long shots that bored me as a kid and make little sense as an adult.


Warning: Slight tangent ahead.

Minimized to avoid overwhelming the core answer above.

As cool as some of the special effects were, the storytelling in this film is truly a chore to watch and while it made back its investment at the box office, it was a critical failure.

And in retrospect, the seemingly never-ending overture coupled with similarly seemingly never-ending effects shots make me think reflects the delusion (arrogance?) of the studio — and Gene Roddenberry himself — that somehow Star Wars was an aberration and what the world was waiting for was a grand, new Star Trek film.

Remember, while Gene Roddenberry was trying to get Star Trek back on TV in the 1970s via Star Trek: Phase II, Star Wars came along in 1977 and not only changed the film game but also dethroned Star Trek as the best known science-fiction property in pop culture. So suddenly Star Trek: Phase II was reworked and reimagined into the film known as… Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I can imagine Gene Roddenberry himself thinking, “Wow! So many people will be clamoring to get into the theater to see this masterpiece that I must pad the front of the film with a few minutes of nothing to give them time to get a seat and enjoy the greatest science-fiction film ever!”

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    The editorializing doesn't help the answer and is somewhat contradicted by the demand for the Director's Cut, the remaster, and a theatrical rerelease earlier this year. Aug 26, 2022 at 16:06
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    There were movies on TV "back in the olden days" of the 1970s. It's not like there was nothing to watch. When I was a kid in the 1970s, Friday night was movie and popcorn night at home in front of the TV.
    – JRE
    Aug 26, 2022 at 16:47
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    I think they were going for a "2001" style with the long slow special effects shots. By the time it was released moviegoers had moved beyond that spectacle and preferred faster action shots.
    – user
    Aug 26, 2022 at 17:42
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    In 1979, excepting a few trailers, there were no ads
    – Yorik
    Aug 26, 2022 at 18:53
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    @Yorik And I was referring to pictures in the 1950s and '60s, when the Epic Film with the overture, the Intermission, and Exit Music were in their heyday. One or two trailers MAYBE, depending, and then the film. Plus you had roadshow versions where you'd have an intermission inserted into a film that might not have it to begin with (like they do with the Lord of the Rings extended editions or the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven, which is explicitly referred to as a roadshow version in my answer's link). Those were intended from the get-go to seem more upscale, like an opera or a ballet. Aug 26, 2022 at 21:25

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