Our reviews of Star Trek: The Original Motion Picture Collection (published October 19th, 2009) and Star Trek: The Original Motion Picture Collection (Blu-Ray) (published May 18th, 2009) are also available.
I know engineers. They love to change things.
For those of you who have ignored pop culture for the past 30 years, and at the risk of dating myself, allow me to get you all up to speed in a personal recollection kind of way. I am old enough to remember the original adventures of Star Trek when it ran on NBC. I also remember discovering the show once more in that graveyard of mediocre television called syndication. I was there for the animated adventures and for the first issue of a magazine called Starlog. I clearly recall being excited when I learned Star Trek was returning to television as the headliner for a 4th television network owned by Paramount. To be known as "Star Trek: Phase Two," this was an incarnation that was never to be. The success of a couple of little films you might have heard of changed everything. Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind tore up the box office and caused Paramount executives to realize they had their own box office champion already in production on the lot. Switching gears, Creator/Producer/Great Bird of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry was finally getting his chance to do Star Trek the way he wanted to, big ideas, big budget and all.
Taking what was to be the pilot for the series, an episode entitled "In Thy Image" by the noted science fiction author Alan Dean Foster, Roddenberry and screenwriter Harold Livingston began to reshape the script for big screen consumption. A major splash was made when Paramount brought on multi-Academy Award winning director Robert Wise (The Sound Of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still) to helm the production. Everything was looking up, but as is so often the case when big money is involved, the battles began. Roddenberry was many things, and determined was certainly one of them. A former police officer and someone who was used to battling executives to get what he wanted, he had a very specific vision for the future and what Star Trek was and should be. Unfortunately, what Roddenberry thought the future should be and what Paramount wanted were two different things. Throw into the mix a high profile director unfamiliar with Star Trek and used to wielding his own clout, and you have a film that is somewhat like its alien menace; it simply does not know what it wants to be.
With the clock ticking on a release date that could not be changed, the movie that premiered on December 7, 1979, was a great letdown. It was grand and sweeping, yet oddly unfinished and lacking tension. All the old faces were there but the sense of family that always defined Star Trek was absent. Rather than having a Star Trek that resembled Star Wars with its gee-whiz space battles and clear-cut good vs. evil, audiences were treated to a moody, thoughtful Star Trek: The Motion Picture that had less to do with space opera and had more in common with your average episode of Masterpiece Theater.
Still, with that said, all the fans came and repeatedly spent their money. Star Trek: The Motion Picture kick-started the world's most popular science fiction franchise. Paramount has been releasing the screen adventures that would follow of the crew of the Starship Enterprise in back order on DVD. With this release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a unique opportunity was given to director Robert Wise. Using today's computer imaging technology, Wise was allowed to go back and finally finish the film that had eluded him. It is 22 years later and the world finally can view Star Trek: The Motion Picture as Wise envisioned it.
Now that everyone is caught up, the question needs to be asked: Is this the same movie, only now sporting a new coat of paint, or is it a new, improved Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
Facts of the Case
Assimilating everything in its path, a massive alien vessel is on a direct course for Earth. The only hope for the home of the Federation of Planets is a freshly refitted NCC-1701, the Starship Enterprise. In the center chair is her once and future Captain James T. Kirk. Bringing together a crew of old and new faces, will Kirk be able to overcome his own rust and the conflicts that rage within his assembled crew in time to answer the questions being asked by this deadly intruder and in time to save the Earth?
Everyone rates things in their own mind. Case in point, the Star Trek films. Ask any serious Trek fan to rate the films featuring the original crew, and generally the order from best to worst will be 2, 4, 6, 3, 1 and 5. After watching this new and improved cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture several times, I am not inclined to change the order of that list. Bearing that in mind, I will say that simply being able to watch the first screen adventure several times in a couple of days speaks volumes of how much better this movie is now.
Before, the film felt ponderous and bloated, literally inching its way to its final few minutes. Now the movie, especially in its final third, seems to move a little quicker and actually manages to build some degree of tension. Most of the cuts made are a snippet here and the tail end of a scene there but it does allow the film to flow at a more natural pace. The new, computer rendered special effects are subtle but highly effective. Once more, this is nowhere more evident than in the movie's final third.
Still, all the special effects in the world and tight editing are not enough to save a film with sub-par writing and uneven performances. This was certainly the case with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, and it remains the case in 2001. The battle over what this version of Star Trek should be is nowhere more evident than in the words spoken by the cast. There is such a longing that this movie be meaningful that much of the dialogue comes off as merely simplistic. Events that should occur naturally instead happen with a self-conscious flourish that is overly theatrical to the point of satire. Everything is written so seriously that the movie has absolutely no sense of fun or joy. In the end, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a beautiful looking but sterile movie. Even though much love, time, and effort was poured into making this movie, it has no soul.
Then there is the acting. While I would not be the first to comment negatively on William Shatner (Free Enterprise, Miss Congeniality) and his style of performing, it should be noted with the right material he is an actor that has that special something. Certainly, his work in the later Star Trek movies comes to mind but here in Star Trek: The Motion Picture he manages to be both wooden and exaggerated. Come to think of it, is a pretty remarkable feat. As a character Kirk starts out dark and then at some point reverts into the Captain Kirk we all remember from the original series. As a character, he would get his chance for growth in the next three films. One other note with Shatner. If you have a lot of time on your hands, go ahead and watch all the Star Trek movies in order and revel in the joy that are Shatner's various hairpieces.
Claiming that the mail to Vulcan was slow, Leonard Nimoy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), was the last to jump onboard the new Enterprise's maiden voyage. It's too bad he did not sign on earlier because then maybe Paramount's make-up department could have gotten his ears right. It's amazing to me that they spent so much time fixing and improving the special effects that they ignored the ugliness that are Spock's ears. Of the main trio, I always felt Spock was the most complex character and Nimoy the best actor, so it came as no great surprise to me that Spock's role in the film was the best written. The only character within the context of Star Trek: The Motion Picture to really grow from point A to point B, Nimoy manages to turn in the movie's best performance.
DeForest Kelley as Bones McCoy is, well, Bones, except here he starts out with a beard. James Doohan looks pretty good doing his Scotty bit in the days before he started hiding a comet in his pants. George Takei as Sulu? Check. Nichelle Nichols with an afro as Uhura? You bet. Walter Koenig trying to look like the young and high-strung Chekhov? He is here as well. Majel Barrett-Roddenbery collecting a paycheck courtesy of her husband? You better believe it, Trek fans. Basically, what I'm saying is that the rest of the crew is pretty much the rest of the crew. Of the new additions, Stephen Collins is incredibly bland as Captain Will Decker, while the late Persis Khambatta does what she can in a vastly underwritten role. As an interesting side note, these two characters serve as precursors to the Riker and Troi roles of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Otherwise, both are pretty forgettable.
After all that, an objective reader would think this to be a negative review. Going back and rereading what I have written, I would almost think that as well, but it is not. This is, after all, Star Trek, and with all the movie's faults, in its new form it still manages to be an entertaining and well-meaning mess. Not to mention it's a big mess that looks spectacular! The only one of the Trek films that was heavily dependent on special effects, there are moments of breathtaking beauty, with some sequences still appearing state-of-the-art. After it became clear that the original special effects house hired was going to be unable to get the job done, director Wise called on his old friend Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running) to come and take over the film's 500+ effect shots. Trumbull in turn called on his friend John Dykstra (Star Wars, Spider-Man) to help. So looking back at Star Trek: The Motion Picture, you see what is pretty much the last of the big budget special effect films produced in Hollywood before George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic came into being and into vogue. It is this realization that makes the work turned in by the crew of Foundation Imaging all the more remarkable. Their effects really do blend in seamlessly with the original effects works of over 20 years ago. The movie is a stronger effort for their labor and it is the highest compliment I can pay them.
From a production standpoint, there is also a great deal to marvel at. Cinematography from Richard Kline (The Fury, Body Heat) gives the entire film a cool kind of glamour that somehow works in the movie's favor. Using a great deal of bottom lighting, there is a sheen to the film that none of the later efforts would come close to. Production designer Harold Michelson (Dick Tracy, Catch-22) gave the sets a style that would remain an influence to this day, while Bob Fletcher (Fright Night, The Last Starfighter) would design the most functional looking pajamas ever worn onscreen. Saving the best for last, it is impossible to discuss Star Trek: The Motion Picture without talking about Jerry Goldsmith's majestic score. When it became obvious that there was not going to be time to finish all the sound effects he wanted, Robert Wise decided that Goldsmith's music would have to do the job. What a job it turned out to be! From the opening theme, which is still heard today, to the battle music of the Klingon attack, to Kirk's and the Enterprise's love theme, this is what movie music is all about. With one score Jerry Goldsmith (Patton, The Omen, Under Fire, Alien) gave the movie, and indeed the entire Star Trek franchise, a musical identity. As I write this I am listening to a collection of Goldsmith scores and the theme from Star Trek: Voyager is playing. I wonder, has there ever been a better composer of film music than Goldsmith?
All right then, we have covered the history, the writing, the acting, special effects, and production. What about the direction? Judging from the cut turned in on this Director's Edition, I have to say Robert Wise did the best he could under very difficult circumstances. If you are going to have a film called Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film that millions of rabid fans have waited years and years to see, there were certain expectations to be met. The introduction of all the characters, the introduction of the ship and the like. Giving all these hardcore fans what they want, plus trying to bring along first time viewers, is not an easy thing, and the pace of the film suffers for it. So, it is good to see that with time and new special effects the film flows much better. None of the characters feel right and the movie looks more like 2001: A Space Odyssey than it does Star Trek, but somehow it all seems to work a little better now than in the 1979 version. So, bravo to Robert Wise for wanting to go back and get it done right. I also tip my hat to Paramount for letting him and his crew get it done.
Not to forget that this is indeed a DVD review site, I suppose I should discuss this two-disc set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture-The Director's Edition from Paramount.
From a technical point of view, the film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and it preserves the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This transfer is very much a mixed bag. On the plus side, chroma noise is held to a minimum, blacks are solid while colors are well saturated. Flesh tones appear natural and detail is generally strong even though the transfer is softer looking than the most recent screen adventures. As for the quality of the source material, look to the following section for the rest of my thoughts on the image.
If there is a revelation in regard to Star Trek: The Motion Picture it is with the sound design. As noted earlier, many of the intended sound effects were not used because of time constraints; well, here they are! This is one of the best 5.1 mixes I have heard in quite a long time. First of all, Jerry Goldsmith's score sounds incredible. His music seems to expand and contract naturally. Never shrill, this is an expansive sound stage. Sound effects are well placed and utilized with excellent panning. Dialogue is clearly heard with no background distortion. It was quite the experience to see many of these new scenes for the first time, but nothing compared to hearing this movie in the way it was always meant to be. There is also a Dolby 2.0 Surround track included, but with a 5.1 mix this good, would it surprise anyone that I did not bother with it?
This is Paramount's first stab at a Special Edition for the Star Trek films, and frankly, it's about time. I think I noted in my review for Star Trek III: The Search For Spock that I knew one day I would throw down my cash once more when Paramount double dipped the titles. Well, Paramount has announced that sometime in 2002 we will have a double disc set of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan; get your pennies saved, Trek fans.
For the goodies on this disc, the first thing worth talking about is that the first thing you see after the new PG rating is a starscape with Jerry Goldsmith's opening music and then right into the film. Nice touch. Disc One features two additional audio options. First up is a yack track with Robert Wise, Doug Trumbull, John Dykstra, Jerry Goldsmith, and Stephen Collins. Goldsmith and Collins are fairly nonexistent with Trumbull and Dykstra dominating the track while Wise basically sounds like he is reading off of notes. There is a lot of good information shared but the track is defiantly on the dry side. The other alternative is a fact track courtesy of Star Trek expert Michael Okuda. Of the two options, this one is livelier and a bit more informative. Still, both are worth having and spending time with.
Moving on to Disc Two, you will find the bulk of the extra features. There are three short documentaries. The first one is called "Phase II: The Lost Enterprise" and it deals with the aborted second Star Trek series. At 12 minutes, this is far too short a feature for one of the most fascinating sections of Star Trek history. For a better overview, might I suggest reading Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens's excellent "Star Trek: Phase II—The Lost Series." Next up is "A Bold New Enterprise," which discusses the film's production. As to be expected, Robert Wise is there, but it also includes interviews with William Shatner, Walter Koenig, and DreamWorks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. This feature is a little more substantial, but again it just feels light to me. Not to give it any more importance than it really deserves, but we are talking about one of the most well known pop culture phenomena ever, and I would think something a little more extensive would be in order. Closing out the documentary section is a feature dealing with the work that went into the new special effects called "Redirecting The Future." Again, nice, but not great. The overall feeling I got from these three features was that it was a lost opportunity. Compared to the work New Line, Fox or even MGM regularly do on their special editions, it just seems to me that Paramount has a long way to go.
You like trailers? Well, we have trailers here, including the teaser and television spots narrated by Orson Welles. To hear him say Walter Koenig as Lt. Chekov is to hear a man truly in pain with where he was in his life. There is also a spiffy new trailer for this Director's Edition in anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital. The disc has five scenes deleted from the 1979 version and 11 scenes used in the 1983 television version, some of which are truly embarrassing. Three storyboard archives as well as a promo spot for the latest Star Trek series, Enterprise close out the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My problems with the film itself are detailed in the section above, so now let me say what a great disappointment the transfer for Star Trek: The Motion Picture is. There are elements that are strong and I doubt the film has looked this good in decades, but like Paramount's recent release of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, the source materials used are less than stellar. Dirty and full of nicks and scratches, it boggles my mind that so much money was spent on restoring and recreating the film so that it now stands as Robert Wise's final cut, and the original elements were not cleaned up for this release. As noted, this is becoming a recurring problem with Paramount discs. Hopefully with their upcoming double disc, special edition of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, these problems will be addressed. As I recall, the transfer on that movie-only disc was certainly problematic and in need of some serious restoration.
One other gripe I had with this set that I hope is addressed when the next one comes along is the lack of participation of members from the original crew. Personally, I would love to see a commentary track with Shatner and Nimoy, or a Criterion style track with Doohan, Takei, Koenig, and Nichols. These people were there from the beginning and I'm sure it would be a lot of fun. I mean, to hear Shatner on one track talking about himself and to hear the other cast members trashing him on the other track is the stuff Star Trek parties are made of.
It has to be said that the fan base was built in and a long, boring Star Trek was better than no Trek at all. Simply put, for all its many faults, Star Trek: The Motion Picture made money. Wanting a franchise, Paramount returned to the 23rd century a few years later, handing the reins to producer Harve Bennett and writer/director Nicholas Meyer. The film they would come up with, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan , would have everything the first film did not, rescue the franchise, and push forward all things Trek for decades to come. During the years that would produce the holy trilogy of cinematic Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator, was pushed out. His vision of Star Trek would sit dormant until he would lead Star Trek back to the fold that the original show had helped to redefine: syndication. Star Trek: The Next Generation was made possible by the films, which was made possible by the original show becoming popular in syndication. Stop me if this sounds like a time loop from some Star Trek episode, but I really could not help myself.
If you are a Star Trek fan, you already have this disc in your hot, little hands and are posting away on some Trek-related message board. If you are a Trek fan and are borderline on this disc, I would have to say go ahead and pick it up. Problems with the transfer aside, this is a spiffy looking and sounding disc. The features may be a little light but I don't see anything better coming along for quite some time. Besides, it's Star Trek. If you are a non-Trek fan, then I don't think this is the place to start. I would wait a few months and give the special edition of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan a whirl.
I'm of mixed feelings about this release. The movie is finally seeing the light of day in the form it was always intended, and for that I'm thankful. The movie really is a lot better than it used to be. Director Robert Wise is acquitted for noble work in the line of fire, and like General McArthur, he returned to finish the job. As a film, it is still one of the weakest links in the Star Trek cinematic journeys, but at least now it's watchable, which is more than I can say for Star Trek: Generations but that is a whole other can of gagh.
As a disc, I'm thrilled Paramount is finally dipping its corporate toe into the special edition waters, but I wish there were a little more meat on the bone in regard to the special features. The one thing that I am throwing the book at them for is the quality of their video transfers. Because of this disc and the first two Godfather movies, they are sentenced to three years forced to watch third generation video tapes of The Facts of Life.
That is all I have. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Screen Specific Commentary with Director Robert Wise, Special Photographic Supervisors Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, Music Composer Jerry Goldsmith, and Actor Stephen Collins
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