Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director's Edition
Paramount Home Video
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley,
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Review by Mark Bourne
"Unfortunately, even (Paramount) couldn't stop the clock from ticking, and as we began to assess the ambitious technological breakthroughs we were attempting, we gradually realized that it was going to be a race. Thanks to a dedicated cast and crew who worked far beyond the call of duty, we survived the chaos of our final weeks and delivered a movie on the date promised ... December 7, 1979. We had removed several key dialogue scenes in order to accommodate our incoming effects work, but no time remained to work on properly balancing these two components."
Star Trek: The Motion Picture director Robert Wise
"It sucks less now."
A houseguest's dead-on, succinct, and to-the-point review of
Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director's Edition
Part 1: To boldly go ... or not
(If you want to jump down directly to the DVD details, make it so.)
Makes you wonder, doesn't it? How is it that the production of a movie, that most collaborative of media, can bring together a formidable confluence of talent and an enviable Santa's sack of resources and in the end offer up an experience that is so alarmingly, dispiritingly less than a sum of its parts? It happens so often that one has to wonder how so much effort and creativity and hard work can go into a bad movie ... again and again and again. Call it the Cleopatra syndrome, or perhaps the Phantom Menace Malady. The Battlefield Earth blues?
Of course, part of the answer is that it's because movie-making is such a collaborative endeavor. Too many cooks and all that. A great many of us who watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture in its original release back in 1979 certainly left the cineplex with a sense that we had witnessed a product of someone's overcrowded kitchen. Here, though, the problem wasn't all those cooks adding ingredients, it was that they had so plainly either forgotten some ingredients or worked from an incomplete recipe.
As Star Trek, the movie was too often muted and sterile. As a wannabe epic, its plot lacked depth and bore a deja vu resemblance to several Trek TV episodes, most closely "The Changeling" (thus inspiring the nickname "Where Nomad Has Gone Before"). The script, like the sets and costumes, displayed no warmth, sparkle, or inventiveness. The plot's Cosmic Threat That Must Be Defeated was V'ger, a vast cloud-like entity that was too abstract to provide a palpable threat. In fact, V'ger embodied the movie as a whole it was pretty, but also vague and robotic and impossible to personally connect to.
Missing were so many things that made the old TV show such a welcome part of the zeitgeist. Where were the action heroes? The derring-do? Where was the color, for Pete's sake, instead of those drab footy-pajama uniforms, not to mention a bridge set as neutral and antiseptic as an accountant's cubicle? Where was the fun? It was as if no one involved had ever seen an episode of the TV series. Ten years after the series' cancellation, what loyal and patient fans received was an experience as stimulating as licking aluminum foil.
The return of our television faves Captain-turned-Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) lacked the thrill one would expect from their resurrection. Our attention was further diluted by two new characters we were expected to find appealing but simply couldn't, not in three hundred years: Will Decker (Stephen Collins), the alleged new captain of the starship Enterprise, and Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta, a former Miss India), a bald alien woman who, as a would-be love interest for Decker, generated all the heat of a tile floor. Indeed, the performances all around, with the occasional exception of Kelley, were uncharacteristically stiff. Enlarged to big-screen proportions, TV's colorful and likeable voyagers had become drab reciters of wince-worthy dialogue. Disneyland's Hall of Presidents offered more fleshed-out personalities. These old friends were hardly recognizable even to those of us who'd grown up with them. Anyone who wasn't already intimately familiar with the TV series would've been more engaged staring at an aquarium.
As simple storytelling, the narrative pacing was slow and took a long time to accomplish rather little. ("The Motionless Picture" became a common epithet.) Time and patience bled away in excruciatingly long sequences of actors staring into the void rather, into blue screens that would later be filled with elaborate but often tedious special effects sequences. Therefore as drama crafted for mass entertainment, its tension and suspense arrived spread too thin. It was clear that some of the story's more important scenes e.g., introducing Capt. Decker as the Enterprise's new captain, Kirk's pivotal meeting with some "Admiral Nogura" were absent. In fact, they'd never been filmed. So much was left unexplained that we wondered how no one noticed all those pages that apparently fell from the screenplay.
Oh, and those special effects. Too often phony-looking and sometimes downright amateurish, matte lines and all, they kept coming in drawn-out scenes as if they could replace those missing pages.
Through Star Trek: TMP, Gene Roddenberry the TV series' creator and the movie's Executive Producer strived for favorable comparisons to Kubrick's dreamy, mythic 2001: A Space Odyssey rather than to Star Wars' thrilling but brainless comic-book stuff. (That lengthy fly-around of the Enterprise might have played better with "The Blue Danube.") Not a bad ambition at all. But shooting began before the script was completed, and through rewrite after rewrite Roddenberry pushed toward a product that was as inoffensive as possible to as many people as possible. The biggest sin perpetuated by the production team from Roddenberry and director Robert Wise to the bedraggled parade of writers, and even the costume and set designers was timidity. What ended up on the screen took no risks. Star Trek: TMP may have been conceived in lofty boldly-goingness, but it wasn't even boldly walking across the street against the light.
Drama, suspense, story, characters. Potatoes, meat, vegetables, seasoning. Take away too much and what's left is a thin broth indeed.
All that said, it was never a terrible movie. There's enough to recommend it, including some pretty (if overlong) special effects sequences and Jerry Goldsmith's exultant orchestral score. But even we die-hard fans of the original TV show had to work hard to convince ourselves that it was the movie we'd been waiting for. Well, maybe it was the movie we'd been waiting for but was it the movie we wanted?
It turns out that what played on the screens in '79 wasn't what Robert Wise wanted either. Rushed into distribution before completion by a studio with deadlines to meet, Star Trek: TMP's premature birth suffered from induced labor and the wrong hands on the forceps. Wise received no final cut, no preview screening. Having delivered the still-wet print to the Washington D.C. premiere himself, he viewed it unsatisfied, and remained so for more than two decades.
Who back in '79 could have foreseen how changes in technology (not to mention marketing opportunities) would one day allow a director to revisit a 22-year-old movie to give it the finishing touches, the nips and tucks he originally intended? For this DVD, Wise's movie has been tightened and augmented like an aging Hollywood starlet, and the results are impressive.
Paramount's Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director's Edition showcases a brisker, more attractive version of the movie. Wise led a team of media professionals to make it as good as it might have been in 1979. Even better maybe. This two-disc DVD also serves to permanently document a process that in the pre-CGI late '70s would have seemed almost as futuristic as a transporter beam, or at least tabletop computers and flip-open "communicators" smaller than a pack of Virginia Slims.
Of course, there are some things here that nobody can fix without completely remaking the whole thing. The script will always lack meat on its picked-over bones. Kirk, Spock, and everyone else in view are acted upon much more than they take action, thus they do little more than stand around and react, even at the Cosmic Orgasm climax. The beloved second-tier series characters Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, Chekov are wasted with table crumbs of dialogue that contribute nothing to their characters or give those actors a chance to work their craft. (And shame on whoever allowed at least three non-actors, including one production assistant, their embarrassing moments of speaking lines.)
Then there's Robert Wise. He was an editor on Citizen Kane. He directed The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, and The Haunting. He doesn't need to prove his credentials to anyone. But he was the wrong man for this project. The half-serious/half-playful Space Opera air that hooks Trek fans never was his style, which tended more toward the arid, clipped, humorless tone of his Run Silent, Run Deep. With this DVD Wise takes the lead in overseeing an improved final cut, but there's no way to completely undo a certain blandness in the proceedings.
And why oh why the universe-spanning intelligence that is V'ger fails to comprehend the rather basic nature of the "carbon units" that "infest" the Enterprise and its planet of origin ... and why it sends its "Ilia probe" to the ship via the sonic shower ... and why the probe then outfits itself in the only minidress and high heels on the ship (sure, the best legs a robot ever had, but really) ... and why all-powerful, near-omniscient V'ger can't bother itself to wipe a splat of space schmootz from its own nameplate ... Such questions remain mysteries.
Love it or hate it (or something in between), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is what it is. If nothing else, the theatrical version's tepid reviews didn't prevent some respectable box office success. Paramount's bean-counters still had a cash cow. So here's the movie that opened the door for the altogether superior Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, and that seems plenty good enough 22 years later.
Part 2: About the DVD
or, You can go home again and look! They fixed the place up!
Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director's Edition celebrates two things: First, a big, fan-friendly presentation of a movie that Paramount could have released in its original form and still made a profit on. Second, a new stage in digital technology's potential. For better or worse, we can now substantially alter movies decades after they are made. There will be those who use that potential as a bloated equivalent of "colorizing" classic black-and-white films. However, with Star Trek: TMP, we see this power used in the name of good.
Unlike the often questionable CGI "enhancements" George Lucas gave the Star Wars trilogy Special Editions, the augmentation here is more than gratuitous cosmetics or marketing gimmickry. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is now tighter, somewhat less hollow, and possesses new special effects that mindfully support the movie without worsening the original's over-reliance on effects above human drama.
The big picture: what's good
The most obvious improvements are the significant upgrades applied to key special effects sequences.
First among them is Spock's home planet, Vulcan. In the theatrical version, the planet's imagery was so muddled with mismatched elements your eyeballs crossed looking at it. The effects team hired for this Director's Edition went back to the original storyboards that had never been realized and used modern CGI techniques to replace those previous effects with others that had been intended. So now we're treated to striking Vulcan landscape complete with enormous ancient statuary.
V'ger is no longer a fuzzy ambiguity with no discernible edges. Not only has the Enterprise's journey through the V'ger Cloud and into V'ger itself been tightened editorially, the travel visuals have been punched up and clarified. For the first time we get a sense of V'ger's shape and dimensionality. Before it was an amorphous "thing." Now it's an object, a place we go to. The trip getting there is still long enough for you to order a pizza, go to the bathroom, and put a kid through college, but the end result feels more like a movie and less like a Pink Floyd laser show at a planetarium.
Near the movie's climax, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Decker leave the Enterprise by walking out of its forward hull onto a honeycomb-like walkway provided by V'ger. That scene was arguably the most unfinished-looking and achingly stage-bound. Now the honeycomb footbridge to V'ger's self-gazing navel (it's an "inny") is created before our eyes. Flying Tinker Bells of light settle into place and build a narrow extension from V'ger to the ship. Much more dramatic and geekily satisfying.
At least as significant are the numerous small changes. Previous versions of the movie contained a lot of fat unnecessary footage, redundancies, and infelicitous editing so the Director's Edition trims most of that away for a leaner final cut. A few seconds here, a line of dialogue there, a trimmed moment spent lingering on an unnecessary visual.... It adds up, it's done subtlely, and it's all to the good. William Shatner's most disastrous line reading of his career, his "Oh my God" uttered after a fatal transporter malfunction, is removed with not a seam showing.
Filling those gaps, a few short semi-dramatic scenes that never played in the theaters have been restored. Kirk gives Scotty the command to blow up the Enterprise if the attempt to communicate with V'ger fails. Spock quietly weeps for cold, emotionless V'ger "as if for a brother," giving the stoic Vulcan the only thing approaching a character arc within a light-year of the story. These and other quick moments aren't much, but they do add teaspoons of what this movie always needed most, and every little bit helps.
As for the new visuals, they're mindfully produced and well integrated. There was a real danger here of all the new CGI work appearing out of place, Frankensteined from a slick modern body of material and grafted onto the vintage footage. Not to worry. As we discover on one of the three documentary featurettes on board, the producers of the new effects based their work on the original concept sketches from '79, then paid careful attention to matching details all the way down to the source print's grain and dirt.
It's all delivered in anamorphic 2.35:1 with no compression artifacts to speak of. Contrast and definition are fine. Black levels are strong, with an exception being the opening Klingon attack scene, where deep space looks washed out against the top and bottom widescreen bars.
Some of the most effective improvements occur in the audio elements. From stem to stern, the ambient sound effects have been removed and replaced with sound elements that either make a better movie or, just as notably, better Star Trek. The new background sounds on the Enterprise bridge are carried over from the original series, aesthetically improving the original environment while enhancing that vital continuity from TV to silver screen.
The disc defaults to a superior new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that's crisp and clean and strong. The movie has never sounded so good. Goldsmith's score emerges with a full dynamic range that rumbles the .1 LFE in the subwoofer. The home-theater directional remix spreads the sound around the room and is pleasurably show-offy about it. At the Epsilon IX station, the communications traffic vocals emerge all around us. Wherever appropriate, sound effects give motion a third dimension, such as a speeding shuttlecraft over San Francisco, Klingon torpedoes, and V'ger's attacks. A fine Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround mix is also available.
The big picture: what's not so good
Disappointingly, the print is a mess. Given all the work that went into this upgrade, the source master still shows so many signs of wear, dirt, and grain that in some places it's distracting. Granted, this print is cleaner than Star Trek: TMP looked in the previous dreadful VHS and Laserdisc editions. However, several times the heavy grain, scratches, and dust in the emulsion are exasperating, such as when the blackness of space reveals the white specks and flecks that pop up like cosmic rays hitting the screen. Watching this unscrubbed print is like going on a date with a pretty woman who has a little forehead birthmark shaped like Richard Nixon. Every time you learn to ignore it, the light hits it and pow it jumps out at you.
Besides the main feature, Disc One offers up these supporting commentaries:
- An audio commentary track by director Robert Wise, special photographic effects director Douglas Trumbull, special photographic effects supervisor John Dykstra, music composer Jerry Goldsmith, and actor Stephen Collins. Newly recorded for this DVD, this scene-specific track delivers professional and personal insights from some of the key participants in the original release and this Director's Edition. The components were recorded separately and then edited together, so unfortunately there's no interaction between the persons involved. Still, everyone contributes interesting details on the production, its history, and their roles in realizing such a mammoth and troubled production.
- A text commentary by Michael Okuda, production designer for the Trek franchise, a near-celebrity among fans in his own right, knowledgeable and witty fellow, and co-author of the Star Trek Encyclopedia. Not unlike VH-1's Pop-Up Videos, this track packs in all sorts of production notes, Trek trivia, and good-natured humor specific to what's happening onscreen. Okuda knows his Trek and points out details not covered in the vocal commentary track. He also knows that it's okay to laugh at some of Star Trek's inconsistencies and conveniences. This track played simultaneously with the vocal commentary makes for a packed "insider's view" geek-out.
- Three retrospective documentaries with cast and crew interviews. Well made, though a bit too slick and self-congratulatory for their own good, these new featurettes take us behind the scenes of the history that culminates with this DVD. Robert Wise, William Shatner, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, Jeffrey Katzenberg (then a Young Turk studio exec on his first big project), Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Jerry Goldsmith, the DVD production team, authors Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, actor Dan Gautreaux, and others weigh in, intercut with scenes from the TV series and the movie:
Phase II: The Lost Enterprise (12:40) details the history of the second Trek TV series that almost was. Includes test footage and insights into the bumpy evolutionary process that led to The Motion Picture.
A Bold New Enterprise (29:40) chronicles the making of the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Redirecting the Future (14:07) focuses on the creation of the Director's Edition, from Robert Wise approaching Paramount with the concept to the creation of the new CGI effects.
- Five additional scenes from the '79 theatrical version, eleven deleted scenes from the '83 TV version, and an assortment of "trims" and outtakes, most in anamorphic widescreen. These sequences and fragments make it easy to view original versions of scenes shortened, deleted, or remade for the Director's Edition. Among the goods is footage of the fan-famous unscreened "memory wall" scene.
- Storyboard archives A click-through collection of early concept sketches for three scenes: "Vulcan," "Enterprise Departure," and "V'Ger Revealed." They're crude, but they are proof that the new Vulcan and V'ger scenes match the original vision much better than the theatrical release did.
- Three trailers The original teaser and theatrical trailers (with narration by Robert Wise's long-ago Citizen Kane boss, Orson Welles), and the new Director's Edition trailer.
- Eight television spots These old, soft transfers haven't aged well, but they're nostalgic and again sport narration by Orson Welles. This movie was marketed on TV as a Second Coming experience.
- New Star Trek series Enterprise promo spot. Your average studio cross-promotion.
A Wise Trek
Star Trek: The Motion Picture will maintain its mixed status among the series' vast and ever-fervent fan base. To some it is the best cinematic Trek of the bunch if only because it sets out to be something more than noisy Space Opera. To others, it will remain among the least appreciated, though surely never considered worse than the abysmal Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
What this release portends about the future of after-the-fact fiddling with movies is anyone's guess. Let's hope that, as it is here, it's done (heh) logically.Mark Bourne
- Anamorphic 2.35:1 (OAR)
- Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English)
- English subtitles
- Commentary track by director Robert Wise, special photographic effects director Douglas Trumbull, special photographic effects supervisor John Dykstra, music composer Jerry Goldsmith, and actor Stephen Collins
- Text commentary by Michael Okuda
- Three retrospective documentaries
- Five additional scenes from the '79 theatrical version, eleven deleted scenes from the '83 TV version, and an assortment of "trims" and outtakes
- Storyboard archives
- Trailers: the original teaser, the original theatrical, and the new Director's Edition trailer
- Eight television spots
- New Star Trek series Enterprise promo spot
- Dual-DVD keep-case
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