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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

Star Trek:
The Motion Picture


Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Paramount Home Video
1979/2001 / Color / 2:35 / 136 (132)m. / "The Director's Edition"
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins, Grace Lee Whitney, Mark Lenard
Cinematography Richard H. Kline
Production Designer Harold Michelson
Film Editor Todd Ramsay
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith, Gerald Fried
Writing credits Harold Livingston
Produced by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Robert Wise

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Star Wars made bigtime Hollywood do a flip-flop. Obscure Special effects were suddenly the Star of the show. The so-called wizards who jump-started George Lucas' space epic were now in hot demand, because crummy standard effects would no longer do, and everyone wanted to do space movies.

Paramount had pettifogged for a decade, unsure of whether their Star Trek television series was just a fan fluke, or if it were worthy of taking off on the big screen. Complicating the issue were the original actors from the show, all industry veterans who had been scraping around the periphery of fame and fortune for decades, and who weren't about to let their services go for a pittance. The studio snared famed director Robert Wise, hired all the originals, and then proceeded to take their franchise effort into one of the most expensive post-productions in Hollywood history.

Now, 22 years later, the DVD revival of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as "The Director's Edition" has reworked a number of effects scenes, some that were skipped in the panic to finish, and others that the new producers deemed 'not good enough.'

Synopsis:

A colossal cloud of space gas threatens Earth, and the necessity of stopping it allows a determined Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to pull strings and retake command of a newly refurbished Enterprise. This irks the ship's intended Captain, Willard Decker (Stephen Collins), but once old pals Doc McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) rejoin the trek, things perk up. Communications with the menace are impossible until the cloud disintegrates the Enterprise's Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta) and replaces her with a robot simulacrum. It seems something called V'ger is at the center of the cloud, and it's looking for its creator on Earth. Desperate, Kirk enlists Decker's assistance to try and make an emotional connection with the 'false' Ilia, who may still retain the human memories of the original. Ilia is the only hope for communicating with V'ger, whose stated intention is to rid Earth of its infestation of 'carbon units.'

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was enormously popular when it came out, mainly because the fan base for the franchise turned out to be bigger than anyone's estimates. It was a happy turn of events that allowed Paramount to continue a series of films, learning some lessons in economy and common sense along the way. An overlong, bloated, and unexciting movie, this first Trek movie is generally considered the worst, with an unoriginal script that gives its lively and beloved television regulars little to do except react to overblown and repetitive effects that are technically adept but very uncinematic. That said, fans for whom any Trek adventure is satisfactory, will find there's enough here to hold their interest.

The show gets off to a good start with a socko John Dykstra sequence where V'ger evaporates a trio of Klingon cruisers. Interestingly for Robert Wise fans, the ships are 'erased' with an effect reminiscent of Gort's death ray in Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still. Then comes the rush to launch an unfinished Enterprise Mark II, with lots of matte paintings of San Francisco, some good, some bad. A yucchy and rather grim transporter accident obliterates the new ship's science officer, creating a need to spring Spock from retirement, so we see some ponderous views of a ritual in a weird valley on the planet Vulcan. When we finally meet the new Enterprise, it is introduced in a long, reverently scored series of slow approach shots, waiting in its orbiting drydock. Everything is pagentry, far too in awe of the series, far too slow, without much room for a sense of humor. There's only one real laugh in the film, supplied by Doc McCoy when he asks Spock if the ship "just happened to be going his way." The series would later abuse this cozy overfamiliarity with the characters, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture sure could have used a little bit more of it.

The center of the story revolves not around our regulars, but Ilia and Decker's romance. It begins as a problem relationship as she's taken a vow of celibacy, but it turns out okay when, to be eternally with his love, Decker proves quite willing to give up his human form and instead become a non-corporeal set of atoms.

Conflating a stack of older Sci Fi concepts, Star Trek: The Motion Picture takes ideas from 2001 (the Star Child & species evolution) and shoehorns them into the original series' philosophies of human passions vs cold computers, etc. Unfortunately, all of this is represented quite literally on the screen, first in dead-serious speeches, and then through the Ilia / Ilia V'ger Probe character. Not that there's a solution to the problem, but having Ilia talk in an emotionless monotone imitation of a computer voice, is a cliche that's dragged down Science Fiction movies since time began. The Coneheads on Saturday Night Live were already making fun of exactly this kind of contrivance: Ilia calls human beings 'carbon units' exactly as do the Coneheads.

V'ger itself is nothing more than the 'enormous Space Wedgie' that had been a central gag in the most successful radio parodies of the original Trek series. This first movie was indeed an elaboration on a television idea; the later films would more wisely develop the series' real strength, its beloved characters.

Between the concentration on Ilia's relationship with Collins, a tendency toward wordy exposition, and the underuse of the regulars, the proceedings bog down constantly. The big revelation about V'ger's true identity is a word game straight from Zardoz. The fairytale ending, with Ilia/Decker merging into a new dimension, does have an emotional effect, but it sort of leaves our regulars standing around with nothing much to say, not being directly involved.

This new DVD incarnation is yet another revision of an older movie, in this case to improve its effects scenes. Making some of them look better doesn't alter the fact that their conception was never very interesting in the first place. Most are from the 'awesome vista' school of boredom, the kind of, "Now look at this staggering scene" stuff that used to work well if not overused, and Bernard Herrmann's music was behind it. Investigating V'ger originally took forever, with a tendency for symmetrical forward-tracking shots along the surface of the giant space object (a Rendezvous with Rama ripoff if ever there was one) that made it seem as if the wizard Trumbull could only think in terms of Kubrickian compositions and replays of the 2001: A Space Odyssey Stargate sequence.  
2 Typical setup: Spock goes out on a spacewalk. we cut between his point of view, and reverses on him observing, with the vista reflected in his helmet visor. Repeat this forever, with redundant dialogue, and you're there.

The documentaries on this special edition disc leave out the parts of the production story that were the talk of Hollywood in 1979. Originally, media Genius Bob Abel was tapped to do the special effects. After several months, however, his company was dumped in favor of Doug Trumbull, who reassembled the team from Close Encounters. John Dykstra, who had put together the first Industrial Light and Magic for Star Wars, also took on sequences with his new company, Apogee. Facing a hard release date that couldn't be pushed back (as were both of the 1977 hits, repeatedly), Paramount threw huge amounts of money at Star Trek's complicated special effects. Dozens of already top-salaried Guild employees worked practically around the clock for months, accruing amazing overtime and Golden-time charges, with meal penalties, etc. It was a gold mine for the techies, a small group of which later used their riches to start a special effects company of their own - Dream Quest Images.  1

One of the the nicest original effects was engineered by the 'baby' wizard in the shop, Scott Squires, who had developed the Cloud Tank for Close Encounters. He figured out a permutation on the slit-scan process and came up with a very effective worm-hole effect that was received with applause when the film first screened ... it's been 'augmented' in this new edition. Animation supervisor Robert Swarthe, in addition to creating various glowing transformations and abstract light effects, worked out the slow-mo feedback-like distortions for the effect of the worm-hole on the Enterprise's bridge.

It may be salt in the wound to say it, but, design-wise Star Trek: The Movie is one ugly-looking movie. The makers opt for a subdued color scheme, and worse, flat lighting, which doesn't brighten up those interminable minutes spent on the bridge. The costumes are also terrible, looking worse than the TV show's simple smocks: they resemble kid's pajamas. An effort to show that the Federation includes other galactic races results in a few rubber-masked extras who look like rejects from the Star Wars Cantina. When the series moved on, the lessons of this first effort were certainly taken to heart - just about every complaint mentioned above was rectified beautifully in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, three years later. To leave on a positive note, something that can't be faulted is Jerry Goldsmith's inspiring score, especially when it introduces the new Enterprise.


Paramount's DVD of Star Trek: The Movie is one of those deluxe jobs that throws in everything but the kitchen sink. A deluxe two-disc set, the features stack up like this:

The transfer is just fine, 16:9 enhanced and tweaked enough to get the most out of the frequently very dark special effects scenes, and the occasional grainy shot.

There's a commentary with Robert Wise, Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Jerry Goldsmith and Stephen Collins.

Three separate documentaries give very selective and franchise-friendly accounts of parts of the story. Star Trek's awkward journey from tube to screen is covered in Phase II: The Lost Enterprise. There's nice testimony from the original writers and developers. A Bold New Enterprise is a quick chronicle of the actual production of the movie. Diehard fans will think it very superficial, but casual viewers will enjoy it well enough. The ratio of real testimony, to mutual praise, is rather steep. Finally, Redirecting The Future shows how the effects of the movie were redone last year, using digital animation. Savant's already made too much of a spectacle of himself falling all over the issue of why revising the visuals in movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a bad idea. This particular film matters to me because it will encourage others to start retooling older pictures as a marketing gambit. Yes, there were a lot of explosions and composites (and particularly matte paintings) that weren't all that great in the original. But they were original ... and these are not. Twenty years from now the little stone catwalk that animates so 'digitally' up to the edge of the Enterprise is going to look just as dated as the original's flat matte painting. So will there be a 2021 revision that redoes all the effects over again? Using this logic, why not replace the airplane models in Casablanca or erase the visible wires in War of the Worlds. I don't have an answer for this. I suppose if it would put my kids through college and buy me a new car, I might do the same thing. The new young effects talent that revised the show are very eager to show how they worked from original storyboards and made their work match the photochemically-limited effects of 1979. All in all, their work can't be faulted much.

There's a voluminous set of unused scenes. Shots in the original release but dropped now, and 1983 television version shots also not included in the new revision are cataloged here, no matter how short or inconsequential. This is where we get the best look at the original effects that were considered so unacceptable. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Director's Edition is heavily billed as being the studio's generous effort to allow Robert Wise to finally finish the movie the way he wanted it finished. When will Hollywood look beyond its pocketbooks, and realize that by revising its films so casually, it's basically saying that none of them are important enough to be retained for any purpose but cash-flow?

Other extras: trailers, teasers, televison commercials, storyboards, and promos for the new televison series Enterprise.


Some fans are grousing that Paramount will soon be double-dipping by releasing these giant special editions, when some plainwrap discs are already out there. Frankly, Trek fans should be used to this kind of thing by now. Don't all of them already have both seasons of the TV show on vhs, laser, and now DVD? As the wise Savant always counsels, don't collect consumer products for the sake of collecting. All of my Close Encounters paraphernalia isn't near as valuable as I thought it would be, twenty four years later. If you enjoy it, buy it ... if not, don't!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Star Trek: The Motion Picture The Director's Edition rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: scads, tons, prodigious quantities. See above.
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: November 16, 2001


Footnotes:

1. In the fall of '79,Savant worked unbilled on Star Trek: The Movie, clerking the effects editorial room. I still have my silk effects crew jacket, with the beautifully embroidered Enterprise on the back. Do I will it to one of my kids, or sell it to some desperate Trek fanatic? I only worked ten weeks in an exceedingly minor capacity, so it's not like I'm that attached to it.
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2. Trumbull did the same darn thing again in his Brainstorm: effects that don't merge with the story, lightshows and thrill-ride cannonballing perspectives substituting for ideas. Too bad, for Silent Running had some promise.
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