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The Human Adventure is Just Beginning…

Again: Star Trek: The Motion Picture,
The Director's Edition Beams onto DVD

Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered in theaters across America on December 7, 1979, the thirty-eighth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Many critics noticed the timing and wrote that two disasters now shared the date of December 7. Some twenty-two years later (ironically the same year as the movie version of Pearl Harbor came along...), the first Star Trek film has been re-released in a new, re-edited version dubbed "The Director's Cut." The movie's director, Robert Wise, has trimmed some footage and added new sound and visual effects, thus offering his definitive, if belated version of the poorly reviewed space opera. The result is a DVD every Trekkie (er, Trekker...) will want to own. Despite its flaws and age, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains the most cinematic and beautifully composed of the Star Trek movies.

How does the director's cut stand up to the original 1979 release? Well, despite the hype, the film is more or less the same, just tweaked in a few spots. The opening sequence is still the film's most impressive accomplishment: the beautifully-realized destruction of three Klingon battle cruisers as they intercept a giant cloud shrouding the living machine known as "V'ger." The other high-points are all special effects moments too: The Enterprise quiescent in dry dock as Scotty and Kirk look her over; the Enterprise entering the bizarre, ominous inner sanctum of V'Ger; Spock's mind-blowing "space walk" through V'Ger's memory banks; and the journey to the alien's mysterious brain and revelation of V'ger's true identity. The film's weak spots are what they were twenty two years ago: an uncomfortably slow pace, moody lighting that make it appear as though there's a twenty-four hour graveyard shift on the starship Enterprise, and too many sequences that occur on the starship's drab, sterile-looking bridge. Without a doubt, The Motion Picture is the most sedentary of all Star Trek movies. Yet, it is also the most realistic and the least cheesy. There's no Melville-quoting white haired space pirates, no campy humor, and no concentration on insular Trekkie lore. Thus Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the most accessible of the nine franchise films and the only one that looks like a full-blown movie rather than a chintzy two-hour episode projected on a big screen. Fans may prefer First Contact or The Wrath of Khan, but The Motion Picture is the only Trek movie that remembers what the TV series was really about: seeking out new life-forms. On these terms, it's a successful movie.

Still, flaws are plain. Captain Decker (Stephen Collins) starts out as an important character then becomes background noise until the finale when his presence is again required (for a convenient death...) Lt. Ilia is an interesting character (a hyper-sexualized Deltan) but the weak script never explains the practices of her people, much less why she should have to lodge an "oath of celibacy" with Starfleet before assuming her duties. Of all the characters, it is Mr. Spock who grows the most in this film, learning in essence, that logic is the "beginning of wisdom," not the end. The film follows his journey to eliminate emotions (through the Vulcan practice of "Kolinahr"), from his rejection of his emotional crewmates to his final reckoning, through contact with V'Ger, about the coldness of "pure logic." To his everlasting credit, director Wise has restored a scene (first seen on the 1983 TV version) in which Spock cries for V'Ger, revealing how deeply this encounter has changed the unemotional Vulcan.

The new Star Trek: The Motion Picture moves along at a faster clip than any previous cut (though it is still slow...) and is buttressed by new computer generated special effects. I'll be honest, I hated Star Wars: The Special Edition (1997), Lucas's completely unnecessary "re-do" of a great film. The new effects featured silly-looking, slimy monsters belching and burping in the background of shots and diverting attention away from the film's narrative. The newly altered Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn't that bad, but there are moments when the new effects get out of hand. Why change the beautifully rendered Starfleet spaceport seen at the beginning of the film? It serves no purpose, and the old effects stand up just fine. The new, computer-generated Vulcan landscape is pretty impressive, as are the new renderings of V'Ger (which give a sense of the "intruder's" overall shape and dimension), but the problem with additions like these is that they won't look good for long. In less than five years, this level of computer generated imagery will be eclipsed by the next level, and so these effects will be dated…again. Will we get a second director's cut with even newer effects? If that's to be the case, I'd rather the film simply feature its original special effects, from 1979. At least those effects reflected the context and feel of the 1970s, placing the film firmly within the time period in which it was created. This mucking about in old movies is a dangerous thing. I mean, if you're going to re-do Star Wars, why not go back and digitally change Mark Hamill's haircut so he doesn't look like Farrah Fawcett? If you're re-doing a Star Trek movie, why not digitally remove William Shatner's and Jimmy Doohan's ever expanding pudge? It's a slippery slope, and in general I'm not in favor of re-tooling old movies with new special effects. That said, Star Trek: The Motion Picture features some new effects that look rather impressive, at least for the next fifteen minutes.

Robert Wise is one of the great directors in Hollywood history. In the horror and sci-fi genres alone he's given us four high-water marks: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), The Haunting (1963), The Andromeda Strain (1970) and Audrey Rose (1977). Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a lesser light, probably because the film went into production without a finished script and Wise had no chance to test the film for a preview audience. As the documentaries on the DVD make it plain, prints of the film went out to theaters wet in 1979, just hours after final editing of the movie was complete. The DVD also reveals, however, that editing and CGI effects can't fix mistakes that were made twenty years ago. Yes, the film is improved, but what is really needed here is a time machine: a chance to change history, write a better script, and shoot it without the crucible of pressure and urgency the filmmakers felt at the time. But then, we'd have a different movie, wouldn't we?

The extras on this DVD are pretty interesting. There's a documentary that covers Star Trek: The Lost Years, the aborted TV series that grew into the Motion Picture. There's some footage of Persis Khambatta (Ilia) in a TV-style uniform, as well as a look at an early view of the Enterprise's re-modulated engineering section. The theatrical trailers are interesting too, if only as a history lesson in how Hollywood has improved in making these "mini-films" over two decades. But what I really missed were those old McDonalds Happy Meal commercials! Back in 1979, Paramount had a merchandise "tie-in" deal with McDonalds, and there were many commercials for Star Trek Happy Meals featuring a bumpy-headed Klingon growling about Big Macs. It would have been nice to see those advertisements again after so many years, but no such luck.

The last of the documentaries on the second disk of Star Trek: The Motion Picture involves the "director's cut" and includes interviews with the enterprising artists who re-made the movie for the DVD release. They're a likable bunch, and they did a good job adding new effects to the movie, but one wishes they'd remembered the words of the Federation president in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: "Let's re-define progress to mean that just because we can do a thing does not necessarily mean that we should do a thing." The digital artists working on the director's cut of The Motion Picture were so excited thinking that they could improve the look of the movie, they never seem to have thought about whether they should change the look of the movie. And that's why I'm ambivalent about the CGI in the film. It isn't really necessary, it isn't all that wonderful, and it will be out of date at warp speed.

Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the most interesting, beautiful and controversial of the Star Trek movies. Of all the franchise entries, it most merits the attention of a special DVD edition. Listening to Jerry Goldsmith's incredible score again, it's easy to remember the build-up of anticipation and excitement that accompanied the Enterprise's first big screen adventure. This was the first reunion of the original cast in ten years and, despite flaws, it was glorious...


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