The recent DVD release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture — The Director's Edition represents a revisit to a piece of the Trek canon that these days seems known more for its place in Trek turning-point history than for its value as a feature film. Among fans and critics, ST:TMP is not often highly respected in the ranks of the Trek films. In terms of tone, it certainly stands out as the odd child of the film series. It can be argued that the film was remembered more for being a big event in the franchise's direction than for being a story that people remembered as part of the canon.
And for good reason. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture first came out in 1979, it landed amid years of anticipation for a project that went through a string of changing would-be destinations. First it was going to be Phase II, the new Trek TV series. (Even then, Paramount wanted to launch a TV network with Trek as its flagship, something that wouldn't happen until 1995.) At one point it was considered as a TV movie. Part of the decision for the destination was affected by the huge success of sci-fi classics Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If Star Trek was going back into production, it would be foolish not to aim for the big screen.
When it finally came out, some were disappointed, especially after the thunderous excitement of Star Wars two years earlier. ST:TMP was a slow-paced, cerebral, talky film with little in terms of action. For its creators, it was a miracle of effective coordination in the face of impossible, rapidly approaching deadlines. The product itself was barely finished — production and then post-production went to absolutely the last possible moments, with reels of the film being distributed to theaters practically within hours of their first show times. When the time came around for the sequel, The Wrath of Khan, it would be a return to sharper character interaction and faster-paced storytelling — what the audiences really wanted from Kirk and his crew.
Now, 22 years after the original theatrical release, we have the new ST:TMP Director's Edition DVD, a project that was given Paramount's blessing and which director Robert Wise finally felt comfortable in revisiting. I recently sat down to watch the film for the first time in several years. I honestly wasn't sure whether I'd notice the enhancements or not, since it had been some time since I'd seen the movie from beginning to end. But like all things that trap themselves in the corners of our memories and imagination, I remembered ST:TMP better than I had expected, even the specifics of certain shots.
ST:TMP is not a great film and never will be. It's flawed as science fiction and flawed as Trek. But it is a good film. It's particularly good in that it withstands the test of time. After 22 years and all sorts of progress in the arena of visual effects, the film has aged well. Both the production and the storyline bear scrutiny today.
Up front, the following should be noted:
1) The Director's Edition is a better film than either the original 1979 cut or the 1983 cut for TV that restored footage unused in 1979. (The 1983 cut is what landed on many previous video releases.)
2) The Director's Edition is not different from previous cuts of the film in ways that significantly impact the storyline (not like the director's cut of The Abyss, for example).
3) The film benefits from DVD quality, which is the best way to see the restored film today, with a superior audio mix and the excellent picture quality we've come to expect.
As a film, ST:TMP is not so much about its characters and personalities as the later films are. Most of the supporting characters like Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov are pushed to the sidelines as they have often been and are rarely seen as individuals. McCoy lends his personality to the proceedings but doesn't hugely figure into the plot. The primary character arcs are for Kirk (regaining command of the Enterprise, which he lost in being kicked upstairs), Spock (whose failed attempts to purge his emotions in the Vulcan ritual of the Kolinahr reveal both his need for and torment by human emotions), and Decker (who finds himself relieved of command because Kirk pulled some Starfleet strings in his goal to regain his captaincy, and also realizing his feelings for Lt. Ilia are resurfacing).
The story revolves around an approaching, all-powerful alien spacecraft that calls itself V'Ger, shrouded in a huge expanse of clouds, which is on a direct course for Earth. The Enterprise must intercept it and solve its mystery.
More than anything else, ST:TMP has some awesome sights to see. As Trek films go, the tone of ST:TMP is much more in the vein of epic science fiction. There's a grandness and a greatness to the scope of the film, something beyond anything probably any of the other Trek films have strived for or reached. Yes, the film is slow-moving at times and maybe too preoccupied with its reverence for the launch of the redesigned Enterprise, but those are important aspects that make the film memorable. I've always considered ST:TMP to be somewhat underrated by fans and critics who write it off as a bore, because there is a real sci-fi story at its center.
The launch of the Enterprise, even if depicted with a healthy dose of sentimentality, is one of the highlights of the film and one of the most memorable sequences in the Trek canon. Even by today's standards, the special-effects shots of the Enterprise in drydock have rarely been matched in their pure scale, simplicity, and beauty. These days the focus is so much on diving straight into the story that admiring something as truly awesome as a nearly 1,000-foot-long starship is no longer something that can be given any sort of consideration; we simply take it for granted.
Similarly, the venture into V'Ger's cloud — an extended series of sequences that take the better part of the film's second half and go for long stretches with minimal dialog — make for marvelous, great-looking eye candy. The scale is simply awesome, as the Enterprise ventures deeper and deeper into the cloud. The interiors of V'Ger have a truly alien look to them, though they serve no apparent function. What this elaborate environment is supposed to be used for is beyond me, but it certainly looks good on film.
For the Director's Edition, certain special-effects scenes have been enhanced. Most noteworthy include the destruction of the asteroid inside the wormhole, some digital-matte exterior shots on Vulcan, and exterior CG shots of V'Ger's vessel orbiting and firing on Earth. All are good examples of enhancements that go far enough to be considered improvements over the original but without becoming the least bit obtrusive or distracting. (The exterior shots of the V'Ger ship, in fact, make what's happening clearer — and it's said that all the changes are based on original storyboard concepts that were not produced because of time or money.) The old and new shots match well, and only those familiar with the original scenes will notice the changes. (New CG work was done by Foundation Imaging.) If there's one net-result difference between special effects in the late 1970s versus the effects of today, it's one of clarity and crispness. The effects themselves hold up well; where you notice the difference is the clarity of CG shots over some (but not all) of the fuzzier old shots.
On the soundtrack, the most notable change — other than general clean-up work for a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix — is the removal of the incredibly annoying red alert alarm and replacing it with something less grating.
From a story perspective, ST:TMP — in any cut — is certainly flawed. It takes a long time for the story to get under way, with the first hour of the film establishing setup material that would be established in half the time if done today (or even in 5-10 minutes in First Contact). That's not a criticism so much as an observation. What is a criticism is how several of the scenes don't really seem all that necessary, like the tragic accident with the transporter or the too-many iterations of Kirk stepping on Decker's toes and Kirk's perception of vice versa.
The storyline itself relies less on plot and more on a few grand gestures that arise from a few basic underlying elements of the story. There's not much in terms of plotting or character analysis; it's more like a big secret being held until the revelation at the end. The one truly interesting character analysis is of Spock, as his plight to find personal meaning mirrors that of V'Ger's; neither can find meaning in pure logic and knowledge without an underlying emotional satisfaction in their pursuit of discovery. V'Ger is a wealth of knowledge but seeks out its creator to answer the one question that it cannot answer through all the information logged in its journey — the ages-old question, "Why am I here?"
The film's closing revelations are in the true spirit of real ideas, with that emphasis on seeking out new life and discovering amazing new things. The ending aspires to be a true, cerebral science-fiction conclusion — something that supposed "sci-fi" films rarely seem to attempt anymore. (Clearly, this is a film that owes far more to 2001: A Space Odyssey than to Star Wars.) It's unfortunate that the closing reflection dialog can't manage to say more about what has just transpired. The dialog seems too interested instead in saying, in an almost flippant tone, "the adventures of the Enterprise will continue." It's frustrating to arrive at revelation and have the characters brush it off so trivially. Also somewhat underwritten is the impetus for Decker's choice to merge with V'Ger — something that's okay but might've worked better if it had been earlier telegraphed by the screenplay through a better understanding of Decker.
What's remarkable about ST:TMP is that it's ultimately more about the journey than the destination. It creates this journey with big, bold images that are beautiful and memorable, and with a legendary score by Jerry Goldsmith that cues our emotions in all the right places, from the bold grandness of the first sight of the Enterprise to the haunting mysteriousness of V'Ger that stands in front of us.
The film is not always fully engaging and is not intended to be exciting. It features some ho-hum plot elements and some crises that seem tacked on. But through its slowly building mystery, it's certainly a worthwhile Trek film on its merits, totally apart from the fact that its existence paved the way for the franchise as it has progressed for the 22 years since. Now on DVD, re-edited to play at a slightly better pace, removing scenes that were distracting or unnecessary in the 1983 version, this film deserves to live a new life as a vital piece of the Star Trek canon. For those who follow the Trek franchise, I recommend it.
DVD notes: Star Trek: The Motion Picture — The Director's Edition is a two-disc set that includes three brief documentaries about ST:TMP and the new Director's Edition; commentary track featuring director Robert Wise, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and others; original theatrical trailers and TV spots; deleted scenes from the 1979 and 1983 versions; and storyboards.