More of an event than a movie, 1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" reunited the crew of the old television show for the first time in nearly a decade and provided a showcase for nostalgic Trekkers and Trekkies everywhere. As an introduction to the movie series to follow, I suppose you can forgive the first of these big-screen ventures for being more flash than content.
The plot line, frankly, is pretty thin and the characters only superficially developed. The filmmakers probably figured we already knew the characters well enough that only their showing up was necessary. But they were all together again, and that's the main thing. What's more, for this special "Director's Edition" DVD, director Robert Wise and Paramount engineers have edited some scenes, remastered the sound in Dolby Digital 5.1, enhanced the special effects, and provided an audio commentary and a second bonus-laden disc. For the "Star Trek" aficionado, the new package will surely be appealing.
DVDTown's "Star Trek" expert-in-exile, Kevin Kaup, wrote a while back of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" that the film "was eye candy, to be sure, but that it was also without a soul." I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that it's without a soul, but the producers surely were more worried about its looking good and about maintaining the "Star Trek" TV tradition than about telling a compelling story. To be certain the job was done right, Paramount brought in the series originator, Gene Roddenberry, to produce the film. Then, they hired veteran director Wise, no stranger to science fiction ("The Day the World Stood Still," "The Andromeda Strain") or megahits ("The Sound of Music," "West Side Story") to manage the project. Next, they got experienced special-effects experts John Dykstra ("Silent Running," "Star Wars," "Battlestar Galactica") and Douglas Trumbull ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Blade Runner") to give the film the proper appearance.
Then, they engaged Jerry Goldsmith to write some new tunes, whilst wisely retaining Alexander Courage's familiar television theme music. And, of course, they assembled all of the original television cast members: William Shatner as Captain (now Admiral) James T. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Commander Spock, DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard McCoy, James Doohan as Commander "Scotty" Scott, George Takei as Lt. Commander Sulu, Walter Koenig as Lt. Commander Chekov, and Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Commander Uhura. So, what more could they do? Well, apparently in all the fuss and bother they forgot to finish the script (despite Roddenberry being an uncredited cowriter)! And it shows.
Walter Koenig tells us in one of the accompanying documentaries that because of the success of George Lucas's "Star Wars" a year or two earlier, Paramount was encouraged to reassemble the old "Star Trek" cast. Under the gun to get their movie out on time and on budget, the "Star Trek" filmmakers apparently left a few odd and ends unfinished that this new "Director's Edition" remedies. Namely, Wise tells us he added new effects and trimmed a few of the scenes. The result is supposed to tighten up the picture, put it into better balance, but, in fact, the movie still seems slow and overlong for its subject matter. The first forty of its 132 minutes are taken up with reintroducing the old crew, with Mr. Spock appropriately making his grand entrance last. Then there's the business of introducing us to the newly refitted Enterprise, displaying it from all angles while Goldsmith's and Courage's majestic music plays in the background; this also takes up a good deal of screen time. Finally, there's our introduction to two new crew members, Stephen Collins as Captain Decker and Persis Khambatta as the beautiful (and bald) Lieutenant Ilia.
The plot of the new film, what little there is of it, involves a mysterious, intelligently controlled object hurtling through space destroying everything in its path and heading right for Earth! There's nothing to stop it but the Starship Enterprise and its hardy crew. Admiral Kirk assumes command of his old post, much to the chagrin of the Enterprise's new commander, Decker, which sets up a minor friction between the two. What is this huge, hurtling, moon-sized intruder so hell-bent on reaching Earth, all the while radiating energy of a type never before encountered? What does it want? Can our heroes stop it and save the planet? Well, in regard to that last question, we're still here, so I guess the answer's yes."
The stage is set with a long musical overture that reminds one of a similar musical prologue for "2001," perhaps a suggestion that we should interpret this new "Star Trek" along the lines of Kubrick's pacing and imagery. Then we get a brief action sequence involving the destruction of several Klingon warships in deep space by an unaccountable force that's shrouded in clouds. Cut to some beautiful shots of Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, and the show's on the road.
The special effects, newly embellished or otherwise, hold up pretty well and make for some attractive viewing. The Enterprise, the wormhole encountered early on, the strange cloud surrounding the intruding vessel, and the alien spacecraft itself are all rendered impressively and realistically. Wise's use of the camera and his development of interaction among the crew members are expectedly adept. That the film doesn't go anywhere is beside the point. It creates a nice sense of awe and wonder; Kirk gets to execute one of his famous poker bluffs; the ending is typically on the metaphysical side, raising more questions than it answers; and the whole thing concludes with the kind of philosophical message that the old television show was so famous for.
For this new edition the film is transferred to DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio that looks good in most respects. Color and definition are especially striking, although there are little niggling details that detract from its overall effectiveness. White age flecks can be seen throughout the movie but particularly at the beginning; there is some small degree of grain present from time to time; and the overall image looks to me just a tad rough around the edges.
The newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also good, with excellent clarity and dynamics, good midrange projection and stereo spread, deep bass, and an acceptable amount of information directed toward the rear speakers to create a stirring sense of surround sound during scenes of high import and excitement.
For special features, they spill over onto a second, bonus disc. Here they are in order of importance. First, on disc one there's the widescreen presentation of the film; an audio commentary with director Robert Wise and members of the cast and crew; a text commentary (subtitled) by Michael Okuda, co-author of "The Star Trek Encyclopedia"; both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround soundtracks; and thirty-two scene selections. Sadly, English is the only spoken language offered, with only English as subtitles for the hearing impaired, so if your English isn't so good, well, maybe there's a European package you can find.
Disc two contains, among other things, three newly made documentaries. The first, called "Phase II: The Lost Enterprise," is a twelve-minute look at the origins of the "Star Trek" motion picture, starting with its beginnings as a possible new television series. The second, main documentary is a twenty-nine-minute affair called "A Bold New Enterprise: The Making of the Motion Picture," involving lots of cast and crew interviews. The third documentary is "Redirecting the Future," a fourteen-minute detailing of the making of this new Director's Edition. It seems to have happened at the instigation of director Wise, who wanted a cut that would include a new sound mix and several new visual effects. The computer artists and engineers interviewed say the new edition even tries to duplicate the dirt and grain on the original film. Following those are five scenes from the 1979 theatrical version of the movie that were trimmed for the Director's Edition, plus one extended outtake. Then, there are eleven additional scenes from the 1983 TV version (that ran to 143 minutes). A storyboard archive and various publicity materials, including a theatrical trailer, a Director's Edition trailer, a teaser, eight television commercials, and a promo for the new "Star Trek: Enterprise" TV series conclude the extras.
Thought of more as a celebration than a movie, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" works pretty well; it reintroduces fans of the TV series to their heroes, produces a handsome degree of spectacle, and gets the "Star Trek" movie-sequel business underway. But as Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote in 1785, "The best-laid schemes o' Mice and Men, Gang aft a-gley, And lea'e us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy." No matter how well we plan things, something is bound to go wrong. Scotty would appreciate that.
Anyway, the next installment, "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," would give viewers everything they had been set up for in this first movie, with more action, a more formidable antagonist, stronger interpersonal relationships, and a moving sendoff for Spock. Meanwhile, when Kirk says at the end of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" in answer to where they're heading next, "Out there, thataway," it's at least a point in the right direction.