Reassessing Star Trek: The Motion Picture

I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture again. This time I watched the DVD, which contains the movie as completed by the director.

For those who don’t know, it was one of those movie projects from hell. It started off as a TV series pilot episode, went through half a dozen scripts, was turned into a movie, was turned back into a TV series, then got sold as a movie and had to be completed in an unfeasibly short amount of time. There wasn’t time to pre-screen it, and Paramount wouldn’t let it be edited after the premiere, because they thought that might suggest a lack of confidence.

The special effects were state of the art for 1979, using such amazing things as lasers and fiber optic cables. In those pre-computer days, many scenes needed to be composited from six differently exposed pieces of film. The wormhole sequence not only required exposure times of several minutes per frame for the wormhole effect, it also required that every single frame of live action be hand-rotoscoped…

The end result was that special effects went way, way over budget, and big chunks of movie (including dialog) had to be cut because they couldn’t afford the time or money to complete the corresponding effects.

For the DVD release, Robert Wise has managed to restore most of the missing dialog, and trim some of the excessive dialog-free sections he wanted to trim after he first saw the completed movie himself at the premiere. Scenes on Vulcan have new cheese-less scenery. The result is… well, it’s better, but it’s still not wonderful.

Paramount should certainly be commended for trying to do it right. Robert Wise was an experienced SF director who understood cinema composition. Alan Dean Foster knew how to write a screenplay. Isaac Asimov consulted on the science. And Douglas Trumbull had created the effects for 2001 and Silent Running. Yet ultimately, it’s the movie’s towering ambition that ruins it. It clearly wants to be Star Trek’s version of 2001, yet it never quite makes it.

The sequence of Kirk and Scotty approaching the Enterprise in dock recalls the docking sequence of Kubrick’s epic; yet this one had me asking why the hell they had to fly the length of the ship three times, and why they couldn’t just get on with the movie. The V’ger slit scan effects are just Douglas Trumbull’s stargate sequence revisited with the addition of motion control cameras. Even the theme of man transcending into a new level of being mimics the end of 2001.

There are still some rough edges, too. When the Enterprise is in the wormhole, it was all too apparent that only Ilia (Persis Khambatta) was bouncing and jiggling in her seat to make it look like the ship was shaking. Granted, she’s the only member of the cast I’d really want to see jiggling, but that’s not the point… The point is, Kubrick would have made them do another fifty takes if necessary, until they got the scenes right.

Much as I like widescreen aspect ratio, there are also some technical issues caused by the state of the art in Panavision in the late 70s. Some shots had to be composited to get around depth of field problems, leaving blurs across parts of the bridge. In a couple of scenes, the background shows crewmembers who are obviously a little too still—they’re optical stills!

While the original theatrical release emphasized special effects too much, the Director’s edition tries to please the hardcore Star Trek fans a bit too much, I think. It becomes way too much like an extended TV episode—which isn’t entirely surprising, given its history.

The summary: If you’ve seen the movie but not seen this version, it’s worth seeing, in much the same way that the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner is worth seeing. If you’re not a Star Trek fan, do yourself a favor and skip it.