Star Trek

The Motion Picture (1979/2001)

by David Grove


Revisionist History

Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrived in theaters in 1979 like a rag-tag, poorly regimented army. Indeed, to hear people talk about the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture makes it sound more like a military undertaking than a film production.

There was a lot of very public “blood” spilled, which was reported in the media throughout its pre-, post-, production, as well as during, and which contradicted the “innocence” that audiences expected from the old TV show. A year prior to the film’s release, it emerged that the budget had swelled to over forty million dollars, the original special effects crew was summarily fired in the middle of production, and subsequently a whole new look and structure for the film was ordered.

cover art

Star Trek: the Motion Picture

Director: Robert Wise
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig

1979, DVD re-release 2001

This was of a piece with the film’s pre-history. Throughout the ‘70s, the plan for a Star Trek feature was hatched, aborted, and then terminated totally, so a new Star Trek TV series could be made, featuring the original crew. That plan was scrapped about a month before filming on the new series began. Why? The smash success of a little ten million dollar film named Star Wars. Upon its release more then twenty years ago, Star Trek: The Motion Picture elicited a curious, mildly pleased, yet somewhat disappointed reaction with audiences. The film was a big hit (grossing nearly $100 million on its first go around), but the general criticism was that its box office success was due to the fact that everyone went to see it, not that they’d enjoyed it.

There’s no doubt that the film was a feast for the eyes back in 1979, a gorgeous visual spectacle. However, like most science fiction epics of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (Flash Gordon, The Last Starfighter, The Ice Pirates), Star Trek: The Motion Picture was hopelessly overwhelmed by the force of Star Wars. As well, it was burdened by its own troubled production history and the huge success of its televisual predecessor to be a cogent and satisfying film. Remember how self-assured and comfortable the cast appeared on the original TV show? Maybe the cast needed this first film to get their chops back, because there is no such ease evident here. Given the budget and enormous pressures regarding the film’s commercial fortunes, maybe everyone needed to just relax, as they were able to by the second installment.

In any event, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, like other science fiction films, or other Star Trek movies, is only as good as its villain. This was the real disappointment of the film back in 1979, as there really wasn’t a distinct and dastardly bad guy (whom we could see, at any rate). Though the V’Ger entity (a mystical alien force seemingly plotting to destroy Earth) represented a considerable menace to the characters and at times thrilled the viewers, this first film lacked a sense of danger or urgency. We never really saw inside V’Ger. Contrast this enemy with Ricardo Montalban’s splendid Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the first movie, we just got hardware, and could never forget that we were in the thrall of big special effects-driven film.

Perhaps now, this ever-disappearing foe is not such a burden, but audiences in 1979 clamored for more visual evidence. Maybe the film’s thematic search for an affirmation of God in space and its novel conception of artificial intelligence, make it agreeable for our times. With the beginning of our new century, after all, we might anticipate the end of the world more than ever. We also have the benefit of several memorable Star Trek sequels encouraging us to appreciate the first one.

The DVD’s Director’s Cut offers several changes, too. For one thing, the star field effects over the opening titles have been re-designed and set to a new score, so from the start, we feel we’re in a new universe, so to speak. Since Star Trek virtually invented the moving star field effect, which has been copied mercilessly over the years, this reminds us of the original series’ innovation and daring. The scenes on Vulcan look much more “Vulcan,” for lack of a better word (the architecture of the planet, its agriculture, etc., are more defined on the DVD, as opposed to the murky original film). Maybe the most awesome visual on the DVD is the new Starfleet Headquarters, an important visual that was omitted in the race to finish the film. It was always obvious that here were missing effects and finally, we get to see them. Furthermore, the DVD’s sound re-editing helps the Vulcan language sequences, clarifying that they’re not just speaking garbled English, but a distinct and mysterious language of their own.

Watching the Director’s Cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is like seeing a whole new film; it’s crisper, tighter, and more visually audacious. This DVD nicely re-introduces this ambitious and misunderstood film to old and new fans of the Star Trek series. For years, many people thought of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as merely a disappointment, cold, ponderous, and overlong. Now, with the DVD installation of the missing elements that director Wise, and no doubt, the fans, wished to see all along, maybe we can see Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a science fiction epic, one to be reckoned into the annals of sci-fi franchises and extravaganzas.

It now appears to be the first big budget victim of super-hype bust in the post-Star Wars age of digital movie-making. Maybe there was too much anticipation for a property that had been neglected, despite its still avid fan-base, since the late ‘60s. Whatever the reasons for its initial failure, this new Director’s Edition DVD will please hardcore fans and new viewers alike. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is ambitious, strange, and grand. Nice to have you back, Captain (or rather, Admiral) Kirk.

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