Star Trek: The Motion Picture (The Director's Edition)

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/18/09 16:37:37

"Still flawed, but definitely more watchable."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

In the mid-1970s, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of "Star Trek: The Original Series" convinced Paramount executives to greenlight a second series, "Star Trek: Phase II." Scripts were written, sets were built, actors hired (with the notable exception of Leonard Nimoy). This second series followed in the wake of a cancelled feature film adaptation. The release of "Star Wars" in 1977 changed everything. Paramount cancelled the series and gave Roddenberry the greenlight to develop a feature film. Several scripts later, Roddenberry settled on a revamped version of a "Star Trek: Phase II" teleplay, "In Thy Image." Roddenberry and Paramount passed Alan Dean Foster’s story treatment to Harold Livingston to develop the screenplay. Roddenberry and Paramount hired Robert Wise ("The Andromeda Strain," "The Sand Pebbles," "The Sound of Music," "The Haunting," "West Side Story," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Blood on the Moon") to direct and rehired the original series cast.

While the promise was certainly there to draw on the Star Trek mythos to create a blockbuster film on par (or even better than) Star Wars, Roddenberry and Wise were constrained by an inflexible release date, a screenplay in flux, and recurring problems with the company Abel & Associates, hired to create the complex visual effects. When Abel & Associates failed to meet internal deadlines, Roddenberry and Paramount turned to Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects supervisor/director responsible for effects on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and most recently, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While Paramount gave Trumbull an almost unlimited effects budget, the one thing Trumbull didn’t have was time. The result is an uneven, effects-heavy, -spectacle first, story-and-character second film that didn’t meet Paramount’s expectations for a Star Wars-sized commercial and critical hit.

As Star Trek: The Motion Picture opens, James Tiberius Kirk, the former captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, has been promoted to Admiral, serving Starfleet at their Headquarters in San Francisco, California. The half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has returned to Vulcan, where he’s attempted to purge his emotions through the rigorous Kolinhaar discipline. Before he can pass the final test, however, a vast, alien consciousness makes contact with Spock’s mind. What he doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the consciousness belongs to V’ger, a living machine headed for Earth, motives unknown. V’ger has destroyed three Klingon war birds and a Federation outpost. With V’ger headed for Earth, the Federation places Kirk in command of a newly retrofitted Enterprise, temporarily demoting the Enterprise’s new captain, Willard Decker (Stephen Collins) to first officer.

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Lt. Cmdr. Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), Lt. Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), Lt. Cmdr. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Cmdr. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (James Doohan), Dr. Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett-Roddenberry), CPO Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), and Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta), an empathic Deltan and Decker’s former lover join Kirk aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. Spock re-joins the Enterprise mid-mission, almost immediately after a warp engine malfunction causes the creation of a dangerous wormhole that in turn threatens to end the mission prematurely. Kirk reinstates Spock’s Starfleet commission and returns him to his old post as science officer. Spock’s motives and his loyalty to the mission, however, are open to question.

More than half the running time (136 minutes for the Director’s Edition, 132 for the theatrical version) seems to be spent cutting between the bridge of the Enterprise and it’s transfixed, open-mouthed crew and shots of V’ger’s cavernous interior or shots of a miniature Enterprise gliding slowly (emphasis on “slowly”) through V’ger’s vast interior. Although Roddenberry, Wise, and Livingston give Kirk, Spock, and Decker screen time, they’re usually transfixed in front of a viewscreen or commenting on V’ger’s vast size. Kirk spends most of his non-V’ger time agonizing over his promotion to admiral and getting old, Spock’s working out his inner conflict between logic and emotion (again), and McCoy’s hanging out on the bridge (instead of sick bay), offering unsolicited advice. Decker sulks in a corner and question Kirk’s decision-making (he’s often right, though). Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, and Scotty are conspicuous by their minimal screen time.

With Paramount’s support, Wise reedited Star Trek: The Motion Picture for a 2001 release of a “Director’s Edition,” ultimately adding four minutes to the running time (at 136 minutes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the longest running time of any film in the Star Trek franchise). Wise also supervised changes to more than 90 effects shots, to move Star Trek: The Motion Picture closer to his, and presumably Roddenberry’s, “vision” for the film. Wise and Roddenberry wanted to make a more sophisticated, adult-oriented film, closer in tone and style to Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral cinematic essay, 2001: A Space Odyssey than George Lucas’ action-oriented, science fiction-fantasy, Star Wars. Roddenberry, however, misjudged critics and audiences. They wanted fewer awe-and-wonder moments and more action and conflict.

Still, from the three-minute overture to the last shot of outer space featuring the tagline, “The human adventure is just beginning,” it’s obvious that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is Roddenberry’s film, not Wise’s (or anyone else at Paramount for that matter). Roddenberry’s heavy hand was evident in every phase of production, from Harold Livingston’s screenplay (and Alan Dean Foster’s story) that draws heavily from two classic Trek episodes, The Changeling and Immunity Syndrome, the selection of Robert Wise to helm the big-screen adaptation, the production and costume designs, to the selection of Jerry Goldsmith to score the big-screen adaptation (probably Roddenberry’s best decision). Whatever faults Star Trek: The Motion Picture has (and it has several) can be attributed to Roddenberry’s decisions. To be fair, the inflexible December release date made compromises, some minor, some major, necessary, as the release of the “Director’s Edition” in 2001 suggests.

Roddenberry also made the ill-informed design to replace the bright, color-coded uniforms the characters wore in the original series with bland earth-tones. The choices extend to the redesigned bridge, the recreation areas, and the officers’ quarters, all of which seem to be modeled on hotel chains, circa 1970s. Luckily, Paramount realized the errors of Roddenberry and Wise’s ways and redesigned the Enterprise and the uniforms for the superior sequel, "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan." By then , Wise was long gone and Roddenberry stripped of his producing duties (he received an “executive consultant” screen credit), a decision Star Trek fans quickly accepted after Paramount released "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" two-and-a-half years later.

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