Going literally where no movie has gone before, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” comes back from an extensive refit looking like the film it should have been in 1979. Hats off to Paramount for giving helmer Robert Wise the right to a fine cut there wasn’t time for 22 years ago, and in the process turning a very good but flawed picture into — yes, a genre classic.
In fact, in many respects this is a flawless DVD set. The image is sharp and clean, colors are firm, the separate disc of extras (additional and deleted scenes, plus an hour’s worth of background documentaries) is a treasure trove, and even the rarely heard overture is included. What a pity, therefore, that the aspect ratio is only a stingy 2.17:1, instead of Panavision’s full 2.35:1 as on the clips in the docus; the new sound mix is at an extremely low level; and, on this reviewer’s copy at least, there is significant image breakup during chapters 21-27.
It’s often forgotten nowadays that “Star Trek” was basically Par’s response to Fox’s “Star Wars,” which had opened in May 1977. Michael Eisner had been looking for a sci-fi property for some time when the story was brought to him that August — by Par’s TV division, which had been developing it as a two-hour pilot to a long-delayed new series, “Star Trek Phase II.”
Paramount threw everything they had at it, reuniting the original TV cast, hiring a class-act director (Wise) and, determined to outdo everyone on the f/x side, putting Douglas Trumbull (of “2001” fame, and just off “Close Encounters”) in charge of special photographic effects. Wise began shooting the live-action material in August 1978, and throughout the following year, Trumbull and his team labored over the effects, with the picture already locked into a December ’79 preem.
Such was the scramble to finish it — in those pre-CGI days — that the 132-minute pic was never tested in previews: Composer Jerry Goldsmith finished recording the music only five days before the premiere, and Wise himself carried the print to the Washington world preem. As Wise tells it on the DVD’s commentary track, the reviews told him what preview audiences would have: The effects outweighed character development.
Four years later, an extra 11 minutes of unused footage was added for the TV version, correcting the imbalance but not taking into consideration the pic’s overall shape. Finally, Wise approached Par to make the fine cut he never had the chance to create, plus redo many effects scenes as they were originally storyboarded but compromised by lack of time.
The film now has a natural flow and rhythm that seems just right: An unnecessarily long effects sequence like “V’ger Flyover” has been trimmed back, and only the best of the discarded character material (especially featuring Ilea) has been included. Excluding the extra end credits for the Director’s Edition, pic is back to exactly the same length as at its ’79 preem.
From Wise to Trumbull and special photographic effects supervisor John Dykstra, everyone on the informative commentary track stresses that the effects have been redone only to replicate what would have been possible at the time. The idea, per Edition producers Michael Matessino and David C. Fein, was “to honor the filmmakers” by realizing their original intentions, not to update or rework an existing movie.
The retread has been done with exceptional care and sensitivity. Most evident changes are to Spock’s first scene on Vulcan, the Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, and the final Wing Walk to V’ger’s brain center, all of which now realize the original storyboards’ ideas.
Most of all, the Director’s Edition doesn’t feel like a different movie — rather, it now looks like the one we all imagined in our heads back in ’79, shorn of its imperfections. Pic’s dignified tempo immediately sets it on a different level to swashbucklers like “Star Wars”: As in Wise’s earlier “The Andromeda Strain,” whose pristine look is often recalled in Richard Kline’s lensing, there’s almost no “action” in the accepted sense. And the movie’s long dramatic paragraphs allow full play for Goldsmith’s magisterial score, one of his most inspired, which Wise praises time and again. (In a first for a composer, Goldsmith is even included on the commentary track.)
But what’s most amazing nowadays is the film’s revolutionary structure: It’s 35 minutes before the USS Enterprise even moves out of dry dock but, as in any real epic, we already know the protags and their conflicts before the journey starts. This pre-launch first act is followed by the briefest of second acts (the worm-hole, plus Spock’s intro) and then capped by a giant, 70-minute third act, entirely devoted to cod-philosophical discussions of identity and mortality.
“Star Trek” can take this kind of refit because its basic chassis is so strong. Like the best of the TV series, it spins on a central Big Idea (here by Alan Dean Foster) that devolves into a game of wits between Kirk and the opposition. Most sci-fi pics since then — including most of the “Star Trek” sequels — seem puny in comparison and inspiration.
At the very end of the commentary, Trumbull pays eloquent tribute to the movie’s “wild concept” and the way in which, unlike today, the effects were allowed to become a dramatic constituent of the movie rather than just elements of a thrill-ride. A lesson he learned from working on “2001,” he says, was to “let films breathe a bit.” In this new, definitive incarnation, “Star Trek” proves him resoundingly right — and provides a lesson for the present.