I went to see “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” on opening day at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The crowd was massive, the movie was gorgeous and our mood afterward was hopeful. The film did not play like a space war rip off of Star Wars” but rather an extended version of a cerebral episode of the original series. There were sequences that felt long, and the special effects got more attention than the characters, but I was happy it existed, I’d waited ten years for Trek to rise from the dead and when it did, I make two or three trips to see it in theaters.
The home video market started in the early 1980s, when sell through pricing became real and the idea of owning your favorite film, not just renting it was a dream come true. Trek was one of the early franchise adopters of the sell through price, where a film was sold to a general audience rather than just video rental stores. When STTMP was available, a longer special edition was sold and it had some different
effects shots and additional scenes to tantalize us. I owned that edition on VHS and on Laser Disc, as well as a Laser Disc version of the original theatrical cut. I suppose it was my purchase of a collection of Star Trek films from the first to the fifth in a Laserdisc Box set that made me complacent about updating the films when they had subsequent releases.
I have never seen the Director’s Cut by Robert Wise from the 2001 DVD offering. I bypassed it, figuring ist was simply a remaster of the Special Edition. It was not until I saw the film last night that I saw what substantial improvements in the story had been made by the inclusion of two previously cut scenes and the trimming of other moments here and there. This 4K version is a remastering of the Director’s Cut from 2001 and of course it is digitally enhanced to improve the video and the audio.
My choices for the Fathom Event were limited, and I ended up at a theater here in the Austin Area that I had not yet been to. This was a Regal Theater and coincidentally, I had just removed the Regal App from my phone because it had been two plus years since I had used it. There were a couple of drawbacks to this location. While they did have a digital presentation, the screen was not sufficiently shielded from lighting in the theater, especially the forward Exit signs, so the image was soft at times. The theater also lacked a dynamic stereo system for the audio tracks so the presentation did not show off the technical aspects of the 4K release as dramatically as one would have hoped. [The biggest drawback of the theater is that they serve Pepsi products, resulting in my usual movie thirst going unquenched. I’m a Coke guy.] One thing that I did approve of however, was the traditional theater seating. No tiers, no electronic lounge chairs, just a slight sloping of the theater floor. The big advantage of this was that it enhanced the chatter between me and some other guests before the film started. Instead of being isolated from one another by the admittedly more comfortable confines of today’s stadium and lounge chairs, we felt like a group of kindred spirits revisiting an old friend on screen but also new friends in the audience.
The film itself is vastly improved over the theatrical version. I liked the sequence where Spock weeps for Vger because he sees himself in the emptiness of pure logic and realizes that there can only be more if he moves beyond that. In the end sequence, Mr. Scott activates a self destruct protocol, which would be a very Kirk maneuver in the face of overwhelming odds to try to defend the planet Earth. You can find other places on line to explore the differences in the various versions, that’s what I did. Here is one that is pretty thorough without getting too technical (The Movie Sleuth).
One of the complaints that people have made over the years is that so much time is devoted to fetishizing the Enterprise in this film. There are multiple tours of the exterior of the ship, and whenever possible, a scene is shown of the interior that is not on the bridge. I think one of the things that makes the first outside view of the Enterprise feel so long is that there is basically no dialogue for the sequence. Kirk and Scotty are in a small shuttle, traversing the immensity of the ship and they say nothing, all of the acting is done with their faces as the detailed model is explored in depth. This was a moment of fan service that might put off non-Trekkers but it was needed by the long time fans, because dammit, we had waited so long for it to become a reality.
The Special Effects of the Vger Cloud, Ship, Probes and union with humanity were beautiful back in 1979 and they continue to impress still. The slingshot warp drive effect with the sonic punch is still cool. I was struck by a moment in the film that had been done in a completely different film a few months earlier. The James Bond Space story “Moonraker” had used the idea of geosynchronous orbiting objects spreading death like a necklace around the planet. Here we had the same general idea, visualized in a way that was slightly different but did seem to be cut from the same cloth. Another 1979 parallel that I realized was that two great science fiction film scores came out this year and they were both from the same mind. Jerry Goldsmith first brought us “Alien“, but finished the year with a completely different sounding score for “Star Trek”, including a theme that was subsequently used for the “Next Generation” TV series and run of films. The attack on the Klingon ships is also a noteworthy motif that we will hear in subsequent adventures. It was worth the trip to the theater just to listen to the music, even if the sound system was not optimal.
Trekkers are glad to see their favorite crew return after a decade off. Kirk’s interactions with Captain Decker start off with an uncharacteristic bite, but when the good Doctor joins the crew and moderates his old friend, the Kirk we knew seems to come back to life before our eyes. Had Spock been a pure Vulcan, we get a chance to see how his calculating nature might have diminished the character in the larger scheme of things. When his analysis of Vger’s defect is complete, Spock returns as well to the character that we all fell in love with during the Original Series. Chekov has the best moments of the secondary characters, but everyone gets a spotlight here and there and it made us anticipate new adventures even more.
Although the story did seem to have elements from the television episodes, the time given to some of the philosophical questions raised was much greater and deeper in this film. I like a space battle as much as the next person, but Trek was always about more than action, it was about ideas. This is the Star Trek film that cleaves closest to the spirit of the series. It may lack the action elements that people want in a movie, but it has the soul that fans of the original love.