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Jammer's Review: "Star Trek: The Motion Picture - The Director's Edition" (DVD, 2001)

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Note: This review contains spoilers for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. ... Star Trek: The Motion Picture The Director s Edition DVD release: November 2001
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 28, 2001
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      Note: This review contains spoilers for "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

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      Star Trek: The Motion Picture
      The Director's Edition

      DVD release: November 2001 (USA)
      PG, 136 minutes

      Screenplay by Harold Livingston
      Story by Alan Dean Foster
      Produced by Gene Roddenberry
      Directed by Robert Wise

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ***
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      The recent DVD release of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- The Director's
      Edition" represents a revisit to a piece of the Trek canon that these days
      seems known more for its place in Trek turning-point history than for its
      value as a feature film. Among fans and critics, ST:TMP is not often highly
      respected in the ranks of the Trek films. In terms of tone, it certainly
      stands out as the odd child of the film series. It can be argued that the
      film was remembered more for being a big event in the franchise's direction
      than for being a story that people remembered as part of the canon.

      And for good reason. When "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" first came out in
      1979, it landed amid years of anticipation for a project that went through a
      string of changing would-be destinations. First it was going to be "Phase
      II," the new Trek TV series. (Even then, Paramount wanted to launch a TV
      network with Trek as its flagship, something that wouldn't happen until
      1995.) At one point it was considered as a TV movie. Part of the decision
      for the destination was affected by the huge success of sci-fi classics
      "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." If Star Trek was going
      back into production, it would be foolish not to aim for the big screen.

      When it finally came out, some were disappointed, especially after the
      thunderous excitement of "Star Wars" two years earlier. ST:TMP was a
      slow-paced, cerebral, talky film with little in terms of action. For its
      creators, it was a miracle of effective coordination in the face of
      impossible, rapidly approaching deadlines. The product itself was barely
      finished -- production and then post-production went to absolutely the last
      possible moments, with reels of the film being distributed to theaters
      practically within hours of their first show times. When the time came
      around for the sequel, "The Wrath of Khan," it would be a return to sharper
      character interaction and faster-paced storytelling -- what the audiences
      really wanted from Kirk and his crew.

      Now, 22 years after the original theatrical release, we have the new ST:TMP
      Director's Edition DVD, a project that was given Paramount's blessing and
      which director Robert Wise finally felt comfortable in revisiting. I
      recently sat down to watch the film for the first time in several years. I
      honestly wasn't sure whether I'd notice the enhancements or not, since it
      had been some time since I'd seen the movie from beginning to end. But like
      all things that trap themselves in the corners of our memories and
      imagination, I remembered ST:TMP better than I had expected, even the
      specifics of certain shots.

      ST:TMP is not a great film and never will be. It's flawed as science fiction
      and flawed as Trek. But it is a *good* film. It's particularly good in that
      it withstands the test of time. After 22 years and all sorts of progress in
      the arena of visual effects, the film has aged well. Both the production and
      the storyline bear scrutiny today.

      Up front, the following should be noted:

      1) The Director's Edition is a better film than either the original 1979 cut
      or the 1983 cut for TV that restored footage unused in 1979. (The 1983 cut
      is what landed on many previous video releases.)

      2) The Director's Edition is not different from previous cuts of the film in
      ways that significantly impact the storyline (not like the director's cut of
      "The Abyss," for example).

      3) The film benefits from DVD quality, which is the best way to see the
      restored film today, with a superior audio mix and the excellent picture
      quality we've come to expect.

      As a film, ST:TMP is not so much about its characters and personalities as
      the later films are. Most of the supporting characters like Scotty, Sulu,
      Uhura, and Chekov are pushed to the sidelines as they have often been and
      are rarely seen as individuals. McCoy lends his personality to the
      proceedings but doesn't hugely figure into the plot. The primary character
      arcs are for Kirk (regaining command of the Enterprise, which he lost in
      being kicked upstairs), Spock (whose failed attempts to purge his emotions
      in the Vulcan ritual of the Kolinahr reveal both his need for and torment by
      human emotions), and Decker (who finds himself relieved of command because
      Kirk pulled some Starfleet strings in his goal to regain his captaincy, and
      also realizing his feelings for Lt. Ilia are resurfacing).

      The story revolves around an approaching, all-powerful alien spacecraft that
      calls itself V'Ger, shrouded in a huge expanse of clouds, which is on a
      direct course for Earth. The Enterprise must intercept it and solve its
      mystery.

      More than anything else, ST:TMP has some awesome sights to see. As Trek
      films go, the tone of ST:TMP is much more in the vein of epic science
      fiction. There's a grandness and a greatness to the scope of the film,
      something beyond anything probably any of the other Trek films have strived
      for or reached. Yes, the film is slow-moving at times and maybe too
      preoccupied with its reverence for the launch of the redesigned Enterprise,
      but those are important aspects that make the film memorable. I've always
      considered ST:TMP to be somewhat underrated by fans and critics who write it
      off as a bore, because there *is* a real sci-fi story at its center.

      The launch of the Enterprise, even if depicted with a healthy dose of
      sentimentality, is one of the highlights of the film and one of the most
      memorable sequences in the Trek canon. Even by today's standards, the
      special-effects shots of the Enterprise in drydock have rarely been matched
      in their pure scale, simplicity, and beauty. These days the focus is so much
      on diving straight into the story that admiring something as truly awesome
      as a nearly 1,000-foot-long starship is no longer something that can be
      given any sort of consideration; we simply take it for granted.

      Similarly, the venture into V'Ger's cloud -- an extended series of sequences
      that take the better part of the film's second half and go for long
      stretches with minimal dialog -- make for marvelous, great-looking eye
      candy. The scale is simply awesome, as the Enterprise ventures deeper and
      deeper into the cloud. The interiors of V'Ger have a truly alien look to
      them, though they serve no apparent function. What this elaborate
      environment is supposed to be used for is beyond me, but it certainly looks
      good on film.

      For the Director's Edition, certain special-effects scenes have been
      enhanced. Most noteworthy include the destruction of the asteroid inside the
      wormhole, some digital-matte exterior shots on Vulcan, and exterior CG shots
      of V'Ger's vessel orbiting and firing on Earth. All are good examples of
      enhancements that go far enough to be considered improvements over the
      original but without becoming the least bit obtrusive or distracting. (The
      exterior shots of the V'Ger ship, in fact, make what's happening clearer --
      and it's said that all the changes are based on original storyboard concepts
      that were not produced because of time or money.) The old and new shots
      match well, and only those familiar with the original scenes will notice the
      changes. (New CG work was done by Foundation Imaging.) If there's one
      net-result difference between special effects in the late 1970s versus the
      effects of today, it's one of clarity and crispness. The effects themselves
      hold up well; where you notice the difference is the clarity of CG shots
      over some (but not all) of the fuzzier old shots.

      On the soundtrack, the most notable change -- other than general clean-up
      work for a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix -- is the removal of the incredibly
      annoying red alert alarm and replacing it with something less grating.

      From a story perspective, ST:TMP -- in any cut -- is certainly flawed. It
      takes a long time for the story to get under way, with the first hour of the
      film establishing setup material that would be established in half the time
      if done today (or even in 5-10 minutes in "First Contact"). That's not a
      criticism so much as an observation. What is a criticism is how several of
      the scenes don't really seem all that necessary, like the tragic accident
      with the transporter or the too-many iterations of Kirk stepping on Decker's
      toes and Kirk's perception of vice versa.

      The storyline itself relies less on plot and more on a few grand gestures
      that arise from a few basic underlying elements of the story. There's not
      much in terms of plotting or character analysis; it's more like a big secret
      being held until the revelation at the end. The one truly interesting
      character analysis is of Spock, as his plight to find personal meaning
      mirrors that of V'Ger's; neither can find meaning in pure logic and
      knowledge without an underlying emotional satisfaction in their pursuit of
      discovery. V'Ger is a wealth of knowledge but seeks out its creator to
      answer the one question that it cannot answer through all the information
      logged in its journey -- the ages-old question, "Why am I here?"

      The film's closing revelations are in the true spirit of real ideas, with
      that emphasis on seeking out new life and discovering amazing new things.
      The ending aspires to be a true, cerebral science-fiction conclusion --
      something that supposed "sci-fi" films rarely seem to attempt anymore.
      (Clearly, this is a film that owes far more to "2001: A Space Odyssey" than
      to "Star Wars.") It's unfortunate that the closing reflection dialog can't
      manage to say more about what has just transpired. The dialog seems too
      interested instead in saying, in an almost flippant tone, "the adventures of
      the Enterprise will continue." It's frustrating to arrive at revelation and
      have the characters brush it off so trivially. Also somewhat underwritten is
      the impetus for Decker's choice to merge with V'Ger -- something that's okay
      but might've worked better if it had been earlier telegraphed by the
      screenplay through a better understanding of Decker.

      What's remarkable about ST:TMP is that it's ultimately more about the
      journey than the destination. It creates this journey with big, bold images
      that are beautiful and memorable, and with a legendary score by Jerry
      Goldsmith that cues our emotions in all the right places, from the bold
      grandness of the first sight of the Enterprise to the haunting
      mysteriousness of V'Ger that stands in front of us.

      The film is not always fully engaging and is not intended to be exciting. It
      features some ho-hum plot elements and some crises that seem tacked on. But
      through its slowly building mystery, it's certainly a worthwhile Trek film
      on its merits, totally apart from the fact that its existence paved the way
      for the franchise as it has progressed for the 22 years since. Now on DVD,
      re-edited to play at a slightly better pace, removing scenes that were
      distracting or unnecessary in the 1983 version, this film deserves to live a
      new life as a vital piece of the Star Trek canon. For those who follow the
      Trek franchise, I recommend it.

      --
      DVD notes: "Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- The Director's Edition" is a
      two-disc set that includes three brief documentaries about ST:TMP and the
      new Director's Edition; commentary track featuring director Robert Wise,
      composer Jerry Goldsmith, and others; original theatrical trailers and TV
      spots; deleted scenes from the 1979 and 1983 versions; and storyboards.

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      Copyright 2001 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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