Star Trek: The Motion Picture Review – with Director’s DVD Commentary
Today I re-watched the Star Trek: The Motion Picture Director’s Cut with its DVD commentaries by Robert Wise, Jerry Goldsmith, and others. The Director’s Cut makes this film almost decent, but it is still like watching paint dry in most spots. The biggest problem with this movie is its style. It tries to imitate 2001: A Space Odyssey and has many stylish effects just to push the boundaries of effects. So you have to decide if you like the all-action paper-thin-plot Star Trek of today or the slow, meandering Star Trek with a handful of themes presented in this movie. It is up to preference, I guess. Perhaps there is a middle ground.
Before Star Trek screamed with action, action, action, Star Trek: The Motion Picture tried to do things the old-fashioned way. The old-fashioned way being 2001: A Space Odyssey. This influence is everywhere in the film, from the orchestral score over stars, to the endless glory shots of the Enterprise. I think we spend more time looking at the Enterprise than actually growing our main characters and finding out what they’ve been doing since the end of The Original Series. Apparently Captain Kirk is now Admiral Kirk, there is a new Executive Officer on board the Enterprise, Spock is vacationing in no-emotion land, but that’s about it. That’s about all the serious developments we get.
The new DVD release from a few years back trimmed The Motion Picture in length and gave us some interesting commentaries. The film composer, Jerry Goldsmith, said on the DVD commentary that he was originally approached for the TV Star Trek series, but couldn’t do it due to a conflict. He has gone on record saying that the music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture was inspired by romanticism and discovery. This romantic approach is obvious in the film and seems to complement the style of the film the best it can. It distances itself from the TV theme, which is completely left out. The music is slow and meandering in parts, but fits in best with the mysterious parts showing V-Ger. Everywhere else, I could take it or leave it.
The Director Robert Wise said that he brought in Doug Trumbull to help complete the effects of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I have read elsewhere that the process of making the film was pretty erratic and the script was incomplete even when shooting began. Doug Trumbull supervised all the effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which reinforces the 2001 influence on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and its style. However, the idiotically slow pace and style can’t be blamed on him, because he also worked on Blade Runner and that’s another film with great effects, so it’s not him. The scripting, the writing, the director, or something drove this project into the ground though, that’s for sure.
The opening of the film is pretty good and fits the action-movie mold. John Dykstra and the effects designers for Klingon ship sequence described the pain-staking work for this scene on the DVD commentary. Robert Wise added that the Klingon attack on the V-Ger cloud was unprovoked, but Gene Roddenbury assured him that the Klingons would indeed do such a thing. Only one six-foot ship was created for the opener, but filmed three times to simulate the three ships shown in the scene. The Klingon Captain is played by Mark Leonard, who also played Spock’s dad in the series. The Klingons are quickly dispatched. However, Robert Wise explains that the ships were not really destroyed, but “digitized” and stored by the giant space cloud computer V-Ger. I didn’t actually know that and the scene doesn’t give you any reason to come to the same conclusion. Later though, we can see some of what V-Ger has stored in its collection, possibly by the same digitizing process. This sort of visual storytelling is typical of this film, showing objects and mysterious things that meant something to the film creators, but can’t be deciphered by the audience in any meaningful way.
Next we see Vulcan, which was altered for the Director’s Cut because the crew never completed the original vision due to time. Robert Wise explains that Spock walks up to the “Vulcan Masters” to take the last steps in purging all emotion, but doesn’t go through with it. This is good, as Spock’s dilemma about being half-human is obvious. I wish we could have spent more time on this issue, but we quickly are shifted to the next scene. When Spock shows up later, it is obvious he resents his human side and appears a little more unapproachable than usual, but I think his quest to find himself mirrors that of V-Ger. V-Ger is also seeking “truth”, enlightenment, and wants something “more” from existence. V-Ger does successfully achieve this in merging with a human being. It could be argued that Spock has already achieved some of this success when he accepts his human side and becomes something “more” than purely logical Vulcan, and I wonder why V-Ger didn’t try to capture Spock for this reason, instead of Ilya.
On the DVD Commentary, Robert Wise explains that there were a lot of effects changes on the San Francisco scene. The scene is pretty much cleaned up and the matte paintings gone or fixed. This short sequence works better on the Directors Cut, but we are still in exposition-land and it’s 14 minutes in, depending on the cut you’re watching. I’m not sure how audiences felt back in the day, but when I watched it originally when I was young, I did not care for this part of the movie. Nothing happens. Clearly this exposition and the whole glory-shot sequence was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a poor decision, in my opinion.
Trumbull and some other effects designers have explained that they wanted the glory-shot sequence intentionally slow and stylized. The reason for this is to use slow movements to give more gravity and mass to the objects and the shots, which could not be possible with quick movements. That’s really a silly statement because I don’t think it does what they thought it would do. Glory shots are glory shots and I got it after the first couple. It’s just shots of the Enterprise. With slow music. For several minutes.
I don’t know what film school these guys came from, but we still have no story. If they’d gone from the Klingon attack to Kirk arriving on the Enterprise and skipped everything else, that would have been a better way to do things pacing-wise. As it stands, it’s overly long, and unnecessary. But on the Director’s Cut, it is now cleaned up and looks passable. I guess that’s something.
On the Commentary, Robert Wise understands that many people “have strong feelings” about the glory-shot sequence part of the movie, but he doesn’t question anything about it. In fact, he complements Jerry Goldsmith’s music during the scene and feels it “works just fine”. I can’t even understand this feeling. It works just fine? What part? The length? The endless glamour shots? The slow music? I don’t get it.
It is worth noting that at this point in the Director’s Cut DVD commentary, Trumbull explains that he also used lens flares, which are subtle in comparison to those used by JJ Abrams. I think I’d rather have Trumbull’s lens flares over anything in the new Star Trek. Overall, I think the Enterprise itself, the “refit” design is just about as good as it gets. The style and color is great. The other vessels in the film have great design too. I don’t have an issue with any of that.
The story finally gets going as the audience finds out that Kirk is here to command the Enterprise against V-Ger. Robert Wise describes this as “Kirk’s midlife crisis”. He is trying to recapture his youth because Kirk feels the world is passing him by. By “taking” the Enterprise back, he is avoiding this. This midlife crisis is used again in Wrath of Khan, but is introduced here. It is not an overarching theme though, like in Wrath of Khan,which is a shame. It is the driving force of the conflict between Kirk and Decker though, who is shoved aside because Kirk is feeling old. Sucks for him. Decker is played by Stephen Collins, the only actor director Robert Wise had a hand in casting. This is because of the move to make the Phase 2 second TV series into a movie and some of the pre-planning that was already done before Robert Wise came on. This must have made things hard.
The transporter accident, which is shown next, really horrified me as a kid. The best part of this scene is the sound, because they don’t show much of anything, which I probably wouldn’t have liked anyway. The purpose of the accident is to kill off the Science Officer and Navigator, in order to shoehorn in Spock and Ilya. This is about a good a reason as any, and does “heighten the tension” of the film before the Enterprise gets sent on its mission. I’m not sure if the transporter accident entirely succeeds in this in and of itself, which is probably why they have the crew briefing scene next. I think we’re finally into the story part 40 minutes in and its a relief. They take a few minutes to light up and slowwwwwly move the Enterprise out of drydock just to make sure we don’t forget what the pace of this movie really is.
This movie also showcases how much I love DeForrest Kelly as McCoy. His dialogue is spot on and has some of the best character dialogue in the movie. In comparison, the new McCoy in the reboot Star Trek is just an imitation of DeForrest Kelly, which is somewhat of a demeaning thing to say, but the man pioneered the character of McCoy and set the standard. He’s great in this movie with what he has. But he isn’t used as much as I would have liked.
The middle of the film is nothing but effects. The V-Ger attack and the Enterprise entering the cloud showcase more special effects. A scene is inserted into the Director’s Cut with a little dialogue from Spock confirming that V-Ger is “pure logic”, the exact thing he was seeking at the beginning of the film. This seems to indicate the Spock and V-Ger parallel I mentioned earlier, which is why Spock may understand V-Ger best of all. This is obvious later in the film.
V-Ger is certainly not satisfied with its state as it is, the state of “pure logic”. Perhaps this reassures Spock of the futility of “pure logic”, which may explain why he gives up his quest. In any case, it is an interesting contrast between Spock and V-Ger that I hadn’t noticed before. It is worth noting that V-Ger is not capable of “becoming more” until merging with a human at the end of the film. Perhaps this too encourages Spock to not totally dismiss his human side. He has obviously followed this thinking, as he appears in Star Trek 2009 to tell young Spock to “…put aside logic and do what feels right”.
When Ilya is replaced by a probe, we get a series of strange interactions on the ship itself. In this way, the crew explores the mystery of V-Ger right on the Enterprise, without the usual exploration and beaming off the ship we usually see in the show. The best part is the interaction between Ilya and Decker, which is acted great. It is not too over-the-top and is used for discussion by the other characters, as they too try to ration out the mystery of what V-Ger wants. This part of the movie is good. The rest of the sequences leading up to the ending are passable and look half-way decent.
What Spock discovers in the V-Ger cloud cannot be explained. It is the representation or digital recreation of V-Ger’s home planets and what it has encountered on its journey. What it really is or what it is really used for is never fully explained. The scenery is just used to make the Spock sequence look good. This sequence also leads to the transition, in which Spock discovers the motives of V-Ger, in order for the plot to move forward. Although this works, it is somewhat lazy to have Spock conveniently provide all the answers, but there you go. Despite this, I still think Leonard Nimoy is great in this film, along with the Ilya and Decker interaction I mentioned earlier.
The ending of the movie is pretty original, but not something that is ground-breaking. There is something about it though that makes it good science fiction. The ending is the answer to the evolution of V-Ger and completes the movie nicely. Robert Wise makes his last comments on the DVD by saying that if nothing else, Star Trek: The Motion Picture stays true to what Star Trek is. In response to this, I would agree, but add that The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek 2009 also stay true to Star Trek without becoming boring as hell monotonous overdramas. I think what the film crew forgot to add was some fun into this movie when they all they wanted to be was the next 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a stupid idea to begin with. All in all, they did have some nice character moments, but I personally think the wonder of boldly going can be done with more excitement and energy without sacrificing what Star Trek is.