Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Tale of Two Revisits Part 2 - Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The date for the release of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (TMP) was set in stone and no force on earth could change it. Come hell or high water, it was going to be released the December 1979. Paramount wanted the movie to be a hit and they figured they had to have a holiday release to pull it off. Director Robert Wise pushed as hard as he could to deliver a watchable movie on time. But in the end, editing was rushed, effects scenes weren't complete and the sound mix was never perfected. Still the movie hit the theaters on time and the loyal Star Trek fans saw the movie again and again.

Contrary to popular belief, TMP wasn't a failure. It made money, mostly based on the repeat viewings of dedicated Star Trek fans, and enough single viewings by the curious and those who were hoping for something along the lines of "Star Wars: A New Hope". I know my family went to see it, because I was a huge Star Wars fan. I vividly remember getting some kind of fast food promotional thingy with a starfleet iron-on and a game to find "The Real McCoy". But in the end, the movie disappointed fans and new comers alike. It picked up the name "Star Trek: The Motionless Picture" and other cute aliases.

Jump to 2001 and several things have happened. The Star Trek movie series had unleashed a serious dog in the form of "Star Trek V - The Final Frontier" and by comparison, TMP didn't look so bad anymore. Enough time had passed so that some perspective was allowed. For all of its faults TMP was probably the only movie to attempt to really capture the awe and enormity of space exploration. While later adventures focused on the crew and their dilemmas (for some solidly entertaining movies), TMP had a serious theme at its core - one about concept of humanity. It looked like everyone involved in the project just reached a little too high and missed the goal.

Paramount watched carefully and saw that the Star Wars Special Edition campaign worked very well for George Lucas and Fox. They were ready to release the film on DVD and Robert Wise was available to revisit the film. They offered him the chance to go back and rework TMP into the movie he intended it to be. He was given a special effects budget and access to unused footage and sound effects. Initially the revamp was going to get a theatrical release, but became the flagship offering for the first Star Trek movie on DVD in a two disc set.

What are the results? In my opinion: it is a better movie all the way around. It moves faster, it has a greater overall impact that resonates deeper than the previous cut was able to. The strange thing is, the changes are pretty hard to detect. The biggest change is the pacing. There are still some moments of slogging in the middle of the film but they aren't nearly as bad as they used to be. The updated effects shots fit pretty seamlessly into the existing footage. You have an extended background here, some new shots out of a window there, and improved visuals with the V’ger entity that give you a real sense of its size and power. This ups the ante at the end of the movie, and makes the stakes for the crew of the Enterprise very clear. The new footage here and there clarifies some points and actually gives Spock a full character arc.

This doesn't mean that movie is perfect. Improved? Definitely. But there are still some issues that could not be solved. This is still a slow moving movie. It was intended to be one and that hasn't changed. It was going for more of a "2001: A Space Odyssey" feel, over the action and adventure of "Star Wars". Some of the acting is lacking in areas. The costumes still look pretty goofy (and the whole muted look of the Enterprise is just odd). The basics of the plot haven't changed and I know that some people were annoyed by the fact that the story was very similar to a couple of episodes from the original series.

With that said, I think Robert Wise was able to improve his movie and please most fans at the same time. None of the changes harm the film, and even if a favorite scene got cut, the DVD has all the edited footage (and unused footage that was left out in the first place) on the second disc to peruse. I haven't really run into any Star Trek fans who were upset with the Director's cut. Some still don't like the movie, but feel that it was improved overall.

In the end, I’ve always been a sucker for the original cast of Star Trek. I enjoy the movies and this one is pretty nostalgic for me. I'd enjoy it without the changes, but the new cut makes for a better film, and one that even people who disliked it the first time around, may find value in now. I think "Wrath of Khan" was a better movie all around, but for me TMP is still a classic sci-fi adventure.

What was your first impression of TMP when you first saw it? Did it change with a viewing of the director's cut? Comparing this directors cut to Lucas' new cut of Star Wars - which one benefited the most?

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