Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Director's Cut) (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Director's Cut) Poster

A long time ago in a strange place called Hollywood, a theatrical cut of a movie was considered to be the director's cut. Now, with the advent of DVDs and the proliferation of special editions, numerous big-budget (and some not-so-big-budget) motion pictures are being given a second life in a format that is often quite different from the original version. For filmmakers who continuously like to tinker, this new philosophy is a godsend. They can release a truncated, studio-friendly version in theaters, then offer their "true vision" to DVD buyers.

This trend towards director's cuts/special editions was not started by George Lucas, but it was popularized by him. The financial windfall reaped when Lucas re-released the original three Star Wars films with new effects and footage awakened Hollywood executives to a previously-untapped resource. To be fair, most special editions exist primarily for creative reasons (although the studios backing them dream of $$$), and often result in a vastly improved product. James Cameron's The Abyss is a completely different movie - confusing and dissatisfying in the shortened theatrical version; sublime and brilliant in the director's cut. The hour added to Wolgang Petersen's Das Boot transforms it into a character-driven white-knuckler. Cameron Crowe's extended Almost Famous gives the story greater span and depth.

In 1979, the release of Star Trek - The Motion Picture represented the climax to every Star Trek fan's wet dream. The date, December 7, lived in infamy for the entire production crew. Paramount Pictures etched this date into their release calendar and informed everyone involved that the film would be ready on that day. Despite the Herculean effort by legendary director Robert Wise and his army of post-production assistants, the version of Star Trek - The Motion Picture that reached theaters was not complete. Effects scenes were unfinished, the sound mix was not perfected, and several important sequences were inexplicably left on the cutting room floor.

The movie that played in theaters during late 1979 and early 1980 received a mixed critical and popular reception. Star Trek fans were divided over the film. On one hand, it gave them the opportunity to spend time with characters who were as dear to them as old friends. On the other hand, it was largely a re-hash of previously-produced television episodes (in particular, "The Changeling"). The general public, expecting a Star Wars clone and instead getting something more sedate and less action-oriented, was bored. Two unflattering nicknames were born: Star Trek - The Motionless Picture and Star Trek - The Motion Sickness. The movie was a financial success, grossing nearly $90 million domestically (against a $35 million budget), but a large portion of that was contributed by Trekkers who returned time and time again to theaters to re-watch the movie. It was not unusual to find die-hards who would proudly claim to have seen Star Trek - The Motion Picture 40, 50, or even 100 times. (This kind of repeat business, unheard of in the era of home video, did occasionally happen.)

The film opens with the destruction of three Klingon warships by a mysterious energy cloud that is on a direct heading for Earth. The newly redesigned U.S.S. Enterprise, the pride and joy of the United Federation of Planets, is the only ship available to intercept the cloud, and it hasn't undergone its shakedown cruise. Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), restless after 2 1/2 years behind a desk, uses the crises to once again take command of the Enterprise, forcing the ship's expected captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), into the role of Executive Officer. Most of the crew is re-united, including the irascible Dr. McCoy (the late DeForest Kelley) and the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Spock senses a kinship with the vast consciousness that exists at the heart of the cloud. Also on board are Chief Engineer Scotty (James Doohan), Security Chief Chekov (Walter Koenig), Helmsman Sulu (George Takei), Communications Officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and a newcomer, Navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta).

After battling several systems failures, including a malfunctioning transporter that kills two crewman and a propulsion system that becomes unstable and creates a wormhole, the Enterprise makes contact with the entity within the cloud, called V'ger. The journey to the center of the alien ship is a strange and bizarre one. Ilia is killed when a probe invades the Enterprise bridge, and V'ger later sends a second probe to the ship in the form of a mechanism that mimics Ilia's body and features. Kirk learns that V'ger is a living machine traveling to Earth to make contact with its "Creator". If this contact is not made, V'ger intends to wipe out all of the human beings "infesting" the planet. It is up to the crew of the Enterprise to prevent that eventuality.

My recollections of seeing Star Trek - The Motion Picture during its initial release are of watching a lot of pretty images pass across the screen. The special effects sequences seemed to go on forever, with only an occasional glimpse of the actors reacting to what their characters were supposedly seeing. Subsequent viewings on videotape enabled me to more clearly pinpoint the film's flaws - poor pacing and a reliance upon special effects over character development. The sterile atmosphere of the new Starship Enterprise had seemingly seeped into the movie's tone, which was cool and unfriendly.

Now, more that 20 years later, Robert Wise has had the opportunity to return to the film and complete it in the manner he had originally envisioned. In addition to re-editing the movie, he was given the money to complete several effects sequences. The soundtrack was re-mixed and the picture was cleaned-up. The resultant product was released on DVD after consideration of a theatrical re-release was nixed. (A friend of mine who works for Paramount indicated that, had there been an actor's strike, Star Trek - The Motion Picture: Director's Edition would have been in multiplexes some time during 2002, but, since the strike didn't happen, tentative plans for a theatrical launch were scrapped.)

The film's total running length has hardly changed, expanding by four minutes from 2:12 to 2:16. However, alterations to the Director's Edition represent more than just adding a few scenes. Some material was either removed or replaced (all of the deleted scenes and trims are available as part of the DVD's supplementary material). In total, about 10% of the film is different from the theatrical cut, but the changes, while seemingly slight, result in a significantly improved motion picture. Star Trek - The Motion Picture: Director's Edition is no 2001 (its obvious inspiration - a fact that is more evident here than ever before), but it represents thought-provoking, well constructed science fiction.

So why is this version better than its theatrical sibling? The first, and most obvious, reason is that the pacing is better. Some of the new effects transform the V'ger trip into a more involving experience, and the inclusion of several character-based scenes that were previously edited out (Spock weeping for V'ger, Kirk ordering Scotty to prepare for a self-destruct) subtly shift the focus away from technical elements and back to the players. Wise's decisions about what to eliminate and what to add are inspired. The entire second act feels completely different. Secondly, the improved sound allows the audio to pack a punch that the original never did. And, finally, there's an intangible - because the movie explores ideas, it has aged better than many of its action-oriented contemporaries.

The "idea" aspect of Star Trek - The Motion Picture is enhanced in this version. The film spends more time exploring those unique qualities that make human beings special, and the importance of tempering logic and knowledge with emotion. Spock's breakthrough comes when he embraces his human half instead of rejecting it. For V'ger to grow, it must find a way to move beyond the cold machine logic of its programming. To do that, V'ger wants to "join" with its creator, and, in this, the film illuminates our need to strive for new goals and seek to attain the previously unattainable. And, while Star Trek - The Motion Picture doesn't answer the questions of "Who am I? Why am I here?", it isn't afraid to ask them.

It's interesting to note that the new special effects (produced by Foundation Imaging) - including an improved vision of Vulcan, a more impressive end to the wormhole sequence, our first view of the entire V'ger ship from the outside, and a change in the approach "walkway" to V'ger at the end - are done in such a manner that they blend seamlessly with the work done by Douglas Trumbell and John Dykstra 22 years ago. Nothing in Star Trek - The Motion Picture: Director's Edition seems out of place. A casual viewer who hasn't seen the film in more than two decades might assume that little or nothing had changed.

Jerry Goldsmith's score, which has since become a staple in the Star Trek musical lexicon, represents one of the film's strengths. It's the music, as much as the visuals, that makes the shuttle's initial approach to the Enterprise such a majestic moment. The sequence is overlong, but the thrill of hearing Goldsmith's score allows us to enjoy the moment rather than fall asleep. The ominous, ethereal strains of his V'ger themes enhance the sense that the Enterprise is penetrating ever deeper into a wondrous and dangerous realm as it moves deeper into the aliens' vessel.

When it comes to a Star Trek movie, the quality of acting is largely irrelevant. The familiar faces are all there doing pretty much what we expect them to do. William Shatner, ever the ham, applies his unique brand of overacting to Kirk, and we welcome it. (To be fair, Shatner is capable of giving a good performance as Kirk - something he does in Star Treks II, III, and VI.) Leonard Nimoy imbues Spock with a quiet dignity and DeForest Kelley slides easily into the part of the anti-technology old country doctor. The camaraderie between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, one of the strengths of the TV series, is in evidence here, although not to the extent that it could have been. As far as the newcomers are concerned, Stephen Collins is solid as Decker. However, while Persis Khambatta is striking to look at as the svelte, bald Ilia, this is not a memorable example of acting.

Re-visiting Star Trek - The Motion Picture via this director's cut is like seeing a familiar story unfold in a new way. Wise's picture was an ambitious effort from the beginning, striving for a greatness that it never attained. In this new version, it still falls short, but not by as much. It has taken more than 20 years for Robert Wise to return to his chapter of the Star Trek saga and fulfill his vision. With no hesitation, I can say that it has been worth the wait. Star Trek - The Motion Picture: Director's Edition vaults this movie from a position as one of the weakest entries in the long-running film series to a perch as one of the strongest.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Director's Cut) (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 2:16
U.S. Release Date: 2001-11-01
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1