Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thataway


STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, originally released on December 7, 1979, is now thirty years old which essentially makes it a part of history. For whatever reason, I did not see it at the time. Considering it had a G rating back then, you’d think my parents would have taken me but of course I know now they would have been pretty bored if they had. Given a massive budget at the time, the film has since become legendary for being one of the most down-to-the-wire Hollywood productions ever seen before or since. The product released to theaters was a version felt by legendary director Robert Wise to be essentially a rough cut. Years later he was finally able to fix these issues with his own director’s edition on DVD but the complicated history of the film has meant that there has been essentially four separate versions seen in public at one time or another, with the various running times coming in at between 132 and 143 minutes. Briefly, the different cuts are as follows: 1. The original theatrical version. 2. The network version which aired on ABC, restoring what was felt by many to be valuable footage and the positive response resulted in it being eventually released on VHS at that length. 3. A slightly altered version first seen when the film was shown at special marathon screenings to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Trek, which reinstated some of that footage but left out others—particularly an unfinished effects shot of Kirk exiting the ship in pursuit of Spock and finally 4. The Director’s Edition, which premiered on disc in 2001. Unfortunately, the reinstated effects prepared for that version were not prepared in HD so the version recently released on Blu-Ray is apparently the theatrical cut.


Ultimately, what needs to sometimes be faced is that no matter which version it is, STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE is still going to be STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE. There are certain flaws which will always be present that cannot be removed. The film is epic, mythic, no doubt about that, especially for anyone who was a certain age at the time (that includes me, who was certainly exposed to the advertising—must have been the effect of Orson Welles narrating the ads) and I could imagine also for anyone who had spent the ten years since the show’s cancellation waiting for more. One of the most fascinating things about ST:TMP then and now is that, for a film whose existence can be attributed to the success of STAR WARS, the film has many more similarities to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Much of the same could be said of THE BLACK HOLE, which opened in theaters only two weeks after this one (both films were also the last films ever to feature overtures at the start). Of course, THE MOTION PICTURE doesn’t quite live up to that 2001 comparison for a variety of reasons. For that to happen it needed a visionary behind the camera who could at least aspire to being his own Kubrick, willing to shatter the Trek mythos and send it hurtling in different directions. Instead, they got men who were there to make this movie, a big outer-space extravaganza at a time when everybody was making one. Nevertheless, I’ve still seen it countless times through the years to the point that when a two-second change occurs in the director’s edition it still sticks out. It’s also impossible to deny how valuable this groundwork which was laid was to what the franchise of Star Trek was to become over the coming years. At its best the film seems filled with possibilities as we watch it and dream of the human adventure it tells us is just beginning. At its weakest it feels like a bunch of people standing in a room staring at a monitor, without a script that can live up to the questions they seem to be asking.


Several years after the end of the original ‘five-year mission’ a giant cloud appears, destroying several Klingon vessels and a Federation outpost in the process as it makes its way directly towards Earth. With the newly refurbished Enterprise (which in my mind I’ve always equated with the 70s renovation of Yankee Stadium) the only vessel within range, now-Admiral Kirk (Shatner) takes command of his old ship, taking the seat from the younger Will Decker (Stephen Collins). With much of his old crew (DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett, Grace Lee Whitney) and new navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), the Deltan former love of Decker in place, the Enterprise sets out and is soon joined by Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) ready to help but also carrying his own agenda. The ship soon encounters the massive cloud and, after spending a great deal of time flying around inside it, Ilia is absorbed by a piece of energy emitted from it in an attack but her form soon reappears as a probe which refers to the cloud only as V’Ger, an entity which is in search of its creator. With Decker the only link to her human side, the crew desperately tries to uncover answers as the cloud gets closer to Earth.


The problems with ST: TMP have been well-documented by now and are quite numerous. It would be easy to place the blame on the script (Story by Alan Dean Foster, Screenplay by Harold Livingston, though quite a lot of it feels like it comes from Gene Roddenberry) but multiple accounts have it being a very difficult production with the various powers involved (Wise, Roddenberry, Paramount, the stars) continually involved with things. At times rewrites on scenes were coming in several times in a day. So it’s impressive—hell, miraculous—that this film got finished at all but it still feels like there are problems which should have been addressed at a very early stage. We not only spend most of the movie on the Enterprise, the majority of it occurs in the confining area of the bridge, a place populated by principal actors who never seem as energetic as you’d think they would be. Not to mention how that bridge looks like an awfully gloomy, unexciting place to spend this much time, so it says something about how Nicholas Meyer took the exact same set when he made WRATH OF KAHN and actually brought some life to the room.


There’s a basic coldness to much of the production which is certainly intentional, from how the uniforms seem designed to make every person blend into the walls of the ship (how functional would these things be down on a planet?) to the essential problem of just which character’s thematic journey this film is supposed to be. What is the dramatic goal of anyone here? Kirk just wants the Enterprise back, which he does at the beginning—problem solved (the next film found a way to make this plot strand work as drama). Spock wants his ‘answers’ which he kind of gets, I guess, but it’s not entirely clear what this is supposed to mean to anyone watching it. McCoy isn’t there for any reason other than to provide Kirk with a sounding board and why is he spending so much time hanging out on the bridge, anyway? Decker wants, I don’t know, another chance with Ilia? The Decker-Ilia romance, an obvious rough draft for Riker-Troi on THE NEXT GENERATION, is a total non-starter and we’re never given any reason to care about either one. All we know about Ilia is that she’s Deltan, which means she has several vaguely defined special abilities, so she hasn’t really registered in any real way before she’s ‘killed’. That this film is apparently presenting her bald look as sexy also seems to say something about the blandness of this future utopia. Decker is, well, a jut-jawed stoic type, coming off determined enough but I guess is no match for Kirk in the captain’s chair--his final decision comes off as not much more than a desperate act by a man determined to get with his main crush no matter what. I’m not sure that even I’d go to this sort of extreme and I’ve carried some major fixations on girls in my time.

To a great extent the story feels like it’s reaching for a profundity that no one working on it could ever agree on so it’s not always clear why the characters are thinking about it as well. After McCoy asks Kirk a question about Spock which Kirk interprets as wondering if the Vulcan could put his own interest in V’Ger ahead of the ship, Bones then asks, “How do we know about any of us?” but there really seems to be no reason for anyone, let alone McCoy, making such an inquiry about anyone but Spock (I’m sure that the novelization that I read decades ago clarified certain things, not that I’m going to go looking for a copy now). There is something in the greater idea of putting aside this utopia in search of bigger answers to life…but STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE turns out to be the wrong film in which to ask it, instead teasing us with the mystery of V’Ger and the promise that it will lead to an extraordinary revelation, which it really doesn’t. STAR TREK V, a film with its own issues, had a similar problem and they weren’t able to solve it there either.


We do get many, many striking visuals thanks to the likes of Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra and countless technicians (there were massive problems with the effects before Trumbull & Dykstra came onboard, resulting in the tight schedule), along with the occasional gripping moment. Robert Wise deserves a great deal of credit for keeping this all together—there are some striking compositions throughout featuring the Scope frame, some of which make repeated use of the split diopter, but too often his camera feels staid, constricted, with not much happening either visually or storywise. The buildup where the characters are getting reacquainted is one thing but when the ship gets there we get way too much footage of spectacular visuals within V’Ger, followed by a cut to people looking amazed, then repeat that process endlessly. Even when the Ilia-probe finally appears it becomes more waiting as Decker shows it/her around the ship complete with Kirk and McCoy sitting, drinking coffee as they watch what’s going on.


Looking at the entire film this time one of the most successful sequences was in fact Spock finally taking some initiative and journeying into the heart of V’Ger himself via spacesuit. The effects here are not just beautiful but genuinely striking and that imagery combined with Jerry Goldsmith’s score and the for-once kinetic rhythms of the editing (credited to Todd C. Ramsay) make it genuinely cinematic in all the best ways. The sequence is as exciting as we would want this film to be—unlike how this sort of thing is done these days, it’s not about action but a form of discovery and following Spock as he experiences all this for himself is thrilling even now. Of course, even here I look at that genuinely striking image of ‘Ilia’ as it is presented to Spock and I can’t help but think, what is this really supposed to be? Is it anything more than just a striking image? Ilia has no special meaning for Spock so what does it matter that this is presented to him?

And though it’s hardly gone unnoticed, Jerry Goldsmith’s now-classic score is indeed a true masterwork—it’s as if he’s scoring the movie we wish we were seeing, convincing us of how exiting it all is. The six-minute flyover of the Enterprise is one of his most perfect marriages of imagery and music, pretty much justifying the scene’s excessive length. I’m sure I’ve made jokes about how long it is like most of the world but I still wouldn’t want it any shorter. More than anything else in the film (including our brief look at twenty-third century Earth, which has that seventies-LOGAN’S RUN look to it) this sequence gives us a glimpse of the possibilities within the old STAR TREK optimism. It sets us up to be excited for a spectacular adventure…but it would of course be several years before something with Star Trek in the title would really provide one.


Amidst all of this are a group of actors who possibly seem worn down by all the pressures of the production and with all the low-level lighting frankly are at times not particularly shot in flattering ways (cinematography by Richard H. Kline). The muted approach seems to rob us of some of the fun of their interactions (the supporting cast of course has next to nothing to do), with the exception of the always welcome DeForest Kelley who gets just about the only colorful dialogue, particularly the classic “Why is any object we don’t understand always called a thing?” That one line seems to sum up the dry approach they were taking more than anyone involved may have realized. I always do like hearing Shatner-as-Kirk say ‘parallel’ however. Stephen Collins has shown much more personality in other projects through the years and Persis Khambatta, who died in 1998 at the age of 49, seems like a nice person who isn’t getting much help from anyone. She is good at giving the camera yearning stares in her Ilia-probe guise, though.


My first viewing of the film was on VHS a number of years after its release. It was the longer TV cut, naturally and it wasn’t until several years after that when I got to see the original theatrical cut (it was the only way you could see it letterboxed at the time). After hearing over the years about all its problems I was surprised to find in some ways a much cleaner film then I was expecting—the character bits added back for the TV version in feel a little clumsy at times. The famous scene of Spock crying for V’Ger was seen as the greatest revelation—I can imagine that it was originally cut due possibly to seeming redundant after his speech in sickbay, but it still belongs there, adding much needed resonance to everything that occurs. The Director’s Edition keeps some things and loses others while tightening pieces in the process—the smile exchanged by Decker and Ilia as the Enterprise departs is taken from elsewhere, correctly losing the pointless dialogue that was once heard because their acknowledging each other is all that matters. The selling point in 2001 was probably the added digital effects which are nice and at times extremely helpful to the flow, like the longer introduction to Vulcan, something I always thought was needed. But looking at them now with several years distance they don’t seem as necessary as the editorial changes which I imagine had been bugging Wise all those years. One shot in particular where we’re shown the full exterior as V’Ger as it approaches Earth actually hurts the film a little since showing it to us in its entirety actually makes it seem smaller than what was previously implied. Still, this final cut of the film was the last work ever signed by the late director and it feels important for that reason.


Whatever else one can say about it, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE still feels more like a monument then a film, suspended in the imagery seen on the famous poster. The characters are there, but not exactly the way we think of them and as a result the film seems like this odd anomaly, caught between Gene Roddenberry’s vision of perfect humanity and Robert Wise’s old Hollywood craftsmanship, with little regard for making all the elements correctly come together. Something needed to be stirred up to get rid of some of this rigid control and, as it turned out, Paramount made the right move when Nicholas Meyer was hired to direct the next film. But STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE in all its epic form is still impressive to see all these years later even if sometimes I feel like all I’m left with at the end is the uplift of the Goldsmith fanfare. Maybe it’s because within the muddled thematic approach and overly bland visual palette the film genuinely maintains the power to remind us that that the human adventure is just beginning. And all these years after it was first released, it still is.

8 comments:

Marty McKee said...

I was so eager to see this that I read the novelization (supposedly written by Roddenberry) beforehand, which actually did clear up some of the movie's confusing scenes for this then-12-year-old fan. I've seen ST:TMP I don't know how many times, and still get a kick out of it, warts and all. I know the flyover gets sand kicked in its face for being too long, but I can't imagine any true TREK fan not loving it. I feel just like Kirk does when I see it--and I have the extra benefit of listening to Goldsmith's tremendous score.

Actually, ST:TMP was not finished when it was released. Rumor has it the print used for the 12/6/79 Washington D.C. preview was still wet (!), and theatrical prints showed a glaring error--part of the set is clearly missing when Spock leaves to meet V'Ger, and you can see the girders holding up the set. This was fixed in the Director's Edition.

Joe Valdez said...

I can't say if I had $40 million to make a space movie with I would follow The Motion Picture playbook, but I think you distilled what makes the movie special, Peel: it is an event that captures the mystique of outer space, something between an epic and an art film.

Interesting this is the result we got from a studio that was desperately trying to cash in on Star Wars. The two films couldn't be any different. And I'll take The Motion Picture over the J.J. Abrams version any day of the week, even a day consisting of a Persis Khambatta career retrospective.

THE FUTURIST! said...

THE FUTURIST! asks: Which version did you view for this essay? THE FUTURIST! owns the Director's Cut and was given (as a Christmas Gift) the slim-cased new boxed set of all 6 films with the theatrical cut.

joemart said...

Peel,

Again, an insighful essay.

I saw ST:TMP in the theaters when it opened and always felt it was a bloated mess. I put the blame squarely on Robert Wise whose best decades were behind him. He sucked the life out of "The Andromeda Strain" as well...

There's a good 90 minute movie in ST:TMP when you cut away the fat.

Fred said...

Great attempt Mr. Peel, but I still think ST:TMP sucks, just like I did when I saw it on the night of its first release in New York. I went with my brothers, my cousin and my best friend, all lovers of the original series, and the only highlight was the ice cream sunday I had at Swenson's across the street from the theater after the movie (mercifully) ended. I had never been more disappointed by a movie before or since, and felt that it was Paramount and Wise pandering to Trek fans by thinking that long takes of the Enterprise and putting the cast together on the screen for the first time in a very long decade would make up for the lack of a plot, characterization, editing, cinematography, costuming and sets. Well, at least Swenson's had good hot fudge sauce that night.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

In my opinion, the core of ST:TMG is the 20-minute V'Ger fly-through. My only issue with the movie is that it comes after the drugs start wearing off.

Ken Rasak said...

Enjoyed this post. On my way home from a Christmas with my folks this year, I shared a flight with Stephen Collins (out of Detroit). I had just heard an NPR game show featuring George Takei (Sulu), so it felt like a Star Trek kind of night.

Mr. Peel said...

I could have sworn I'd replied to some of these comments already--my mistake. Anyway, thank you all for the terrific comments and recollections of this film! For the record, I watched the Director's Edition on DVD--it's just easier that way and I haven't made the leap to Blu-Ray. I did dig out my VHS tape of the theatrical cut to watch a little, but I don't think that affected my take on things much at all. I'm still glad I have it around, though.