Ten years and five months after the last STAR TREK episode aired on NBC, Paramount released the big-budget ($40 million) STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE in theaters on December 7, 1979—thirty years ago today. It almost didn't make it--the movie's post-production schedule was so rushed in order to meet the locked-in release date that it was never actually finished! There was no time for a sneak preview so Wise could engage in some final tweaking, and legend has it the print used for the Washington, D.C. premiere (on December 6) was rushed straight from the lab and was still wet.
ST:TMP gets off to a rousing start, as a trio of Klingon battle cruisers are zapped by a gigantic space cloud on a direct heading toward Earth. The upgraded U.S.S. Enterprise, under the command of Captain Will Decker (Stephen Collins, later the dad on SEVENTH HEAVEN), is the only starship close enough to engage the cloud before it reaches Earth, but is still being rebuilt after eighteen months in drydock. The Enterprise's former captain, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), uses the mission as an excuse to wrestle command of the vessel away from Decker, leaving the younger officer on board as his first officer.
Reunited with much of his original crew, including irascible physician Dr. "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Kirk and Co. set off in search of the cloud creature, which has now added space outpost Epsilon Nine to its destruction tote board. Along the way, the Enterprise picks up a surprise passenger--former science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), whose journey towards inner peace on his home planet of Vulcan has failed and who now joins his old friend Kirk.
Approaching the cloud outside the solar system, the Enterprise crew is stunned when new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a sensual bald alien from the Delta system, is abducted and then returned to the ship...but in another form. The entity, which calls itself "V'Ger", has sent a robot probe in the form of Ilia (in a fetching white minidress and lighted button on her throat) to the Enterprise to learn more about the carbon units inhabiting it. It appears V'Ger wants to meet its "Creator", and plans to wipe out Earth's population unless it gets some answers ("Answer?" asks Kirk. "I don't know the question.").
Although it was one of the most anticipated films ever released up to that time, the final result is a hit-or-miss affair. Seeing Kirk, Spock et al. on the big screen after a decade of syndicated reruns was a huge thrill for TREK fans, and the Oscar-nominated visual effects by John Dykstra (STAR WARS), Douglas Trumbull (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), Richard Yuricich (SILENT RUNNING) and several others are often poetic and awe-inspiring.
What doesn't work are the flat screenplay by Harold Livingston (THE HELL WITH HEROES), in which the cast is forced to spend too much time staring gape-mouthed at a blue screen, and the stodgy direction of Hollywood veteran Robert Wise (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), which doesn't breathe much life into the proceedings. Except for a Spock mindmeld (often overused as a deux es machina on the TV show), the original cast barely engage in the plot, and even during the colorful and even thought-provoking climax, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are left standing around watching others do all the work.
It's a tribute to the talent and imagination of composer Jerry Goldsmith that ST:TMP works as well as it does. His majestic score, capped by a heroic theme that was appropriated by producer Gene Roddenberry for the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION series, is not only one of his best, but one of the best scores ever written and performed for a SF film. Take, for instance, the extended sequence in which Kirk, riding in a shuttlecraft, sees his beloved Enterprise floating in space for the first time. Goldsmith's grand music cue can be construed as a love theme, and, combined with magnificent FX work and Shatner's reactions, the scene, although lengthy, is one of ST:TMP's best.
Paramount's 2-disc DVD set, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE--THE DIRECTOR'S EDITION gave Wise a chance to go back and revisit his penultimate film, fixing the problems he didn't have time to fix originally because of the tight post schedule.
NOTE: Paramount's recent Blu-ray release is not the Director's Edition, but rather the 1979 theatrical cut. One assumes the studio will be expecting Trek fans to double-dip in the near future…
The visual effects upgrades in the Director's Edition range from very good (the new wormhole explosion) to just okay (the spacewalk sequence contains a CGI bridge formed by lights). Wise also took the opportunity to cut a few instances of weak dialogue (Kirk's "Oh, my God" following the transporter accident is one) and tighten the pace. I didn't really feel that Wise's new cut was any improvement upon the original film, although he doesn't really harm it either. Since he isn't making changes just for the sake of it, but only to make the film he wanted but was unable to in 1979, I can tolerate Wise's indulgence (Wise passed away in 2005).
Not much remastering seems to have gone into restoring the print used for the DVD--portions still appear a bit fuzzy and a few scratches appear. It looks good in its 2.35:1 form though, and is more than matched by the powerful Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (there's also a Dolby Surround 2.0 option), which booms the Goldsmith score through your speakers. Included is an audio commentary chat by Wise, Goldsmith, Collins, Trumbull and Dykstra, as well as a text commentary by STAR TREK ENCYCLOPEDIA author Michael Okuda, which is pretty dry, but does occasionally reveal some interesting TREK tidbits.
Disc Two contains a trio of documentaries, which are slick but ultimately disappointing. ST:TMP had a long and frustrating pre-production period in which it was to be, at various times, a new TV series, a series of made-for-TV movies, a low-budget theatrical potboiler, and the big-budget epic that finally emerged. The documentaries sadly don't go into much detail, although there is some neat test footage of the proposed STAR TREK: PHASE II series that would have spearheaded a fourth Paramount-financed broadcast network (two decades before the now-defunct UPN). All the footage snipped by Wise for the Director's Edition has been retained as an extra, as well as footage inserted by ABC into its 1983 broadcast (including one notorious shot of Kirk floating away from the Enterprise airlock, clearly showing the rigging and girders of the unfinished set and even a crew member moving around in the back of the shot!). There are three trailers (some very cheesy electronic videogame-sounding music was used) and eight TV spots narrated by Orson Welles (Wise edited CITIZEN KANE) included. It's very odd to see how Paramount chose to market ST:TMP (not very well).
The DVD is a must for TREK fans. While it would have been nice to hear a commentary by the major cast members and to receive more candor in the documentaries concerning the production hassles, Paramount's release is a very nice package.