Legendary director Robert Wise’s attempt to bring theworld of Star Trek to the big screenin 1979 understandably remains the most divisive and troubled entry in thecanon for numerous reasons. To beginwith, its creator Gene Roddenberry lobbied Paramount Pictures to continue theseries through film, only to have them flip flop on the idea by planning whatwould have become a reboot of the television series with a new cast called Star Trek: Phase II. Many of the cast members, most notablyStephen Collins as Decker and Persis Khambatta as Ilia would have helmed theseries as its main stars. But then afterthe unexpected success of science fiction ventures like Star Wars and CloseEncounters of the Third Kind, Paramount changed their minds and cancelled Phase II in lieu of making a $15 millionStar Trek film with the Academy Awardwinning director of such science fiction classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain behind it.
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|Vulcan:Original versus Director"s Edition|
In a move that would spell doom for countless films throughout history,most notably Alien 3, Paramountissued a release date for the film well before the cameras began rolling,producing a rushed film that was completed just days before the premiere. Between endless script revisions that tookplace during the production as well as the brazen move to fire the film’sentire original special effects team in favor of Close Encounters’ effects technician Douglas Trumbull, it’s kind ofamazing that a watchable Star Trek filmemerged from the chaos at all. Notunlike Close Encounters of the Third Kind,its director admitted what went to theaters was more or less a rough cut withmany areas left unfinished or hastily assembled to meet the studio’sdeadline.
As a result of the schedulingimpositions on both Close Encounters andwhat became Star Trek: The Motion Picture,home video soon saw the release of alternate versions of the films offering aunique look at what came to be and what might have been had their respectivecreators had more time to finish them as they saw fit. While that’s not to say Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have emerged as a flawlessventure, it’s interesting to consider the possibility of a better version ofthe same story being told to viewers.With that, the Movie Sleuth takes a unique gander at the threedistinctly different releases of StarTrek: The Motion Picture in an effort to determine which of the threerepresents the best possible version of this still deeply flawed but beautifulepic that brought Star Trek back intocultural consciousness.
Early into StarTrek: The Motion Picture, Scotty (James Doohan) remarks to Captain Kirk(William Shatner), ‘she’ll launch on time sir, and she’ll be ready’. Thinking about this particular line ofdialogue can’t help but beg the question, was Star Trek: The Motion Picture ever really ready before it wasunleashed on the first audiences who saw it?Completed days before the premiere with post-production visual effectswizard Douglas Trumbull working overtime to meet the deadline, this is theversion of Star Trek: The Motion Picture firstseen by audiences on December 7th, 1979. While a fully functioning film withbreathtaking vistas, ornate production design and a sense of awe and wondermissing somewhat from the other following StarTrek pictures, the 1979 version clearly suffers from the tight scheduleimposed on the filmmakers. Outside ofattempting to capture the realism of space travel with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as well aspondering thought provoking questions concerning the inextricable link betweenextraterrestrial and human life TheMotion Picture doesn’t really feel like a Star Trek film.
It’s a feastfor the eyes on every front but it moves at a pace unbecoming of theseries. The opening introduction of theredesigned Enterprise goes on far too long in all three cuts of the film andthe premise is closer to mid-70s science fiction interested in ideas instead ofaction. When the Enterprise happens uponthe alien cloud careening slowly towards Earth, it goes on and on and on. One has to wonder how much of the sluggishpacing is due to pleasing the numerous Trekkies glimpsed in the staff meetingwho were overjoyed to see their favorite television show get such a lavishtreatment. For some that’s been theaccusation for years. Others complainedwhether rushed or not, the characters and story take a backseat to the visualeffects. Whatever the case, Robert Wisehas gone on to say his film would have been tighter and more balanced if he hadmore time to tie up loose ends.
Produced for network television by Paramount Pictureswithout Robert Wise’s involvement or permission, what became known as the Special Longer Version addedapproximately twelve minutes of footage to the film and premiered in 1983. Soon all the Betamax, VHS and laserdisceditions of Star Trek: The Motion Pictureconformed to this longer version and the original theatrical release of thefilm wasn’t seen again for years until the widescreen laserdisc release of thefilm in the early 1990s. In the earlytradition of reformatting the film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio down to a heavilycropped 1.33:1 television ratio, StarTrek: The Motion Picture had half of the picture information cut off withdreadful pan-and-scan and occasional stretched images. As for the extra scenes themselves, most ofthe moments feel like snippets scattered throughout the film. Some of it is relevant, including a momentwhere Spock weeps for VGer and Ilia uses telekinesis to ease Chekov’s pain fromhis third degree burnt hand.
There’salso more time spent with Decker and Ilia than previously. Other scenes however, notably a scene whereCaptain Kirk is seen leaving the ship’s atmosphere in an attempt to retrieveSpock from penetrating VGer’s central core, stick out like a sore thumb. Besides the spacesuit design Kirk wearschanging inexplicably when it cuts back to the theatrical footage, a wide shotof Kirk leaving the airlock reveals flags and elements of the set pieceintended to be matted away by the visual effects department. Reportedly this was part of an unusedsequence which became known as the Memory Wall scene. Why this scene which was never completedproperly in the first place returned to the longer version of the film stillmakes no sense, particularly for the jarring break with continuity itsinclusion creates. The Special Longer Version also makes theearly mistake often made with director’s cuts or expanded versions of films inthat whatever was left on the cutting room floor gets jammed back into thepicture whether it throws the pacing off balance or not. Understandably, Robert Wise disapproved ofthis version and soon would be granted permission to finish up his own finalizedDirector’s Edition version of thefilm in 2001.
When news broke out in the post Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition era that Robert Wise was goingback to Star Trek: The Motion Picture tonot only recut the film but revise many of the film’s visual effects includingreturning to unused conceptual art and the original script, people wereunderstandably skeptical. Not to worrythough, because the newly created CGI visual effects shots took great care toconform to the look of the original models and optical effects work of the 1979picture. The most noticeable changes inthis area involve the look of Spock’s planet Vulcan, which went from a volcanicmoon to the Tattooine look of The Searchfor Spock and The Voyage Home. While I still prefer the 1979 look of Vulcanversus the revised and reimagined look, it’s subdued and doesn’t stray too farfrom the original footage. Anothernotable standout involves a special effect that was never shot where rocks forma bridge between the Enterprise and VGer as opposed to the bridge already beingthere. It’s a minor effect but cool tosee. More than anything, what becameknown as The Director’s Edition iseasily the most well-paced of all three versions currently available, addingsome of the moments of the Special LongerVersion while cutting out most of the rest.Shots of the Enterprise traveling inside VGer that seemed to go onforever have now been abbreviated by trimming a few seconds out of every shot andthe whole scene, while still lengthy, moves along much faster than before.
The film’s sound design was also almostcompletely re-recorded with modern sound mixing technology, a move that willaggravate some purists including the removal of vocal recordings that blare‘Intruder Alert!’ over the loudspeakers.I could have done without the addition of the Wilhelm Scream in thescene where Chekov’s hand is burned, but it’s a minor grievance. Unfortunately for this version, which wasoriginally intended for theatrical re-release before going to DVD, the newlycreated CGI visual effects were mastered in 480 interlaced resolution and thuswould have to be entirely re-rendered for Blu-Ray, making this cut of the filma DVD exclusive for the moment. Maybeone day it’ll make the transition to Blu-Ray but for now the recently releasedBlu-Ray boxed set only uses the 1979 theatrical version of the film.
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While I’m a purist and won’t deny all three versionsstill represent an imperfect film whose problems stem far beyond the editingroom, The Movie Sleuth has to go with the Director’sEdition for the simple fact that it’s the tightest version and moves thefastest. It’s still slow and drawn out,but many of the films longest scenes now move at a brisker pace and some of there-rendered visual effects make for smoother transitions as well as correctingjarring limitations of the technology at the time. Yes its slightly longer than the alreadyoverlong 1979 version released in theaters, but not by much and the completeoverhaul of the entire picture makes the experience feel closer to being afinished package than before. While I domiss the original look of Vulcan, the change isn’t anywhere near the alterationof the City of Clouds in The EmpireStrikes Back and the film still looks like it did when it first cameout. Blu-Ray owners will likely wind upwatching the original 1979 version due to its increased resolution and enhancedsound design over the DVD, but if I were to show the film to someone who hasnever seen it before, I’d show them the 2001 Director’s Edition without the slightest hesitation. For a movie that was never really finished inthe first place before being unleashed upon audiences, this is the closest Star Trek: The Motion Picture has cometo finally being finished.