- "There's a… thing… out there."
- "Why is any object we don't understand always called a 'thing'?"
I've never bought into the so-called "Odd-Numbered Movie Curse" that 'Star Trek' fans complain about. As popular consensus has it, only the even-numbered films in the series (2, 4, 6, etc.) are any good. I just don't buy it. In my estimation, the first and third movies are both much better than the overrated fourth. In fact, I consider 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' the most undervalued entry in the franchise.
I can understand most viewers' disappointment, however. 'The Motion Picture' does stand out as the odd duck in the series. Unlike most of its action-oriented sequels, the film was conceived as an old-fashioned, intellectual science fiction epic. It's a movie of Big Ideas, intended to tackle major philosophical questions like the classics of the genre ('Forbidden Planet', '2001: A Space Odyssey') used to. To that end, the producers even hired Robert Wise of 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' to direct. The movie opens with an overture. It has a deliberately slow pace, very little conflict, and no real villain. Frankly, this just wasn't what the audience of 1979 wanted. Sci-fi hit a turning point with the release of 'Star Wars' in 1977. Moviegoers from that point forward have expected huge space battles with laser blasts and explosions. 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' was a throwback, and people didn't know what to make of it. They still don't.
It had been a decade since the original 'Star Trek' TV series was canceled. Never a ratings hit in its day, the show had nevertheless built a sizable cult audience through broadcast syndication over the years. Paramount recognized the demand for a revival. Initially, a new series to be called 'Star Trek Phase II' was planned. But then 'Star Wars' happened, and suddenly every studio in Hollywood needed sci-fi properties for the big screen. 'Star Trek' seemed an obvious candidate. Thus 'Phase II' was reworked to become 'The Motion Picture'. What had been a campy ratings flop in the 1960s was to be a prestige picture with an A-List director, a huge budget, and all the special effects talent that Paramount could throw at it.
In the years since its original five-year mission, the starship Enterprise has had a major refit. New captain Willard Decker (Stephen Collins) is preparing to take the helm when surprised by a visit from James T. Kirk (William Shatner, of course), now an admiral. A giant energy cloud of unknown origin is on a course straight for Earth, wiping out everything in its path. The Enterprise has been tasked to intercept. Kirk, longing for his glory days, intends to take command himself, reassemble critical members of his old crew, and save the galaxy once more for old time's sake. Decker isn't exactly thrilled by the news.
Fans remember the original 'Star Trek' as an action-packed series. Truth be told, the show's primary motivation was always its exploration of moral and philosophical ideas. Creator Gene Roddenberry just used an adventure framework to tell those stories. As mentioned, 'The Motion Picture' leans more toward the high concepts and less toward the action. The identity and intent of the force behind that energy cloud is not quite what Kirk and crew expect. The film takes its time building up to the revelation, and resolves the conflict without any major battle scenes. This is the only 'Star Trek' movie without a single phaser blast.
For what it is, 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' is quite well written, has considerable character depth, and features stunning production values for a sci-fi movie of the time. The special effects work by Douglas Trumbull ('2001', 'Close Encounters') is amazing in its detail and complexity. Years before CGI, the models and miniatures here have real weight and presence on screen. Yes, the first reveal of the new Enterprise has been justifiably criticized for its almost agonizingly slow pacing. Kirk and Scotty's shuttlecraft tour of the exterior circles all the way around the ship, seemingly for no reason. But you must remember that this was the first time viewers had ever been granted such an up-close-and-personal view of one of the most important characters in the series. The scene was intended as a love letter to fans, and serves that purpose well.
The movie was scheduled as a major release in December of 1979. The complexity of the shoot and its many special effects left director Wise and crew scrambling to meet their deadline. Legend has it that the premiere release prints were rushed straight from the duplication lab and were still drying as the platters rolled. Wise often commented that he didn't have time to properly finish the movie, that he wanted to tighten the pacing and refine the sound mix. Without his participation, Paramount assembled a longer TV edit in the 1980s, by adding in a lot of superfluous footage and shots with visibly incomplete special effects.
Wise was finally allowed to rework the movie to his satisfaction for the 'Director's Edition' DVD release in 2001. That version of the film adds a bit of new footage, removes a little, and incorporates some brand new CG visual effects (rendered only in standard definition resolution, unfortunately). Most viewers claim to prefer it, although I have to wonder if the new edit just gave them an excuse to re-evaluate a movie they'd judged too harshly earlier. Personally, I felt that the pacing of the 'Director's Edition' was too choppy, and wasn't much impressed with many of the new visual effects. The movie still works in that form, and I have no serious objections to it. But, for me, I still prefer the 1979 theatrical cut. Imperfections and all, it feels to me like the most complete and polished version of the movie.
Despite their disappointment, 'Star Trek' and sci-fi fans turned out in droves to see 'The Motion Picture'. The movie was a big box office hit, enough for Paramount to commit to at least one sequel. Little did they realize that the property would soon explode in popularity, ushering forth a long string of further movies and spin-off TV series.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' is available on Blu-ray exclusively as part of the 'Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection' box set from Paramount Home Entertainment. The 7-disc set contains the first six 'Star Trek' films with Kirk and Spock, plus a 70-minute "Captain's Summit" roundtable discussion (details of which will be included in our review of 'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country'). The discs are each housed in individual slim Blu-ray keepcases within a white cardboard box and clear plastic slipcover. The front of the box features a lenticular image of the Enterprise flying through a Starfleet insignia. Each keepcase has a close-up photo of a major character's face.
The Blu-ray contains only the 131-minute theatrical cut of the film. It does not include either the 143-minute TV version assembled in the early 1980s, or the 136-minute 'Director's Edition' that was released on DVD in 2001. Reportedly, the new visual effects added to the 'Director's Edition' were rendered only in standard-definition resolution at the time.
Annoyingly, every single disc in the set automatically starts with a very loud trailer for the 2009 'Star Trek' feature film and an ad for the Blu-ray release of 'Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 1' before the main menu.
According to the vaguely-worded notice on the back of the box set's packaging, "The films have been digitally remastered and The Wrath of Khan has been fully restored in high definition with brilliant picture quality." What exactly that means, and what the difference is between "remastered" and "restored," has been the subject of much debate in internet discussion forums. Ever since the set was released, buzz has been circulating online that 'Star Trek II' is the only remotely watchable Blu-ray in the set, and that all of the others look like 18th-generation VHS tapes smothered in Digital Noise Reduction. At least as far as 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' is concerned, that's a huge load of bunk. This disc looks pretty terrific.
With that said, while watching the movie, you'll need to keep in mind the conditions under which it was made. The majority of the film was photographed using anamorphic lenses with short focal range on dimly-lit interior sets. As a result, there are a great many soft-focus scenes throughout the movie. Director Robert Wise also liked to play with split-diopter lenses, in which one side of the screen will be focused on the foreground while the other side of the screen will be focused on the background, usually with a visible line demarking the two. It's an effect that isn't used much in modern movies, and the dramatic drop-off in focus between the two sides of the screen can be very distracting at times. The special effects shots contain many layers of information optically-composited on top of one another, a process that caused a generation loss in quality and detail with each new layer added. On top of all that, most of the aging cast were plastered in pancake makeup to hide their wrinkles.
The result of all this is that 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' is inconsistent in sharpness throughout its running time. Some shots are vividly sharp and detailed, while others look soft and gauzy. None of this has anything to do with the disc transfer. That's just the way the movie looks. If anything, the Blu-ray's high-def transfer is so clear that it makes these shot-to-shot variances stand out more than they ever have on home video.
The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (presented at its theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio) looks significantly, often astoundingly, better than the movie's previous incarnations on DVD and other formats. In fact, it looks a lot better than the 35mm print I saw a few years ago. At its best, the disc is revelatory in its detail. DeForest Kelley's fake beard, William Shatner's toupee, and Stephen Collins' unibrow have never been so obvious. Colors are clean and accurate, and the picture has a very strong sense of object separation and depth. Paramount has also put in a tremendous amount of work cleaning up or digitally painting out the dirt and debris commonly associated with optically-composited special effects of the era.
That's not to say that it's perfect. Some grain removal and DNR artifacts are visible from time to time. The contrast appears to have been artificially boosted, which leads to a little bit of crushed shadow detail in the dark space scenes (most noticeable at the Spacedock). Even so, these are nit-picking quibbles at worst. Complaints you may read elsewhere about "waxy" facial features have been exaggerated way beyond any resemblance to reality. For the most part, this is a rich, dynamic, and very impressive Blu-ray transfer that is at least as good as, if not sometimes better than, the full-blown "restoration" performed for the next movie in the set. I only wish that all of the later movies fared so well.
Due to the movie's rushed production schedule, director Wise often complained that he didn't have time to fine-tune the sound mix. Nonetheless, 'The Motion Picture' has always had one of the more interesting sound designs of the entire 'Star Trek' series. The film makes inventive use of ambient tones and creative sound effects. It also has a truly majestic score by Jerry Goldsmith. For the later 'Director's Edition' recut, Wise inserted some new audio cues, some for the better and some decidedly not.
Back in 1979, the film played theatrically in Dolby Stereo. Although the Blu-ray has been remixed a bit to spread the channels to 7.1 configuration, it still represents the original sound design, without any of the 'Director's Edition' revisions.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack is big, bold, and brassy. The audio has nice musical heft and a clear sense of instrument separation in the score. Sound effects are sharply recorded and very directional. While the rear channels are primarily used for music bleed and ambience, certain sequences (like the wormhole) feature aggressive surround activity and throbbing bass. The memorable noises during the meeting with V'ger are crisp and clear. The track has excellent fidelity for a movie of the era.
A few scenes in the movie have subtitled alien dialogue. The subtitles are burned into the print within the Scope movie image, and are safe for viewing on 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection screens.
The Blu-ray carries over some, but not all, of the bonus features from the 2-disc Director's Edition DVD.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The Blu-ray also offers a more impressive selection of new content.
Will Work in Any Blu-ray Player
BD-Live: Requires Profile 2.0
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
The 2-disc Director's Edition DVD released in 2001 contained a few items that didn't make the transition to Blu-ray. Chief among these is the 136-minute 'Director's Edition' cut of the film itself. Also missing are an audio commentary by Robert Wise and several members of the production crew, a text trivia commentary by the Okudas, and three featurettes. The audio commentary was undoubtedly dropped because it was recorded specifically for that alternate version of the movie. The trivia in the text commentary was mostly consolidated into the new Library Computer feature.
The 'Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection' contains six feature films and an almost overwhelming volume of supplemental content, both old and new. As we'll detail in subsequent reviews, the video quality of some of the later movies in the set is a bit uneven. Nonetheless, all are significant improvements over their old DVD editions. Even with its high list price, the set is an easy recommendation for fans.
'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' is the most perpetually underrated of the 'Trek' films. The high-def video and lossless audio on this entry are both terrific. It stands to reason that Paramount will eventually re-release the film in its 'Director's Edition' form. How long that will take, I can't say. (They'll need to re-render all those CG effects.) In the meantime, this is a pretty great disc, easily the best presentation for the movie's theatrical cut yet released on home video.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.