Note as of July, 2014: A partially obsolete piece since the Theatrical Cut is what's currently available in HD and the Director's Cut version remains only available in SD/DVD. Funny...
So last night I'm transferring the Laserdisc of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) onto the computer for DVD burning and I get to thinking a little about this film. Why am I spending time transferring an old Laser when there's a DVD available (which I own)? Because this is the only way to view the original theatrical cut of the film in its 'scope aspect ratio. The old VHS and Beta (yes, I have one of these too!) video tapes were pan/scanned and used the television cut which ran 143 minutes. This version, which was never mastered at the correct aspect ratio, has a bunch of scenes that are either redundant or detract from the film. Let's face it: the original version (132 minutes) is long enough as it is (there's truth to the joke, "Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture").
The Laser version is the way the film ran when I first saw it in 1979. The current DVD, which has some interesting updates and a bunch of bonuses, lacks the original theatrical version. They did this kind of tweaking to Blade Runner, but gave fans the option of buying a set with the theatrical cut. So, this is Trek: fans are well used to re-purchasing material. I'm sure they would have paid a few extra bucks for a version of this DVD that included all the various cuts. I know I would have. But they didn't, so here I am copying over the disc. It's analog video that looks inferior to the DVD, but it's original.
So what about this movie? Needless to say, it isn't the best film of the series. Many don't care for or are indifferent to it. Much of the criticism of the film is valid but allow me to make a bit of my own.
1) The original cast standing around with little to do than pose for reaction shots. I think this gets at the heart of what's wrong with the film: where's the chemistry? They manage to get everyone back (even Janice Rand!) from the original series and the screenplay has them either making speeches or interacting in slight monotones. There are a few moments where the old character interaction comes back, but it's far too infrequent. The Decker (unit!) and Ilia characters seem to have more spark than the crew we all know/love (and this is sad since they're pretty lame characters). I see two reasons for this: the writing and the directing. The dialog is what it is, but couldn't Wise have wrung some emotion out of the scenes sometimes? I found myself missing the Shatner scenery-chewing (scary).
2) Long and boring. This is often why people have negative reactions to the film. Part of the problem here is that all the grand camera sweeps around the new Enterprise don't have the same impact on a small screen. I remember being blown out of my seat at the Rapid Theater when I first saw it. There was a lot of anticipation attached to that film. All I'd seen was the TV show and this was the new, big, shiny Enterprise on the big screen with a pompous (but in a good way) musical score to match. There's even an overture. Some of that slow exposition works well getting us back into the Trek world. They do spend too much time later on in the film showing off the effects and having the actors look like they're as impressed as we should be. There is a lot of standing around talking; this is a slow, deliberate "ideas" movie without much in the way of space battles or Kirk rolling around in the dirt fighting. One scene that stands out in all of this is the opening where the Klingons are re-introduced. Between the great music and the models/effects (which always looked good to me), this section kicks butt.
Another thing that DVD Savant points out, which I agree with, is the costumes and color schemes. The film has a drab color that isn't helped by the silly pajama-like uniforms the crew wear. And what's with the probe-Ilia's voice? If the probe duplicates the person "in every detail," why the robo-voice? Did they think the audience wouldn't remember her being zapped beforehand?
The "director's cut" DVD redoes effects and slightly reedits the film. Nothing substantial here. Sure, there are some cool-looking effects that appear, but it doesn't address the fundamental problems with the movie. Not that it could, really, unless there was some completely different version of the film out there.
Okay, so I have problems with the film. If so, why spend the time to preserve the theatrical version I've been slamming?
Nostalgia, obviously plays a big part. I have a soft spot for the film, not as much as the original Star Wars, but it is important. One of the things, besides the nostalgia angle, is how the cast still looks somewhat young in this film. Shatner looks reasonably fit and the rest of the cast is in pretty good shape. It's fun the see the TV cast on the big screen before they really got old. So, this isn't that significant a deal, but there's just something about it being the connection between the series and the long-running movie franchise.
Whenever I see this film today, I can't help but wonder what it could have been. Maybe the pressures of the release schedule (well-documented) were to blame, but if the screenplay had just placed more emphasis on the characters than the "space wedgie", it could have been much better. I was psyched to see the Enterprise on the big screen, but what we all really wanted was to see the old cast get back out there. Just having them present was great, but it could have been so much more. The tired old humans vs. machines thing wasn't what we want, it's Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and co. that we lined up back in 1979 to see. But we have what we have and I'll continue to enjoy it with my nostalgic haze, even from that mediocre Laserdisc.