Here’s a question: why are there matte lines in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (ST:TMP) – The Director’s Edition – Remastered? Yeah, those odd-looking outlines on the Klingon ships in the opening battle scene, for example. Why are those there? This movie has been re-assembled from the original camera negative (rescanned) with re-composited analog (1970s-era) visual effects and re-rendered (2000s-era) computer-generated (CG) visual effects. So, why does the film overall look like it barely escaped the ’70s?
Since my childhood, there has been (and probably always will be) a level of my Trekkieness that appreciates Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In 2010, I wrote a review praising the 2001 Director’s Edition re-edit/gussying-up of ST:TMP. (I do remember writing it… it had been a long weekend away from work. I popped in the original DVD of the Director’s Edition of the movie, and really liked it.)
That was 12 years ago (hard to believe!). In the time since, and especially after I watched the original theatrical version of ST:TMP in a real movie theater in 2019, I’ve come to the conclusion, odd though it may be, that I like the original theatrical version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture better than the Director’s Edition.
And that opinion puts me in the minority. Most anyone who’s written about ST:TMP since 2001 (when the DVD of the director’s cut was released) proclaims the Director’s Edition to be the superior version. However, upon my re-viewings, there’s something about the 1979 theatrical version of the movie that just seems to flow better than its 2001/2022 counterpart. As another critic wrote in 2009, “…the pacing of the Director’s Edition [is] too choppy, and [I] wasn’t much impressed with many of the new visual effects.”
Lost? No worries. Here’s the backstory, in one long paragraph: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (directed by Robert Wise, yep, the same guy who made The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews) was released in 1979. It was a no-expense-spared old-school Hard Science Fiction adventure movie (think more 2001: A Space Odyssey, less Star Wars). It was a box-office success, but received mixed reviews. The Motion Picture was the first official Star Trek live-action production of any kind after the original television series had been canceled in 1969. Even though it was a big-budget “prestige picture” with an A-list director, the movie was produced under some horrible working conditions and extreme duress. As a result, when ST:TMP was released to theaters in December ’79, Wise decided it wasn’t in a completed state. In 2001, the original studio, Paramount Pictures, released a DVD (home video copy) of the movie, containing Wise’s re-edit, with reworked visual effects (taking the original 1970s special visual effects and augmenting them with then-new computer-generated effects), a new sound mix, new dialogue in places, and a few other changes. Wise died in 2005, but in 2021, a group of filmmakers (who’d worked on ST:TMP in 2000-01), with Paramount’s backing, returned to the film and produced a new new version (incorporating Wise’s 2001 revisions with newer computer-generated effects, a newer sound mix, new music score mix, and further changes). That version, dubbed Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition – Remastered, was released via Internet streaming in April 2022, with a forthcoming release to the physical 4K ultra high-definition Blu-ray format in September 2022.
Whoa, that was a slog. But if you’re among the uninitiated, that should bring you current to 2022, more or less!
The “big deal” about this 2022 version of ST:TMP is simply that the studio has re-rendered the 2001 Director’s Edition CG effects, and made other changes, to now be able to stream/broadcast/project the movie in the 4K “ultra high-definition” format, whereas before the movie, with Wise’s changes, was not available in that format.*
The thing is, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Even though it was a commercial success in 1979-80, there was a perception among critics and viewers that it wasn’t actually very good. One 1979 review, for example, called Robert Wise’s direction “listless.” The Motion Picture was criticized for being slow, talky, with a half-baked story that riffed on one of the better episodes of the original Star Trek television series.
In truth, as a lifelong fan of (old-school, original-cast) Star Trek, I like ST:TMP. I appreciate it for what it is… it’s not the best of the Trek series of movies, but it’s not the worst.
But, in the marketing surrounding this 2022 release of the movie, it feels like the powers-that-be are really trying to turn it into something it isn’t: which is to say, an action-packed sci-fi genre masterpiece, along the lines of something like The Empire Strikes Back or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. ST:TMP isn’t any of those movies and never will be.
After reading nearly every interview David C. Fein (the producer of the overall project) has given, it’s apparent, for this new release, there are are a lot of stakeholders, with a lot of goals, most especially: growing the Paramount Plus streaming service (which, to clarify, is not a bad thing in and of itself). The one remark from Fein that caught my eye is this: “[It’s] not a restoration.” (Then what is it?) The phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” comes to mind.
After watching The Director’s Edition – Remastered twice, I think, on a technical level, it does surpass the 2001 DVD. I say think because, on my 5K computer monitor, which has been color calibrated, the color in a lot of the movie feels… really beige (or actually yellow). Viewing Director’s Edition – Remastered on a big-screen plasma television, the color does feel a bit more… right. But the question is, which is correct, the monitor or the TV? Ultimately, the color grading of the original theatrical version feels the most “correct” to me. And (after watching the 2019 theatrical re-release) I still personally prefer the original 1979 edit of the film to any edit released since.
There is a certain beguiling, 1970s aura and vibe to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It works without any changes. You don’t need Robert Wise’s 2001 changes, or Fein’s 2021-22 changes, to appreciate the movie. It works fine as originally made. And here is where the producers, including Fein, and the studio (Paramount) really did something good for “the fans”: *you can actually watch the original theatrical version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 4K ultra high-definition. It’s available right now (April 2022) in an almost endless array of streaming and other formats (including physical disc, one of the few 4K discs I actually own). Unlike Disney and Lucasfilm, the owners of the Star Wars franchise [who have never (ever) released the original/unaltered versions of the classic (1977-83) Star Wars movies in high definition, on any format (even anamorphic widescreen)], Paramount has made the original, theatrical 1979 version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture widely available, and for that, they are to be commended.
To go back to the beginning of this write-up: after all these years, and changes made to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, why are there still matte lines around some of the ships/models in outer space? Why doesn’t the movie overall look amazing? Well, I’ll tell you why: the movie was made in 1979, and no amount of 21st-century digital magic can change that. Period. The marketing campaign has been pretty glossy (with fawning reviews from many outlets), but in the end, it’s still a 43-year-old movie.
All that said, I’ll probably spring for the physical disc version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition – Remastered when Paramount releases it in September 2022. First, I want to see if it looks any better on disc than it does on streaming. (In my experience, home physical media usually does look better than streaming, if for no other reason than higher bit rates). But second, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an outlier: a “big space movie” with almost no violence at all; the sole “Hard Science Fiction” entry in the entirety of the Star Trek movie series. It was Wise’s first and last dalliance with the Trek universe, not to mention (Star Trek creator) Gene Roddenberry’s only real involvement in any Trek movie, and, therefore, it deserves respect.
I’ll continue to watch, and enjoy, the original theatrical version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in its various home media releases (my personal favorite remains the 2009 Blu-ray version; I prefer it even to the 2021 4K UHD disc). I’ll shelve the 2022 Director’s Edition – Remastered alongside some previous versions (the 1980s Special Longer Version; the 2001 Director’s Edition) in my collection to be appreciated, but not cherished.
If I had to give it a grade (A+ to F):
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (theatrical version, 1979): B
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Special Longer Version (1983): C+
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition (2001): B-
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition – Remastered (2022): B-