When I saw this film theatrically, I was nine years old.
It was post “Star Wars,” which meant that I was a walking talking billboard for the gospel according to George Lucas, and “Star Trek” was some old news they were dressing up to look like The Truth. There were a lot of pretenders to the throne, but I knew there was another “Star Wars” movie coming. And it would show this dumb old “Star Trek” what was what.
So I had made up my mind walking in. And by the end of the glacial two hours, I was half won over. I thought the movie was really cool to sit through, but a little weird overall. And that was pretty much the depth of my relationship with it. I didn’t really watch the series until after the first film came out, and local channels started showing the old episodes again. Late on Saturdays, two at a time. That’s when I filed the show next to “Twilight Zone” as the best of a certain kind of TV writing… the moral one-act plays with a fantastic face on a recognizable idea. That’s what “Trek” is to me… a great set-up for an anthology show about flying around and meeting everything that’s out there. Some good, some bad, some weird as shit. That’s “Trek.” To me.
As I said yesterday, Toshi’s introduction to “Trek” was the JJ Abrams film. When the BluRay box set of the Paramount film series showed up, we decided to watch one every couple of days. And first up, of course, is “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” directed by Robert Wise. It’s a film I’ve taken a lot of cheap shots at over the years. And I mean cheap, too. Most of my impression of this film is based on my initial impulsive reactions all those years ago. So when Toshi and I sat down to watch it, I made the conscious choice to watch it as something brand new. I’m that unfamiliar with it.
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My first impression: I like the film a lot. It’s not perfect, but it sure is “Star Trek.” And it’s an overall strong BluRay transfer. But it’s got some problems. It’s something I’m noticing on several titles lately, and I wonder if it’s an issue that eventually is going to define what I’ll buy and what I won’t. It’s digital noise reduction, and too much of it turns a high-definition transfer into pudding. Creamy smeary digital pudding. It’s not out of control in the transfer for this first film, but here are there, it’s turned up. And the transfer can be unforgiving at times, so certain effects are barely passable. The first establishing shots of the surface of Klingon and some of the mattes throughout the sequence are just jaw-droppingly bad.
But this film’s production issues are legendary, and I absolutely don’t care about any uneven effects work. This is the original theatrical cut, by the way. Not the lovely David Fein restoration that I hope Paramount will eventually get to at some point in the future. A fair amount of what’s here is still top-notch today, beautiful model and optical work. The first approach of the Enterprise is one of the great moments of SF bigscreen cinema. There’s such joy in being able to show that on a 70MM screen, which is how I saw it as a kid, by the way. That’s one of the reasons the film made an impression on me to the extent it did… the sheer scale of the trip inside V’ger was impressive to a nascent effects nerd. And when the transfer on the disc is great, which is frequently, it’s absolutely a pleasure to study.
And the degree to which Wise got it right is impressive, considering this wasn’t his background. But I think it was his editor’s brain… the way he could put departments together and the way he understood building something from parts… that let him cobble this film together the way he did. This is a great addition to my collection just for its value as a record of a particular moment in the development of event movie effects. This wasn’t just some knock-off… Paramount put together one of the most oh-my-god amazing lists of special effects people possible, dozens of names who went on to found companies and win Oscars and work miracles. It’s preposterous. And it wasn’t like ILM, where this was a company that was set up for future work. It was this big giant messy hippie jam of an effects crew, and it worked in spite of itself.
I like the cast in the movie. They all look rough around the edges here, like they did not spend their time away from “Star Trek” well. I find the costumes in the film alarming in high-definition, frankly, and I’m fairly sure that viewing the BluRay of this film means Stephen Collins has committed a sex crime on your eyes. His terrycloth pants are just unfortunately thin and revealing, moreso here than in any transfer I’ve seen before. Persis Khambatta benefits from the high-def in much the same way of course, so I’m a hypocrite to complain. I think Shatner and Nimoy and Kelley are the key to this film getting off the ground, and they all play their parts well. There’s so much here that’s just patched together from this nearly-greenlit TV series, with everything blown up for the bigscreen instead, and yet it’s still a pretty groovy big-budget SF film in its own right. It’s so obviously aping “2001” more than “Star Wars,” and that’s fine. It’s certainly not “2001.” But it’s also not the junk I’d always dismissed it as being, and I’m glad I ended up watching it again.
Here’s the more important question: what was Toshi’s reaction?
I was worried he’d lose interest quickly. But I sat down in my office to watch it with him, told him to feel free to ask questions because, believe me… I knew he was going to.
“Daddy, where’s Captain Pike?” “He’s not in this one.” “Why not?” “Because this is a different story.” “Why?” “Because ‘Star Trek’ is a lot of different stories, and this one is about different people.” “Where’s Captain Kirk?” “He’s coming up.” “Where’s Mr. Spock?” “He’s coming up.” “Where’s Scotty?” “He’s coming up. They’re all coming up.” “Captain Pike is coming up?” “Except him.” “Why?”
That’s during the overture.
He seemed to really like it. He did ask me, “Daddy, where’s V’ger?” for a full hour. On a loop. Even once they were inside V’ger. Even once they were face-to-face with V’ger. Even once Deckard merged with V’ger. Toshi just wasn’t getting it. Basically, what threw him, he confessed, was that V’ger didn’t have a face for Captain Kirk to punch. And that’s really what Toshi was waiting for.
Aside from that disapppointment, he liked it. And he loved looking at all of the crazy scenery inside the V’ger cloud. He loved each of the film’s many set pieces. When I asked him to tell me the story of the film at the end of the film, here’s his reply:
“Ohhhh, you know. Kirk and he had the ship, and they were all really old, and so they went into the space, to fight V’ger, but V’ger’s all big, and they got inside his body, and then he was a robot, and they turned the lights on, and the guy went inside the body. And they went back on the Enterprise.”
“And did you like it?”
“Yeah. Can I play it again? Just one time? And then I promise?”
No better review. When he starts negotiating a repeat play, he’s hooked. Alan Dean Foster. Gene Roddenberry. Robert Wise. I salute you, gentlemen.
“Star Trek” week will continue…
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