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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Motionless Picture My Ass!




"You're reviewing a DVD? What!?!" That's what you're thinking right now isn't it? I can review what ever I want, so go put it where the monkey sticks the nuts.

This week I am writing in defence of what has become my definitive favorite Star Trek film: Star Trek The Motion Picture. Yes, that's right- the boring one with the pajama uniforms. This movie has had several versions since it was released in 1979, and has had an almost universally bad wrap ever since no matter which one is being talked about. I don't think it is entirely fair, and I will go about explaining why I feel as such. As many of you no doubt have seen or are already familiar with this film in some way I won't go to the effort of detailing the plot. Onwards and upwards:

I won't lecture you with the full version of the events leading up to the making of this film (which are extensive and for those interested, are interesting believe me), so don't worry. Let's just say a bunch of this and that occurred that led up to Paramount wanting to make a new Star Trek series called Star Trek Phase II. The sets were being built, scripts were being written, the cast was selected, and all was set to make what would have likely become an oppressively tacky and lame late 70's television series (for a tantalizing and informative glimpse at what might have been, check out the book Star Trek Phase II: The Lost Series by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, its dope!).However all that changed before production began in earnest (insert sigh of relief here).

For some time a Star Trek movie (either theatrical or television) was sought, but the many scripts written didn't quite seem measure up. They included all sorts of cockamamey plots ranging everywhere from the Enterprise going into an alternate universe to find Earth having lizards as the dominant species instead of humans (YAWN) to the Enterprise going back in time and somehow becoming the Titans of ancient myth (YAAAWWWNNN).  The script for the proposed Phase II pilot "In Thy Image" however did strike a chord and the idea was green lit rather quickly to become a full fledged theatrical feature albeit with what proved to be (now standard) short sighted Hollywood foresight and planning.

The task of directing the first ever Star Trek feature was handed to veteran film maker Robert Wise (He directed a handful of little known films like The Sound Of Music, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and West Side Story that nobody has ever really seen or heard of), who was given the ludicrous task of completing the film (special effects and all!) a full TEN WEEKS behind schedule before a single frame of film had even been shot. This was due to the production of Phase II being cancelled in favor of the film. To make matters worse, Paramount had PRE-SOLD the film to theaters and promised it to them in time for a December 7th, 1979 release date which was decidedly NOT flexible. Talk about a fucking nightmare. The films production ran so down to the wire an entire soundstage was rented to hold all the film cans for each theater showing it to have the prints rushed over still wet from processing to be sent where they needed to go. Robert Wise physically carried the print to its December 6th, 1979 premiere in Washington D.C. on the plane and to the theater under his god damn arm and handed it to the projectionist personally so they could set it up! For shame Paramount, for shame! My finger wags infinitely at your actions here.

I think all things considered, Robert Wise did a terrific job with the hell bound and completely unrealistic schedule he was handed. The biggest problems with the finished product were the lack of many unfinished or otherwise unrealized effects shots (which Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra did their very best to get completed working under the same ridiculous time constraints and Wise), and the fact that the film was never even given a sneak preview. That's right, the original theatrical cut was basically a rough cut of the film! That and daily rewrites and corrections by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (they had a clause in their contract allowing them to do so if production went beyond a specific time period so I've read), I'm appalled to be honest- and that is putting it rather nicely- by what the studio did. But thankfully Paramount saw fit to let Mr. Wise correct this somewhat in 2001 by allowing him to lead a director's cut of this practically forgotten (by my generation at least) Star Trek Film for a premiere two disc DVD release.

I say "practically" forgotten as every time I mention it to nearly anyone my age (as of this posting I am 26 currently) who is not a big Star Trek fan, they reply "which one is that, First Contact?". I am assailed by fucking idiots at nearly every turn. If I said First Contact was my favorite Star Trek film, I would say "First Contact is my favorite one" not "STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE IS MY FAVORITE". Just how lacking in understanding can people be that they guess a film with a secondary title far different than what came out of my mouth!?! Seriously...

Back on subject however:

The movie is distinctive for various reasons. Its the among the first films to have a cable TV version which included footage NOT seen in theaters. Unfortunately, this extra footage in some cases made little sense as it was from and relating to a cut sequence, and in one case featured fully visible stage lights and wooden support beams (which would have obviously been covered with a matte painting if the scene were kept)! It was a sequence in which BOTH Spock and Kirk go inside V'ger to a so called "memory wall" and discover the spacecrafts true nature. This would have gone in place of the later space walk scene with only Spock present but due to time and budget constraints (the cost of wire removal so the actors appeared to be floating in space for example pretty much canned it) left the sequence totally unfinished. Its a pity because this scene would have added a feeling of tension that the second half of the film discernibly lacked.The home video release included extra footage too, and while I have never seen a copy I have read that the original 1981 VHS release was the straight up theatrical cut. I am on the lookout, if you locate one talk with me, I am open to negotiations. The CED Videodisc (NOT LASERDISC- VIDEODISC, LOOK IT UP!) was also the theatrical cut. I have heard rumor of a Blu Ray edition containing this cut along with the director's edition, but fuck that "high def" bullshit. I don't want to know about it.

The directors cut had newly done (and well done may I add!) CGI effects shots to retouch as well as add a few brand new sequences including the first ever FULL VIEW of the V'ger spacecraft! Overly long sequences were trimmed, sound tweaked, and at long last a panned by many fans film was made to look the way it was meant to as much as was humanly possible. My one peeve with the dvd is the fact that while all this work was done, they didn't bother to remaster the image or sound. If you are going to give an mistreated film proper love, go the extra miles guys, please? Not to mention it almost seems like they let this happen so they could slam some promos for that bullshit series Star Trek: Enterprise on the disc..... BOOOOOOOO! NEVER mix promos for another program on a movie commemorating a maligned piece of cinema. Its like trying to steal the limelight, I found it strictly unwelcome and unnecessary.

What I really like about this film is everything that only happens in this movie only and nowhere else in the series. Like those weird uniforms with the boots connected to the pants, those cool wrist communicators, and how thin Shatner was- all of this only happened just this once. This is also the only Star Trek film in which phasers are never fired, and the first movie ever supported by a McDonalds Happy Meal! Don't believe me? Take a look at one of several of the commercials produced:


This movie was a HUGE event, and as such it had a marketing frenzy no other Star Trek film has ever enjoyed since. Name any product you can think and it happened: squirt guns, sticker books, pop up books, viewmaster reels, action figures (I am the proud owner of five of the 12, better complete the set some day), model kits, tee shirt iron ons, instant stained glass window hangings, trading cards, a metal lunchbox (I will do damn near anything for you if you get me one complete with thermos), sew on patches, a novelization (written by Gene Roddenberry!), silly putty, fuck it- ANYTHING! Only Star Wars, which pioneered such widespread marketing in the first place, surpassed the level of merchandising this movie accrued. So much of the marketing was devoted to toys, story book/LP combos, and other children's items which I find odd as this film is actually rather boring and slow paced. I can't imagine too many young kids going to it and being enthralled unless they were already huge fans of the show, all of the two action sequences happen within the first half of the movie for example.

But this what I REALLY like about the movie. It IS somewhat boring (by some peoples views anyway) and is indeed slow paced. Unlike everything that followed it is definitely not an action movie but more character and philosophy oriented. I wish it were more so, but due to the many drawbacks to the script, this film also has the dubious distinction of being the first major hollywood productions to try and wow audiences with special effects in an attempt to make them forget the shortcomings present elsewhere. This has become more and more commonplace in movies as the decades wear on, but at least the effects in this movie were really truly great. The film had a VERY strong opening box office take as well, but tailed off rather quickly causing major disappointment with Paramount execs. Even when adjusting for inflation TMP held the record for a ST films opening take until 2009s JJ Abrams reboot of the franchise. As a result, Star Trek films (at least up until nowadays) never had as high of an SFX budget again which is a shame to say the least.

This film reminds me of the first Star Trek Pilot "The Cage". Yes, the original unaired pilot from 1964 starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike (The character of Kirk was created after Hunter opted to not be in the second pilot which turned out to be a fateful decision as his career nosedived until his death shortly after in 1969). Like TMP, The Cage was more cerebral, more character oriented and featured quite a few "only in this episode" bits and pieces. TMP is no different, and both stand out to me as examples of what I think is "true" Star Trek, where its not about firing a Phaser and blowing something up, its about discovery and reflecting the human condition. While several of the succeeding original crew era movies dealt with issues like how Kirk learns the nature and value of sacrifice in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (my second favorite, and a great many peoples most fave ST film), but none gave me quite the same feeling as TMP.

And while still on the subject of only in this film, lets take a moment to talk about Captain Kirk's character in this film. In the television series, he was brash, risk taking, clever, and sensible. Here we see him at his darkest in my opinion. He is pushy, conniving, and obsessive for a good portion of the first half of the film. This stems from being promoted to Admiral and being taken off starship duty. His constant frustration with Commander Willard Decker (temporarily reduced from Captain thanks to Kirk) provides some interesting drama for our once proud and unshakeable hero. It all comes to a head in Kirk's quarters when he confronts Decker in front of Dr. McCoy due to Decker belaying one of Kirk's orders due to his cluelessness of the Enterprise's redesign. Bones goes on to explain how Kirk is using the situation to his advantage, and to allow him to retake command of the Enterprise and keep it for himself. Kirk replies "Is there anything else?" to which Bones only says, "That depends on you...". The somber image of the tinted glass doors to Kirks office closing upon his pensive expression are like dark shrouds enveloping his inner motives. This image sticks with me more than any other in the film, why I cannot be certain, but the reversion of our hero to such knowing conceit is interesting to say the least.

Many awful nicknames were given to this picture after release, including: "Star Trek: The Motion Sickness", "The Motionless Picture", "The Slowmotion Picture", and due to the films similarities to the original series episode The Changeling- "Where Nomad Has Gone Before". On an amusing note, I was once told by an IRS worker at the office here in Olympia, WA her friends used to joke with each other saying "Leave it to V'ger", somebody put that on a shirt for me please? I can understand why people don't like it due to it many deficiencies (both real and perceived, its all a matter of taste really) but I beg to differ and will continue to do so for as long as I am so able. Just try and talk shit to me about this movie, I will roll you- even with Multiple Sclerosis!

And now for two things I couldn't find a proper place for in this review. The first is a ten minute short from 1979 showing some great behind the scenes shots and of the filming miniatures/set pieces as well. I can't help but nitpick a little, but at 2:25 they mention the Epsilon IX space station, sorry dudes that's the orbital office complex (reused in Star Trek II as the Regula I lab by removing a bunch of stuff and flipping it upside down!). I also find the shots of the SFX crew blowing up Klingon battle cruisers of interest, as I am unsure why they are doing so. Its either an early effects test for when V'ger absorbs them, or an attempt to film elements of the written but otherwise unused space battle that was to be the films conclusion.

The battle sequence stayed put for a while, and was even storyboarded. The Enterprise was to be severely damaged in the battle and do a SAUCER SEPARATION (that's right!) and return the crew to earth. This sequence was still in when toy company MEGO (pronounced mee goh) made their plastic toy of the ship, you could separate the saucer just in the un filmed sequence! Talk about cool cut scene bleed overs. At 3:45 we see what I thought was never filmed at all- a portion of the memory wall sequence I mentioned earlier in the review! Too bad, because the set looks awesome (SFX test shots with the set are on the aforementioned and pictured two disc TMP DVD)! Here, have a looksee:



The final piece is to prove my devotion for the ages. Take a look:


Yes, that small 1" X 2" rectangle is a bonafide piece of the V'ger miniature along with an autographed 8x10 of William Shatner. Its number 67 of 250 and you will have to pry it from my cold dead hands iffin' ya want it. I got it off ebay as a scratch and dent from the company that sold them via williamshatner.com. There appears to be a small imperfection to the finish on the brass plaque, enough for me to get it for well less than the $299 they were trying to get for them off his site. And for the astute onlooker, yes that IS an original VHS release poster for Jim Wynorski's 1987 classic Deathstalker II poking out behind the plaque- not the canvas reprints people are selling these days (expect a review of that movie some time in this blogs future!). May I also add this gives you the opportunity to see a picture of the handsome son of a bitch responsible for writing everything here. So in closing, Star Trek The Motion Picture is near and dear to my heart and in my opinion one hell of an overlooked gem of science fiction cinema. I am sure my collection of odd bits of memorabilia from it will only increase as time goes by. I hope I've done the film justice with this post.

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