New “Director’s Edition” Boldly Goes 4K
“The human adventure has only just begun,” reads a title card at the end of Star Trek: The Movie. It’s a bold statement at the end of a great movie. And until now, he was frequently encountered with rolled eyes.
Paramount+’s latest version of the 1979 resurrection of the interplanetary adventures of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Star Trek: The Movie: Director’s Edition, is actually the fourth iteration of this massive film. While it carries a lot of baggage for longtime fans – and we’ll get to that in a moment – the crystal-clear 4K imaging and Dolby Atmos audio are so impressive that even the star trek agnostic will be blown away by the sound and light show. More than anything, Star Trek: The Movie is a “head film“, deeply influenced by 2001: A Space Odysseybut intended for an even more I’m fine you’re fine1970s audience. It was always an amazing artifact, now it’s one you must to see.
In 1979, star trek was one of the most famous canceled shows in all of television. Snafus programming kept its ratings low from 1966 to 1969, but its fan base was (as it is today) extreme. It was nearly scrapped after its second season, but a letter-writing campaign (among the first such occurrences in pop culture) spawned a third season. Alas, the “five-year mission” of the opening voiceover never happened, but this third season allowed the series to pass a certain numerical threshold – there was enough material to sell the program in syndication.
This is of course where things took off. (A short-lived animated series also kept the flame burning.) Soon there were conventions, and over time a deal was struck for series creator Gene Roddenberry to develop a show called Star Trek: Phase II. Then star wars hit and everyone saw dollar signs. Stage II has been refurbished in The film.
As anyone who has seen both films can tell you, Star Trek: The Movie and star wars are separate galaxies. star wars is a high-fructose frolic through 1930s soap operas. ST: TMPfor better or for worse, is sober, serious and intentionally heavy. The look is also a relic of its time. From the texture of its film grain to the orange tint of the carpeting on the redesigned deck of the Enterprise, it screams “late 70s!”
“star wars is a high-fructose frolic through 1930s soap operas, while Star Trek: The Movie is, for better or for worse, sober, serious and intentionally heavy.”
The reason this is the fourth draft of the movie isn’t so sexy. The theatrical version simply had a December deadline that director Robert Wise, working with cutting-edge special effects, simply couldn’t meet. Much of the disdain surrounding the film stems from the fact that what had been dragging around for years was essentially a working cut. Many shots started strangely before any movement. This has a psychological effect on the viewer, which can put you to sleep.
Then there was a Longer Special Edition (real name) made for TV, absolutely the wrong direction to go. (It also included non-sequences and continuity errors.) This is what was released on VHS, in grotesque, cropped form.
In 2001, a team working directly with Robert Wise made the appropriate changes to the film and created special effects that worked for the standard definition DVD format. It really helped the story move forward, but some of the visual gags (not so much the costumes, the colors, and all the whiz-bang light panels on the ship, but the outer space stuff) still looked blurry. Finally, in 2022, everything comes together.
What’s funny about this movie is that people think it was a total flop. This was not the case. It made decent money ($82 million worldwide on a $35 million budget), but not what the studio expected. It was successful enough for Paramount to roll the dice a second time and make Star Trek II: Wrath of Khana pop culture masterpiece that put dilithium back into the franchise, bringing us sequels, The next generationand wider hiking universe still expanding today. TMP was even nominated for three Oscars. (How Jerry Goldsmith lost for his miraculous original score against A bit of romance is a far bigger scandal than anything Will Smith has done.)
Up to the plot? Okay, the truth is not that there is too much going on in this 136 minute film. A group of people gather on a boat, fly off to inspect something, and then some trippy, consciousness-expanding gibberish happens. Along the way, a woman stands on an X and very strangely points at something no less than four times.
What is that really about, however, is a somewhat counterintuitive rebuke of technology in favor of human connection. Easy to say when you have carriers and a warp engine, huh Starfleet? Yet despite the performances’ unusually cold twist, when there are cracks of humanity between these characters, the emotion really jumps out. This is a big deal with Vulcan’s pursuit of mechanical logic, even suggesting that this philosophy can lead to genocidal destruction.
For decades, fans have picked out the best parts of this movie. At conventions, you’ll always see a woman rocking an Ilia Probe look (i.e. a bald head, white dress, and ruby crystal on her throat) or trying out a “Disco Bones,” bearded Dr. McCoy on the 23rd century equivalent of a leisure suit. There’s always been a sheepish quality around loving TMP. “Yeah, yeah, I know it’s boring, but I like it.”
I think with this new coat of paint, those days are over. If you put aside your skepticism and don’t wince at the emotionally-first scenes, there’s enough spectacle for even “ordinary” people to enjoy. Yes, it is one of the least energetic entries in the set star trek canon, but it’s also the only one with a long, quasi-fetishistic investigation of the Enterprise in the spacedock, begging you to take a break. In 4K, it truly goes where it has never gone before.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer and critic in New York. His work also appears in Vanity Fair, The Guardian and The Times of Israel. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and tweets about Phish and Star Trek on @JHoffman.