Wednesday, February 25, 2004

After the great success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the Trek film franchise was at or near its high point of popularity. So there were great expectations for this film, and for awhile it seemed they might be fulfilled. Previews were good, and the first reviews---especially in the Los Angeles Times---were ecstatic. But audience response during its first run was tepid, and it made less money than any previous Trek film. At least until the last two Next Generation films, this was the movie a plurality of the most vocal fans liked least.

The movie was released in the summer of 1989 in formidable and relentless competition with other blockbusters, including an Indiana Jones movie, a Back to the Future, and the first Batman. But it also had internal problems. It's evident from the DVD that the impression I remember from seeing it the first time---that some of the effects were shockingly shoddy, like those in the last Christopher Reeve Superman movie---was pretty accurate. Even simple shots of shuttlecraft and starships in flight weren't "finished": given the subtle details and shading that makes them look dimensional and "real."

But in other ways, the DVD shows off its virtues, one of which was pretty solid storytelling, which was a hallmark of the original cast movies as it was of the original series. Shatner believed that the main problem is the ending, where his planned special effects didn't work and his money ran out. In Star Trek Movie Memories, he calls the last ten minutes of the film (meaning the God on the planet scenes) "horrendous" and "the ruination of that film." I wouldn't go that far. In fact, viewing it in the continuum of Star Trek films, or even as a DVD experience, it doesn't have that strong a negative impact. It's not visually strong, nor the kind of effects "payoff" you get in, say, Close Encounters. But every film doesn't have to end with that kind of bang. My reaction after seeing it several times is that it passes quickly, and doesn't induce cringing.

Why not? Because the story itself is resolved, and its various threads are tied together. There are elements more important than special effects.

This was Shatner's first theatrically released feature film as a director, and as is unfortunately common for star actors whose first effort as director is commercially disappointing, it was his last, at least so far. And like a lot of these efforts, the banishment is not deserved. In particular, Shatner was strong in the shooting itself.

Careful viewing on DVD revealed to me an impressive visual efficiency and imagination, very appropriate for Star Trek. In many ways this film most resembles the original Star Trek series of any of the features, in conception and story, and in some visual elements. Shatner and company had good ideas for visually opening up the imagery to wide screen size and feature dimension in these pre-CGI days, primarily with extreme outdoor settings (soaring mountains, arid deserts) and, well, horses.

But where Shatner unexpectedly excels is in making pictures with small numbers of people (notably the Trinity) and moving the camera in the Enterprise and other enclosures. The elegant two shots and three shots in the original series have helped make it classic as television as well as storytelling, and Shatner learned this lesson very well. All in all, viewing this film on DVD, and after all this time since its first release has passed, greatly improved my impression of it.

Probably the most surprising to some is how well he worked with the actors. Regardless of how they felt about him otherwise, or about the movie, they generally thought he was a good director.

Now some detailed musing concerning the two main themes of the movie---the spiritual and psychological threads of the "God" theme, and the theme of loyalty and creative camaraderie that this film so notably expresses in content and style.

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