Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Fast-forward: The Director's Cut

It took 75 years for American audiences to see a version of Fritz Lang's classic 1927 science fiction film '>Metropolis that told a coherent story with restored and visually stunning scenes. After a 2002 screening of the new version I attended, I heard somebody say, "So that's what it's about!"

It didn't take quite that long to get the '>Director's Cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but it has been almost a quarter century. The film was rushed into release in December 1979 to fulfill commitments to exhibitors that were secured to get the picture financed. It had to be in the theatres by a certain date, and it had to be no more than 130 minutes long. The problem was that it wasn't finished.

The script wasn't done when filming began, and major elements of the story emerged or were changed as the movie was shot. In an even more expensive echo of something that happened with the original series, the first special effects house failed to deliver quality images on time, so a lot of time and money went into a rush to create these images. Many effects came in at the last minute and were cut into the live action footage-and if there wasn't room, the live action and dialogue was cut. Some visual effects were never finished, some planned scenes were scrapped, and the sound effects were never properly mixed.

Over the years there have been two other versions with some footage more or less randomly added: one for the first network television showings, and another for video cassette. But it wasn't until other DVD releases showed there was a market for restored and enhanced versions with lots of extras that Paramount Pictures consented to the request of director Robert Wise to essentially finish the film he started.

So the DVD "Director's Cut" version of Star Trek The Motion Picture is the definitive one, completely re-edited, with digital sound and completed sound effects, and some new computer-generated visual effects carefully matched to the pre-computerized effects of the original, largely based on storyboards and designs created but never fully realized for the original movie.

As a result of being able to re-edit and sometimes replace visual effects sequences, and without the same time constraint, director Robert Wise was able to restore dialogue scenes cut from one or another or all of the previous versions he thought were essential to the story. The result is a visually beautiful movie with---at last---a coherent story, masterfully told. So this is what it's about!

Gene Roddenberry had produced the movie, using the script for the proposed series pilot as the basis of the story. Director Robert Wise was a veteran---some 30 films---in a variety of genres, including one of the best science fiction films of any era ("'>The Day The Earth Stood Still") and a less well known but solid version of Michael Crichton's "'>The Andromeda Strain".

After the first effects company failed to deliver, Paramount hired the two effects producers who were responsible for virtually all of the major science fiction movie special effects of the era. Douglas Trumbull was the visual effects supervisor for 2001, did the special effects for Close Encounters and Wise's Andromeda Strain, and directed the excellent but neglected sci-fi film, '>Silent Running.

John Dykstra worked on Star Wars and the Battlestar Galactica TV series. Because time was impossibly short, Paramount gave them budgets that allowed them to hire just about everyone in Hollywood capable of doing the work. The entertaining commentaries by Wise and Trumbull on the DVD indicate it was a still a miracle the movie made it into the theatres on time, but because so much was left unfinished, all the money Paramount spent and all the creativity and skill of everyone concerned did not fully pay off until this DVD version.

In contrast to how later Star Trek films were handled, this movie was a major release on the Paramount schedule---in some ways, the biggest movie the studio had produced. Star Trek had already set several precedents: the first science fiction drama series with continuing characters on network television, the first series to become more popular in syndication than in its network run. Now Paramount was gambling that Star Trek would be the first television series to be transformed into a successful big screen motion picture.

But the rush to get it in theatres showed. Some effects were awkward, and some that were unfinished made the story confusing. The story also suffered from scenes that had to be cut because of time or because of problems with effects. The pace seemed off, with overlong effects sequences.

The film opened to large audiences and mixed reviews. The science fiction writers F & F Pohl summed up a widespread impression: "What appeared on the screen was little more than a rescue operation...And yet---what a pleasure to see them all together again!"

The difference between the special effects of the series and a late 1970s feature would be immense, but fans also expected a story as proportionately grand as that difference. And there were problems with both the effects and especially the story, remedied in the DVD Director's Cut.

As I post this, it's less than 2 years until the 40th anniversary. Re-releasing this cut of Star Trek: The Motion Pictures to theatres would be a fitting and exciting way to celebrate.

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