Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews the 4K Restoration of the “Director’s Edition” of Star Trek: The Motion Picture!

Josh Reviews the 4K Restoration of the “Director’s Edition” of Star Trek: The Motion Picture!

Praise be to the Great Bird of the Galaxy — after two decades of wishing and hoping, I am delighted that a beautiful high-definition 4K version of the “Director’s Edition” of Star Trek: The Motion Picture now exists!!  I watched it streaming on Paramount+, and it was beautiful.

1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an incredible achievement.  It took a cancelled TV series from a decade earlier and brought it back to life, reuniting the original cast (a miracle!) and turning this cult favorite into a franchise that is still going strong today, so many years later.  TMP has many flaws, but it exploded what Star Trek could be — what it could look like and what it could sound like — taking a made-on-a-budget TV series from the sixties and turning it into a beautiful big-budget epic.

The film was famously rushed into theaters, because Paramount had a drop-dead commitment to theaters that would have cost them a fortune had they failed to meet it.  Many consider the theatrical version of TMP to be little better than a rough cut.  Renowned director Robert Wise did not have time to properly edit the picture or complete the sound mix.  Mr. Wise (the director of The Day The Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, among other all-time classics) basically disowned the film in the years after its release.

In the eighties, an extended version of TMP was shown on TV.  My dad taped it on VHS, and for years that was the version of the film that I watched.  Many great scenes were added back into the film, adding some terrific and important character moments.  But Mr. Wise was not involved in this version, and it showed.  The pace of this longer version really dragged, and many of the deleted scenes didn’t mesh smoothly with the rest of the movie.  (Most famously, for instance, in a restored sequence of Kirk donning a space suit to go after Spock within V’Ger, you could clearly see that the set was unfinished.)

Years later, restoration supervisor Mike Matessino, producer David Fein, and visual effects supervisor Daren Dochterman worked together with Robert Wise to revisit the film.  They created the 2001 “Director’s Edition”, which was released to DVD.  The goal was to give Mr. Wise an opportunity to take the time to properly complete the movie.  The result was incredible.  The film improved in a myriad of ways.  They tightened up the edit significantly, allowing the film to flow much more smoothly and move at a much better pace.  They did a better job of reintegrating some (but not all) of the scenes from the longer TV version, which allowed certain character arcs to more properly unfold.  (The restoration of the scene in which Spock weeps for V’Ger on the Enterprise bridge was a beautiful culmination of Spock’s story that never should have been excised.)  They adjusted the sound mix, making the film feel more real as a sci-fi environment and, importantly, replacing many of the cold mechanical sounds from the theatrical cut with more welcoming human ones.  They also used some CGI to fix errors and to add a few key moments that better served the story, scenes that were originally intended but that Mr. Wise and his team never had time to complete originally.  This CGI work was extremely subtle.  This “Director’s Edition” took a very different approach to George Lucas and the Star Wars Special Editions.  The CGI shots mesh beautifully with the original 1979 model work, and are virtually unnoticeable except for the most hard-core fan.  But they make a huge difference.  (Here’s one of the most important examples: in the theatrical edition, the Kohlinar scene on Vulcan looks goofy because of the silly setting; now Vulcan looks suitably awesome and majestic.)

Sadly, Paramount — which, in my opinion, has time and again failed to treat Star Trek properly — cheaped out and didn’t allow the “Director’s Edition” team to complete their work on film.  As a result, the 2001 version only ever existed in standard definition, on DVD.  With the advent of blu-ray and 4K, the “Director’s Edition” quickly became something of a relic of a lost age; blurry and indistinct.  When Paramount released TMP on blu-ray and then on 4K disc, they released the theatrical version only, despite director Robert Wise (who has since passed away)’s strongly stated preference for the “Director’s Edition” to be the preferred version of the movie.

Finally, after two decades’ wait, Paramount reassembled the “Director’s Edition” team and allowed them to restore their version of TMP for 4K, as an exclusive for Paramount + (though rumor has it the film will be released on 4K disc later in the year).

The result is tremendous.  This is for sure the only version of TMP one should ever watch.  It’s superior to the theatrical version in almost every way.

Now look, I am not and have never been one of those types of Trek fans who feel The Motion Picture is the best Star Trek movie.  Quite the contrary.  I vastly prefer Star Treks II through IV and also VI.  TMP has a number of weaknesses baked into it, in my opinion, and these still exist in the “Director’s Edition”.  The movie is very talky, with almost no action to speak of.  It gets slow and, even to me, sometimes a little boring in the middle, when we get long sequences of the Enterprise crew watching on the viewscreen as the ship travels through V’Ger… and long scenes of Decker and Ilia wandering around the Enterprise and looking sort of dewey-eyed at one another.

The movie also has a coldness to it that’s inherent in its set-up, one that denies the audience the pleasures of the warm camaraderie between Kirk, Spock and McCoy that we all knew and loved from the series.  Spock has rejected all emotion in his pursuit of pure Vulcan logic and is at his most robotic and stiff.  McCoy is pissed at Kirk for drafting him back into Starfleet.  And Kirk himself is rusty and petulant and almost bumbling.  It doesn’t make him look good that he uses the excuse of the emergency to get back command of the Enterprise from Decker, and we see over and over again that Kirk is floundering as a leader — he’s competitive with Decker; he pushes and berates Scotty for the Enterprise not being ready; he’s tense and uninspiring when he assembles the crew on the rec deck; he goads the crew to go to warp before the ship is ready, resulting in their near-deaths in the wormhole, and he doesn’t know enough about the new ship to know the phasers won’t work with the engines offline, etc.  Now, having watched this film many times, I understand that these aren’t mistakes borne from a misunderstanding of Trek or these characters (which unfortunately is what I feel happens regularly with modern Trek); these were intentional choices and a way to give these characters distinct character arcs over the course of the film.  And it leads to moments of real growth for the characters, by the time we get to the end of the film, with are joyous to see, as a Trek fan.  (My heart always sings a little bit when Spock grabs Kirk’s hand in sickbay and describes “this simple feeling.”)  But these choices are part of what gives the film its (justified) reputation for being cold, and of keeping the audience at a distance.

That reputation was increased by some poor choices made in the theatrical version’s rushed post-production.  The theatrical edition has a very cold, blue lighting, and many of the familiar sound effects from the Original Series were replaced by very inhuman, mechanical sounds.  The intention was for those sounds to be futuristic and “real”, but the result was a film in which even the environment of the Enterprise felt unpleasant and cold; a very different vibe that we got from the Original Series.  But here’s where the “Director’s Edition” team has done incredible work, so subtle that it’s easy to miss, but so important to helping shift the overall effect of the film.  They’ve adjusted the color timing, improving the drama in certain scenes (the Klingon bridge seen in the opening sequence, woefully overlit in the theatrical version, is much darker and more Klingon-like now), and they’ve warmed the flesh-tones generally throughout the film in a pleasing way.  Many of the cold original sound effects (the computer voices, the alert klaxons, etc.) have been completely redone so that they sound much more human and pleasing (and many TOS effects have gently been reincorporated as well).  And the re-edit of the film has sharpened the character arcs.  Little details, such as removing Kirk’s second “viewer off!” barking at Uhura in the briefing sequence, help refocus the characters closer to the likable versions we knew.  (And choices such as the return of Spock’s “I weep for V’Ger as I would a brother” scene, which I mentioned above, make a huge impact.)

Not everything is perfect.  I’d been hoping this new version would remove the harsh black matte lines around the Klingon warships in the opening sequence, or the wobbly matte line around the first shuttle we see when we glimpse the orbiting office complex that Kirk beams up to (because the Enterprise transporters are not functioning), but that was not to be.  The only change I could identify that I didn’t like in the 2001 DVD was the removal of Sulu’s “the new screens held!” after the first V’Ger attack on the Enterprise; that’s still gone, and it bums me out.  (Without that line, there’s no reason given why the Enterprise can survive V’Ger’s attack, when the Klingons and the Epsilon IX station were destroyed.  It seems like a plot hole common in these types of stories, in which the hero miraculously survives what others didn’t.  But Sulu’s line helps us understand; the Enterprise has spent a year and a half in dry dock undergoing a major refit; her advanced new technology includes more powerful shielding that allowed the Enterprise to survive V’Ger’s assault.)  There also seems to be a problem with the scene in the lounge when Kirk and McCoy talk to Spock after he comes on board.  They’ve replaced the original small set with a new digital background that is very cool; it really expands the location and we get a cool shot out of large viewports to see one of the Enterprise’s nacelles.  But something seems to have gone wrong with the rotoscoping.  McCoy is very blurry in a lot of the shots, and when Kirk and McCoy stand on opposite sides of the viewports and talk (after Spock leaves), they both seem to blend into the background.  Oops.

Interestingly, watching this film in 4K for the first time, there were all sorts of things I noticed.  For instance, I never realized — despite having seen this film a million times — how many split diopter shots Robert Wise used!  (That’s a device in which both the foreground and background are in focus at the same time.  Orson Welles used this device frequently in Citizen Kane, and Brian dePalma uses it often in his films.)  Those shots are all over the film, particularly in scenes on the Enterprise bridge.  It was a little distracting at times.  Was I being bothered by some artifacts of the re-editing/remastering process for the “Director’s Edition”, or did these scenes look like this originally?  Because I’ve only ever watched this film on blurry VHS or on the standard definition DVD, maybe I just never noticed before!  (I bought TMP in 4K as part of the 4K set of the first four Star Trek movies that was released earlier this year — but while I watched all the other movies, I didn’t have much interest in watching the theatrical version of TMP.)  Now in crisp 4K, the scenes in which the foreground and the background are both in sharp focus (and which, as a side effect, there’s often a blurriness in-between) really stand out.  When I watched the film in standard def (or even lower quality, like VHS), the general fuzziness probably made this less noticeable.

Also more noticeable now are some scenes where the focus is a little soft, or where there’s some surprising blurriness around the edges.  As an example, in the scene when Uhura says “our chances of coming back from this mission may have just doubled”, she is totally out of focus!  (While Chekov, in the background, is in focus.)  I assume the problem lies in the original footage.  (That scene wasn’t included in the original theatrical version, so I can’t compare it to how it looks on the theatrical 4K disc.)  I assume these sorts of things are just more noticeable in 4K.  It’s the slight downside to the overwhelming benefit of seeing this film in far better quality than ever before.

These are teensy quibbles and don’t take them to mean I have any doubt that this “Director’s Edition” looks extraordinary.  Almost every shot of this film looks better than it ever has.  It’s a universe better than the 2001 DVD.  And I even popped my version of the theatrical 4K into my player, to watch for a bit after watching this new 4K “Director’s Edition”, and this looked better than that too.  (And that’s even though I watched this 4K “Director’s Edition” version via streaming.  I can’t wait to see how great this 4K version will look when I get to watch it on physical media.)

The differences are clear right from the start.  In the opening sequence in which the Klingons encounter V’Ger, the effects of the V’Ger cloud look MUCH sharper than ever before, and the Klingon ships look crisper and better integrated into the scene.  I already mentioned how much better the Klingon bridge looks, darker and more atmospheric.  (In the theatrical version, there’s a bright green screen beside the Klingon commander that looks just awful; that’s been much better integrated into the scene here in the “Director’s Edition.”)  When we cut to Starfleet Headquarters, the new CGI shots (created for the 2001 DVD) look amazing, beautifully expanding the world from what we saw in the theatrical edition.

And then we come to the reveal of the refit Enterprise.  There are two types of people in this world: those who are bored by the extended, several-minutes-long sequence in which Kirk and Scotty fly around the Enterprise, and those who could watch this forever.  I am squarely in the latter category.  The refit Enterprise is, in my opinion, the most beautiful spaceship design ever created.  Combine that with Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful score, and my general love for all things Trek, and this sequence is one I could luxuriate in forever.  And it looks better than ever.  The Enterprise looks much crisper than it ever has (it was blurry in several shots of the theatrical version), and they fixed one of the most egregious matting problems (the wobbliness on the matte on the forward edge of the Enterprise’s saucer when Kirk & Scotty first swing around it — now the saucer’s edge is crisp and stable and perfect).

I could go on and write about pretty much every scene of the film.  (In a cool, subtle CGI edition, we now get to see Kirk & Scotty’s pod docked at the orbiting office complex before they get into it!  They found the missing visual effects element so that now, when the Enterprise leaves dry dock, we can see Earth behind it!  There’s a beautiful new shot of V’Ger when it passes out of its cloud and enters Earth’s orbit, allowing us to finally see what V’Ger really looks like!!  The gorgeous shots of V’Ger materializing a bridge/walkway so Kirk & co. can walk from the Enterprise’s forward hull, look amazing in 4K!)  (The latter two examples were shots created for the 2001 DVD that have been gloriously enhanced for high definition for this new release.)  But this review is long enough and I think you get the idea.

This 4K version of the “Director’s Edition” is unquestionably the best version of this movie, and the only version one should ever watch.  Now, to be clear: I could still imagine a newbie watching this version and thinking, what the heck?  This movie is still boring!!  That is an understandable reaction.

But I have great love for this film, and I think that if you understand what it is when going in, there is so much to appreciate and enjoy.  This is a cerebral film, with deep ideas about what it means to find one’s place in the universe, and what it means to be human.  This is a film that’s all about the grandeur and wonder of space exploration.  It’s inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, rather than Star Wars (which is what pretty much every other sci-fi film for the past 40 years has taken its cues from).  I am so happy that this 4K version of the “Director’s Edition” exists, and I can’t wait to watch it again.

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  • Mark Painter

    As someone who was already an adult when this picture was originally released, I’d like to second your observation that ST:TMP takes its inspiration from 2001 rather than Star Wars. At that time, *everyone* was gaga over Star Wars, and it seemed like every studio and producer was looking for ways to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon. The original Battlestar Galactica TV series and the 1979 Buck Rogers film being just two examples.

    TMP actually owes its existence to Star Wars, as it was the Star Wars craze that persuaded Paramount to go with a big-budget feature film rather than a second TV series.

    All that added up to tremendous pressure on Roddenberry and Wise and the other creative people behind the film to go with a Star Wars feel for their film. That they resisted this pressure, and in fact went in the opposite direction, is praiseworthy. While it is certainly true that the film is flawed in the ways you describe (slow paced, too sterile), and while I doubt this film ever won over a single new Trekkie by itself, it stands out from other SF films of its time in its willingness to take the time to ponder its themes and ideas.

    Thank you for another excellent review.

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