Back to the Future
When the lights finally came up in the Washington, D.C., movie theater, Leonard Nimoy sat still, silent, and a bit shaken. He could scarcely believe what he had seen—and what he had not seen. The movie was beautiful, but beneath the surface sheen, there was no heart, no soul. It had been hard enough for Nimoy to once again don Mr. Spock’s pointed ears—among the reasons he signed on to rejoin the crew of the Starship Enterprise was simply because he didn’t want to read in the press about how Mr. Spock hated Star Trek. Now, sitting in the theater a day before Star Trek: The Motion Picture‘s release in December 1979, all he could think about was how big a mistake he might have made.
What Nimoy witnessed that night sitting with the film’s director, Robert Wise; Trek‘s creator, Gene Roddenberry; and the cast bore only slight resemblance to the television series with which he had been so closely identified since 1966. Yes, there was Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Spock, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and the rest of the crew aboard the sleek, redesigned Enterprise, reunited on screen for the first time since NBC canceled Star Trek in 1969. But the film felt as though it was made by Nimoy’s Vulcan: Filled with excruciatingly long sequences of actors staring into the void—or, more accurately, blue screens that would later be filled with gorgeous, but often tedious, special-effects sequences—the movie was emotionless, stoic, static. Somewhere in there was a story about how a machine—in this case, the Voyager space probe, known as V’ger—had come back to earth seeking its creator, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture contained none of the charm, humor, and warmth that made the old show a legend after its demise. The film was as cold and empty as space itself.
“Star Trek: The Motion Picture was closer in vision to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Nimoy says. “It wasn’t like Star Wars. That movie had action, adventure, fun, a sense of humor, great characters, mythology—all that stuff that makes for an exciting movie adventure. The audience laughs and cheers and applauds, and there was none of that watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
If NBC hadn’t managed to kill Trek in 1969, maybe Paramount Pictures had offed it a decade later. That’s what Nimoy thought that December night.
Of course, Trek would survive and thrive. Eight subsequent films and three more series based on the original show would render Star Trek a billion-dollar franchise for the studio, and even the first film turned an enormous profit. Since its release, it has grossed almost $160 million worldwide, a fortune considering its $45-million budget. But to this day, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is considered by the filmmakers, the cast, and the series’ fans as a disappointment…at best.
Perhaps that will be rectified later this year, when Paramount releases on DVD Star Trek: The Motion Picture Director’s Edition, the film as Robert Wise intended it to be seen in 1979. Wise, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1941 for his editing of Citizen Kane, never had a chance to complete Trek, which was yanked away from him by the studio and plopped into theaters in hopes of cashing in on the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Paramount wanted the movie in theaters for the holidays, even though the special effects weren’t even completed till, literally, the last minute.
Wise possesses the sort of résumé that guarantees immortality. In 1961, he won his first Academy Award for directing that year’s best picture, West Side Story; in 1965, he again took home the dual honors for his work on Sound of Music. And among the 38 other movies in his filmography, one will find a litany of brilliant and beloved films, among them The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Somebody Up There Likes Me (’56), Run Silent, Run Deep and I Want to Live! (both in 1958), and The Sand Pebbles (’66).
But for years Wise refused to even talk about ST:TMP (as it’s known among fans), and in any book by or about Wise, the movie receives only scant mention, as though eradicating it from the text will erase it from memory. Of his involvement with the picture, he would only say—and often say—it was “disappointing,” but what he refused to say said more than enough.
“At the time I made it, I was pretty unhappy,” the 86-year-old Wise says now. “There were some unfortunate things going on. We had problems with the script—we were rewriting the script all the way through—and I got along well with the actors, but it was not one of my happiest experiences, so I always had a bit of a downer on it. There were so many things taken out I don’t think should have been taken out, so when I had a chance to go back belatedly and put some of those scenes back in, that made me much happier about the film. With all my other films, everything went fine—I got my cut on them and got along with the studios. This is the only one I had this experience with.”
When the idea of restoring ST:TMP was suggested by filmmakers David C. Fein and Michael Matessino two years ago, Wise was at first resistant. The two finally convinced him to approach Paramount about completing his movie, and the studio agreed, but only for home-video release. Wise then began working with producer Fein, restoration supervisor Matessino, visual-effects supervisor Daren Dochterman, and Foundation Imaging, the special effects company responsible for the look of the Star Trek: Voyager series. It would take five months for the filmmakers to, at long last, “find the movie’s flow,” as Fein says.
Fein doesn’t like to use the words “fixing” or “restoring” when talking about the project; instead, he says, it’s a “celebration of the film” and “a continuation of where the first team finished.” As far as he’s concerned, ST:TMP simply had the longest preview screening in the history of film, and the forthcoming DVD edition is a result of decades’ worth of accrued criticism. Even then, he insists, nothing has been done to the film that wasn’t supposed to have been done to it in 1979—meaning the filmmakers haven’t gone in and digitally added new characters or altered the plot as George Lucas did for the so-called special editions of the Star Wars films. In fact, most of the alterations to Trek came straight from the original storyboards and production memos, which were found among Wise’s archives at the University of Southern California.
“I was very adamant that we don’t try anything that was not out of the realm of possibility in 1979,” says Dochterman. “But that was one of the most fun parts of this project—the archeology.”
“It was not simply saying, ‘Now we can work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 2000,'” Matessino adds. “It was, ‘How do we get into the mindset that it’s 1979 and we have two months’ more work on Star Trek?'”
Despite myriad Internet reports to the contrary, the “new” ST:TMP will not feature a great deal of previously unseen footage (including the infamous “memory wall” Kirk-Spock spacewalk sequence that takes place inside V’ger). Most of the additions are taken from the additional 12 minutes’ worth of footage put back in the film when it aired on ABC in the ’80s, including a handful of Kirk-Spock scenes Nimoy and Shatner proposed during production to humanize the chilly tale. Scenes have actually been trimmed (especially those containing repetitive dialogue, such as those moments when crew members point out what we’ve already seen), and much of what has been added are additional special-effects shots (an astonishingly “lifelike” computer-generated Enterprise has been created for some key sequences) and a new sound mix (some of which restores effects familiar to fans of the original series) that Fein insists makes the film far more “intense.” Indeed, after the new cut was screened for the ratings board, the original G rating was upped to a PG.
“There is very little in this version that had not come from an original storyboard,” Fein says. “This was not us going, ‘How can we reinvent the wheel?’ We’re going back to the original storyboards and turning those ideas into reality. Bob Wise is not a supporter of revisionist history. It’s not a matter of revising the picture; this is not an alternate version…But if people sit down and watch this version and say, ‘I don’t remember it being this good,’ I will be thrilled.”
Nimoy is not among those anxiously awaiting the DVD, if only because he resolved his own issues when ABC aired the film with his excised suggestions restored. Any ill will he had toward the franchise in 1979 was exorcised during the filming of subsequent Trek films, two of which he directed.
“If I had anything to prove, I think I did it a long time ago,” Nimoy insists. “This is really about Bob Wise. It’s not about me or Bill Shatner or any of us.”
For Wise, it was necessary to step back in time, if only because he needed “closure,” a term often used by Nimoy, Fein, and Wise himself. He has retired from filmmaking, and is content that at long last, all 40 of his films look, sound, and feel just as he intended.
“When I did West Side Story, we screened it for the cast and crew before we took it to the Midwest for a couple of sneak previews,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget, Sam Goldwyn and his wife were there, and Mrs. Goldwyn said to me after the showing, ‘The minute I sat down in the theater, I wasn’t in that theater. I was in that film, all the way through it.’ That’s the greatest compliment you can pay any film. It grabs the audience from the very beginning and never lets them go. They forget they’re looking at a film. That’s what you try for. And I’ve finally done that with Star Trek.”