What They Say:
The U.S.S. Enterprise proudly soars again in this new, beautifully restored Director’s Edition of the original Star Trek movie classic. This new Director’s Edition features enhanced visual effects and a new sound mix, supervised by legendary director Robert Wise. When an unidentified alien destroys three powerful Klingon cruisers, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returns to the newly transformed U.S.S. Enterprise to take command. Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and the cast from the acclaimed original Star Trek television series mobilize at warp speed to stop the alien intruder from its relentless flight toward Earth.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Growing up to stories of my father watching the original Star Trek TV series while serving in the Air Force in Greenland during the late 60s meant that Star Trek has always been a part of my life. I had seen the animated series as a kid before the original series but I was exposed to the original series fairly early. I was, however, far more of a Star Wars kid by being seven when that came out and it altering my life completely. Star Trek has been a throughline in my life in a different way, however, with the film series, the various TV properties, and the revival of the last few years. So when a new 4K director’s edition was being shown on Paramount+ before getting a home video release, I was all-in to revisit this film that I’ve seen a lot over my life because replay value of Trek is still pretty high for me.
The film is an odd duck to be sure in general. It wasn’t the result of Star Wars being popular but rather that Paramount realized that you could make science fiction that wasn’t Star Wars because of the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. With film plans falling through a few years prior and the focus shifted to the Phase II TV series, that was repurposed into this film that arrived just before Christmas 1979. Coming ten years after the end of the original series, the cast was certainly a bit older and noticeably so for some more so than others. It was also a project that looked to reinvent itself to some degree as it took some of the core things that worked, notably the cast and the dynamic between them, along with certain visuals and an updated Enterprise interior design. It was more movie than TV show in the right way for a lot of it and it showed a solid evolution that you could, reasonably, track with for the most part.
While they delivered a lot of solid film-science material and leaned into things like 2001: A Space Odyssey, they also forgot their roots as there’s really no action to be had here. Now, the gang is certainly older but Star Trek is also about space battles and tension, which is why the second film in the series is one that’s generally pretty popular as it learned how to blend the two. Here, this really does lean more toward the high-brow but without the cast or concept to really pull it offf. The screenplay from Harold Livingston is one that works in the larger sense with its ideas, but with the ongoing rewrites along the way and the on-set chaos that was reported for the longest time, and that the original cute sent to theaters was what he felt was a rough cut, you can really tell the problems all the more. That said, it is fascinating Trek when you get down to it and one that was kind of reworked with the fourth film.
The idea behind this film is that it’s ten years after the TV series ended and Kirk has become an admiral and is mostly deskbound, McCoy has seemingly retired and gotten crankier, and Spock has pursued logic but has failed because of his human side – which is now speaking to him with a connection to the new threat that the Federation is facing. Everyone else from the original is still in Starfleet and serving as they’re preparing the next generation of ships of which the Enterprise is the lead as its retrofit is close to being finished – but not completely done yet. The threat that’s coming is a spiral-style cloud that’s impenetrable as when ships go in or come across it, they’re eliminated quickly in a form that makes it look like they’re digitized by plasma weapons. With it on course for Earth, that has Kirk taking command of the Enterprise because it’s scarily enough the only ship close enough even with the thing still three days away. Of course, Kirk likely does have the most experience with strange new things like this and he’s able to pull together the crew. His familiarity with the Enterprise isn’t great and that sets a few moments where he nearly destroys everyone because of it, but, well, that’s designed to add tension since its captain was demoted to executive officer when Kirk took over and he’s pissed.
The film works through a bunch of things in the early part in reconnecting us to the cast, including some supporting players, and time spent showing how Kirk has kind of aged out of this, which is interesting as it’s a thread tugged on repeatedly for the next decade of films. Getting the gang together and working out some of the kinks of the ship before encountering the thing works pretty well, especially since it does lean on the whole talking things out method. Once the encounter begins, however, it moves more into the realm of 2001 than Star Trek. And frustrates in a couple of different ways. First, Kirk is holding onto the methods that have always worked by going forward and attempting communication and seeing what works. Decker is both warier than Kirk and hesitant to make contact and investigate but also quicker to want to just throw photon torpedoes at it. It reinforces the idea that you’re left wondering how he got this seat as captain and not some smaller ship elsewhere with how he acts.
This sprawling thing that they encounter does try to make contact since, you know, humanity, and it does so by killing one of the crew members and reconstituting them as a probe-version. This includes them appearing in a sonic shower first. Persis Khambatta was cast in the Phase II TV series but was brought into this as Ilia, a Deltan navigator, which means she’s baled. Khambatta was all-in on this and handles the role well in the back half as her time early on is just looking concerned and shaking and rolling with the ship movements. Her character is given extra dimension as there’s a relationship of sorts with Decker in the mix, but the probe is a probe so it’s all very mechanical. But I like the way they worked the costume design, the voice, and the neck jewel that gives it just enough otherworldliness as she’s the proxy for V’Ger, the being behind everything.
The final act involving V’Ger definitely works in a way that pays homage to the 60s and 70s era of spaceflight in a way that delighted me as a kid and still works well in the here and now. The visual aspect is weird to be sure, but it wasn’t like anything else then or since then, I think. It has the right kind of Close Encounters of the Third Kind aspect to how it works things out to bring the problem to a close while also showing a way forward – something that I do wish that someone would pick up down the line. Part of me wished that the alien species in the fourth season of Discovery was related to this. But the film gets so bogged down in itself with the journey through V’Ger’s domain in the middle part of the film that it just becomes a slog. You can see them almost pulling up reels of 2001: A Space Odyssey just to make sure they weren’t copying it 100% in doing this trip to the center. It felt longer as a kid to me than it does now but it’s still a five-minute section at one point of Spock just going through the sprawling storage/display section that hints at neat things but without enough to really ground it.
I’m not in favor of remaking past films with newer cast members, and the original series crew is slowly being recast in the TV series ongoing continuity, but I would absolutely love to see a modern remake of this within the TV realm and not the Kelven film cast. Anyway, this film is always going to be the odd duck of the film series in general, and that’s one that has such bizarreness as the Undiscovered Country. I have a weird affection for this film as it was the first Star Trek that I got to see with my father where it was brand new to both of us and that has always had meaning, even now years after his passing. The film tries to mature things up and remove some of the cleaner edges of a late 60s TV show by being a PG feature film and that just feels weird in a way that’s hard to pin down, from the more familial physical elements between our core crew and some of the dialogue. But the concept here with what they’re facing is one of my favorite stories overall that has stayed with me for decades and always brings a smile. It’s definitely worth taking the time to sink your teeth into.
Streamed By: Paramount+