How the 4K Restoration Returns the Humanity to ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

We chat with restoration producer David C. Fein about assembling Robert Wise's Director's Cut in 4K Ultra HD with Dolby Vision. My god, it's full of stars.
Star Trek The Motion Picture K Restoration

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with restoration producer David C. Fein about assembling Robert Wise’s Director’s Cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 4K Ultra HD with Dolby Vision. 

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: “Star Trek: The Motion Picture? More like Star Trek: The Motionless Picture!” Hardy har har. Very funny, folks. So, original.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a bad rap. After witnessing Star Wars‘ success, Paramount wanted to get their sci-fi television franchise up on the big screen. However, director Robert Wise was inspired more by 2001: A Space Odyssey than he was by George Lucas’ whizzbang space swashbuckler. His Star Trek was a much more contemplative endeavor and an incredible cinematic one.

Wise provided what the small screen never could, a big damn spectacle. When you watch Kirk’s long tour around the dry dock, soaking in every angle of the USS Enterprise, you’re experiencing the character’s love for the starship and the filmmaker’s love too. And our love. The old friend is back, ready to explore where no one has gone before. Again.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the culmination of a long love affair involving many creators. They didn’t know they would have several more decades to return to the final frontier. This was their shot, and you can sense that kitchen sink passion in every frame. Wise and company wanted to put it all on the screen.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. In his estimation, Robert Wise’s original vision was cut up, rearranged, and neutered. Not until 2001 (a very fitting year) did Wise have a chance to attempt restoration. The Star Trek: The Motion Picture Director’s Cut refined the edit and enhanced many of the special effects. Released on DVD, the little disc was a glorious artifact for certain Trekkies like myself, but the product quickly went out of print.

Twenty years later, Wise’s Director’s Cut returns, and it looks better than ever in 4K Ultra HD. Leading the restoration was producer David C. Fein alongside post-production supervisor Mike Matessino and visual effects supervisor Daren R. Dochterman. Together, these enthusiasts pulled off a mini-miracle, introducing Robert Wise’s singular vision to an entirely new audience, one not soiled by cheeky film reviews of the era.

I spoke with Fein over Zoom, and it was clear that he was most excited about bringing Star Trek: The Motion Picture to new eyes. He hopes old fans enjoy the experience, but he believes there’s an opportunity to woo folks who’ve never seen the film or seen any Star Trek film or show before.

The Motion Picture was intended to introduce new audiences to Star Trek,” says Fein. “It’s timeless, and it really does bring in people. I’m excited because people say they brought their kids to [the new 4K presentation]. Twenty-somethings have all said it works so much better, not so much – not better, but it works for them.”

Fein cannot deny the power the original had. The producer marvels at The Motion Picture‘s mission. When the film was released in 1979, it had been almost a decade since the show was on the air. And the series only lasted three years. It built an incredible fanbase around it, but Paramount sought to bring more folks into the theater than just those that watched it in their living rooms.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” he says. “What I mean by that is, I don’t really feel like any of the other Star Trek films really captured was – and I’m not putting them down in any way, they’re marvelous for what they were – but this was a film that was supposed to launch Star Trek for all audiences. Even the way it’s assembled, there are almost episodical points where it breaks into the story, and it really focuses on the characters.”

Robert Wise’s Director’s Cut gives space to the cast in a way the original edit could not afford to do. All that precious spectacle, which Douglas Trumbull worked tirelessly on, remains. However, Wise returns those character moments to the narrative. The ship is given its crew back.

“It’s funny,” continues Fein, “because classic Star Trek, the TV series, was always about telling the greatest story with limited effects because they didn’t have the budget. The Motion Picture went way to the other side at one point, where it became all visual effects, and because of the troubles at the time, the character moments were really tightened. They needed all the room for the visual effects. But the thing is, the major story has always been about the Kirk, Spock, and McCoy triangle. The way those characters made the story. Kirk is isolated at the beginning, but this movie doesn’t really start until the three are finally united.”

During the film’s climax, the Enterprise crew discovers that the invading alien spacecraft is actually the Voyager 6, a 20th-century space probe believed lost in a black hole. Now sentient, “V’Ger” wants to make contact with its creator, humanity. The lifeform seeks what we all do when we look to the sky, pondering our origins.

The Motion Picture kept Gene Roddenberry‘s human concept,” says Fein. “He was so ahead of his time; I say this even now. One of the morals of the story is that technology is cold without humanity. Well, in 1979, that’s a brilliant statement, but we had touch phones, and we were excited. Now, you walk around with an iPhone.”

Kirk and Spock should be thankful that the only technology that returned to them was Voyager 6. Imagine how different the film would be if Twitter took to the stars and became sentient. What terror would it bring with it?

“The question is,” says Fein, “does Twitter have that humanity? And would it be T’Wer? Did we find Twitter as some entity in some other place? The point is, it’s the same thing. Would technology have that humanity, or would it be just as dry or confused because it could only see on the surface of where we are? There are so many more little aspects that make you question that. It’s relevant. We never thought what Twitter would become today or what it will become tomorrow.”

David Fein worked directly with Robert Wise on the 2001 Director’s Cut. His 4K Ultra HD restoration completes his promise to the director. Throughout his time on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, after Wise was gone, he could sense the filmmaker steering his hands.

“It’s actually choking me up a little,” says Fein. “It’s weird. There were times I was working on this, and I’d stop, and I’d think about things, and it felt like he was standing here next to me. I stayed with him until he passed. We talked about it over and over and over again. I never felt the decision was anything other than what would make him really smile.”

He deeply misses the filmmaker and wishes he could show Wise what wonders they can pull off today. There are moments in this new restoration that no one could have dreamed possible twenty years ago, let alone forty-three years ago.

“What I do know,” continues Fein, “is that there were a lot of times that we were doing things that we never imagined we could do. We were working from the camera negative, and there’s a little bit of extra space on the left-hand side because camera negatives don’t have sound – on some films, it’s blacked out. But there was actually exposed picture here, and there’s a place in the film where it wasn’t quite working, the poignancy of the moment, but digitally we’re able to move [the frame] over, and we had another character here who was looking in, and they enhanced the scene. Knowing Bob and knowing that if he knew we could do that and what we had the ability to do now, it just would’ve made him so happy. That brought a smile to my face. Even now. It’s wonderful.”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is ready to meet new audiences. If you’ve never seen it before, now’s the chance. It’s never looked better. If you’ve seen it several times before and dismissed it as a snooze, then now’s your opportunity to approach it with an open heart. Hold onto those last three words, “The Motion Picture.” Forget the films and shows that came after. Imagine this is your first trek with Star Trek on the big screen. Embrace the spectacle and the humanity that made it.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Cut is now available wherever 4K Ultra HDs are sold.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)