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To Boldly Go – Part 2 of 2


In recent weeks, I've been revisiting the old Star Trek films.  The 770 word version of why I would subject myself to such can be found here.  The two-word version is: Robert Wise.  I'm a big fan of his films The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Haunting (1963).  A strange pinnacle, of sorts, in the filmmaker's intriguing career is Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), which I had not seen since I was a wee lad.  I had been wanting to reacquaint myself with this movie so that I could perhaps find new appreciation for it as an adult, and maybe connect it to things I love about The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, and even Wise's directorial debut, the beautifully shot The Curse Of The Cat People (1944). 

I connected very little of Star Trek: The Motion Picture to previous Wise movies.  The film mostly represents high-pressure Hollywood politics eroding the art of filmmaking.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture should have been Wise's parting masterpiece, his payoff for four-and-a-half decades of honing his skills and working his way up through the studio system.  Instead, the movie simply provides a bittersweet cap to one of genre cinema's most fascinating filmmakers.

Indiana-born Robert Wise (1914-2005) began his career toiling in post-production, first as a sound effects editor for RKO in the 30s.  He quickly rose through the ranks to become a film editor; he scored a nice feather in his cap as the editor of what many consider The Greatest Film Ever Made, Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles.  (Wise was the last living crew member of that legendary film classic.)

When RKO and producer Val Lewton teamed up for a slate of low budget horror flicks – cranking out films like Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), and Isle of the Dead (1945) – they were aware of how talented and respected editor Robert Wise was.  Lewton's production of the sequel The Curse Of The Cat People started falling behind schedule almost as soon as cameras rolled on day one of the shoot.  Lewton soon fired the director, Gunther Fritsch, and offered Robert Wise the job of completing the film.  The two filmmakers received co-directing credit, and The Curse Of The Cat People became the feature film directorial debut of both Fritsch and Wise.  Fritsch was seen as the problem; his career never really took off.  Wise was seen as the hero who not only cleaned up Fritsch's mess, but pulled an impressive, gorgeous film out of the ordeal as well.  Wise's career took off like a rocket.

Val Lewton immediately hired Wise to direct the next RKO horror picture, The Body Snatcher (1945).  Again, Wise knocked it out of the park, creating a tension-filled, atmospheric, and chillingly sinister thriller.  The film was the final pairing of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Wise continued working constantly, churning out genre films through the 50s.  The highlight of this era is The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), which became enormously influential on science-fiction films made subsequently.  It may not have quite done for sci-fi what Romero did for zombie movies – but it came pretty close.  Echoes of The Day The Earth Stood Still can be found in science fiction films to this day.  A remake starring Keanu Reeves was released in 2008.

Two of Robert Wise's most celebrated films are West Side Story (1961) and The Sound Of Music (1965).  The latter won Wise the Best Director Academy Award.  Between these two musicals, Wise unleashed The Haunting (1963), a visually delectable and inventively creepy horror film.  Like The Day The Earth Stood Still significantly impacted sci-fi, The Haunting reverberations can be felt in subsequent horror pictures, and this impressive film still influences horror cinema to this day.  An underwhelming remake was released in 1999.

After gaining more critical praise with The Sand Pebbles (1966), expanding his sci-fi following with The Andromeda Strain (1971), and giving thriller fans another jolt with Audrey Rose (1977), Robert Wise was handed the reins of a major Paramount production, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

This first Star Trek theatrical feature was the victim of thick studio politics and too many cooks in the kitchen.  Paramount executives, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy all had approval over and constant input on the screenplay – and as a result, the script changed every day of the shoot.  As the cooks fought over which ingredients to put in the Star Trek stew, the budget ballooned, and director Wise wrung every trick he could from his forty-five years of filmmaking experience to keep the hostility-filled, unruly, runaway shoot on track.

Before shooting even began, the project was weeks behind schedule.  The shoot itself was significantly behind schedule by day three of production.  Tremendous delays and money-hemorrhaging occurred due to difficulties in shooting the ambitious special effects shots.  Minor cast and crew injuries, faulty lighting gear, set construction problems, massive egos, constant meddling by Roddenberry, and endless script re-writes probably drove Wise to the brink of insanity.  He barely held on by his fingernails as Paramount cranked up the incredible pressure he was under. 

He did hang on though - and managed to do it with an even temper and an unbreakable commitment to crafting the best film possible under the worst possible circumstances. 

The production wrapped after 125 days of shooting.  The $15 million dollar budget had climbed to $46 million, making Star Trek: The Motion Picture one of the most expensive feature films ever produced up to that point.  Looking at the film today, it is clear that very little of that money made it to the screen.

The film barely made its release date; the final elements of the movie fell into place only a day or so before it premiered.  Roddenberry caught most of the blame for the chaos, but box office profits came in well under Paramount expectations, and critical response was lackluster, so finger-pointing was abundant.  Wise caught his own share of the heat, though most people associated with the film credit the director with being the primary reason the film was completed at all.  Though it was not a big financial or critical success, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is only as good as it is because a director of exceptional talent refused to let the bullshit derail him.

Perhaps part of the fallout of the disastrous production was the ten-year gap between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Wise's final theatrical film.  He was 65 years old when Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released, so age may have slowed him down as much as Star Trek's tarnish on his reputation. The long gap does seem sudden, however, given Wise had directed, on average, more than one movie a year since 1944's The Curse Of The Cat People.

Robert Wise is often criticized for being a "hired gun" genre director with no real personal style or notable artistic accomplishments – a criticism generally propped up by the observation that his films spanned an incredibly wide range of style and subject matter.  Conversely, I believe the fact that Wise routinely chose to venture into new, unexplored territory is one of the most exciting and impressive aspects of this underrated director.  You would never expect The HauntingThe Sound Of Music, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture to pour forth from the same filmmaker.  This is, in my opinion, an attribute to be admired, not criticized.  Lesser filmmakers, many of them much more successful and well-known than Wise, fine-tune their skills by settling into a comfortable rut.  Conducting his career the way Wise did indicates great courage in the face of the unknown - and an eagerness to boldly go where he is beyond his comfort zone, teetering on the brink of failure or triumph throughout his exploration of strange new worlds.Thanks for reading.