I think what needs to be remembered is that TMP came along during a paradigm shift in the way SF film was done. People today look back on it as a generation whose view of SF cinema is defined by Star Wars
and its successors, the trend of SF as action-driven roller-coaster rides. But TMP harkened back to the SF of the '60s and '70s, to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey
and Silent Running
. It wasn't about mile-a-minute excitement; it was about ideas and atmosphere and grandeur and sense of wonder. And it wasn't just SF; there were a number of films in other genres that weren't afraid of long, slow, contemplative passages that were about immersing the audience in the atmosphere of a scene. See films like Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago
, the works of Kubrick and Leone and Bergman, etc. This was part of the language of cinema in the era where most of Robert Wise's career fell. It can be hard to understand today when so many of us watch movies on DVD or our computers, but if you experience something like that on the big screen, with all distractions taken away, it's a far more immersive and effective experience.
So it wasn't that Wise's approach was wrong or inept; it was that he was following an older paradigm, one that audiences weren't as quick to embrace after Star Wars
changed the rules (and not necessarily for the better). And I don't think that was a mistake. I think TMP is perhaps one of the last big statements of that particular paradigm, the swan song of a cinematic era. After all, TMP and The Black Hole
, which came out only two weeks later, were the last American films to feature overtures
in their theatrical releases, something that had been a common practice in earlier decades. TBH was also an exemplar of the older style of SF filmmaking, essentially a space-based remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
, although showing some of the influence that Star Wars
had on SF cinema.