Let’s talk about Star Trek movies.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – While it inspires a lot of ambivalence amongst many viewers, the first Trek movie adventure is really one of their finer outings. It may feel plodding in places, but it has a bold concept driving it, contemporary, big budget movies would never attempted anything similar to it. Of course Earth has been put in peril countless times before and since in tons of other films, but the first Trek movie builds a story whose ultimate motivations don’t boil down to random, apocalyptic destruction or megomanical foolishness. The destructive alien force out to obliterate Earth is revealed to be little more than a child. A child that happens to be a supreme being attempting to grow beyond itself, to evolve beyond what it is. This lack of a clear antagonist to rankle the audience and draw ire flies in the face of most films in the sci-fi action cannon. When Trek attempts to break more traditional cinematic rules pertaining to good guys and bad guys, it often turns out for the best. Trek V excluded of course.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Making a movie as good as “Wrath of Khan” is a double edged sword. On the one hand, you make what amounts to a cinematic classic whose appreciation extends well beyond the typically insulated sci-fi crowd. It’s more than just the best Star Trek movie, it’s a fantastic movie all around. On the other hand lays the problem that has dogged all cinematic Trek since this came out, that nothing has been even close in terms of all around quality. Every Star Trek movie since “Khan” inevitably draws some kind of comparison to “Star Trek II” and they always come up short. Making things all the odder is that “Star Trek II” isn’t complicated. It’s a submarine movie where one captain, Khan, is a vicious psychopath who only wants one thing, to get his hands around the neck of the other captain, Kirk, and can’t. That’s the thrust of the plot, subplots not included.
Next to Montalban’s legendary performance as Khan, Shatner’s Kirk is the best he ever was in the role. Forced to gaze at the past he’s chosen to neglect for a life of adventuring, Kirk sees his arrogance and pride reflected back at himself and feels shame. The introduction of a lost son and forgotten girl bring humanity to an iconic character previously known for little more than arch heroics and pompousness. And the loss of Spock remains one of the entire series, movies and TV included, penultimate moments. After all these years it resonates and saddens, leaving the viewer devastated.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – They never should’ve searched for Spock. One of my biggest beefs with Trek was the immediate decision to dramatically negate Spock’s death. There was such fertile ground for this picture to deal with. Spock being dead, Kirk suddenly trying to relate to a son he never knew, McCoy having no one to aim his damn its at. It’s all dodged. Had the minds behind this one been on their game, Spock would’ve stayed dead, Kirk would’ve been more tightly woven with his son’s story and we would’ve explored a story about how one man loses his best friend and tries to find his way on his own. Instead we get a lot of Christopher Lloyd’s moronic Klingon acting exactly like the kind of bad guy which gives science fiction a bad name. The movie is not a total bag of crap. It has its moments to be sure and it suffers in no small part because it comes on the heels of Part II. But regardless, it feels under imagined in many places and the potential for something better seems not hard to fathom.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – The one with the whales. The conclusion of a sort of unintentional trilogy, parts 2-4, “Voyage” was always the popular Trek picture with people who didn’t like Trek pictures. It’s a time travel comedy with a save the whales slant. Only in the 1980’s could this have sounded like a winner. While an undeniably enjoyable movie, very comfortable with the silliness at hand, “Voyage” feels like a side adventure after all that’s come before it. Kirk has witnessed the death of Spock, the death of his son, the rebirth of Spock, and the destruction of the ship he’s called home for 20 years. So after all of that he’s got to save Earth again from a giant probe that wants to talk to a whale. I don’t really get it. I like it enough, to be sure. I just don’t really get it. Kirk goes through the film seeming to have forgotten his son just died. The movie addresses it once and then never again. In fact, an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the events of Part III wouldn’t surface until “Star Trek VI.”
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – Spock has a brother. He makes the crew for looking for God. God seems not that hard to find. But he’s not God, just some ill-tempered alien prick. They shoot him, he blows up, they go home and roast marshmallows. Everything looked cheap. The End.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – The final send off for the original crew and a fitting end to a nice run of movies, picky grievances aside. Kirk and crew are forced to deal with those Klingon bastards after they ruin their environment and need to stop fighting Starfleet. Kirk finally remembers that his son was killed by those same Klingon bastards and still carries a grudge. Shenanigans take place and Kirk winds up on trial for killing a Klingon politician. It’s an effective Cold War parable, a nice piece of mystery, has an exciting space battle in the end and comes with many strong moments between Kirk and Spock which address their age with agreeable frankness. Christopher Plummer is surpassed only by Part II’s Khan in terms of superb, bad guy scenery chewing. And though she would eventually find iconic success in “Sex in the City”, Kim Catrall was a Vulcan first, long before she was a slutty New Yorker.
The final movie for the original crew is as solid now as it was 18 years ago when it was first released. They show with ease and sure handedness the kind of qualities that the Next Generation never had, that being a down to Earth, everyman humanity that all could relate to, empathize with and appreciate. The original crew always felt like you were watching cool friends have fun. The Next Generation crew always felt like you were watching boring people at work. The final sign off of the cast was a wonderful touch, everything doubly blessed because of an unusually strong film score.
“The Undiscovered Country” also had one of the best teaser trailers ever.