Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Rating The Star Trek Films (Part One)
It's hard to believe that there was a time when people were clamoring for any type of new Star Trek adventures. The original series (hereafter to be known as ST:TOS) ended in 1969, and the first Trek movie came out in 1979. Since then there's been 10 more feature films, four different television series, and tons of auxiliary stuff connected with the franchise. The revival of Star Trek was due to the fans wanting it back; now some would say it's time to give it a rest. With the financial success of Abrams' 2009 re-boot, Paramount seems to be in it for the long haul. There's starting to be a generational gap between fans of ST:TOS and fans of the new movies (kind of like the gap between Doctor Who fans). I have a feeling that these movies I'm about to discuss will seem as quaint to some as a number of the early James Bond entries do to a younger audience.
For the purposes of these blogs, I will rank the movies in quality, number one being the best. Part One will focus on the films featuring the ST:TOS crew, Part Two will deal with the movies starring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation (otherwise known as ST:TNG).
1. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN
Obvious...in fact, it's so obvious that everyone seems to take for granted how great KHAN really is. It's ironic that producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer were not Trek fans before making this film. A quick perusal of some of the original TV episodes was enough to give Bennett and Meyer proper knowledge of Star Trek's dynamics....the same dynamics that Gene Roddenberry had seemed to forget. KHAN is well-paced, exciting, interesting, and easy to follow and understand even if you know nothing about Star Trek. The movie looks great (Bennett and Meyer made a wise decision to change the Enterprise's interior scheme and get rid of those awful Starfleet pajama uniforms from the first movie) and James Horner contributes a stirring score, though certainly not in the same league as Jerry Goldsmith. The Enterprise crew is a lot more on the mark than in the first film; Nicholas Meyer has said in interviews that he wanted the characters to act like recognizable human beings, and they do. As for Ricardo Montalban, his performance has now become a major pop culture reference, but if Montalban's Khan were not larger than life, this movie wouldn't have worked. Kirstie Alley almost steals the film as Lt. Saavik...and yes, she actually looked that hot back in the day. Unfortunately, Saavik as a character would wind up being wasted later on in the series. If KHAN has a problem, it's Kirk's son David Marcus (Merritt Butrick). Considering that this is the offspring of the franchise's lead, the character just isn't developed enough to make the viewer care about him.
Without doubt the greatest Star Trek film of all...and one of the best modern science-fiction films.
2. STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Nicholas Meyer, the Bruce Sutter of Star Trek, was called from the bullpen again to save the franchise from the botched root canal that was STAR TREK V. The sixth entry is basically the Cold War in space, with the Klingons as the failing Soviet Union. It's a bit too obvious, but it works, thanks to Meyer's deft handling. Meyer lets the entire crew shine in their last feature film appearance together. Sulu even gets his own command (something that should have happened years ago). There's fine support from Christopher Plummer as a Klingon Commander (although the character's constant quoting of Shakespeare gets to be annoying) and David Warner as the Klingon leader (Paramount must have felt ashamed at the way Warner was mis-used in STAR TREK V).
The main problem here: Kim Cattrall as a turncoat Vulcan Starfleet officer. (The role was originally supposed to be Saavik, but Kirstie Alley didn't want to return.) Cattrall is so blatant a villain that she should have worn a sign around her neck saying I'M A BAD GUY.
All in all, a very nice sendoff for the original Star Trek crew.
3. STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK
For some reason, people seem to look down on this movie. It's certainly not on the level of KHAN, but it's far better than most of the later entries. After the events of the last picture, Kirk finds out that the late Spock's soul may still be "alive". Leonard Nimoy got the chance to direct, and he did an excellent job. SEARCH is the best acted out of all the ST:TOS films. The humor is understated and arises out of the situation (things would change pretty quick in the next installment). SEARCH also has a unique visual style--Charles Correll probably did the best job of cinematography on the entire series.
William Shatner gives his best movie performance as James Kirk. (Was Shatner at the top of his game because he was showing off for Nimoy?) This is a Kirk on the absolute brink--he's just found out that he can bring his best friend back from the grave, and he's not going to let anyone stop him. This includes destroying the original Enterprise (I still think this rings false; Kirk got out of even worse situations plenty of times before without having to blow up the ship). I'm sure that no one was surprised at the ending of SEARCH, but the climax on Vulcan is hauntng and moving.
Kirstie Alley did not return as Saavik, and she was replaced by Robin Curtis. Just about every Trek fan has found Curtis' take on the role to be lacking; but in her defense, Saavik and David Marcus are not fleshed out very well. Because of this, the death of Kirk's son just doesn't have the impact it should have. The underwhelming response to Curtis as Saavik doomed the character to oblivion. The Star Trek movies were never good at introducing or maintaining new characters.
STAR TREK III is the most underrated, and under appreciated, of all the Trek movies.
4. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME
This is the movie that is loved by those who don't like Star Trek. After disobeying Starfleet orders to save Spock, the crew has to go back in time to the 20th Century in order to save the universe from a probe causing destruction. The reason for going back in time? The probe was trying to communicate with humpback whales, which do not exist in the 23rd Century.
This film made a killing at the box office, and was popular with critics and the general public. Leonard Nimoy as Spock even made the cover of Newsweek (a big deal back in those days). One of the things I remember about seeing VOYAGE in a theater is how well the audience responded to it. It is very entertaining and very well made.
But....like a lot of things made in the 1980s, it just doesn't hold up very well. The whole "save the whales" plot is a bit too simplistic. Whenever ST:TOS had an episode about time travel, it was always stressed how important it was to not screw up the time-space continuum. In VOYAGE, that gets completely thrown out the window. If Kirk had met Edith Keeler in this movie, he would have married her. I realize that VOYAGE is supposed to be the "fun" Star Trek movie, but some of the gags and situations look pretty labored today.
The crew (including Kirk and Spock) all act like idiots. The lowest Starfleet cadet would know how to behave properly in this situation--the Enterprise crew go out of their way to attract as much unwanted attention as possible. Yeah, it's funny, but there's a line between amusing and dumb. All the comedy did make people love the movie--unfortunately every Star Trek film since has tried to find ways to put in some silly comic sequence.
Robin Curtis gets a throwaway cameo as Saavik (it's like Paramount was saying, "Thanks...don't let the door hit you on the way out"), and Catherine Hicks plays a 20th Century marine biologist who helps out the crew in their quest to grab some whales. Kirk winds up taking Hicks to the 23rd Century--thankfully she never appeared in any other Trek adventures.
The film's highlight is an appearance by Jane Wyatt as Spock's mother (Wyatt had played the role in the TV series). Wyatt's scene with Spock is probably the best in the film.
Make no mistake--I like this movie, it is very funny, and Leonard Nimoy made an entertaining tale. VOYAGE is a very good film--it's just not a great Star Trek movie.
5. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE
This film has always been considered to be a bomb (it actually made a fair amount of money). The plot is rather slight (a NASA space probe sent to travel the universe has been "upgraded" by alien technology and it returns to Earth looking for it's "Creator"). The most important part of TMP was the reunion of the Star Trek cast. No matter what the script had been, this movie probably would have been a letdown. The story was still being worked on even during filming (always a bad sign). Paramount originally wanted this to be the start of a new Trek TV series, but after seeing the grosses from STAR WARS, they enlarged the project to a feature film.
Because Paramount didn't really know what they wanted, there's a somewhat incomplete aspect to TMP. The version that everyone is familiar with is NOT the theatrical version, it's the longer cut which was shown on network TV. And there's even a third version--a "Director's Cut" supervised by Robert Wise and released on DVD in 2001. Someday Paramount needs to release a super-duper home video version of TMP containing all the relevant cuts of the film, and a booklet that explains all the changes and different scenes for each. But because TMP is considered one of the worst of the series, more than likely it won't happen.
This was the only Star Trek feature film personally produced by series creator Gene Roddenberry. A number of fans have complained about Paramount taking the films away from Roddenberry's control--but after watching TMP, can you blame them? It's easy to see that Roddenberry was trying to go the anti-Star Wars route and make a "serious" science-fiction film. Roddenberry should have tried to stick to the TV series' concept of a "space western" instead. TMP gets bogged down in it's own pomposity. The TV episode-style plot is dragged out to over two hours, and the movie is really, really slow. Douglas Trumbull's special effects are fantastic, and they're still impressive today--but without a gripping narrative to hang them on, they're just a bunch of pretty pictures.
In a way TMP is really a trial run for The Next Generation TV show. Decker (Stephen Collins) is an early version of Riker; Ilia (Persis Khambatta) is Deanna Troi. And just like the crew of TNG, the crew of TMP sit around and talk about doing something instead of actually doing something. This is the worst looking of all the Trek features--the set decoration is horrible, and the ship's main colors seem to be beige, grey, and pale blue. Every room and hallway in the ship looks mind-numbingly the same--if you had to spend a five-year mission in this place, you'd go crazy in six months.
The best thing about TMP is a magnificent sequence showing the refurbished Enterprise in all it's glory. Backed by Jerry Goldsmith's titanic score, it's one of the best moments in Star Trek movie history. By the way, Goldsmith's work isn't just one of the best Star Trek musical scores...it's one of the best overall movie scores, period.
Another plus is that TMP doesn't have any silly humor (if anything, it's humorless). One other thing needs to be pointed out about TMP: it's the only time that Paramount spent a major amount of money on a Star Trek film. And it's the only time they hired a top-flight director (Hollywood legend Robert Wise). The ends didn't really justify the means.
The first Star Trek film was not the total disaster that most fans think it is, but with at least three different versions of it existing, it's hard to make an adequate judgement on it. Gene Roddenberry does deserve some credit for trying to make a serious science-fiction film, but maybe he should have just tried to make a good Star Trek film.
6. STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER
Is this movie really that bad? Yes. Yes it is.
After seeing all the critical acclaim Leonard Nimoy got for directing the third and fourth films of the series, William Shatner decided to pull the old "Give me the director's chair or I won't play Kirk" card. Shatner also came up with the original story, involving Spock's from-out-of-nowhere half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill). The idea of a major character suddenly being confronted by a close relative that no one knew about seems tailor-made for a mediocre TV show, not a Star Trek feature. Nevertheless, Sybok is the real star of this movie, if you want to call him that. Spock's brother takes over the Enterprise so he can travel to the center of the Universe and meet God.
When you set up a plotline that deals with meeting the Almighty, you're dooming yourself to failure. I guess Shatner deserves credit for coming up with a high-concept idea, but FINAL FRONTIER in no way comes close to living up to that concept.
The comedy success of STAR TREK IV gave Shatner plenty of leeway to use even more dopey scenes. While Nimoy knew how to direct a comic sequence, Shatner clearly didn't--his style appears to be more of the "Throw it on the wall and see what sticks" school of film making. One wonders what type of movie Shatner was trying to make. There's tons of goofy humor, yet at the same time there's a subplot about what "God" really is and how different people relate to a supreme being. The end result is a jarring mishmash that winds up with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy singing "Row, row, row your boat" (the scene is supposed to be touching, but it's just contrived).
The supporting crew members really suffer in this one--Chekov and Sulu have a scene where they get lost in the woods (George Takei and Walter Koenig give off a vibe of total embarrassment), Scotty gets to do a Moe Howard pratfall (I have to say he does nail it), and, in what is probably the most jaw-dropping, head-scratching scene in all of Star Trek movie history, Uhura does a fan dance on top of a sand dune.
But there's more! Esteemed actor David Warner is in this movie as a Starfleet diplomat....and he has absolutely nothing to do. I'm not exaggerating--Warner's character could have been played by someone walking down the street outside the studio, and it wouldn't have made any difference. For all the things William Shatner did (or didn't do) in this film, the worst crime of all is taking an actor like David Warner and using him like a piece of furniture.
I will defend William Shatner in one detail. The original script called for the false "God" to attack Kirk with various demons and monsters in a show-stopping FX sequence. Paramount did not allow the budget for such a climax, and it was severely truncated. Despite the fact that Star Trek was one of Paramount's major money-making franchises, the studio was always strangely reluctant to spend a lot of cash on it.
Is there anything good about THE FINAL FRONTIER? Well...there's a couple of decent lines ("What does God want with a Starship?" "Not in front of the Klingons.")...and...that's about it.
William Shatner has reinvented himself into an endearingly camp pop culture icon...he's now the Leslie Nielsen of the 21st Century. The big problem with STAR TREK V is that Shatner wasn't trying to be camp....he was sincerely attempting to make a decent movie. Kinda scary, ain't it?
The best way to sum up the Star Trek films starring the original Enterprise crew is with the phrase "missed opportunities". There's one great film, a couple decent ones, a couple mediocre ones, and a really bad one. Considering that Star Trek is science-fiction, one would think that there would be unlimited potential in a movie series, and that talented producers, writers, and directors would be able to come up with all sorts of exciting story concepts. As a Star Trek fan, I honestly have to say that while overall the films are for the most part enjoyable and entertaining, I always think the Trek movies could have been so much more than what they became.