For whatever reason, Star Trek was just not something I got into as a kid. Sure, I was a geek, and lots of geek friends loved Star Trek, but it never appealed to me. I liked science fiction, but I was never into space stuff. I liked robots, time travel, and superheroes; hell, I didn't even see Star Wars until I was about fifteen.
I had managed to avoid Star Trek almost my entire life. I had absorbed a bit through pop culture: I knew Kirk and Spock, I knew about Picard, I knew about the Vulcan hand symbol thing (I can totally do it), but that was about it.
When the new J.J. Abrams movie came out I decided to go see it, but afterwards I felt like I was missing something from having had no exposure to Star Trek whatsoever, so I decided to endure a Trek-a-thon. I knew I'd have no patience for the production values of the original TV series, and there were approximately eighty billion hours of Next Generation episodes, so I decided to confine my marathon to just the films.
So here are my thoughts on Star Trek, speaking as a complete outsider that knew next to nothing about Star Trek going in.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
While I was watching this, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to continue my Trek-a-thon. The movie was incredibly slow, I began to worry they were all like this. It seemed like it was trying to be the next 2001: A Space Oddyssey but it didn't have the same kind of artistic flair that justified such a slow pace. 2001 was slow because Kubrick wanted the audience to feel the sense of isolation, Star Trek seemed slow because 2001 was slow. Sorry guys, Kubrick was a genius, and Robert Wise wasn't no Kubrick.
As the 2-hour, 16-minute movie (I could only find the Director's Cut) crawled to an end, I found myself mostly annoyed that the filmmakers had decided not to bother explaining who anyone was. I knew Kirk and Spock, but nobody else was explained in any way. I realize the movie was really made for fans of the show, but I think a film should strive to bring new fans in, rather than cater to existing ones. Good writing could have easily cleared up who people were and what their jobs were.
I swear there were like 20 full minutes devoted to majestic, lingering shots of the Enterprise while people stared at it in awe. I guess fans of the show were supposed to be drooling over Star Trek on the big screen or something, but I found it to be pretty ridiculous. The scene where Kirk takes Scotty's little shuttle to the ship was total overkill.
The movie's plot is about as simple as it gets, handled as weirdly as possible. There's a mysterious energy cloud, Kirk and crew go investigate it. What they discover is, uh, like a robot version of a girl that another ship captain loves. She's trying to acquire knowledge because a bunch of aliens found an old spaceship and, er, yeah. It gets odd.
Overall, the movie wasn't too bad, just in need of a good editor. A little pretentious, but it was entertaining for what it was (2001 but with middle-aged dudes).
Space military finds an old space ship in space.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
I'm glad I didn't give up on Trek-a-thon after the first movie. This one had a completely different style to it, a fundamentally different tone, and was a much better film. I felt the special effects had aged pretty well, without a lot of head-slapping moments. It was nice to finally see what the "KHAAAAN" meme is all about.
The movie had a good villain and a good story. It did a far better job of explaining who everyone was without unnatural expository dialogue. I found myself actually engaged in the plot. This movie felt like what a science fiction film ought to be. While The Motion Picture felt like an extended episode of a TV show, with its relatively minor stakes and slow pacing, The Wrath of Khan had high stakes and good action scenes. But it wasn't just a bunch of explosions and chase sequences, it still had some thematic complexity.
Wrath of Khan actually addresses Kirk's age and his struggle with the idea of retirement. There's a general sense that Kirk is too old, too close to his own death, and needs to step aside to make room for the next generation. Kirk refuses to face his retirement (death for a captain), and takes command of the Enterprise after it's been decomissioned (death for a ship) to help stop the misuse of the terraforming Genesis Device, which wipes a planet clean (death for a planet) in order to make room for new life. Kirk even discusses how he cheated the Kobayashi Maru test at Starfleet, a test designed specifically to see how subjects deal with death.
Centering the film thematically around death plays to the strengths of the actors since they are so much older than when the television series aired. And of course, killing Spock was a bold move that underscored the stakes and lent a lot of weight to the drama. This is quality writing in sci-fi: expertly mixing meaningful questions about the nature of existence with high-adrenaline action. If Transformers is too hot and Star Trek: The Motion Picture is too cold, The Wrath of Khan is just right.
Definitely a quality entry in the series, it even does a good job of world establishment to those unfamiliar with the characters or the universe. I found myself actually wanting to see the next movie after it was over.
Ship captain runs into an old friend
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
So once upon a time, this happened:
|Studio Executive:||The last movie made a lot of money, let's make another.|
|Star Trek Writers:||Well, we kind of killed Spock, and it wouldn't be very good without him, so...|
|Studio Executive:||So bring him back to life!|
|Star Trek Writers:||We can't do that! Science fiction doesn't do stuff like that, this isn't magical fantasy!|
|Studio Executive:||It is now.|
The entire movie felt like a rationalization for bringing back a character they killed. A giant undo operation on the entire franchise.
Basically the crew discovers that when a vulcan dies his mind can be transferred into someone else. To be at peace, the crew has to go find Spock's body to put his mind back inside. It's all very mystical and quasi-religious, and frankly it felt completely out of place in a science fiction movie. It gets even more ridiculous when we find that the Genesis Device has resurrected spock as a child. It's all incredibly convoluted and bizarre, just a desperate attempt at writing oneself out of a corner.
Spoiler: Killing Kirk's son felt very similar. "Well, we can't have our main character caring for his kid the whole series, guess we better kill him." I loved the scene where Kirk pretty much told Spock's father that he didn't regret saving Spock even though it meant his son dying. Nice, Kirk.
Still, a decent job was done making it an interesting movie. The plot and story were pretty weak, but they were at least told well, and we got to spend a lot of time with Kirk to see what really makes him tick and learn more about his character.
Christopher Lloyd was a Klingon who absolutely did not fall into the role. Doc Brown wearing makeup, that voice is just too distinctive.
This movie was too weird for my tastes, but honestly it was nowhere near as weird as The Motion Picture. Despite having a crap plot, I found myself engaged in the story and rooting for success. This movie felt a lot smaller and more personal, a pretty basic story about a man trying to rescue his friend, without the fate of the galaxy resting in the balance or anything like that. It worked, even if it was a transparent reset button on the franchise.
Ship captain searches for an old friend
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
This movie was just insanely stupid. Just completely idiotic from beginning to end. I've always heard great things about this movie, but I absolutely hated it.
So the Earth is in trouble because it's global power grid has been disabled by a mysterious probe sending out signals. Spock determines that these signals match those of whales, which are extinct in 2286 because humans in the 1980's didn't care enough about the environment. So naturally, they slingshot around the sun to travel back to the 80's and get some whales. This is unforgivably dumb, I could look past the nonsense plot of the last movie, but this is far past my breaking point.
Once back in the 80's, the movie turns into a quirky fish-out-of-water comedy, but with Star Trek characters. It's like Police Academy or something, with cringe-worthy comedic moments such as Scotty speaking into a computer mouse because he's used to them being more advanced.
This movie is awkward and embarrassing from start to finish. At the end, not only do they steal the whales they need, but they bring a woman back to the future with them. Any other movie would at least mention how they're screwing with the timeline, but this movie just doesn't care at all. They constantly give advanced technology to the people of 80's Earth as well, somehow this seems like it goes against the Prime Directive.
The movie is preachy beyond belief. "Care more about the environment you assholes!" Thanks, I get it. The film lacks any kind of real villain (the villain is us, man!), and, though the stakes are high (the fate of Earth), it's impossible to believe in them since the plot is so absurd, and the film too comedic in tone.
I know a lot of Trek fans refer to II, III, and IV as a trilogy unto itself, which makes some sense due to Wrath of Khan working so well as an introduction, but it's only a trilogy in the way that Robocop or Spider-man are trilogies. This movie sucks.
I mean, whales?
We killed the whales, and it was wrong.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Another really weird one. Not as weird as the first movie, but pretty out-there. Spock's got a half-brother suddenly, which suffers from "very sudden character background that had never been mentioned in a previous movie" syndrome. Oh, and he's looking for God. Uh, alright.
The movie starts with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy singing row-row-row-your boat around a campfire, then transitions immediately to me rolling my eyes and checking the running time for the movie. Apparently Scotty and Uhura are an item now, as if I have any reason to care about two characters whose roles are basically to explain to the main characters what plot device is preventing them from solving the movie's primary dilemma (I can't translate this, the warp drive is broken, blah blah blah).
The movie is, generally, pretty forgettable. It feels like nothing really happens for a while. Some pretty cheesy gags (Scotty hitting his head, Spock with his hover boots) pepper an otherwise bland narrative. Eventually the crew meets the alien that Spock's half-brother thinks is "God" and they have to prove he's not God so the half-brother stops being a dipshit.
I actually kind of liked that scene. Kirk asking "what would God want with a Starship?" was pretty fun, though still a tad on the preachy side. The heavy-handed messages are starting to feel like a staple of the series. Honestly, I can barely remember anything else that happened, and I think the series was starting to feel stale by this point due to a total lack of any sort of character growth.
God wants a starship, which is silly because we all know God wants animal slaughter
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Just when I thought the level of preachiness from Star Trek IV could never be matched, a movie comes along to prove me wrong. They may as well have just had Kirk turn to the camera and say "racism is bad" over and over for an hour and a half.
When the crew invites the Klingons onto the ship, they even have one of the characters say "guess who's coming to dinner" (the title of a movie from 1967 about racism) and someone else says "they all look alike." Here's a little test for film-makers: If your metaphor is more heavy-handed than in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it's way too heavy-handed. To make matters worse, it turns out that about half of the very same Klingons that were criticizing Kirk for being so racist as to think that all Klingons were warmongering evildoers turned out to, in fact, be warmongering evildoers.
Christopher Plummer and Kim Cattrall both looked distractingly silly in heavy makeup, and a Christian Slater cameo also gave me some chuckles. I found myself particularly annoyed at a scene where the crew tries to decipher the Klingon language. Uhura is this master of language, but never bothered learning the language of one of the Federation's biggest enemies? Whatever.
Anyway, while racial tensions are high, a mysterious attack takes place on the ship in which the Klingon chancellor is wounded. The rest of the movie plays out like a Sherlock Holmes-esque whodunnit in space. This brought a sense of freshness to the series that I really appreciated.
Easily the second-best of the Star Trek films with the original cast, and unsurprisingly the only one directed by the same director as Wrath of Khan. I found out later that he has actually written a number of Sherlock Holmes novels, which is interesting given the tone and structure of the film.
Racism is bad, Watson.
Star Trek: Generations
Kirk has retired (again) and boards the Enterprise (again) only to find that there is an emergency that requires him assume control of the ship (again). Maybe it's time to stop making movies about this guy and move onto some new characters. Oh, good, that's exactly what's happening. Wait, is that Whoopi Goldberg?
This was the first movie to introduce me to the Next Generation crew and, just like with Star Trek The Motion Picture, the movie seems to have no interest in helping anyone who isn't a fan of the show understand who anyone is. Picard is introduced to me as the captain of a boat in some kind of interactive hologram. Has it occurred to anyone that this is my first impression of the guy if I don't watch the show? He comes off like a douche, like he'd rather be on a boat than the Enterprise.
Geordi installs a chip into Data's brain which proceeds to make him incredibly annoying for the duration of the film. I think a lot of entertainment was supposed to be derived from Data acting "out of character" but again, for newcomers we don't know his character, so these scenes establish his character, and they establish him as annoying and superfluous.
Malcolm McDowell always plays a good villain, but he isn't given much to work with here. Basically he's trying to destroy planets that will move some ribbon of happiness to a planet that he can be on and be absorbed into the ribbon of happiness. Sure, I'll go with it.
Picard tries to stop him, completely fails, and gets absorbed into the "Nexus" where he is treated to a fantasy about the life he could have had. I had a really odd moment during this scene because one of Picard's kids said "I love you daddy" and I thought "Huh, that girl sounded just like the girl that plays Cindy in the Brady Bunch Movie." I checked IMDB, and it was the same girl (the movies came out one year apart). Why did my brain know this? What a waste.
Anyway, Picard finds Kirk (who wound up in the Nexus as a result of events in the opening sequence) and tells him he needs to leave the place of infinite happiness to help him stop Malcolm McDowell. Kirk basically tells him to fuck off, the universe "owes" him. Like I said, I've never watched the television shows, but the movies painted a pretty clear portrait of Kirk: he's a guy who is so bound by duty to the Federation that he can't seem to let himself retire. But in this movie, he tells Picard to get bent. This is completely inconsistent writing.
Picard basically guilt-trips Kirk into leaving a place of unimaginable happiness so that he can help Picard beat Malcom McDowell because Picard got himself stuck in a rock while trying to fight the guy. Kirk agrees, then dies for it. So, yeah, Picard is an asshole.
Spoiler: What a miserable way to kill Kirk. The guy has been the lead of each film, and instead of ending his story with grace and class, he gets guilted into helping Picard, then gets crushed under a rock. This is the official canonical ending for the guy who captained the Enterprise for 6 films. The guy has paid his dues, let him die peacefully in his sleep or something, with those who have served under him saying some nice words about his passing. Don't leave him to die on some barren planet with nobody around. It would be like Chris Nolan killing Batman not by having him sacrifice himself for Gotham, but by tripping on the stairs down to the batcave and snapping his spine. Shameful.
This movie just sucks, the hand-off from the previous generation to the next generation is about as clunky as possible, it would have been better to just start making Star Trek films with the Next Generation cast and never address what happens to Kirk's story at all. Leave it to a comic book or a novel or something.
Star Trek: First Contact
This movie makes continual references to some episode of the show where Picard gets kidnapped by the "Borg" which are some kind of collective hivemind. This movie at least did a decent job of explaining the Borg for viewers unfamiliar with those episodes, that's the kind of thing some of these other movies could have used.
This movie also did the best job thus far of universe establishment. It did a great job of showing the audience what the future is like (communist) and how it got that way (Vulcans talk to a drunk). Giving me a better understanding of the in-film world of Star Trek makes it much easier to connect with the characters, which automatically makes this movie one of the better ones.
So the Borg travel back in time and interfere with humans first meeting aliens, which is what kicks off all of the interstellar stuff that future Star Trek is made of. There are visions of the future Borg taking over all of "ancient" Earth, so Picard and crew go back in time to stop it. Great story here, high stakes, the fate of the galaxy in the balance, all that good stuff. A formidable enemy aside from the fact that for some reason you can just walk past them and they don't seem to care. It's basically a slow-walking-zombie movie in space.
When the crew was first going back in time, I was worried it was going to be "The Voyage Home" for The Next Generation's cast, but since they traveled to "the future" from my perspective, I didn't mind it too much. Not so many jokes about how ancient Sony Walkmans are or whatever. Again, the crew doesn't seem to give a crap about possibly altering the past. Weird.
At some point Picard tricks the Borg into entering a holographic fantasy and then kills them with holographic bullets. Er, alright. Data was, once again, completely annoying, like the C3P0 of this franchise. Do fans like Data? He sucks.
Robots try to take over earth, are stopped by a robot
Star Trek: Insurrection
Even without having ever seen the show, I felt like this whole movie seemed like an overly long episode of the television show, a sentiment echoed by many fans apparently.
This time the villain is F. Murray Abraham, who is now working with the Federation to steal resources from some planet of hippies. I had a hard time caring about the hippies, but the notion that the Federation was doing evil seems like the sort of thing I'd have expect to raise ire among Star Trek fans. I dug it, I'm a sucker for anti-authoritarian plots.
The movie starts out with Data pissing off the Federation, and Picard and crew try to apprehend him so that he doesn't have to be destroyed. Because of the previous two movies, I find Data to be extremely annoying, so I couldn't possibly care less about rescuing him. Kill him.
Apparently Riker and Troi have a thing going. Not sure why I'm supposed to care, but it's directed as if it's some kind of shocking reveal. Riker is about as bland as possible (especially when compared to Spock) so I couldn't care less. He seems to have almost nothing to do and serves no purpose. I know almost nothing about his character, or really any character for that matter aside from Picard and possibly Geordi. I will say, Riker looks dumb when they shave his beard, that is a mistake.
The planet of hippies makes everyone feel younger, which is played up for laughs through most of the movie. I guess everyone is acting out of character, but since their characters have not been established, it doesn't play well. Additionally, there are far too many attempts at ensemble action setpieces. These actors are not action stars, having big "shootouts" with phasers while they awkwardly and slowly take cover just embarasses everyone.
The special effects are dismal and the story is un-engaging. Overall, pretty pointless and forgettable.
Getting old sucks
Star Trek: Nemesis
Another one with large portions of plot centering around Data. Awesome. This character must be a fan favorite. I don't get it. Riker has his beard back, too Good.
This one seems to mostly be about a clone of Picard that looks and acts nothing like him. It seemed like a soap opera or something. An evil twin? Really? I did like when Shinzon told Picard that, had Picard lived his life he'd be doing exactly the same things. It was also pretty funny that LeVar Burton has fully embraced the contact lens thing instead of the visor. Clearly Burton was sick of wearing the damn thing and demanded the writers figure out a way for him to avoid it. Shinzon is played by a weirdly skinny Tom Hardy too, that's crazy.
Maybe I was just tired of this cast by this movie, but even having spent three films with this cast, I found them significantly less engaging than the original cast. It seems like the original movies were about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. The rest of the cast just existed to support them. The TNG movies seem to almost be ensemble films, with equal weight given to all of the characters. Nobody is the lead in them, not even really Picard. The problem is that, with only four movies for them, it means that none of the characters really get fleshed out well enough for me to care. Though the originals skewed too heavily in favor of the main three cast members, the later movies go too far in the opposite direction. I assume this is because the TV show had so many more episodes, but again this speaks to the failure to transition to film.
Anyway, this one was pretty forgettable and it just seemed significantly cheesier than the others. I still found the cast unengaging, so it was hard to care. The movie gets an extra point for killing Data, but loses it back for acting like I should give a damn.
I WAS BORN IN THE STARSHIP, YOU MERELY ADAPTED TO IT.
Kirk vs. Picard
One aspect of Trek culture I am aware of is the ongoing debate of Kirk vs. Picard: who's the better captain?
I'm not sure if the movies give me a good opportunity to answer that question. Picard was only in one good movie, while Kirk was in three good ones (and 2 okay ones). That being said, Picard seems to be portrayed as smarter than Kirk and less cocky, but kind of inept. Picard fucks up pretty consistently, one time he fails so hard that the only person who can pick up after him is Kirk.
Picard also seems preoccupied with the past and the holodeck. He kind of comes off as not really wanting to be captain of a ship, whereas Kirk is obsessed with being captain of a ship. Stop farting around in the holodeck, aren't you supposed to be exploring space? And why the hell do you have an English accent, aren't you French?
In the movies at least, Picard seems like kind of a whiny loser, but Kirk seems like an arrogant asshole. As such, I'd expect to like Picard more, but based on the movies I'm going to have to give this one to Kirk. I think Patrick Stewart is a far better actor than William Shatner, but Kirk seems like a better captain. Not sure I'd want to be on Kirk's crew though, that guy destroyed an Enterprise pretty much every time he got put in charge of one.
New vs Old: Star Trek (2009)
I think I'm finally in a position to evaluate the 2009 movie. I enjoyed the movie for what it was (a brainless action flick) but having now seen the original movies, I'm sort of confused as to why longtime Trek fans like it.
The new movie was an action movie, lots of big-budget effects and danger. Clear enemies, clear objectives, and a simple narrative. The original movies were mostly dramas in space, occasionally peppered with short, deliberate action sequences.
The second movie was a thoughtful film about growing old and death. Kirk's reluctance to retire, his obsession with reliving his youth, and eventually Spock's death are all about death. The movie makes a number of well-thought-out observations on this topic. The same goes for the third movie, which is more about birth and life. The fourth movie is, though preachy, about the environment. Five is about religion and faith, and six is about racism and bigotry. Seven explores the nature of joy, asking intelligent questions about the nature of happiness - can one be happy without moments of unhappiness for contrast? Eight is about conformity, nine is about youth and beauty, and ten is about fate and free will (at least a little).
The point is, all of these movies have something to say, and they accomplish saying it (with varying degrees of success) in a science fiction setting. These are dramas, not action movies. Star Wars is pulp action movie, but Star Trek is not. Characters in Star Trek face ethical and philosophical dilemmas where there are no right answers.
The new Star Trek, however, is nothing like the old movies in this regard. It seems to have nothing to say at all, and regularly ignores characters and ethics in favor of loud, computer-generated battles. The enemies are clearly bad (almost by race), the good guys never have to face any tough decisions. In other words, the new Star Trek is basically Star Wars but with the cast of Trek. This is particularly interesting given that JJ Abrams is now directing the new Star Wars movie.
Personally, since I have absolutely no stake in the original Star Trek movies, this shift doesn't bother me too much. I think the movies were best when they were dealing with their complex themes within the confines of an entertaining film (Khan, Undiscovered Country, First Contact). They were their mediocre when dealing with their themes without the aid of solid action beats (The Motion Picture, Search for Spock, Final Frontier, Generations), and they were at their absolute worst when attempting to simply be action films (Insurrection, Nemesis) or comedies (Voyage Home). What's interesting is that, by using a much younger cast, they put Star Trek characters more naturally into action roles, which avoids the problems of the worst Star Trek films. However, by avoiding the complex themes of the best films, the new Star Trek avoids being grouped in with them as well, placing itself solidly within mediocrity.
Generic sci-fi film makes shitloads of money because it has a recognizable title
One thing I noticed was that, a Star Trek movie needs to be about 70% in space and 30% on a planet. The more this ratio is deviated from, the worse the movie. For example, The Motion Picture takes place entirely in space, and it's alright. Insurrection and The Voyage Home takes place almost entirely on a planet, and they're awful. I think Undiscovered Country may be an exception, but this rule seems to apply more consistently than the dumbass "even-number" rule I've heard about.
The overall ranking:
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan | 10 Star Trek: First Contact | 8 Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country | 8 Star Trek III: The Search for Spock | 7 Star Trek: The Motion Picture | 6 Star Trek (2009) | 6 Star Trek V: The Final Frontier | 5 Star Trek: Insurrection | 4 Star Trek: Nemesis | 4 Star Trek: Generations | 3 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home | 2
So, did my Trek-a-thon make me a Star Trek fan? Hardly. A few of the movies were decent, but most of them were somewhere between tolerable and terrible. The original series on TV looks too corny to tolerate, and any interest I had for The Next Generation has been destroyed by three crappy movies. I know I'm a geek and I enjoy geeky things, but I don't think I can get into Star Trek, at least not enough to watch the shows.
I appreciate its place within the Sci-fi genre, but the series just seems too inconsistent for me. When it's bad, it's REALLY bad, but even when it's good it tends to be obnoxiously preachy. It waffles between being base and patronizing, it's hard to know what you're going to get.
I think the universe is pretty interesting and I think there's a lot of quality that can be mined out of it, but so far J.J. Abrams seems content to make glitzy action movies that largely avoid relying on any of this mythology. His version of Star Trek has Kirk becoming captain because "it's fate" and I can't stand adding that kind of crap to Star Trek any more than I could stand when it was added to Star Wars. That's lazy writing.
I wonder now, with J.J. actually moving toward Star Wars (which already has the mystical "fate" stuff and tends to be a bit more black-and-white from a thematic standpoint), if someone else might be able to make a better Star Trek film. Star Trek Into Darkness is not out as of the time of this writing, but nothing I've seen of the trailers has me particularly excited for it, so I'm thinking J.J. and his obnoxious lens flare will be a better fit in Star Wars world.