“You know what movies average out to be really good? The first six Star Trek movies!“- Philip J. Fry, Futurama(RIP), “Where No Fan Has Gone Before”
In preparation for Star Trek Into Darkness, I decided to take a look back at the original The Original Series movies, marathon-style. Of course, I have no way of proving that I went through the films in a straight shot, so you can either take my word for it, or not.
I should also note that even though I have seen all the movies before, I am not a Star Trek obsessive, so a lot of this was relatively new to me. The only one I’ve seen somewhat recently was the fifth (and by far the worst) one. With that introduction out of the way, let’s see what Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest were before they became all high-tech, CGI-bolstered, action-adventurers.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (dir. Robert Wise, 1979)
The most unfairly maligned Star Trek feature, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is probably the best Star Trek film. Not the best movie, but it’s definitely the most cerebral and ambitious installment in the entire franchise. In some ways, it seems like the natural evolution of the series. No longer hindered by network expectations or the psychedelic look of the 1960s, it attempts to become a high-brow science fiction film in the vein of Silent Running or even Solaris. The damn thing even opens with an overture, which is still very awesome. Jerry Goldsmith’s whole soundtrack, complete with what would become the The Next Generation theme, is fantastic.
Unlike future Star Trek films, this one most avoids action in favor of philosophical debates about the nature of existence. While this element has always been present in Star Trek, it’s never been the center of an episode or movie as much as it is in this one. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe anything is fired from phaser or ship in the entire movie. What’s important is not space battles, but, as the movie repeats in several incarnations, “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” Understanding every sentient being on its most basic, personal level. It’s not just a question pondered by V’ger, but it’s also the key to Spock’s series-long journey as he tries to reconcile his Vulcan and human sides. You also have to give credit to any franchise that decides to start its run with the enemy being the inability to figure out the meaning of life.
Visually, the movie still holds up. Roddenberry and crew use the enhanced budget not just to make a redo of the television series, but to show the Enterprise in as much detail as possible. Painstakingly so. Long and painstakingly so. While the series only had a limited number of sets to use, this movie shows several different areas of the ship. We get the game room, some version of 10 Forward, and other areas that give a sense that the Enterprise is a gigantic entity with plenty of rooms and space for its crew and visitors.
Additionally, Gene Roddenberry and the rest use the movie to answer questions that would seem out of place in a traditional episode- what happens when you enter Warp Drive with an engine imbalance, what happens when there’s a transporter malfunction, etc. Star Trek: The Motion Picture wisely uses its extended running time to delve into the nuances of its science, which is much appreciated. (Isaac Asimov is even credited as a Special Science Consultant.)
However, my favorite part of this movie is something that none of the other movies really managed to capture- the isolation of space. The empty void of the cosmos. The Enterprise is out there alone, a mere speck in the abyss, traveling towards infinity, cut off from everyone and everything. It’s eerie and suspenseful based almost purely on atmosphere.
The movie definitely has problems, though. It’s long and occasionally feels more than its running time. The opening shot of the Enterprise seems to go on for about 20 minutes as the opening theme loops. You get a sense of just how much adoration they have for the ship, but it’s still lengthy. The closing title card of “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning” seems out of place and cheesy. Regardless, its biggest failing comes in humor. This is an intense and dramatic movie, to its detriment. The cheekiness of Star Trek was part of its appeal, and this movie seemingly abandons that. To be sure, there are some humorous moments- crazy bearded McCoy, Ilia unit tearing through doors, the giant space vagina- but they are few and far between. For a movie that’s all about the importance of humanity, there is a detached coldness throughout, which brings us to…
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1982)
Still the best Star Trek movie and the template for so many of its followers. What makes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan work is that it is also the natural evolution of the series except down a different, more mass friendly path than the first one. This is the movie with the villain of the week, the epic space battles, the jokes, the colorful set design, the camaraderie, the crazy technology, and the alien creatures, but done in a larger scope than television could allow.
While it’s not as philosophically dense as its predecessor, it still broaches a number of issues, which is rare in a primarily action-adventure movie. It brings up the concept of aging, which the franchise tackles for the next four, arguably five movies. The “needs of the many v. needs of the one” debate. The qualities of being human. How easily a tool for good could become a weapon of evil. It’s probably the best example of how the conflicting worldviews of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy interact with each other, and it makes me hope that Star Trek Into Darkness raises the profile of Bones.
Its use of the sins of the past coming to haunt you is well done. Kirk’s son and former lover Carol Marcus give some gravity to his intergalactic bed hopping. And, of course, Khan shows how the best of intentions (Kirk could have easily killed or had him imprisoned in “Space Seed” instead of exiling him on Ceti Alpha V) can lead to the most disastrous results. Even though crews of the Enterprises have had to deal with madmen out for vengeance before and since, Khan still towers above the likes of Shinzon from Nemesis, Nero from Star Trek, General Chang from Undiscovered Country, etc. Ricardo Montalban gives him such a manic level of obsessiveness that his revenge really seems personal rather than revenge-for-revenge’s-sake. I personally hope Cumberbatch isn’t playing him in Into Darkness– not because of Montalban’s performance, but because I don’t want both first sequels to travel down the same path. That seems lazy. I also wonder if audiences will buy the Eugenics Wars taking place in the
II also has some genuinely amazing model work. The Enterprise, the Reliant, and other ships and space stations spread throughout the film are so well crafted and intricately detailed that you really appreciate the hands-on craftsmanship that must have gone into the development of each prop. The sequence of Kirk versus Khan in the nebula proves you don’t need a constant barrage of fire to create a truly memorable space action scene.
And Spock dies.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (dir. Leonard Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is not a bad movie. A weak installment, yes. Kind of lame, yes. Cheaply backs away from the developments made in the second, yes. A huge step back from the first two, definitely. But it’s not hateable.
The biggest problem with Star Trek III is that it feels more like the outline of a movie than a movie itself. A skeleton. It hits its plot points efficiently, but it lacks a soul, a greater depth. There’s a feeling of disconnect that plagues the entire experience. Moments that should have emotional resonance such as Bones losing his mind, the Enterprise being destroyed, and Kirk’s son being killed seem more in service to the plot than something that happens to the characters. The main villains, Klingons desperate for the Genesis device, are serviceable but unmemorable. Though Kirk killing leader Kruge at the end is easily the most The Original Series-level acting moment up to this point.
Star Trek III is also the first Star Trek movie that includes sequences that appear to be goofy-for-goofy’s-sake. Stealing the Enterprise by locking a Starfleet officer in a closet and sabotaging another ship is played more for comedy than suspense, and when this is permitted, it follows them throughout the rest of the series.
However, the scenes at the end when the crew is on Vulcan waiting to see how Spock recovered from the Genesis experiment are quite good.