Star Trek 43rd Birthday: Re-Watching the movies
Star Trek turned 43 this week. The first episode of the original series aired on Sept 8, 1966. To celebrate, I re-watched all the original cast’s Star Trek movies. Starting with Star Trek The Motion Picture and going through Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, I quickly review the movie legacy of the cast from the original TV show.
Let’s see if these movies are still as good in the harsh light of today. Beware, though, as the movie pirate will tell you, “Proceed with caution, mates. Thar be spoilers ahead!”
Star Trek: The Motion Picture — I didn’t watch this until I was in high school. What I remember from that screening was one word: BORING. Watching this again, I have a new word: COMA-INDUCING. The problem lies in the fact that this movie was originally developed as a new Star Trek TV series called Phase II which would’ve included Kirk, Spock, Bones and others in small roles as well as a bunch of new officers (a bald chick and that guy from 7th Heaven). After the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, Paramount trashed the new series and had the show re-developed as a motion picture. Surprisingly, Phase II was written by sci-fi legend Alan Dean Foster who also wrote the Star Trek reboot novelization. Despite the high pedigree of writer, what the movie delivers is an incomprehensible mess. The storyline is hard to follow, some of the effects are terrible and the acting is less than stellar. If you are looking for your first Star Trek movie viewing, I beg you, with all that is holy, DO NOT start here. Your journey will end before it can begin. If you must, return to it later and wonder WTF just happened. After watching this again, I’m surprised Part II got made at all. 1.5/5
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — It’s almost cliche to say that Star Trek II is the best Star Trek movie, but things become cliche for a reason. Next to Part VI, also written/directed by Nicholas Meyer, this is the best Trek movie. This movie’s story is a sequel to a 1967 episode of the original series called Space Seed. Ricardo Montalban’s Khan first appeared in that episode and the movie picks up years later when Kirk and his crew once again face the titular genetically enhanced Khan. The opening of the movie is iconic and depicts the infamous Kobayshi-Maru officer’s test. From there the action takes off and never lets up during the tight 116 minute runtime. The superior pacing and the tete-a-tete between Kirk and Khan make this a wonderful sci-fi action movie. This is what everyone thinks of when you say Star Trek and that’s why it’s a classic. I’ll tell you this, if you don’t shed a tear during Spock’s death scene when he tells Kirk that he will forever be his friend, then you have no soul, my friend. I’m misting up right now just thinking about it. 4/5
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock — I had not watched this in years. I remember thinking it was boring overall so I never really watched it after my initial viewing as a kid. My initial reaction was wrong. Now that I’m older, I think I can appreciate it a bit more. Unfortunately, the movie takes Spock’s heroic self-sacrifice from the last movie and completely undoes it. The movie is campy, there is no doubt about that, but it’s typical Star Trek camp. This movie feels more like a TV episode than Part II did. Kirk and the crew hijacking the space docked Enterprise and going to rescue Spock is a fun adventure. The whole subplot with Kirk’s son and Saavik is a bit contrived, but overall it works and I’m left feeling that this movie was much better than I remembered. 3/5
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home — Until JJ Abrams came along, this movie was the highest grossing Star Trek movie of all time (Khan is FIFTH on that list if you can believe it). I saw this in the theater and liked it. I also saw it repeated ad infinitum on cable and became somewhat sick of it. Now, years later, I rewatch it for the first time and fall in love all over again. I see why this movie was the most popular with mainstream audiences. The comedy is BROAD and slapstick. However the light story and heavy action made this a super fun movie to watch again. The beginning 15 minutes or so are a bit boring, but once the crew decide to travel back in time the movie rockets from scene to scene. The “fish out of water” scenes of the original crew in “modern day” 1984 are hilarious; Spock’s crazy headband and bath robe and repeated use of the words “hell” and “damn”, Bones’ horror at “primitive” ’80s medicine, Chekov asking people on the street for the location of the “nuclear wessels”. It all just makes you laugh at the absurdity of it. Light, breezy fun that everyone can enjoy. 3.5/5
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier — This movie was Shatner’s big break (in directing, that is). He was not going to return for this fifth installment unless Paramount would let him direct. So they did. I mean, Nimoy directed the last two installments and they turned out fine, so, why not? According to Shatner’s Movie Memories book, Nimoy supported his friend’s demand. I can honestly say, this is the worst original cast Star Trek movie. Yes, this is worse than The Motion Picture. I like watching Kirk, Spock and Bones mingle, but damn there is nothing but nonsense going on in this movie. Spock’s half brother as a cult leader? God? Kirk rock climbing on Earth during leave? WTF?! This movie is awful and unless you are a die-hard fan I can’t with good conscious tell you to watch this movie. Even in a “it’s so bad it’s good way”. I just can’t. It’s a shame because I don’t think this was 100% Shatner’s fault. He did the best with what he was given, but I don’t think he was given that much. He had to seriously scale down the final act due to Paramount slashing the budget. Paramount wouldn’t even let Shatner do a “Director’s Cut” in the same way Robert Wise did for The Motion Picture. Maybe one day, Bill. STAY AWAY. I’m surprised they even made Part VI after this disaster. .5/5
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country — So, what do you do after your last movie tanks horribly and is eviscerated by critics? You go back to what works. You re-hire the writer/director of one of your most popular films (Nicolas Meyer, Star Trek II) and include a villain/adversary that can go toe-to-toe with Kirk the same way Khan did (Christopher Plummer’s General Chang). For me, this was always my favorite Star Trek. I saw it in the theater, it was classic Trek action with classic Kirk and Spock and tons of action and mystery. I loved Star Trek II, but Part VI had the edge because it was even more over the top with action. And the mystery assassin hidden on the Enterprise really ratcheted up the suspense. I love, love, love this movie. As a matter of fact, I thought that the snow planet Delta Vega in the new JJ Abrams movie where new Kirk meets old Spock was the same planet that housed the Klingon prison (Rura Penthe) Kirk is sent to in this movie. It wasn’t, obviously, but how cool if it was. Anyway, I highly recommend this movie right up there with Part II as classic sci-fi action that Trek is known for. 4/5
Star Trek Generations — Okay, I didn’t want to include this, but I will. Star Trek VI was the last full original cast movie. Star Trek Generations was the “bridge” movie that was a passing of the torch to the Next Generation. Some of the original cast returned, but some didn’t. Most notably, Nimoy and Kelley did not return. I didn’t want to mention this movie mainly because it’s the “Kirk dies” movie. And it’s not just the fact that Kirk died, but how he died (like a bitch). Kirk had faced down at least four different beings with godlike powers (one of them actually claiming to be God) and defeated every single one of them. To be done in by a collapsing bridge in a canyon is tantamount to letting the Sex and the City girls shop James Bond to death. It’s appalling. As a result, this movie goes on the same list as Dune: DEAD TO ME. 1/5
So those are the original cast movies as I see them today. I own Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country on regular DVD. It was one of the first 10 DVDs I ever bought back in 1999. Now I also own the Blu-Ray Star Trek II, III and IV collection. I’ll eventually upgrade the Star Trek VI DVD to a Blu-Ray.
Coming up in a few days I’ll take a look at the first season of Star Trek the Original Series as part of my continuing Star Trek 43rd Anniversary celebration.