Star trekkin' across the universe, pt 1 ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Star trekkin' across the universe, pt 1

There seems to be a pervasive negative perception of Star Trek (the franchise) amongst the typical Malaysian moviegoer; the very mention of the name can elicit looks of disdain, and adjectives like "boring" and "too intellectual". The new movie Star Trek: The Future Begins should dispel any such notions (but first people have to watch it. Wolverine? Aiyoo, Malaysians, what laa?).

Yet there have been 10 previous Trek films released in theaters, and I think they deserve a revisit now that - hopefully - Star Trek is cool again. The characters were just as likeable when they were played by their original actors, and the formula of smart sci-fi action-adventure was just as enjoyable... well, in the good ones anyway. So here are mini-reviews of all previous Trek movies, recently rewatched via my collector's DVD boxset.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979/2001)
My rating:

A mysterious, massively powerful alien entity that calls itself V'ger threatens the Earth, and the Enterprise must investigate - commanded by now-Admiral Kirk, whose fame causes tension with the ship's current Captain Decker.

Ten years Trekkers waited for a continuation of the voyages of the starship Enterprise, and all their anticipation was met with... a really, really boring movie. It's clear that director Robert Wise was trying to make another 2001: A Space Odyssey, and though it's not as slow and ponderous as that film, it nonetheless wasn't much fun. There's a lot of majestic scenes of the Enterprise and the gigantic V'ger, and it's meant to be inspire awe and wonder - but there are a lot of these scenes, and they are long. Perhaps most unforgivably, the chemistry and camaraderie between the crew is simply not there. It's cold. The subplot of Decker trying to captain his ship under the shadow of Kirk goes nowhere - although the bit about Spock trying to communicate with V'ger and gaining a greater insight into his half-human heritage is a little more successful.

Still, I can't rate it too harshly - the wide-angle space scenes did evoke a little sense of wonder in me, and I wasn't really bored. And I love the design of the (then) new Enterprise, so I actually enjoyed the 5-minute long scene in which we're just flying by and admiring the ship from every possible angle. And Persis Khambatta may be the sexiest bald chick ever. This is the movie that confirmed the general public's suspicion that Star Trek is slow and boring and nerdy, so I wouldn't recommend it to non-fans - but if you want to seek it out, get the 2001 Director's Cut. The original had several unfinished SFX shots, and the new cut is a more complete (and slightly less boring) experience.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
My rating:

Story: An old enemy of Kirk seeks him out, armed with the stolen Genesis Device - a technology built to create life, but that can also be turned into a devastating weapon.

Now this is more like it. Wrath is widely regarded as the best Trek film amongst fans and critics alike, and single-handedly saved the franchise from the disappointment of TMP. Like the latest movie, it has intelligence and emotional depth, as well as good old-fashioned thrills and spills.

The camaraderie amongst the crew is back, and the actors are as much fun to watch as ever. But the most remarkable performance here is Ricardo Montalban as Khan. First seen in the episode "Space Seed" of the original TV series, Khan is a terrific villain - smart, passionate, dangerous, even at times sympathetic. Although he started the tradition of scenery-chewing Trek villains, Montalban never goes too far over the top. (And although he was in his 60s, those are his real chest and abs.) Special mention to Kirstie Alley, who was pretty damn hot back then and started the tradition of sexy Vulcan chicks.

When I mentioned thrills and spills, you'll probably be disappointed if you're expecting slam-bang action. But it trades that for white-knuckle tension in the outer space action scenes, which are akin to submarine battles in space. And it ends on a truly poignant note that wrung tears from many a Trekker. If you're new to Trek, this is the one you should watch first - if you don't like it, you can safely forgo the rest and stick to the J.J. Abrams-led reboot and its sequels. But if you liked it, then welcome aboard! There's much awesome and win in store for you as we explore the rest of the movies! (Unfortunately, also a fair bit of suck and fail.)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
My rating:

Story: The Enterprise crew learn that the comrade they thought dead may be alive after all, and must risk their careers - and more - to rescue him. At the same time, a Klingon captain hungry for the secrets of Genesis is in pursuit.

Okay, there's no way to avoid spoiling this - Spock died at the end of the previous film. But through some scientific and mystical mumbo-jumbo (who's complaining about the new Star Trek movie being scientifically inaccurate again?), our heroes learn that there's a way to resurrect him, if they could only get to the Genesis planet they left behind. But having returned to Earth, not only are they being reassigned, their beloved Enterprise has been declared obsolete and is awaiting decommisionning.

It's good, but not as good as STII. Watching the crew go rogue and rebelling against stuffy Starfleet types is fun, but it takes a while to get there - the plot isn't as tightly paced. Leonard Nimoy was the first-time director on this, and though he did a competent job, his inexperience shows. Robin Curtis replaces Kirstie Alley as Saavik, and her dull performance is one of the film's low points.

But there are a few high points. Hijacking the Enterprise. A short but exciting battle with the Klingon bird-of-prey. The destruction of the Enterprise - yes, the venerable ship is sacrificed in a scene almost as tear-jerking as the climax of STII. The climactic confrontation with the Klingon captain, which gives us one of ShatnerKirk's best lines ("I! Have had... enough of you!"). It has a bigger budget than its predecessor, and it feels like it - there are more SFX shots, more spaceships, and we see a Starbase for the first time. And the themes of friendship and sacrifice from STIII are built open and explored more fully here. No, it's not as good - but it's still good.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
My rating:

Story: A mysterious alien probe threatens Earth, and our heroes - still crewing the Klingon bird-of-prey they hijacked from the previous film - must travel back in time and retrieve the only thing that can communicate with the probe: a pair of humpback whales.

The one with the whales! That's what this movie is often referred as, and it earned that moniker when it became the most financially successful Trek movie, becoming a hit even amongst the most Trek-ignorant moviegoers. And it earned that distinction by being the most accessible of the Trek movies - not only is it set in (then) modern-day San Francisco, it's also the funniest.

Yes, the chemistry and warmth of the Trek crew finally gets to stretch into out-and-out comedy. And it works. Several scenes are just pure LOL - how Spock handles an obnoxious punk on the bus, Scotty on a Mac computer, Kirk and Spock's response to the question "you guys like Italian?", Spock's attempts at profanity, busting Chekov out of the hospital. The newcomer is Dr. Gillian Taylor, played by Catherine Hicks, who fits in nicely with the film's overall light-hearted tone.

It's not laugh-a-minute of course - there is a plot, based on an ecological conservation theme that gets somewhat heavy-handed at times. Spock is still newly returned from the dead, not quite himself, and must get his groove back. And Kirk and crew still need to answer for their mutiny in STIII. But overall, it is the most unashamedly fun of all the Trek movies, and a real high point in the franchise's history.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
My rating:

Story: A renegade Vulcan - who turns out to be Spock's half-brother - hijacks the Enterprise for a voyage to a mythical planet at the centre of the galaxy, where they hope to find... God.

And now we hit its lowest point. The worst Trek film ever, most fans prefer not to even acknowledge it exists. The main problem is that it tries too hard to replicate the light-heartedness of its predecessor. This only serves to make STIV look even better - comedy is hard, especially within the confines of a well-established franchise like Star Trek. Even the TV series has attempted comedic episodes before, and the majority of them have failed.

This movie doesn't only bring the fail, it also delivers plenty of WTF. Since when does Spock have a half-brother named Sybok? This guy can brainwash the loyal Enterprise crew into mutinying against Kirk? By taking away their "greatest pain"? The 57-year-old Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) does a sexy fan dance? Uhura and Scotty make googly eyes at each other? Who is this stupid Klingon captain snarling and mugging about, and what relevance does he have to the plot? And why are the special effects so lame?

It's a pity, because there are individual scenes that could've been quite cool. The plot about finding God isn't as stupid as it sounds - they don't find God, but they do find some ancient alien entity, and the moment when Kirk speaks up and questions it should have been both a funny and awesome moment. The "greatest pain" thing of Sybok's does allow for some insight into Spock's and McCoy's characters. I guess I don't despise it as much as most Trek fans do - but I certainly didn't like it either.


wankongyew said...

Why did you stop at five? Six is arguably one of the best of the Star Trek movies as well. Anyway, as a fan, I always say that Star Trek has never been particularly suited for the movie format. It has always been better as a television series telling true science-fiction stories.

I guess that's about to change forever now with the new direction this new film is taking the franchise now, but I'll always remember Star Trek as it was actually written by actual writers of science-fiction.

TMBF said...

This is part 1. Part 2 will be up... soon. :P

You're right, Trek in theatres is different from Trek on the small screen. The movies have to be bigger, more action-packed, more accessible to non-fans.

What I'm hoping for is that the success of the new movie will spur more TV projects. I doubt it will be with this new crew, but something that continues the TNG timeline would be most welcome.