Star trekkin' across the universe, pt 2 ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Star trekkin' across the universe, pt 2

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
My rating:

Story: When a chance for peace with the Klingons emerges, Kirk must face his own prejudices against the Federation's long-time enemy. But when he and Dr. McCoy are framed, it is Spock and the rest of the crew who must rescue him and the hopes for peace.

The Trek franchise recovers nicely from the fiasco of STV with this entry, a film that makes no apologies for being a metaphor for the fall of the Soviet Union. Yes, the Klingons are the Russians, and the destruction of Praxis - the moon on which lies their most important energy facility - is meant to be Chernobyl. It works quite well, and lends a familiarity and authenticity to this tale of interstellar politics and diplomacy.

But there's a lot more to it, and that's what's remarkable about this entry in the Trek saga. There's a trial scene, a prison sequence, and a murder mystery, and it juggles all these elements fairly well. Although the focus is once again on Kirk - and the theme of prejudice and racism is handled nicely - the other members of the crew also get time to shine. (It's especially a pleasure to see Sulu as captain of his own ship.) Kim Cattrall as the newcomer Valeris is a disappointment though - she's too smug for a Vulcan, and her character never really comes together. She was clearly meant to be Saavik from STII and III, and it's clear how much better it would've been if they'd gotten Kirstie Alley back for the role.

The weakest part of the film is the murder mystery - it's simply not very smartly plotted. But the overall pace of the story, and the pleasure of watching these characters work, are what carries the film. It's also conscious of the fact that it's the last movie with the original cast, and there are hints throughout that the characters are now much older and nearing retirement. Which is why the story about forging peace with an old enemy works so well - the future will be a very different place for Kirk and company, and they must prove that they're not so old that they can't embrace change. It's this kind of intelligent exploration of serious issues that Trek is best known for, and the fact that this instalment does it so well makes it a fine send-off for the crew of the Enterprise.

Star Trek: Generations (1994)
My rating:

Story: Almost a hundred years after Kirk is presumed dead, the new Enterprise commanded by Captain Picard must stop a madman from sacrificing millions of lives for his obsession - a task for which they will need a little help from another illustrious captain.

And so we begin the cinematic adventures of another crew of another Enterprise, that of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series. Despite the presence of Kirk, this movie was deemed a disappointment by many fans, especially regarding the manner of Kirk's death. Although I don't think getting a bridge dropped on him deserves to be the trope namer for a beloved character who dies an unsatisfying death, I have to wonder who thought 3 old men in a poorly-choreographed fight scene would make an exciting climax.

What struck me most was how lacking the TNG crew was in terms of chemistry and camaraderie. Even though the TOS (The Original Series) portion features only Kirk, Chekov and Scotty, they're so much more fun to watch than Picard, Riker, Data, Troi, Worf, Geordi and Crusher. It's partly the acting and partly the writing - the dynamics of the crew don't seem as well-thought-out as Kirk and gang. Troi, Worf and Crusher in particular always tend to end up being superfluous or otherwise ill-served by the story in every TNG movie, this one included.

The plot suffers serious pacing issues too - right where things should be getting exciting, we get an oh-so-precious scene of Picard living out his dream life of a wife and family. Poor guy, he goes through a great deal of anguish in this movie, but you never really feel it despite Patrick Stewart's best acting efforts. Data's struggles with his emotion chip are annoying, and the villain is dull. The saving graces are some exciting space action scenes, but on the whole this movie really squanders the potential for a truly worthy TOS-TNG crossover. What could've been...

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
My rating:

Story: The Borg, an implacable race of cybernetic zombies, travel through time to Earth's past with a plan to prevent a pivotal moment in its history. The Enterprise must stop them, and Picard must deal with the trauma of having once been "assimilated" by them.

I must admit, my first impression of this movie was not good at all. Might have had something to do with the fact that I first watched it on a crappy pirated VHS. But even now, those first 15 minutes really bug me. It has one of the best space battles seen in Trek to date - and I'm usually a sucker for space battles - but it also has some truly brainless dialogue and bad acting. I dunno, maybe it's just me.

Having since given it a second chance, I can see now that it's by far the best of the TNG movies. It was the most action-oriented of the Trek films at the time, it contains the uniquely Trek-ish theme of a better future for humanity, it has the best character interaction and humour between the crewmembers, the nature of the Borg veers the film close to horror at times, and Stewart gives perhaps his finest performance as a man consumed with hate and vengeance. These are not easy elements to balance, and it's a small miracle that it does this well.

The regular cast do an adequate job - the Troi-getting-drunk scene gets a solid LOL - but its the newcomers who almost steal the show. Alfre Woodard is the perfect audience viewpoint character into the TNG Trek world, James Cromwell is terrific as the irresponsible drunk destined to become a hero, and Alice Krige as the Borg Queen - fwoar. Hands down the best Trek villain since Khan, she is deliciously, seductively evil. The first 15 minutes still bug me, and the climax contains a major plot hole (involving a character doing something for seemingly no other reason than creating suspense), but it's a solid movie nonetheless, and one I'd easily recommend to a non-Trekker.

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
My rating:

Story: When Starfleet orders the forced relocation of the Ba'ku, a simple people who live on a planet that is a literal fountain of youth, the Enterprise defies both their orders and the evil Son'a.

There's a tradition in the Trek films that the "even-numbered" instalments are the good ones, while the "odd-numbered" ones are lousy. It's certainly true that II, IV, VI and First Contact are fan favourites while TMP, III, V and Generations have been deemed disappointing (although III gets unfairly lumped in there). And now here's the 9th Star Trek film - and it's another disappointment. Except for a few effective space battle scenes towards the end, this movie is little more than a two-hour episode of the TV series, and suffers greatly for it. It's just too small and inconsequential a story for a theatrical release.

Insurrection tries to be the STIV of the TNG crew, and doesn't succeed very well. Humour just doesn't come as naturally to these characters as they did in the TOS era. Data sings, Riker and Troi get frisky, Picard has a little romance with a Ba'ku chick, and none of it's very funny or effective. There's a noticeable lack of budget that exacerbates the TV-quality feel - the Ba'ku village is an unforgivably cheap-looking set, and quite a lot of the CGI effects look shoddy. F. Murray Abraham is a respected veteran actor, but his villainous Ru'afo character is pretty lame. The whole movie just feels so twee.

The plot is reasonably smart and well-paced, and the space battles are exciting. There's also a mid-air chase scene between two shuttles that's also well done, and these are the movie's saving graces. Overall, your enjoyment of this film will depend a lot on how much you like Picard and gang. This is their most earnest attempt to be charming and fun - me, I thought they tried a little too hard.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
My rating:

Story: A murderous faction of Remans engineers a coup on Romulus, and the Enterprise must investigate. There Picard will face an enemy with a deep personal connection to himself - as well as a grudge.

So if the even-numbered ones are supposed to be the good ones, this 10th film should be one of them, right? Wrong, unfortunately. Not only was this movie excoriated by the fans, it flopped badly at the box-office. This is the movie that sent the Star Trek franchise into the doldrums from which it has just recovered. What's surprising is how a film written by an avowed Star Trek fan (John Logan) and sporting the biggest budget of any Trek film to date could fail so badly. The general opinion among critics is that the Trek formula has simply gotten old and worn out.

I thought hard about where exactly this movie went wrong, because I couldn't accept that criticism - surely what worked in 9 previous films (well, the good ones anyway) could still work here? But it's a valid point. There's always been a certain staginess and stiffness to Trek - what should be fast-paced space battle scenes are intercut with a lot of Picard barking orders, crewmen responding with technobabble, and everyone staring balefully at the bridge viewscreen.

But again, this is the Trek formula, and it's lasted for 9 movies. What I thought really sunk this movie is simply a lame story. The fact that the villain Shinzon is a clone of Picard really isn't as interesting as the filmmakers thought it was - there's no thematic richness to it, it doesn't take Picard's characterization in any new directions, and Tom Hardy doesn't impress. Once again, it squanders its own ensemble - those characters are there simply because they're part of the TNG crew, not because they get to do anything. And as a long-time Trek fan, I simply have to mention the dune buggy chase sequence. That scene was just full of WTF - how could Logan forget about the Prime Directive?

At least it was an exciting scene. And that's what this movie has - some thrilling action setpieces that show us things we've never seen in Trek before. None of which saves this film, unfortunately, not even a heroic sacrifice of a beloved character that tries too hard to imitate the climax of STII. Nemesis is everything that J.J. Abrams tried to reinvent for the 2009 Star Trek - dynamic instead of stiff, warm instead of cold, new and fresh instead of old and tired. The best compliment I can give this film is to watch it so as to appreciate the new one even better.


Whew! That was longer and harder than I expected. Apologies for the lateness of pt 2 - I found it necessary to rewatch a few of the movies to decide more accurately how I felt about them. In any case, I certainly hope these 10 movies get a little love in the wake of the adulation the new film's been receiving. There's no movie quite like a Star Trek movie - smart, funny, thrilling, thought-provoking, moving - and above all, fun. So remember - there are 11 Trek movies, not just one. Check 'em all out.

(Okay, maybe not STV.)


TMBF said...

Now why didn't I think of doing my Star Trek movies mini-reviews in haiku form? Because I'm not John Scalzi, that's why.