A Cinefessions Series Review is a periodic column that sees one more writers watching and reviewing an entire film series. Cinefessions considers any film franchise that has two or more films a series, and thus available for review in this column. This is an excellent way to get a quick look at an entire collection of films in one column. Today, Ashe heads into space to review the complete Star Trek film franchise.
I grew up on the adventures of Kirk and Spock and the crew of the original Enterprise, and have been in and out of the Next Generation, and the follow-up Star Trek shows. Right now I’m still working my way through Deep Space Nine and Voyager as I largely passed up those shows when they were on the air. I’m finding that Deep Space Nine is probably one of the better consistently written shows out of all the Trek series. When it comes to the Star Trek films, some have been very on point, and some have been wildly out there without really thinking things through, much like episodes of the TV shows the films themselves are from. With this year’s Cinefessions Summer Screams Challenge, I got to pick a week’s theme, and for me, there was no doubting what I wanted to see, which was Space Opera, and one of the bigger ones out there is Star Trek.
I have to add that watching these again shortly on the heels of the announcement of Horner’s death kind of hurt, but at the same time, his scores for Star Trek II and III are some of my favorite in the series, and I do love what he contributed to a lot of the films I love. I’d actually revisited most of these earlier this year when Leonard Nimoy passed on, but I’ll never grow tired of re-watching most of these, even though I have my favorites just about memorized even now. Anyway, enough reminiscing, and onto the film reviews.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, dir. Robert Wise)
When a destructive space entity is spotted approaching Earth, Admiral Kirk resumes command of the Starship Enterprise in order to intercept, examine, and hopefully stop it. For this outing of The Motion Picture, I opted to just stream it over Netflix instead of popping in the Director’s Cut DVD. I don’t know whether it was nostalgia that drove me or what squad of crazed baboons took me over, but even though the theatrical cut is slower, a bit more plodding, has some serious faults, and some of the effects haven’t held up as well as they could have over the years, between Goldsmith’s score, the longing looks of the refitted ship when we first get a look at her in dry dock, or Kirk just being a jerk because he wants his ship back, I enjoyed this run through more than I thought I would.
Don’t get confused, the film is still way too in love with the special effects. We barely get any time with the crew, and the pacing is all over the place, making the film feel plodding. It’s a great sci-fi story, it’s just not a very good Star Trek film. The Director’s Cut DVD does a lot to fix some of that as it changes things up and fixes a bunch of technical and special effect goof ups, and manages to give us a little more time with the characters we showed up to watch the film for. As far as being an introductory film, I don’t think people coming into this without seeing Trek would be all that attached, but they might be a bit bored with the pacing.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, dir. Nicholas Meyer)
Admiral James T. Kirk is feeling old; the prospect of accompanying his old ship, the Enterprise, on a two week cadet cruise is not making him feel any younger. But the training cruise becomes a life or death struggle when an old nemesis, Khan, escapes from years of exile and captures the power of creation itself and is out for revenge on Kirk and his crew. This is more like that Horatio Hornblower and wagon train to the stars I remember, while still delivering a message through its story and brilliant effects work.
We get a revenge plot, dealing with growing old, and the problems with playing god through science. The effects work is fantastic and still holds up, which is to be expected when you turn them over to ILM. The crew seems much closer to the ones I remember from the show, and Khan (played by Montalban) puts in a classic performance as the genetically engineered former dictator from Earth’s past. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this, but it’s a joy each and every time I put it on from before my teenage years to well into my thirties.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, dir. Leonard Nimoy)
Admiral Kirk and his bridge crew risk their careers stealing the decommissioned Enterprise to return to the restricted Genesis planet to recover Spock’s body. Things get sticky when a Klingon commander has found out about the Genesis Device and planet and wants its secrets for himself and is willing to kill anyone in his way to get it. They angle a bit more with a few laughs here and there but what really matters is we get some great character moments throughout, and it very much still feels like the original Trek because Kirk always just does what he wants anyway.
My big sticking point is that I wish they’d gone with the Romulans in this as they originally had intended if only because they made more sense with how the Klingons actually act in this. Hell, even the Bird of Prey started out as a Romulan ship. Granted, in the original series, the Romulans and Klingons were sharing tech for a while. After the heavy ending of Star Trek II, though, the lighter tone is welcome, and as the middle part of an unofficial Trek trilogy between Wrath of Khan and Voyage Home, this works pretty well. We’re still dealing with playing god through science, but also a bit of playing keep up during a Cold War as Starfleet represents the US in this and the Klingons the Soviet Union at the time. This would continue through the rest of the TOS Trek films of the ’80s and early ’90s.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, dir. Leonard Nimoy)
Fugitives of the Federation for their daring rescue of Spock from the doomed Genesis Planet, Kirk and his crew begin their journey home to face justice for their actions. As they near Earth, they find it at the mercy of a mysterious alien probe whose signals are slowly destroying the planet. In a desperate attempt to answer the call of the probe, Kirk and his crew race back to the late twentieth century in the hopes of finding the only living creature that can talk to the probe, humpback whales. Just about pitch perfect and on point with social commentary, this is classic Trek meeting the Save the Whales movement head on, and embracing it, all while weaving that into a time travel based flick where they have to save the planet.
This is also a great comedy if you even know just a little bit of Trek lore as we get a great deal of fish out of water moments as well as some on point character antics and banter. While the obvious Chekov asking around for Nuclear Vessels might seem overplayed, this really was the first time it’d been used like this, as well as a lot of what McCoy gets involved in throughout the film. The command crew really feels like a family here, and the character moments drive the film, which isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s kind of amazing that going this direction with it worked as well as it did, and the end result is fantastic.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, dir. William Shatner)
Captain Kirk and his crew must deal with Mr. Spock’s half-brother who kidnaps three diplomats and hijacks the Enterprise in his obsessive search for God. Throw in an added threat from a Klingon commander looking to make a name for himself by taking out Kirk and things aren’t looking great. This has a very big feeling of “been there, done that”. Finding god was the overall driving plot of the first film, done through the perspective that V’Ger was looking, which worked well, and for whatever reason they decided to revisit that again and in a terrible way. It’s paced awkwardly, and the film can’t decide between playing it straight or going for comedy gold.
Sure there are some great character moments in this, but the plot is terrible, the effects are way below what we’d come to expect from the films, the writing is all over the place, and they throw out continuity for the sake of giving in to the director’s whims for a laugh, and for us tech geeks, it just annoys us. The best cut I’ve seen of this film brings it down to about 53 minutes long, the duration of an episode of the original series, and that actually worked if only because they trimmed so much of the meh from the film, but it still wasn’t great by any means. This is the film that was almost the last hurrah for the original Trek cast and that’s really sad.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991, dir. Nicholas Meyer)
The crews of the Enterprise and the Excelsior must stop a plot to prevent a peace treaty between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. The conspiracy runs deep as Kirk and McCoy are setup for the fall guys in an assassination attempt and the crew of the Enterprise must figure out who’s behind it all before it’s too late. I’m very glad that Final Frontier wasn’t the last outing for the full original Trek crew. This is a much better send off film, made at the tail end of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, which was alluded to in the original series with the Romulans and the Klingons. An event in Klingon space sees the Federation and the Klingons making peace, mirroring the Soviet Union and the US doing the same.
They do a great job with the effects and managing to reclaim a few of the sets that had been built for the Motion Picture, and had been redone for The Next Generation series while Star Trek IV was in production. You can tell in a few shots, Engineering mainly, but they do disguise it well. We have a great cast, an amazing score which fits the darker themes of this film, and I positively loved the signatures of the cast as a send off, kicking off the end credits. While some of the scenes may not play exactly into what Roddenberry envisioned for humanity, we see the characters learn and change throughout, and that’s more the message of Trek: that we can be better than we start out. And so I finish off the last of the original cast Trek films with my second favorite, behind Wrath of Khan.
Star Trek: Generations (1994, dir. David Carson)
Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D find themselves at odds with the renegade scientist Soran who is destroying entire star systems. Only one man can help Picard stop Soran’s scheme…and he’s been dead for seventy-eight years. Written side by side and prepped side by side with the last episode of The Next Generation, as many issues as I have with All Good Things…, I think it’s the better end result. This feels like a two-part episode of the show, and it might have actually worked better as the show’s finale instead. Sure the effects work has a feature film quality here, but this feels like an extended episode of the show and lacks the epic feel of the series finale.
I don’t mind it feeling like the show, but they went in and revamped the sets, upped the production values a bit and then lit the sets like they were embarrassed by them being former television sets. Apparently they forgot they built most of them over the top of the Motion Picture sets. They do try a few new things with the characters, things they wouldn’t have really done outside the TV show, but the film still grinds to a halt just before the start of the climax. With the whole thing being fairly sedate to begin with seeing as how they’re dealing with an investigation, this makes the film seem like it’s dragging even more. The acting is fantastic but the score is pretty much forgettable as they opted to have the show’s composer write the music, which would have been fine, but it feels like the same bland themes over and over again and nothing stands out.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996, dir. Jonathan Frakes)
The Borg, a relentless race of cyborgs, are on a direct course for Earth. Violating orders to stay away from the battle, Captain Picard and the crew of the newly-commissioned USS Enterprise E pursue the Borg back in time to prevent the invaders from changing Federation history and assimilating the galaxy. After the kind of ho hum Generations with the Next Gen cast getting their first outing on the big screen, they come back with an excellent script and film that knocks it out of the park. The effects look great, we get a revamped Enterprise that looks entirely capable of taking anything on the big screen, a lot of great character moments, and a peek into the past of Star Trek once again.
Where Kirk and crew went with one of their bigger villains for their second outing, the Next Gen crew does the same with the Borg, while tying into the time travel theme that worked so well in Star Trek IV. I have to admit I saw this something like eight times in the theater when it first came out. Sure, it’s another big screen adaptation of Moby Dick, much like Star Trek II, but instead of being the hunted, Picard is the hunter and we get some great reminders of what Trek was all about to begin with here: that we can be better if we try. It still very much holds up almost twenty years later and is the best of the Next Gen films.
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998, dir. Jonathan Frakes)
When an alien race and factions within Starfleet attempt to take over a planet that has “regenerative” properties for those on it or in its cluster, it falls upon Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise to defend the planet’s people as well as the very ideals upon which the Federation itself was founded. Now that I’m more caught up on Deep Space Nine, I can actually appreciate the events in this film more, and they don’t feel completely out of left field. If you aren’t aware of the events of the Dominion War, Starfleet and the Alpha Quadrant are getting their butts handed to them, so a few Admirals overreaching with the promise of something that will give them an edge seems a bit more realistic. Outside of that, when they hit you with this, like when I first watched it without being caught up on Deep Space Nine, it feels completely out of left field of where the Federation was when Next Generation ended.
The Dominion War is a big reason the events in the film are taking place, but it gets a minor, passing mention in like two lines in the film, so if you haven’t been watching Deep Space Nine, you have no idea what’s been going on that would drive Starfleet to do something that only the “bad guys” would be doing before. There is a lot of humor in this that offsets the darker parts of the story. The effects are pretty good throughout, and F. Murray Abrahm is great as our lead bad guy as he chews on every scene he’s in. That being said, this is very much a character driven film. If you’re in this for the big space battles and effects work, you’re not going to get as much from it. Insurrection is Next Gen‘s calm after the storm, letting them explore a bit with the characters and a more personal event. Unfortunately, it still feels a bit flat after they came at us with the Borg.
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002, dir. Stuart Baird)
En route to the honeymoon of William Riker to Deanna Troi on her home planet of Betazed, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise receives word from Starfleet that a coup has resulted in the installation of a new Romulan political leader, Shinzon, who claims to seek peace with the human-backed United Federation of Planets. Once in enemy territory, the captain and his crew make a startling discovery and put up a fight to stop Shinzon from turning a new weapon of mass destruction on the heart of the Federation. This is one of those that is really divisive among Trek fans, and I have to say I can overlook a lot of the problems the film has plot wise.
We get Tom Hardy playing Shinzon, Ron Perlman as his head minion, a fantastic score, some jaw-dropping effects, and some bittersweet moments, especially given this is the last Next Generation cast film we would get. They do actually tie this into some scientific events of the day by playing with the concept of cloning, but this is a bit of a messy political film for the most part, with a rather extensive space battle for the last third of its runtime. There are some great, fun moments in this, but like Star Trek VI, it’s much darker than the other three Next Gen Star Trek films in the series once it gets going. It’s hard to believe it’s been thirteen years since I first saw this in theaters.
Star Trek (2009, dir. J.J. Abrams)
The fate of the galaxy rests in the hands of bitter rivals. One, James Kirk, is a delinquent, thrill-seeking Iowa farm boy. The other, Spock, a Vulcan, who was raised in a logic-based society that rejects all emotion. As fiery instinct clashes with calm reason, their unlikely but powerful partnership is the only thing capable of leading their crew through unimaginable danger, putting a stop to a lunatic out to obliterate the Federation, starting with Vulcan. As both a reimagining, and yet, an offshoot of what we had before, this manages to recapture that fiery spirit of the original television series, and fits it within the epic scale of an action blockbuster. The recast actors are just about perfect for the reimagined and somewhat altered characters, and I swear Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto are channeling DeForest Kelley and Leonard Nimoy every time I watch this.
It loses some of that storytelling where we get a subtle or not so subtle stab at current events, but does get other character driven story arcs in its place, which I don’t mind as an establishing film at all. Great music, fantastic action shots, great effects, and its back to the crew I grew up watching. Yes, I do love this one. Is it a bit louder and more action oriented than the Trek we’re used to? Sure, but it still felt like it had some of the same smarts behind it, so I’m very alright with this.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013, dir. J.J. Abrams)
When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has detonated the fleet and everything it stands for, leaving our world in a state of crisis. With a personal score to settle, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to a war zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction. While definitely as action-packed as the first, this one borrows from Trek lore much like Kirk’s original second outing in the films by pulling from the Trek episode Space Seed. While they do something different with it this time, they play too much upon what we’ve seen before in Trek instead of building up their own thing, which was the point of creating this alternate timeline to play in in the first place.
I do like what they’ve got here, but it loses something when they don’t try to completely forge their own path, and I hope we get that with the next one. They do lightly touch on the topic of domestic and non-domestic terrorism, and the building up of Starfleet beyond a space police force and exploration entity and militarizing it. Something Roddenberry actually railed against during the TOS trek films of the ’80s when he thought that’s where they were heading with it. While they don’t quite deal with it head on, it does open up the doors for conversation about it and yet manages to build a decent enough action film around that. This lost some of the smarts the first outing by Abrams, had but it’s still a lot of fun, the dialogue is mostly sharp, and if you’re looking for outer space action sequences, it has it in abundance.
The CSR Awards
(The Cinefessions’ Series Review Awards)
Best Picture: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Worst Picture: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Favorite Scene/Moment in Series: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Just before the Mutara Nebula battle when Kirk gets the call from Spock that they’re ready to beam them up, Kirk looks to Saavik and takes a bite out of an apple he’s eating and says, “I don’t like to lose.” That coupled with Horner’s score leading us into the space battle and raising the tension is fantastic.
Best Actor: Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: First Contact)
Best Actress: Catherine Hicks (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home)
The average film rating for the Star Trek film franchise is 3.17 stars.