Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) Dir. Leonard Nimoy

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Arguably The Voyage Home (next to Wrath of Khan) is probably the most popular Star Trek film.  I know Trekkie purists don’t care for it, mainly because its considered a silly premise to plop the Enterprise crew in modern times to create a fish out of water story.  There’s also the argument that this is the one Star Trek film where the characters don’t actually travel anywhere apart from time travel.  Thankfully however, I don’t consider myself a purist Trekkie.  I enjoy watching reruns of the show all the time, but I can’t remember specific plots to episodes or movies.  As far as just good movies go, Star Trek IV is a good one.  It’s entertaining and it’s fun.  I have few disagreements with it.

If anything, for the sake of the franchise, it seems like a bit of an easy tactical move to place the characters in modern times.  The reason being that Star Trek III is not a terribly great film, and it’s easy to see how the series could start faltering.  The goal here is to mainly please a wider audience, attracting people who may not be religious fans of the series, but regular people who might like the idea of seeing well known characters in a much more identifiable setting.  It makes sense.  And it’s easy to see why the film is so popular.  It’s rife with gags showing just how out of place Kirk’s crew is.  But it’s done with good writing and a lot of cleverness.  It’s even full of great one liners:

“Double Dumbass on you!”  “Tell me, Admiral, what does it mean ‘exact change’?” “I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re from Outer Space.” “No, I’m from Iowa.  I only work in space.”  My personal favorite scene in the movie is when McCoy treats the old woman patient in the hospital:  McCoy: “What’s the matter with you?” Patient: “Kidney Dialysis.” McCoy: “Dialysis?  What is this, the dark ages? Here, you swallow that, and anymore problems just call me!”

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This film also has some good character work in it as well, giving some of the other supporting players, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov more to do than normal.  I also like that Spock isn’t quite all there in his head after the experience of coming back from the dead.  He’s a little off, doing a few crazy things, such as diving into the tank to mind meld with the whales.  He has a bit of trouble adjusting to his surroundings, making him all the more fun to watch.  As for the newcomer, Gillian (Cathrine Hicks), she’s fine in the movie, although it seems too easy that she just up and leaves her life, simply claiming she has no one who would miss her.  I seriously doubt that.  It’s too easy an excuse for her to just drop everything and leave.  We know she loves the whales, but if she loves them THAT much it’s no wonder she doesn’t have any friends, only her career.  I also think it’s weird that she would just decide to give a lift to two strangers after one of them just jumped into a whale tank without a believable reason.  The other thing about this movie I also never understood was the forced conflict by having Gillian arrive the next morning to discover the whales have been transported without her knowledge.  If she’s that much of a weirdo and a loner, no wonder they would want to trick her about the time the whales were leaving.  Considering she’s in charge of their care, it doesn’t really add up.  I have never liked it when conflict is forced instead of coming up for a good explanation as to why it exists.  It’s just not terribly good storytelling, and the filmmakers are hoping the audience will be caught up in the movie enough not to really notice.  It’s meant just to find an excuse to keep the story going.  Also, when she gets to the future, she’s assigned to a science vessel.  Why?  I thought she came so she could watch over the whales.  Whose else is going to have the expertise to study them?

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Overall, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is an enjoyable outing.  There isn’t that much here in the way of great science fiction, and the film seems to hit us with a hammer a little bit about the extermination of Humpback whales.  This film also completes the Khan trilogy, as Kirk and crew are united with a new Enterprise, and Kirk himself is demoted to Captain.  But really it doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the other films to appreciate this movie.  Apart from the beginning and the Klingon ship, it can be pretty much watched as a stand alone feature.  The story is not as engaging as Khan, but it’s a well though out story.  We can also thank Nicholas Meyer for returning to co-write the film, who has some experience with time-travel fish out of water stories (see Time After Time, starring Malcolm McDowell).  It’s nice to have a Star Trek film that everyone can enjoy.

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Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984) Dir. Leonard Nimoy

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My countdown to the release of Star Trek Into Darkness continues with a look at Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. I don’t know how much hope or potential Star Trek III may have had when it was first released in 1984. It certainly has a lot to live up to compared to its predecessor, The Wrath of Khan.  This movie is not a bad film, but it’s not terribly great either.  The difference here seems to be that Star Trek III is driven more by plot than character.  It tries to be as big and epic as the first two films, even going so far as to kill Kirk’s son and blowing up the Enterprise.  It tries really hard to be just as captivating and memorable as number 2, and in some ways tries to duplicate its success by creating another bigger than life villain with Christopher Lloyd’s Klingon Kruge.  But the energy of this film never really builds or goes anywhere that interesting.  This ship is running on impulse folks.

I guess I’ll start with Kruge as a comparison to Khan.  It’s sort of funny, because Kruge comes up with the perfect way to destroy Kirk that Khan would have done if he’d known:  killing his son.  If Khan knew Kirk’s son was there and killed him, it would have completed his revenge.  But in Star Trek III the death of his son doesn’t really mean anything.  For one, Kirk has no relationship with Kruge as a villain.  He doesn’t even meet him until the very end when everyone shows up at the Genesis planet.  Kruge’s mere presence as villain doesn’t serve much of a purpose in the film except to make Kirk sacrifice something for bringing back Spock.  Kruge’s motivation to get the information on the Genesis device seem pretty futile.  How exactly would he use it as a weapon?  And who can he really ask for information on how it works or how to build one?  He kills David, the only person around who actually knows anything about the Genesis device.

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I think my biggest disappointment with the film was that by the end of it didn’t feel like a whole lot actually happened.  Compared to the previous film, there really isn’t a lot of action in part 3.  Everyone sets about doing their task.  By the end of the film, I’m not sure what the adventure really means to anybody.  I felt there could have been a lot more exploration into McCoy having to share his mind with Spock, and the maddness that could have ensued within him.  It doesn’t really seem to affect him that much at all.  He has no life affirming moment because of any of this.  And after a few crazed out moments in the beginning, he’s acting normally for the rest of the film.  As for Kirk, he’s driven to go back when he finds out that Spock’s body is regenerating from the Genesis planet.  But problems arise when we see he has no relationship with the villain or his son, which doesn’t really give us a reason to care.  Somehow I keep thinking this would have been better if they could have gotten Carol Marcus to be in this film and have her killed instead. We at least know that Kirk has a history with her, unlike his son which in the time span of the two films he’s probably known him for about two weeks, and he hasn’t done much in the way of bonding in either films.  I’m not saying Kirk wouldn’t care if his son was killed, but the relationship isn’t given enough screen time to make us, the audience, care what happens to him.

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The film has its share of cleverness to it, but there just isn’t anything that memorable about the movie.  The characters are just basically going through the motions.  No one particular character is driving the story.  There was some missing potential here with Bones going mad with Spock’s essence trapped in his mind.  Kirk could suddenly be faced with losing another close friend, this time to maddness, and his drive to go back to the Genesis planet was the need not to just save Spock but Bones as well.  It would have been more interesting throughout the film to see Bones jumping back and forth between the Spock personality, and getting the crew into more problems.  This is a film that probably should have been much darker, but we’re never given the chance to explore this side of the characters. As I was watching the film, I just felt pretty much indifferent to everything that was happening.  The consequences seem more arbitrary to the plot than driven by the characters.  It’s not enough however because there isn’t any motivation behind the consequences.  In the long run, non of it will really mean anything to the characters.

Star Trek III is a pretty weak entry in the Trek series.  I think it ranks slightly better than the first film, which is horribly slow at times and way too serious for its own good.  This film has a few enjoyable moments to it.  Sulu beating up that huge guy.  Uhura putting that obnoxious cadet in the closet.  The scene with Bones in the Alien Bar.  Also, it’s always fun to watch Christopher Lloyd play a Klingon.  Although I felt Kruge could have been so much more outrageous and over the top.  My other complaint I want to mention with this film is the effects work which, so far, is the weakest in the series.  However, the one effects shot I like is the space station orbiting Earth, a really impressive and detailed miniature.  For the rest of the movie, there isn’t a whole lot else that seems worth mentioning.  Again, it’s not a bad film, but it’s a disappointment that could have lived up to a higher potential.     Trek3.4

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Dir. Nicholas Meyer

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The Wrath of Khan is considered by many to be the best film out of all of Star Trek. My personal favorite is actually Star Trek: First Contact, and I know that might seem like heresy to Star Trek, but hey, I grew up on TNG. I actually had the experience of seeing that film in a theater, and I was absolutely thrilled by the end of it. I was only an infant when Star Trek 2 first came out, but I imagine I would have gotten the same thrill out of it had I been able to see it then. I never really got around to seeing Star Trek 2 until I was in college. But it surprised me greatly, and I firmly believe it’s the best of the TOS Trek series. It doesn’t have quite the effects budget of the first film, but the even better alternative is that it has a strong, tight and compelling story. It also has a tremendous bigger than life villain, as well as being the most fun of all the Star Trek films.

Is it a perfect film? Almost. There are a few small things that don’t quite gel with me in this movie. One of them is the Kirk, Spock, McCoy dynamic. It is good here, but some of the things I never understood…Why does McCoy go into a rant on Spock debating the Genesis device when it’s pretty clear Spock was speaking in scientific terms as opposed to morality issues regarding the device. It’s true that McCoy likes to read into things, but there’s a lack of motivation behind his words, and the scene falls flat for me. Some of which might be due to editing. The second thing that’s a bit of a let down for me is some of the production design and effects work. Again, it’s good, but you can see more of the budget constraints on this film compared to the first Star Trek, and I find some of the sets in this film to be a little hokey and not terribly well lit. I think mainly of the space station science lab when Kirk’s away team arrives, and we see Khan has killed most of the staff. The lighting of that sequence just doesn’t seem that atmospheric and eerie enough. But those are minor complaints.

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Quite frankly I would watch Wrath of Khan 100x over than the first Star Trek film. The thing that was missing most from the first film was a driving force, which in this film is Kirk who leads the story. This is Kirk’s film, and everyone around him plays their parts as support for his personal journey. There is more emphasis on Character in Star Trek 2, as well as better editing of sequences, which keep the pacing focused, driving the story forward. When I rewatched the film today, there was one aspect I found still got to me, and that was the death of Spock. Originally when The Wrath of Khan originally came out in 1982, pretty much everybody had heard Spock was going to die. So what Nicholas Meyer did in the film was kill everyone off in a fake out death scene in the beginning. This was done not simply to throw people off, but to get the build up out of the way so people would forget about Spock and focus on the story. Admittedly the same thing happened to me rewatching the film, as I forgot that Spock was supposed to die until it actually happened. It just goes to show how incredibly smart and well thought out the story was. For much of the film, Spock is simply there as support for Kirk, so there isn’t too much focus on what happens to him. To this day, it’s still a terrific death scene, and Leonard Nimoy’s performance is one of the best he’s ever done in all of Star Trek. I’ve always liked that while Kirk and Spock are the best of friends, when Spock is near death, he still stands and adjusts his shirt to present himself to his captain…a great touch. Everything comes home for Kirk in that moment, where this time he can’t beat the no-win scenario without someone else taking the sacrifice.

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The adventure is most compelling here, as the emotional center of the film is Kirk facing his aging body and feels something deeper is missing from his life. The challenge here is that Kirk has spent most of his life cheating death, but it’s also the one thing he’s most afraid of, trying to deny it within himself. He struggles with feeling that he now has to accept old age almost considers his life as captain to be over. It’s this human journey that makes this one of the most emotionally engaging Trek adventures. Kirk has that admission once he realizes he can’t beat the no-win scenario, he finally admits that he knows nothing. What I like even more is that the story keeps it simple here by focusing on Kirk, and of the subplots, such as the Reliant finding Khan all tie into Kirk’s journey. Humorously, as well as being true to the story, Kirk keeps managing to get the best of Khan throughout the film. But Kirk always managing to beat him relates to his problem in that it was only easy for him because he knows things about starships that Khan doesn’t. Still that doesn’t stop Khan from being a greater threat, having killed Federation civilians mercilessly, and doing some crippling damage to the Enterprise. Khan also seems to fall in the vein of literary villains, who have memorized books like Moby Dick word for word, but never actually learned anything from the story! To be honest, he’s not my favorite of all the Trek villains, but he is a lot of fun, and Ricardo Montalban does a great job hamming it up. Khan himself is a rich character, and a joy to watch at times. It’s interesting too that Khan and Kirk have a relationship in the film, but never actually meet in person accept when talking to each other through the Enterprise viewscreen.

I also don’t want to go on without mentioning Kristie Alley as Savvik in this film, and she’s just terrific. I really miss that she didn’t come back (for whatever reason) to do Star Trek 3 and 4. Her replacement, Robin Curtis, does a decent job, but Kristie Alley really owned Savvik as a character, who while being a Vulcan, we still sense a slight bit of pride to her actions. She is not completely emotionless. I also can’t think of his name, but I really like Khan’s right hand man, his most trusted comrade who also begs Khan to let go of his need for vengeance and take the Reliant wherever they want to go. Khan fights him at times, but he keeps vigilant admiration and respect for his leader. Khan is even saddened and angry about his death near the end of the film. We sympathize with several other minor characters in this film, including Scotty’s brash young nephew in the engine room. It’s a minor role, but his death garners plenty of sympathy from us.

The Wrath of Khan is a great enjoyable film, and one of the finest in all of Star Trek. While I have some quibbles about the movie, they are seriously minor to how great this movie really is. It’s an engaging, moving, well told story, and one of the best adventure films of all time.

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Dir. Robert Wise

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On the heels of a new J.J. Abrams Star Trek film, I’ve decided that I’m going to watch and review all the Star Trek films in order, leading up to the release of the new film.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t have terribly high hopes for the new Star Trek just based on the advertising campaign, and I’m not really thrilled of the notion of showing a post apocalyptic version of Star Trek.  But it is Star Trek, and I am a fan, so will be seeing it.  Somehow watching all of the other films beforehand might help me build my immunity in case the new film is a travesty.  At any rate, I hope you enjoy this series leading up to the new films release!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a film I haven’t seen in a while and probably for good reason.  It’s easily the slowest and most difficult Star Trek film to sit through.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film though.  It’s got some interesting elements of science fiction, particularly the return of the Voyager spacecraft as an emerged consciousness.  This Trek film also sports the best model work out of all the Trek films (yes, even the new ones).  But the visual effects are part of the films difficulty as for many sequences we have to sit through what feels like several minutes just showing off the Enterprise, or even longer scenes of of the Enterprise moving through the alien spacecraft.  It’s all pretty to watch, but it feels like it drags the story to a snails pace, when our biggest concerns should be with the characters and their personal issues.

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Thankfully the film picks up after the arrival of Dr. McCoy, and Deforrest Kelly adds a lot of much needed lightness and humor.  This Star Trek film I found to be the most difficult to connect with the characters, in that so much time is spent in between the spectacle and trying to move the story forward that I felt it difficult to engage with any one characters issue.  It feels like we’re scattered equally among separate character motivations, and there isn’t anyone in particular that’s a driving force for the film.  Kirk is rusty behind the wheel of his ship, having not served as Captain for over two years.  His problems “competing” with Commander Dekker seem somewhat petty.  It’s not like Star Trek 2, where more attention is focused on Kirk’s aging and dealing with his mortality, as well as his usefulness to Starfleet.  This film taps into that a little bit, but I never get enough of the sense of Kirk leading the way here.

As for Spock, he’s got problems of his own, being turned down in a ritual to purge himself of all emotion.  Spock joins the mission to seek out this alien threat, which is based in logic, for his own search for meaning.  There is even some wonder among the crew if Spock’s personal ulterior motives might end up sabotaging the mission.    But again, there is a lack of drive in the story to give us more investment in the kind of mythological heroes journey he undergoes here.  It’s that lack of who and what to focus on that doesn’t do much to bring everything together by the end of the film.  There was something about Spock’s story that didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Why is this journey to find himself happening for him at practically middle age (ignoring for a moment the Vulcan’s prolonged lifespan)?  If this ritual of his to find his life purpose were happening at a younger age, maybe it would be understandable about what he’s going through to want to have all emotion purged.  But for a character like Spock to be struggling and moping that he doesn’t know who he is seems out of touch for the character we know who is wise beyond his years.  The message seems almost too obvious by the end of the film, about logic embracing with emotion and humanity.  This seems like something he would already know about himself, and if anything, he would have been put to more use serving as a guide for the Voyager entity to understand its purpose than trying to figure out his personal problems.

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One of the more interesting characters for me was Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), who holds his own as a commander, and thankfully the writers never stoop to giving him a cocky attitude by comparison to Kirk.  Decker actually makes all the right decisions when he knows more about the ships newer operations than Kirk.  However, we aren’t given enough time in the film to really feel much for his relationship with Ilia, especially to make their sacrifices at the end more powerful.  We get the two have a relationship and a history, but the film doesn’t do enough to explore it as there’s just too much else going on.  There just doesn’t feel like much behind the sacrifice to mean more than just the message of technology and humanity embracing.

I find it interesting that during this period with the rise of computer technology, there were many films that talked about the debate of whether technology would overrun us or if humanity would prevail.  We saw this previously with Star Wars with Luke having to shut off the machine and trust his instincts.  I’m also reminded of Tron and the image of Flynn at the end diving into the MCP, and the two merging to become one.  Although I think Tron makes a bigger connection thematically than Star Trek: The Motion Picture does.  This film also seems more bogged down in seriousness than other Star Trek films, which is why Bones is so desperately needed by the time he shows up.  The aging Trek crew doesn’t hit their stride until the next film came along, which makes this film, for me, the most difficult to sit through.  I know for most people they say Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the worst Trek, but I actually love that film.  I admit it’s a terrible film, but I actually love it for its stupidity and outrageousness, and most of all, to me, it’s still more fun than this film.  There’s plenty of dazzling visuals in this movie, and it achieves some of the greatest model work in motion picture history.  But the plodding, serious story, and too much time spent glamoring on visual effects shots over moving things forward gets in the way of what could have been a more fun and engaging science fiction story.

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