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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek Film Series (1979-1982)

It should be known that I'm a life-long Trek fan, having been introduced to the series at a young age by equally nerdy parents. In preperation for the latest entry in the franchise, I decided to sit down and rewatch the previous ten films and figured, hey, why not, let's turn it into a report card.

1. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Let’s look at “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” from the perspective of a Trekkie in 1979. It had been over a decade since the Enterprise crew had been seen together in live action. Both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars” had come and gone, drastically changing the face of science-fiction forever. What could fans possibly be expecting? What direction would “Trek” go in, considering the ways sci-fi had evolved since the show went off the air? And, perhaps more importantly, how would the universe look with the constraints of television tossed off and the freedom of big-budget film in its place?

Whatever fans had in mind, I bet what they got wasn’t what they were expecting. “Motion Picture” is a very flawed production, an awkward transition between mediums. It’s not a bad movie. While not delivering on the huge space battles you might expect, some striking imagery is shown off here. In particular, the interiors of Verjur make for unique views that would have been quite impressive on the big screen.

In addition, the movie makes the most of bringing its cast back together for the first time in ages. Both the return of Kirk and the Enterprise are given the appropriate iconic weight. Robert Wise, an adamant professional as always, brings a steady hand to direction. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is quite evocative and makes great use of the original series theme. The opening scene on Vulcan feels like a real alien planet, something you could probably never say of the original series.

As for the rest of the movie? Whoo, is it slow and boring. “2001” was the obvious inspiration here, right down to the two minute musical overture that opens the film. An attempt is made to replicate the thoughtful, philosophical tone of that film. Sadly, all this does is totally sap any sense of urgency from the admittedly solid story. Earth is in threat of total destruction and an interesting alien threat is introduced. But the, ahem, “deliberate” pacing is so crushing that little to no suspense is generated. So the film lumbers forward, never a sequence being any more then basically engaging. That the movie often stops to ew-and-awe over the special effects doesn’t help any.

The rivalry between Kirk and Decker prove to be the most interesting stuff, save for the brief sequence where the bridge is attacked by a ball of energy. The cast has a hard time. Truthfully, the script never really gives much room for any body. Despite the bloated run time, there’s little of the prized character interaction between Kirk and Spock that we love, with the supporting parts being even more anemic. Scottie, Uhura, Chekov, and especially Sulu are barely in this movie. Only DeForest Kelly manages to bring any energy to ol’ McCoy. While the updated Enterprise is impressive, what is up with those new uniforms? The film ends on some more nice imagery but it’s a long road getting there. By attempting to distances itself from “soft sci-fi” like “Star Wars,” the producers sucked out most of what made the show fun in the first place.
[Grade: C+]
So, after the disappointment of the debut feature, a new creative direction was implemented on the “Trek” franchise, even to the point of forcing out Gene Roddenberry. That might have seemed like a bad idea, but, considering his story involved time traveling Klingons and the assassination of JFK, it was obviously for the best.

Right from the beginning, “Wrath of Khan” fixes several of the first film’s major problems. First off, there’s plenty of the character interaction the series was built on. Kirk is given a juicy arc, coming to grips with aging. Spock has a very important part, which I’ll expound on in a bit. Hell, even Chekov is made an important part of the story. I suppose Uhura still gets the short end of the stick, but she kind of always did. Either way, on a cast level, this feels like classic Trek. The total lack of action in the first is made up for immediately. The movie opens on an action sequence and features plenty throughout, focusing on the kind of ship battles we associate with the series.

We certainly can’t underplay the importance of Ricardo Montalban to this film’s success. By reviving a fairly obscure, one-time appearance villain, this series finally got the iconic enemy it needed. Montalban’s Khan proves to be a legitimate rival to Shatner’s Kirk, in intelligence, cunning, even rugged handsomeness. He manages to successfully leave his Mr. Roark persona behind, proving himself to be… A real badass.

Maybe more then anything else, why “Star Trek II” succeeds over “The Motion Picture” is because of a little thing called pacing. This one has it, that one didn’t. The script is tight and concise, never wasting any time getting to the point. Things move fast from one plot point to the next. A lot is packed into the comparatively short 113 minute runtime. Truthfully, the movie almost feels too short and I wouldn’t mind the middle act, particularly Kirk’s relationship with his son, being beefed up some. But, honestly, when character development isn’t spared any and it gets us to the exciting showdown in the finale as briskly as it does, I can’t complain.

Ultimately, up through this point, while “Wrath of Khan” is a thrilling, meticulously crafted sci-fi adventure, something seems to be missing, a quality of pathos. All of this is solved with the fate of Nimoy’s character towards the end. Killing a character off these days might just seem like the lead-up to the ineviableable cheat, but a real sort of emotion is packed into the moment here and I think it was a brave decision on the writer’s behalf. Though often criticized, William Shatner gives a good performance here with that moment being the finest bit of acting out of his entire career, and arguably the same can be said of Nimoy. While the resolution drags on some, the sentiment is heartfelt, providing the film with the spirit it really needed. “Star Trek II” is the shot in the arm the series needed and, correctly, widely consider a major success for all involved.
[Grade: A-]

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