Monday, September 28, 2009

Star Trek. Greatest Film Franchise Ever? (Part III)

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - 1991

This was the first Star Trek movie I got to watch in the theaters when I was a kid. You have nooooo idea how excited I was to see this movie on a huge screen in front of me. My previously mentioned Grandma took me right after school the day it came out. It was incredible. I loved every second of it. It had a shit ton of crazy space action and plot filled with twists and intrigue. I was aware of the press at the time which said it would be the last original cast movie, and even then I thought it was a good farewell. It wasn't until later I came to find that although it was still a great movie and an excellent entry into the Star Trek film series, it was not without it's flaws.
The whole movie is a huge allegory for the Cold War and it's demise. The Klingons (the Russians) are out of financing and a terrible industrial disaster (Chernobyl) requires them to call on the assistance of the Federation (America). What follows is a two hour morality play in which characters have to deal with their own paranoid prejudices in order to work together to achieve a common goal: the end of political fighting and distrust between the two sides (the film was made soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall). That's where the film takes it's surprising turn.
Look, I don't mean to get all "fanboy” about this, but I do have a major quarrel with some character choices in this movie. Specifically in the case of James Kirk. For the sake of the story, he is turned into a highly prejudiced bigot which is literally the exact opposite of everything this character has ever been. Kirk, ever since the original television show, has always been strongly portrayed as a person of empathy, intelligence, and humanitarianism. He fought many times against prejudices and hatreds on the show. Granted, I understand his son was killed by Klingons in the third movie, but Kirk always seemed better than that, more enlightened than to just suddenly take on harsh prejudices. And that's the thing. He doesn't possess this attitude in ANY other episode of the show or movie. He's just suddenly given this view to assist the story. It's kind of weak. Sadly, the movie was released right after the death of Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, but he was reportedly very displeased with Kirk's sudden latent bigotry, even though he learns the right lesson in the end.
I could complain about minor things here and there, including a few “not so great” performances from new cast members, but all in all: not a bad film. Great suspense, Great action sequences. It simply has a few gaping flaws.

Star Trek: Generations - 1994

The first unnumbered Trek flick, and the first one that focuses on the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew. I loved that show when I was younger, but man. The older I get, the lamer that show seems. Every episode is long and drawn out and there's almost none of the rich social commentary the original series possessed. Its RRREEEAAALY bland. Total "ho hum", an hour at a time. Sure, there are a handful of standout episodes, but blegh. It has nothing on the original. As a bonus, the film starts in the original crew time setting and transitions into the next Generation era. Due to crazy time shenanigans, Kirk manages to make it into a lot of the movie, only to suffer a hero's death. Also, Malcolm McDowell plays the villain so you know you're getting a solid, quality movie.
Not a bad movie at all. Very enjoyable, decent action, and a shitload of Kirk, how can I complain? Parts of it sort of drag on, but the complaints are outweighed by the enjoyment. Not bad at all, for a fucking "Next Generation" movie.

Star Trek: First Contact - 1996

This movie OF COURSE features the ultra popular, way over used Star Trek villainous species, The Borg. The Borg are the “Venom” of Star Trek. Much like Venom, the inexplicably popular Spider-Man villain, The Borg are unnecessarily popular given how lame they are, and this movie is chock full of them.
All in all, it's not terrible, but it is waaaay forgettable. It has more lame ass Borg than you can shake a stick at, and it featured the shitty looking new Enterprise, The NCC 1701-E. James Cromwell is great as always as Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive (yea, more time travel shenanigans), and his inclusion in the film is a nice shout out to a great episode of The Original Series, "Metamorphosis", where Cochrane originally appears. Again, it's not a bad movie, but its pretty forgettable as soon as you finish watching it.

Star Trek: Insurrection - 1998

Not enough happens in this movie. It sucks sooooo bad. Skip it. Not even worthy of a neat picture to go with this write up.

Star Trek: Nemesis - 2002

Too much happens in this movie. It sucks sooooo bad. Skip it. Not even worthy of a neat picture to go with this write up.

Star Trek - 2009

Hooooooly shit! Who saw this coming? After how awful the last few Star Trek movies were, Paramount took a shot at rebooting the series with a film set in the Original series time setting. The movie is the supposed story of how Kirk meets Spock and the original crew, and how Kirk becomes Captain of the Enterprise.
The movie ,while staying faithful to the source material, does create a continuity separate from the Original show and film series so at first I was a bit nervous about that. Know why this shit rules? Because it acknowledges the previously established continuity, recognizes that it exists, and then starts a new, similar but different and updated time line. It's brilliant! This way, we get all new exciting Trek, with out any of the “hey, that changes continuity!” hang ups from fanboys like me. It's a perfect solution. They took away my only complaint with the movie, which was just nit-picky problems with the continuity. Having old Spock and Nero from the old continuity create a new time line by traveling back in time was a great way for the movie to create its own Star Trek universe while satisfying scrutinizing die hard fans.
The directing is sharp as well, and the performances? SPECTACULAR! Everyone does a great job of being inspired by their character's original performer, but no one mimics or entirely copies them. Some of the changes made in this department are even for the better, such as the updates made to Captain Christopher Pike, the Captain of the Enterprise before Kirk. Pike was a mopey baby in his only episode of the show, “The Cage” (the show's first pilot episode , most of which was cut into the two part episode “The Menagerie” later in the series).
All in all, what was made here is a perfect Trek film, similar to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It's completely accessible for non-Trek fans, and gives plenty to viewers who are fans. It's impressive to look at and action packed, and it never skips a beat or lags. I was hesitant at first, but this truly has become one of the greats of the Star Trek film series, and with everyone signed on for another one, I can only hope they create their very own astounding piece of the film franchise that lasts for a long time.

Until next time!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Star Trek. Greatest Film Franchise Ever? (Part II)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - 1984

All right, look: Star Trek III is a little hard to defend at times, but it is far from the worst the film series has to offer. The second part of what ended up becoming a story trilogy, the movie picks up right where the last one left off. The Enterprise crew is headed home to Spacedock, and on the way they find out that Spock has left an imprint of his mind in Dr. McCoy's brain. Spock's body was left behind on the now forbidden new planet “Genesis”, created by a detonated Genesis Project torpedo in the last movie. They decide to leave Starfleet in the dust, hijack the Enterprise and travel back to planet Genesis to merge Spock's mind (in McCoy's body) and his body in an effort to bring him back in a Vulcan ritual. Along the way, hijinks ensue.
Not exactly the world's greatest plot, but it's not terrible. That's pretty much the tone of this movie: just right. It's not too great, not too crappy, enjoyable enough, but far from mind blowing. It was Leonard Nimoy's (Spock) first film directing gig, and he actually performs well. (and hey, say what you will about 3 Men and a Baby, but he directs that pretty well too). The only things that make the film suffer are some lags in the story. Not a terribly big deal, but they do slow the speed of the film down a bit. It's hard to explain, but some parts of the movie just don't....feel...quite right. Also, it shows a lot of the crew in their casual, non-uniform attire and the movie does that awesome thing where '80s movies tried to predict what fashion would look like in the future, which back then always meant that the future would look like a more endowed 80's. Everything is leather with crazy design, or way shoulder-padded. It just looks funny.
The film has plenty of memorable and way entertaining aspects as well, including Christopher Lloyd's portrayal of the villainous Klingon Commander Kruge. The standout scene to me has always been the point where McCoy, confused by Spock's mind infecting his own to the point where he acts more and more like Spock himself, goes to a Starfleet dive bar full of alien clientèle and tries to hire a ship to take him to Planet Genesis. The resulting conversation he has with the freakish would-be pilot of the forbidden voyage is just fucking hilarious. The film ends on a heartwarming, positive note, but not before it puts you through a share of heartbreak, as a member of the cast is killed by Kruge's men and the original Enterprise is destroyed.
Again, not bad, but far from the best of the series.
Speaking of far from the best:

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – 1986

So I’m going to come right out and say it, and I realize I’m in the minority on this one, but Star Trek IV is the worst of the first six movies, the ones that feature the original cast. Seriously. Without a doubt, it’s the worst out of them. It’s not unwatchable, and it’s not a too bad a movie, but it is a pretty bad STAR TREK movie. Allow me to explain.
The second Star Trek movie directed by Leonard Nimoy, The Voyage Home is the third and final installment of the Star Trek movie Trilogy that started with the Wrath of Khan, goes through Search for Spock, and ends here. The film picks up where III left off, the Enterprise has been destroyed and  Kirk and the crew (including a newly resurrected Spock thanks to Planet Genesis’s life creating formula and a Vulcan ritual) has taken its hijacked Klingon Bird of Prey for a brief sabbatical on planet Vulcan where they decide to return to Earth and face the charges for the crimes they committed in Star Trek III (hijacking the Enterprise). Meanwhile, back at Earth, a way awesome looking and sounding alien probe is communicating a message that no one understands, and as it receives no answer, the probe fucks shit up for everyone on Earth and in space around it. Kirk and the crew intercept the message and realize it's meant for Humpback Whales, a species long extinct on Earth. The crew, with their stolen Klingon vessel, now have to sling shot around the sun (a method used in the original series TV show) to travel back in time to Earth in 1986 to find and bring back Humpback Whales to the future so they can communicate with the probe and it stop it from kicking the shit out of everything.

So there's a very obvious message to the movie about conservation and wild life protection, and I wholeheartedly agree with both and certainly enjoy their inclusion. Where this movie drops the ball, is in the fact that like 20 minutes of it is actual Star Trek-y Sci-fi-ness while the rest of it is like an hour and a half of these out of place characters farting around in 1980's San Fransisco while making dumb “look at how craaaazy the 80's are!” jokes. The dialogue between Kirk and Spock in this movie is ridiculous, and everyone else is made to look like a bumbling goon. I get that they're from the future and they're now in a setting that's way outlandish to them, but seriously? Scotty picking up a mouse on a Macintosh and talking into it makes me roll my eyes every time. This guy reads Technical Journals for fun and is obsessed with tech. You're telling me he doesn't know what a computer from 1986 looks like? It's like saying you love cars but have no idea what a Model T is. Plus it makes him look like a total putz.
This was the most accessible and successful Star Trek film to date, but it barely feels like one. Put simply, it's crummy. It's just a lame, slowly dragging two hour joke about how shitty the 80's are with a message crammed in. Also, there's what I perceive as a glaring error in the film. Star Trek IV starts right after Star Trek III, yet there's not a single mention of the pretty big event of Kirk's son, David, being killed in the previous movie, which to these characters was about 3 hours ago. Not only does Kirk not mention it in the whole movie, but he forgets it enough to crack dumb jokes about the past for two fucking hours and fall in love with a Marine Biologist from the Eighties. Way to honor your freshly dead son. Just seems weird. Kirk either had hardcore denial, or the script writing was a little off.
I don't want to go out on a bad note, as I believe there are no bad movies in the series of the first six, but there are some that are pretty weak and this is one of them. Regardless, there's some high points. The message of it is as important now as it was when the film was made and drives you to take a look at the human abuse of Earth and its fellow inhabitants, so fair enough. You can't say it's without heavy handed sci-fi allegory. Kirk and Spock have a pretty memorable encounter with an excessive representation of a “punk rocker” while riding a bus, in which Kirk can't stand the “damn noise” the guy is blasting out of his boom box. It introduced us to the new Enterprise NCC-1701-A, a new build of the previously destroyed Enterprise that looks just like the old one, but this one has a fancy “A” painted on the hull after the NCC-1701, so you know its new and different. Also, it features that previously mentioned bad ass alien probe which looks and sounds terrifying.
Not a bad flick for the light of heart or the inexperienced Star Trek novice who needs an easily accessible starting point, but it's easily my least favorite of the first six movies.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - 1989

So you liked directing two Star trek movies back to back, Leonard Nimoy? Well BOOM, step aside because here comes William Shatner himself to take a crack at the next one!
I'll say it right now: Shatner got a raw deal on this one, and this movie is better than you think it is. You know why it's better than you think it is? Because it is FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE to say you are a fan of the original television series, but not this movie, as this movie takes every single last element it can from the actual TV show. Simply: Star Trek V is the only movie in the whole franchise that actually FEELS like an episode of the original series.
Think about it. Every single aspect of that movie is taken right from episodes of Star Trek. Character driven goofball comedy moments. Small budget visual effects. An intergalactic incident requiring diplomacy. Hijacking attempts on the Enterprise. Crazy aliens. Introspective character moments. Far reaching, desolate locations. A villainous space god. It's all taken right from the show and put together! Seriously, go back and watch an episode of the Original Series, then watch Star trek V, and you'll say “Holy shit, there's almost no difference!”.
Where Shatner gets a raw deal on this one is due to two key points. For one, with the low budget of the last Star Trek movie (because most of it was just set in San Fransico in the 80's and there wasn't a lot of crazy sets or special effects required), Paramount figured they could do the same for the next film. Visual effects suffered because there wasn't enough money to back them up. Secondly, while the script is an awesome tribute to the Original show, the material felt dated and cheesy to most in the late eighties. It's still shot really well, and is really not a bad first attempt at directing at all. There are a few plot points that are a little iffy. I'm not sure I'm into Sarek having another child with another woman before Spock all that much, but overall it's not bad. It's also kind of a good send up of religious Evangelicals.
To summarize: This movie is WAAAAY better than you think it is. Go back and watch it again, and just let yourself be entertained by it. I think you'll find it feels like decent, enjoyable classic Trek.

Part three coming soon!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Star Trek. Greatest Film Franchise Ever? (Part I)

So let's talk “Star Trek” for a little bit.
It's indisputably one of the greatest science Fiction shows in television history, if not the greatest itself (it's certainly my all time favorite). Some people look over it for it's lack of high budget special effects and because one episode featured an admittedly lame looking fight with Kirk and a guy in a big Lizard suit (it's called a Gorn, respect it!), but that show featured some of the greatest science fiction writing of all time. Some episodes are hopeful glimpses into the future, some are terrifying glimpses into the future. Some are morality plays, others are character driven comedic romps. Some are clever, some are silly, but the show was always fun and always high concept. The show actually constructed my moral compass when I was young and showed me what humanity could be like at its greatest.

After the show ran it's original three season course, it blew up in popularity in syndication and in the late seventies, a second series was considered. With the success of Star Wars, a second option was brought to life: to bring Star Trek to the box office. A total of 11 Star Trek movies have been made and I think that most of them live up as not just good Star Trek movies, but great films that can be enjoyable to anyone. What follows is a little breakdown of each and a glimpse of what makes each of these movies great (or in some cases, pretty bad), told in three parts. Most of these movies are over 20 years old, so I feel silly saying there are some plot spoilers, but I might as well since some of you might not have seen these or heard any of the thousands of pop culture references to some of their plot particulars (although, I do leave one out because I think it's such a good plot device, I want you to be surprised by it if you ever see it). Onward to the first blog in the series:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture – 1979

Based off an unused script of the pilot episode for the proposed second Star Trek TV series and obviously inspired by the original Star Trek episode “The Changeling”, the plot for this movie is one of the greatest Science Fiction stories ever told, and yes, I stand strongly by that claim. To boil it down: an immense alien construct is heading towards Earth and the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise and its original crew must go on a special effects ridden journey to stop it. Inspired by technology actually sent into space in the early seventies, the twist at the end is pretty fucking surprising when you think about it, and is the very thing that makes it a cerebral sci-fi classic. (I'm not saying shit about it here in case you haven't seen it. If you haven't yet, you really should, I think you'll be impressed by the twist near the end). It's high concept sci-fi at it's finest. It also has what should go down as one of the most terrifying scenes in film history when it shows what can happen when the transporter fucks up while beaming people up. It's also nifty for showing us an updated look for the nefarious alien race, the Klingons, a look which varied greatly from their appearances on the original show and which has been used ever since. (it's also fun for us nerds to imagine and fictionalize how this change took place as it's never officially explained in Star Trek canon, only touched on in expanded universe books and comics.)
All of the cast you know and love from the show are there, including some new characters (as an added bonus: one of these is the son of a character from my all time favorite episode of the original show, “The Doomsday Machine”), and it does a great job of showing what the beloved original crew members have been up to since we last saw them on the television series.
This movie irritatingly gets panned by fans and critics alike as being very weak as the original cut was very long and slow and therefore considered boring. I think a part of this is due to the fact that all of a sudden, Star Trek had a Hollywood budget, and they wanted to show you that by creating loooooooong shots of the U.S.S. Enterprise flying around in a big alien construct in an effort to legitimize themselves for all the stuff they couldn't do with their shoestring budget on the TV show. An effort, in a way, to say: “Hey, check out all this cool shit we couldn't do on the show! Isn't this awesome?”. To me, it adds to the paranoid atmosphere of the film (as most of the film is shot strictly on the command bridge of the the Enterprise as they attempt to explore and explain what is actually around them in space) and shows the scope of the alien entity the crew is encountering, while to others it makes the film long winded and boring. The “Director's Edition” of the film, made for the updated DVD version release, fixes some of these problems by trimming down some shots and using some CG touch ups to make some scenes and effects in the movie look that much better. I suggest this be the version of the film you see if you haven't watched it yet, but the see the movie in any format you can, regardless. It is a highly recommended, and unfairly criticized, sci-fi classic.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – 1982

Boom. You want action? Here you go. Were you bored by the cerebral sci-fi exploration of the first movie? Fine, it's gone. Want a more direct reference to the original television series? There you are. Want to see a bunch of shit explode in space? Here's a fucking fistful of it.

After audiences complained that the first film wasn't action-packed enough, Paramount Studios decided to take one more crack at Star Trek as a film franchise and new director Nicholas Meyer singlehandedly saved it. He made style changes that stuck with the rest of the films featuring the original cast, including updating the crew's uniforms and the ship's interior appearance to feel more militaristic and submarine inspired. With that concept, he delivered the most action packed Star Trek film to date and it is, without any doubt whatsoever, the best of the film series. It's my second favorite movie of all time and was actually my first ever encounter with Star Trek when I was about 6 years old. My dearly departed, and deeply missed, Grandma on my Mom's side had the VHS tape (she actually possessed all of the films on VHS as well as several episodes of the original series) and was a huge fan of the Star Trek franchise. When I was a kid, I thought the box on the tape made the movie look cool so one day when I was visiting, I asked to watch it. She put it in for me, my head exploded over how great it was, and we formed a tight bond as not only family members, but fellow dedicated Star Trek fans, and I will always be grateful to her for that. (She also let me watch Jaws for the first time. Again, my head exploded from an overload of awesome, but that's neither here nor there).
Star Trek II is a direct sequel to a stand out episode of the original television series, “Space Seed”, in which Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise first meet the genetically modified evil genius Khan after they find him in suspended animation on a ship floating in space from the past (which is actually our present). Khan tries to hijack the Enterprise, Kirk bests him, and Khan is left marooned on a planet (Ceti Alpha V) with no chance of escape as punishment. Way awesome episode. Star Trek II picks up with the crew of another ship finding Khan, and Khan hijacking their ship to get his revenge on his now mortal enemy, James Kirk. What proceeds is a two hour fuck fest of some of the most quotable dialogue and astounding space action ever filmed. It even manages to retain good science fiction concept, as well as moral challenge, in the way of “The Genesis Project”, a device that can be used as both a humanitarian means of creating life and habitation prospects on lifeless planets and moons, or a weapon to erase pre-existing life on planets and moons, depending on who is in possession of it. The film climaxes with the death of Spock, the beloved half Human, half Vulcan (alien race, for those not in the know) science officer of the Enterprise who executes his alien race's flawless logic thinking patterns and sacrifices himself for the good of the whole ship. (No complaining, I warned you about this at the beginning. Plus, the title of the third movie fuckin' gives it away anyways.) Admittedly, when I was a kid, I would cry at this scene. It's some really sad shit, don't patronize! For long time fans of the series, you felt as much a friend to Spock as Kirk does when he watched his close friend and companion die in front of him. Pretty powerful scene.
Point being, it's one of the greatest movies ever made, and it saved the franchise leading paramount to go for another movie, and we'll talk more about that soon.

Coming soon: Part II