2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
I love this movie just as much as I did the first time I saw it at the Hampshire Mall. I must have seen it at least five times in the theater, and that wasn’t so easy for me, living out in the country. Why did I love it so? I was just the right age, I guess — it was during that period of Star Wars/Raiders movies that hit the early adolescent geek sweet spot. And it touched on all the great things about the Star Trek world while minimizing the cheesy/embarrassing aspects. So there. I don’t think they’ll ever top this one, though I hope J.J. Abrams will keep trying.
Plot: A Whoever came up with the idea of a follow-up on the original series episode “Space Seed” was a genius. A GENIUS. Everyone rose to the occasion, most especially Ricardo Montalban. An incredible recovery from the bore-fest of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Costumes: B+ Another good recovery, though there is no getting around the cheesiness of uniform jumpsuits (like that worn by young David Marcus) and McCoy’s jumpsuit-with-chaps-for-pants in an early scene is still haunting me. The grade really should be higher, though, to reflect the awesomeness of the garb put together by Khan and his klan in very challenging conditions. I especially like what they do with the appropriated Starfleet-wear. The sets are also greatly improved.
New cast members: B Saavik is awesome. Perhaps Kirstie Alley’s greatest role, though it didn’t allow for her comic chops. Carol Marcus is fine, and David Marcus is OK. (My husband noted that he was “that kid from Square Pegs” but since I was a deprived adolescent who didn’t have cable and had a lot of homework and chores that seriously limited my TV viewing time in the ’80s, I never saw that show. I never saw 21 Jump Street, either. OK????) Khan’s son I find alternately fascinating and totally miscast — like he really belongs in a video for a middling metal band.
F/X: A- Another stellar recovery — they backed off on the overly long tracking shots of spaceships and concentrated on stuff that moves the story along. Not quite the right category but the score is great, too — evidently the work of a young James Horner, which I had never noticed before.
Series rank: 1. Wrath of Khan 2. The Motion Picture
3. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
It’s funny how different your memory of a movie is when you see it once, almost 30 years ago. My memory of this movie is that it’s a lot about Spock’s re-education, with an extended adolescence. That’s not in the movie at all. Where did I come up with that? All I can say is, at least this one was short. I was even awake all the way through.
Overall: C They had to do it after the end of Wrath of Khan. Star Trek needs Spock. But other than that, there is no reason for this movie.
Plot: C The actual execution was surprisingly uncompelling, given the events (Kirk’s son is killed! They destroy the Enterprise!)
Costumes: C+ And … it’s back to cheesy town. First Kirk wears a tracksuit. Then he’s got this ruffled shirt that, when he takes off his tunic, makes him look like a pirate. A cheesy pirate. And the Vulcan costumes are so insanely ridiculous that it’s tempting to give them some points since it’s so diametrically opposed to the dignified Vulcan character. But I can’t do it.
New Cast Members: C- The new Saavik — she’s no Kirstie Alley. I feel like Kirstie Alley would have found a way to save David Marcus. And Christopher Lloyd is a brilliant actor in many ways, but he just doesn’t have the gravitas to be a Klingon, much less a Klingon commander.
F/X: B- Like so much else in this movie they were just OK or as they say in the NYT Magazine, meh.
Series ranking: 1. Wrath of Khan 2. Search for Spock 3. Motion Picture
4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
This was another recovery movie, though not on the level of Wrath of Khan. Because nothing is. It ventured into humor, which was kind of nice though Star Trek has to be very careful about veering into camp territory. Very careful. In some ways, it resembles a good old-fashioned Star Trek TV episode adventure, which is comforting and fun. Some people, like my mom who has a fondness for both time travel and whales, consider this their favorite Star Trek movie. I don’t, but it will probably stack up as my second favorite from the original crew.
Plot: B Giant probe looking for whales that have unfortunately gone extinct is just not that serious a villain. Especially when the probe resembles a giant log with a phallic protrusion. Time travel is fun, though, and they definitely went to town on that, with the swearing and the cultural mores and all. Like when Spock does the nerve pinch thing to the loud punk guy! Ha ha ha ha!
Costumes: B Kirk is still wearing his pleated shirt from the last movie. Spock is still wearing the white bathrobe that you get when you’re re-born on Vulcan. The rest of the cast are either in Starfleet uniforms or, in the case of Sulu and Chekhov, have acquired conveniently 20th century-looking clothes from … Vulcan? The Klingon ship? Who knows? Though Sulu is apparently wearing a pool robe at the beginning and has this kind of cool leather cape later on. McCoy continues his fondness for suede-and-fabric patch outfits. He can get these anywhere.
New cast members: A- The only real addition of note is Gillian, the whale biologist. She’s not bad and at least she gives old Kirk a chance to recapture some of his Lothario vibe, which I hadn’t even noticed had been missing from the first three movies. Another plus: they ditched the new Saavik early on.
F/X: B A decent amount of cloaking and de-cloaking since they’re flying around in a Klingon ship. The space probe was not very imaginative but the whale song sound effects were good. I was going to give this a B+ … but then I remembered the giant-heads-emerging-from-milky-clay that they used to illustrate time travel when they went back (but not when they went forward). What the hell was that about????
Series ranking: 1. Wrath of Khan 2. The Voyage Home 3. The Search for Spock 4. The Motion Picture
5. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
I had mercifully retained no memory of this movie, other than that it was probably time for these guys to hang it up. After all, at this point The Next Generation had been on TV for two years. Get it? NEXT GENERATION? Nevertheless they made this movie. And Shatner’s one of three guys credited with the story. Ruh-roh. The whole scene at the campfire at the beginning was excruciating.
Overall: D+ This is harsher than I expected, but truly they seem to have indulged all the worst tendencies about the series and it’s becoming all about Kirk’s mortality. Yuck.
Plot: C- The idea of Spock’s heretofore-unknown older brother being a messiah figure who’s going to lead everyone else to God had some promise — but just serves as an opening to a bunch of mawkish scenes (though I did appreciate Kirk proclaiming “I need my pain!”).
Costumes: D- Two steps back. Now Kirk’s red tunic is some kind of velour-y plush material, unlike everyone else who’s still stuck with the polyester. At least he ditched the pleated shirt. And McCoy’s jaunty scarf — which he wears while out camping??? — is SO GAY. They had to know that right?
New cast members: B- Sybok was actually pretty good. Nothing like an extroverted messianic Vulcan. And he gets serious points for his IMDB listing, which shows he played four different characters on Murder She Wrote. Which, I know, has nothing to do with Star Trek. But is still awesome.
F/X: D+ For some reason, the effects suddenly look like they’re from a 1960s TV show. Those had their charm when they were on a 1960s TV show. And the Wizard of Oz stuff for God? That had its charm when it was in a 1936 movie.
Series ranking: 1. Wrath of Khan 2. The Voyage Home. 3. The Search for Spock. 4. The Motion Picture 5. The Final Frontier.
6. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Once again, I misremembered. I thought this was the movie where you’re like goddammit Kirk, would you just die already? Turns out that’s the next one. Yay. This is the big end-of-the-Cold-War metaphor one, with the Klingon Empire standing in for the Soviet Union. For all that, it’s not so bad, with a serviceable conspiracy to sabotage the peace plot decently executed.
Plot: B- It kept moving. No campfire scenes either, thank God. The impending retirement stuff was slightly heavy-handed, but lighter than the last installment.
Costumes: B- Nothing egregious. Chang’s eye patch, apparently drilled directly into his head, was a nice touch. And the Starfleet uniforms that resembled British Army sweaters with the leather shoulder patches were an improvement.
New cast members: A This might be an all-time high for names or future names in these roles. Christopher Plummer probably got most of the attention for the time for his role as Shakespeare-quoting Klingon Gen. Chang (and he did a fine job) but it also featured Kim Cattrall as the Enterprises’s young Vulcan lieutenant. And who should I hear giving a minor report to Capt. Sulu on the Excelsior but the snarky drawl of young Christian Slater!
F/X: B Again, nothing egregious.
Series ranking: 1. Wrath of Khan 2. The Voyage Home 3. The Undiscovered Country 4. The Search for Spock 5. The Motion Picture 6. The Final Frontier
7. Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Finally — I feel like I’ve broken out of some kind of tractor beam … OK, not quite. Kirk is still … hanging … around. But at least we’re relieved by the crew from The Next Generation. It’s both good to see them as new faces, and good to see them again. And Scotty did utter the phrase “space time continuum,” even though he was only in the movie for about 15 minutes.
Overall: B- Not a great movie in and of itself. A transition movie. Kind of like Search for Spock, but a little better.
Plot: C I really didn’t get what the ribbon/nexus thing was or how it worked. Picard seemed to jump in and out of it at will. And how handy that Whoopi Goldberg was there to explain it all to him!
Costumes: B- TNG folks were in their standard polyester jumpsuits. I was never really a fan but they were better than the old jumpsuits. They managed to get the Klingon thing down during the making of TNG, though — maybe all those hours doing Worf.
New cast members: A- Malcolm MacDowell. That’s really all you need to say, right? Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t really count since she was a regular on TNG. The only drawback to MacDowell is that he and Patrick Stewart outclass Shatner to a near-embarrassing degree. But Shatner’s really beyond embarrassment, isn’t he? And casting Cameron from Ferris Bueller as the new Enterprise captain at the beginning was a little obvious. We just knew things weren’t going to go well.
F/X: B+ The crash of the Enterprise saucer section goes on a little too long but it is impressive. And in an earlier battle with the Klingons, there’s an especially impressive slo-mo of bodies flying around the bridge — several steps beyond the old everyone-falls-to-the-right battles on the bridge.
Series Ranking: 1. Wrath of Khan 2. The Voyage Home 3. Generations 4. The Undiscovered Country 5. The Search for Spock 6. The Motion Picture 7. The Final Frontier
8. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
I like Kirk. Hell, I love Kirk. But man, what a relief to finally reach a Kirk-free movie. The Next Generation cast really hits their groove with this movie. Perhaps because they borrowed a page from Wrath of Khan and revisited their most awesome villains: THE BORG. Specifically, the Borg Queen. Best villain since Khan, no question. It’s good to have an enemy you can respect.
Overall: A- Excellent villain AND time travel? Yes, please!
Plot: A- Like I said, excellent villain and time travel. Generally, elements that make for a good Star Trek story. And the time travel was fun while avoiding most of the cheesiness that detracted from Voyage Home. I said most — the bar scene where Troi gets drunk with Zefram Cochran kind of felt like a TV show more than a movie. And I must make this one point: The Next Generation is overly in love with the holodeck. You’re already playing dress-up! Give it a rest.
Costumes: A They improved the Starfleet jumpsuits. But most of this grade is due to the Borg. Perhaps I’m overly influenced by the current zombie craze, but the Borg seem to me to have assimilated the best of the zombie look. Goth zombies. Goth steampunk zombies. They’re just great.
New cast members: A James Cromwell makes such a good villain — he’s so great in L.A. Confidential and I’ve enjoyed him as Andrew Mellon in season 3 of Boardwalk Empire. So it’s extra-fun to see him play goofy, as he does here, and he does it well. He’s not really a mad scientist, he’s a hard-drinking, smart guy who just wants to retire to a tropical island and doesn’t want to be known as some kind of hero to humanity. Though I do wonder why he’s so fond of mid-20th century music, in the year 2063. Alfre Woodard is also good though I’m starting to wonder why Picard always has to have a Wise Black Woman to keep him on track (Whoopi Goldberg last movie, Woodard in this one).
F/X: B+ I don’t think they should get huge points for mid-21st century spacecraft. And I thought they were going to destroy the Enterprise again, but not this time. At least the time travel didn’t involve any weird heads in weird substances.
Series Ranking: 1. Wrath of Khan 2. First Contact 3. The Voyage Home 4. Generations 5. The Undiscovered Country 6. The Search for Spock 7. The Motion Picture 8. The Final Frontier