Classic Review: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  The least serious of the series was also the highest grossing until 2009’s reboot, and this one deserves it.

Why, with whales, of course.

Why, with whales, of course.

Review:  ‘The Motion Picture’ had a giant sentient machine, ‘The Wrath of Khan’ had KHAAAAN!, ‘The Search for Spock’ had Doc Brown in Klingon makeup, and ‘The Voyage Home’ has a giant probe that’s looking for whales.

This is why I love ‘Star Trek’.

Captain Kirk and crew are on Vulcan as per the events of ‘Trek III’, and they’re refurbishing a Klingon bird-of-prey (noticeably, its bridge is completely different from the last time we saw it) to head back to Earth.  If you’re wondering why Starfleet won’t just send a ship to pick them up and bring them back to Earth, so was McCoy, and apparently its because they want the Klingon tech.  Well, whatever, Starfleet.  Why not just pick them up and pick up the ship later?  Do you not trust the Vulcans?

So with no Enterprise to take home (Kirk blew it up to defeat the Klingons in ‘III’), and other considerable charges against him, the future does not look bright for everybody’s favorite crew.  They’re going to be sent away to some mining colony, McCoy assumes, but no-one knows what will happen when they reach Earth.

They take off, along with the resurrected Spock, who is regaining his memories.

Meanwhile, Earth is beset by the signals of a huuuuuuuuuuge space probe, which is directing its communications to the Earth’s oceans.  Once Kirk and crew find out, Spock is quick to reveal that the probe is attempting to reach the now-extinct population of humpback whales.  With the Earth doomed to unintentional destruction at the probe’s proverbial hands, Kirk orders a slingshot around the sun, a tried-and-true method of time warp in ‘Trek’, with the hope that they can pick up some whales from Earth of the past.

Hilarity ensues.

This is the most lighthearted entry in the series, as has been said.  It manages to take an environmentally friendly message about saving the whales, along with a fish-out-of-water situation for the time travelers, and builds them into a surprisingly well done movie.  The effects are used sparingly and are of a much higher caliber than ‘The Search for Spock’, the music by a once-off ‘Trek’ composer gives it a sense of identity and wonder, and the cinematography feels much more natural and isn’t as overlit at the previous movie.  Definitely an improvement.

Classic Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Stars:  ***1/2 out of Four

Summary:  The first reboot of ‘Star Trek’ completely reinvigorated the franchise, achieving through clever writing what couldn’t be achieved through a higher budget.

Are you getting this?  How can this film not be awesome?  Look at that!

Are you getting this? How can this film not be awesome? Look at that!

Review:  Though highly successful with audiences, the previous ‘Star Trek’ film was critically disliked, provoking Paramount to restrict creator Gene Roddenberry’s access to the development of the inevitable sequel.  And unlike other franchises that have been disconnected from their creators, this one definitely improved.  While still being credited as “Executive Consultant”, Gene’s influence, such as restricting character conflict, was minimized.  The Paramount executives brought in TV legend Harve Bennett to produce the film, using TV sets and a massively restricted budget after the previous film overspent to little effect.  This meant the ridiculous amount of effects footage from the previous film would have to be recycled at certain points.

All this led to what was effectively a franchise reboot, wiping the slate clean.  New uniforms were designed, sets were redressed, a new composer (James Horner) was brought in, and Trek newbie Nicholas Meyer was chosen to direct.  He also helped rewrite the film, making things flow the way he wanted them to, adding more of a naval feel to Starfleet that reverberate throughout each subsequent film and series.

Instead of the philosophical bent of ‘The Motion Picture’, ‘The Wrath of Khan’ became centered around character conflict, with themes such as age, death, revenge, regret, and self-sacrifice.  Instead of the misguided threat of V’Ger from ‘The Motion Picture’, the direct, malevolent threat of Khan was reintroduced, having been set up for a reappearance by an episode of the television show.  Khan never met Kirk face to face during the film’s events, but he managed to have great chemistry with his nemesis anyway.

By far the most controversial decision was to kill off the beloved character of Spock, as the actor wanted to leave ‘Star Trek’ and the filmmakers felt it would add the needed weight to make the film’s themes run full circle.  In short, it worked, and the actor chose to return in the next installment.

With a very direct plot thread and nearly constant suspense, the film succeeded in every way that ‘The Motion Picture’ failed, becoming the first true classic of ‘Star Trek’ and becoming the high mark of the entire franchise, though I personally enjoy Meyer’s second ‘Star Trek’ feature better.

Not just a good ‘Star Trek’ film, but a great film in general.  One hopes that the latest ‘Star Trek’ reboot can live up to the first.

Classic Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Stars:  ** Stars out of Four

Summary:  A mediocre plot doesn’t have the power to drive this sprawling two-hour space opera to glory, despite some great moments and breakthrough special effects.

Welcome to the suck.

Welcome to the suck.

Review:  Though it was canceled after only three seasons, the 1960s television show ‘Star Trek’ had attracted a huge following, encouraging its creator, Gene Roddenberry, to attempt to revive it.  After the next ten-or-so years he wrote several possible follow-ups, mainly focused on a new TV show, but in 1977 Paramount suddenly became interested in transferring the story to the silver screen after the unlikely success of a little movie called ‘Star Wars’.  Roddenberry consulted with scientists and science fiction writers as he endeavored to get the concepts right, but he made some bad choices as to what advice to throw away.  The resulting film, released in 1979, is mixed.

It has a fairly promising start, a sweeping, adventurous Jerry Goldsmith score as an overture (the existence of this rarely used introductory technique hints at the film to come), and then we see a massive cloud in space, like a nebula or something.  Three Klingon ships approach and stupidly try to engage it (for reasons which are never quite justified in the script), and are absorbed by globes of energy.  So, okay, fairly promising start, right?  Well the next thing we know, there’s a Federation outpost warning the audience- indirectly, of course -that the thing is headed towards Earth.  Now it seems to me in these first few minutes that the energy cloud wasn’t malevolent, and was reacting to being screwed with by insanely stupid Klingons.  It doesn’t make a particularly threatening intro… but don’t worry, it gets better!  Ish.

So then the brief reintroduction of each of the principal characters.  But none of the characters are afforded the introductory screentime as much as… the ship.  That’s right, they chose to give a (fantastically designed) model more loving attention in its first moments that any of the characters.  If that isn’t a bad sign, I don’t know what is.  The Enterprise is shown, standing still in space with little people flying around it (it’s being prepared for launch, and the effects are quite gorgeous) for a straight 6 minutes.  No dialog.  Just brief reaction shots from Captain Kirk, as he stares at his ship.  Now, I may be completely wrong, but my understanding of film was that each scene is chosen for its importance to plot & character, with the essential element of being interesting.  A lot of scenes in this movie completely fly in the face of this idea.

The plot is utterly boring for the first half, lacking interest and tension.  It’s not that it is inherently bad, but it’s obviously a television script that’s been stretched on far too long.  Soon enough, the Enterprise is going after the cloud, but there’s so little plot going on that they throw in some of the most arbitrary danger possible, and it’s not even scientifically accurate (or excusable).  After successfully passing through this minor roadblock, they finally reach the cloud, and things become interesting again.  And then, frustratingly, they choose to show about ten minutes of gratuitous footage of the cloud’s interior, with, again, nothing but reaction shots from the crew to give it any sort of dramatic weight.  And while, again, the footage is quite marvelous and adds an excellent fog of mystery to the plot’s direction, it seems unnecessary to have it drag on for so long without any real tension.

The third act of the film actually does pick up the pace, however.  There are some great character moments that you won’t see coming based on the mediocre-at-best material to this point.  The philosophical questions raised are excellent, and some of the answers work well, too, and surprisingly, this part just works.  All the plot threads, though thin in the previous acts, really mean something here and they work as marvelously as the special effects.  The final act, to me, is excellent, and is indicative of a film that-might-have-been, were it not for constant mid-production rewrites and a lack of judgment on the creators’ parts.

For a film coming from a critically disliked (but very, very fun) show, it’s remarkable that it was even made.  It has little love in the critical and fan communities.  The follow-up, ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’, on the other hand…