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 III: The Search For Spock

Stars:  **1/2 out of Four

Summary:  Somewhat lackluster, it pales in comparison to its predecessor but managed to help get the franchise back into the status quo.

Wait, how can you miss him?  Hes RIGHT! THERE!

Wait, how can you miss him? He's RIGHT! THERE!

Review:  After Leonard Nimoy successfully lobbied for the death of his character, Spock, in ‘Star Trek II’, there was fan outcry that balanced out the very high critical reaction to the aforementioned movie.  Suddenly, it seems, Nimoy realized how much he enjoyed being a part of the ‘Trek’ phenomenon, and so the Sequel was made.

The results are… mixed.

Picking up right after ‘Trek II’ ended, the film has a fairly contrived – though not completely alien from the ‘Trek’ mythos – method of bringing Spock back.  The sad thing is, the subplots don’t connect well enough with the central premise, making the urgency feel forced.

Spock’s absence is practically tangible.  The other characters feel out of balance, and I was just waiting for the various obstacles to be over so that the ‘Trek’ universe could be set right again.  It’s a missed opportunity, that feeling, as I doubt I’m the only person who felt that way.  They could have capitalized on it more than they did.

The next thing that the film suffers from is low production values.  It uses less stock footage than its predecessor, but the new effects are fair-to-middling.

All in all, this film was a necessary step to restarting the franchise, but it didn’t add too much on its own.  Still, fairly enjoyable, with a good balance of humor, action, and drama.

Star Trek

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  The filmmakers took the spirit of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, with its high flying adventure and gripping emotion, and deftly fused it with the ‘Trek’ mythology and philosophy.  The resulting film is as epic as the franchise itself.

Review:  One of the longest running sci-fi properties, ‘Star Trek’ was created by Gene Roddenberry with the intention of telling exciting, adventuresome stories with moral parables embedded in them.  It took off against all odds, and eventually produced 6 television series and 10 movies.  And the unthinkable happened… it lost steam, and fans dropped off, dissatisfied.  After the last feature film, it was very evident the franchise needed new blood and a new face.  Paramount eventually hired innovator J.J. Abrams, mostly known for his creation of television series such as ‘Lost’ and ‘Alias’, to reboot it.  Not a ‘Trek’ fan himself, Abrams sought the help of known fans in the development process, eventually warming to it and embracing it utterly.  They took the spirit of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, with its high flying adventure and gripping emotion, and deftly fused it with the ‘Trek’ mythology and philosophy.

The resulting film is as epic as the franchise itself.

A brave new cast, a brave new crew, and a brave new tone dominate it.  It’s unlike any other summer movie, except ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  Yes, it’s on that level.  The action is spectacular, going where no sci-fi movie has gone before, with unbelievably well-rendered special effects.  It’s photo-real.  The story is strong, not the best in ‘Trek’ history, but still very cathartic.  There are minor plot holes, due to the extremely complex time travel narrative, but no more than other similar films.

The new cast all fit their roles pitch-perfectly.  Chris Pine embodies James T. Kirk without being an imitation of William Shatner, and Zachary Quinto does the same for his turn as Spock.  The new Dr. McCoy, though, is in my opinion the best; Karl Urban, best known for his action roles, plays him with the utmost respect for the character but with the most similarity to the previous actor, DeForest Kelley.  Leonard Nimoy returns as the future Spock, and he connects new ‘Trek’ to old ‘Trek, letting us all know that this is still the franchise we know and love.  The villain, Nero (played by Eric Bana), from the future, feels underdeveloped, but is still threatening and badass enough.

A very memorable, stirring, intense, optimistic, and bold feature, that’s easily the most cinematic of all the ‘Star Trek’ films, and can stand toe-to-toe with even the classic ‘Wrath of Khan’.

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…

Classic Review: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A thrilling, angsty finale for a classic trilogy, with the best effects and the best music, to boot.

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

Review:  Starting with the gleeful innocence and spectacle of ‘Star Wars’, going to the troubling middle chapter of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and now into the dark, unexpected finale of ‘Return of the Jedi’, the Original ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy cemented the legacy of George Lucas in modern film.  The blockbuster and the summer tentpole were now the economic foundations of the film industry.

Before ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, there were high expectations as to how Lucas could possibly wrap up the Trilogy.  After it was released, though it was still highly regarded and was a box office smash, there was some disappointment in the content, with some believing that the spirit of the mature middle chapter had been compromised and that Lucas was pandering to kids.  The reason being the Ewoks, a race of teddy-bear-like aliens, who manage to overwhelm Imperial forces on their home moon.  I find it ironic that this is considered a betrayal, after all, ‘Star Wars’ was intended to be escapist adventure.  There isn’t anything inconsistent in having something that seems ridiculous, as long as it follows the film’s internal logic, which it does.

The film does, in fact, take the darker nature of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and continue it, while keeping the spirit balanced.  The film opens with all of the heroes in deep trouble, and keeps that tone all the way to the end.  The Empire, in essence, continues to strike back.

The good guys head to the planet Tatooine, hoping to free Han Solo from the gangster Jabba the Hutt.  All of them fail, including, most famously, Princess Leia, who finds herself forced to become what is essentially a sex slave for Jabba, clad in only a gold bikini.  As revolting and seemingly unnecessary as this is, it does make the ultimate triumph of the heroes over Jabba seem more glorious.  Ironically, Jabba is strangled to death by Leia, using the very chains he used to control her.  The sexual aspects of this whole sequence are not particularly explicit, and it never leaves PG territory.

The Force, it seemed at the time, was fully elaborated on in this film.  The nature of the Light versus the Dark is now shown before us in the ultimate struggle, as Luke is tempted by the Emperor.  Where the real struggle lies, however, is in Darth Vader.  He is the Anti-Hero.  In my interpretation of the final conflict, Luke allows the Emperor to attack him directly, goading him, which triggers the latent hero in Vader.  This seems to make sense, but don’t take it as the definitive explanation.

Also of note is Luke’s dark wardrobe.  The implication seems to be that, although he is now a Jedi Knight, due to the revelation of his father’s identity he has unleashed a dark part of himself.  Aesthetically, it makes Luke appear more mature than the previous films.  Not only is he a Jedi Knight, he is a full-fledged hero, no longer in Han Solo’s shadow.

Dualism is the primary philosophy behind the Force.  Here, though, the Dark Side seems questioned; it is not as strong as Light, it merely thinks it is.  The Emperor claims the whole final battle, allowing the Rebellion to know the way to knock out the new Darth Star, is part of his plan.  This seems to be a defensive reaction to his own failure.  So what is Lucas saying here?  Is the Dark merely under the impression that it is stronger, or is it undone only by human error?  We are never told.

The artistic merits of the film seem the strongest of the Trilogy.  The music is in top form, with fully developed cues, and a new theme for the Emperor to distinguish him from Darth Vader.  The visual effects take us places we’ve never been before.  The battle around and inside the Death Star is no longer depicted with mere trenches, but with super-massive inner workings.  The lightsabers are crisp, and the resonant sound effects make Luke’s lightsaber a reflection of his own maturity.  Ewoks run at the feet of convincingly composited machines, and the sail barges on Tatooine are natural.

Performance wise, Mark Hamill comes out of the gate with his strongest portrayal of Luke.  Now that young Skywalker is a complete hero, it gives the actor playing him a chance to shine.  Ian McDiarmid, who plays the Emperor, was only in his 30s at the time, but you wouldn’t know it.

A rollicking good time with an angsty soul, this is my personal favorite of the Trilogy and the one that is the most unfairly derided, in my view.

Classic Review: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)

Stars:  ***1/2 out Four

Summary:  A darker mythic adventure that raised ‘Star Wars’ from pulp to legend, excellent writing and talent abounds as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

If you werent thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

If you weren't thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

Review:  After the unexpected success of ‘Star Wars’, George Lucas immediately put into development his first sequel, which he had planned out before ‘Star Wars’ was released.  Lucas again took a gamble with the audience, hoping they would stomach a darker sequel.

It worked.

Rather than trying to create a story that replicated the successful elements of the first film, the filmmakers pushed the story forward into a dark middle chapter.  The heroes weren’t going to triumph as absolutely as they had in ‘Star Wars’.  Unlike most sequels, where the same premise returns with thinner characters, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, by necessity, focused on the inner struggles and philosophies of each principal character.  Luke found out it wasn’t easy to defeat the Galactic Empire, and that the Dark Side of the Force was much closer to him than he realized.  Han and Leia’s relationship began to thaw, and they realized they were improbably in love.  Darth Vader would turn things personal, obsessed with finding Luke and turning him to evil.  There wasn’t a single, clear obstacle to surmount, no Death Star to destroy.

While it is undeniable that the fun, Flash Gordon-esque elements of the previous film are still there, the ‘Star Wars’ franchise had suddenly taken a turn into serious myth.  ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is not just a second act in a three-act narrative, it is a tragedy.  It has a downbeat ending, though not devoid of triumph.  Luke emerges from his battle with Darth Vader victorious in spite of seeming defeat, due to his refusal of Vader’s offer to rule the Empire.  Though Han is frozen in carbonite and taken by a bounty hunter with the Empire’s blessing, Leia still has the assurance she can find him again, alive.  Even for Darth Vader there is hope; famously, he reveals in his combat with Luke that he is the boy’s father, Anakin Skywalker.  This is what established him as the most famous film villain of all time.  He was now a tragic figure, and not just a dark sorcerer with no past and no future.  The audience is left wondering, if Anakin was turned to evil, can he be turned back?

The nature of the Force is truly explored for the first time, on the planet Degobah with the help of an old Jedi named Yoda (Played by Frank Oz).  Basically a glorified Muppet, with the limitations thereof.  This little guy doesn’t just inherit the role of Ben Kenobi from the first film; he has a very different approach.  Yoda helps Luke confront his own dark side, and even before we know that Darth Vader is Anakin, we know that Luke is in danger of becoming like him.  The Force is a murky spirituality indeed, so it is hard to say much about it other than, well, negative emotions lead to negative results and positive emotions lead to positive results.  In real life, though, it doesn’t take a genius to grasp that emotions are neither positive nor negative.  Hate, said to be a negative emotion by Yoda, can be a good thing.  Let’s say I hate slavery, or murder.  Then my hate is supporting my love of humanity, and is obviously not negative.  So even though it “works” in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the Force is far too simplistic.  To me, this just reinforces the fantasy aspect; it’s like applying rules to King Arthur’s sword and scabbard.  It works in the story as a spiritual thing, but it doesn’t have any bearing on real life.  Also, considering Lucas’ other works, like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, it would seem he doesn’t believe every word of the Force dogma anyway.

Once again, the film was a technical triumph.  The effects were slightly improved, as ILM figured out what the limitations were of their methods, and if their methods needed to be retooled all together.  The lightsabers are a good example; in ‘Star Wars’, they tried blending luminescent sticks with animated beams, which made the effect inconsistent.  Here, they ditched the luminescent rods and went the solely animated route.  It worked much better, and let the choreography loosen up quite a bit during the fight scenes.

John Williams’ music took on a new flavor, becoming much more the ‘Star Wars’ sound we are familiar with, especially due to the Imperial March, which stole the show.  There’s not a whole lot to say about it, really, only that it was excellent as always.

Overall, I like this film less than ‘Star Wars’.  I do appreciate the direction Lucas took the series with ‘Empire’, but on its own merits ‘Star Wars’ is slightly better.  But only slightly!  This is widely considered the best of the series, though, and if you’ve only seen the others in the series, you have to give this one its time of day.