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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Week of Review - Star Trek Film Ranking

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This really doesn’t require any kind of a thesis at this point right?  I mean, at time of writing the Star Trek film franchise boasts a robust 13 movies and counting, spanning several decades, crews, directors, and quality.  In a weird way Star Trek has become a constant of the pop cultural landscape, always existing in one form or another throughout every decade.  

Though there have been dips and peaks in the franchise’s popularity it’s always had some standard barer in every decade from the original series in the ‘60s to the animated show in the ‘70s, the first six film series in the ‘80s, the triple threat of ‘90s TV shows with Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager, the 2000s Next Gen films and Enterprise, and then the revival series in the 2010s.  

It’s transcended from simply a franchise into an institution, to the point that the real test of quality for each new Star Trek film as become where it stacks up against the rest of the franchise.  As such, let’s rank all 13 of the Star Trek films (yes, I saw Star Trek Beyond at a midnight screening for this.)

Going in reverse order here, let’s open with the absolute worst Trek film and honestly one of the worst examples of misused continuity and shared universe status overall.  If you haven’t seen this third installment in the Next Gen film run, the plot surrounds a civilization of space vegans who’ve rejected all technology and developed eternal life and the ability to heal from all wounds as a result.  

I’m aware that sounds like a weak plot for a film but that’s only because it is.  Seriously, the movie’s a lot more like one long, weak episode of the show which is a real shame because The Next Generation is easily the weakest Trek show of the bunch.  It’s not even a good sci-fi action movie as the static setting leaves the film trapped in a hopelessly dull succession of laser battles.  

Worst of all, the film completely goes against series core principals like technology building the way to a brighter tomorrow or the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, doubling down on pseudo-spiritual gobbledygook about getting back to nature and letting untold millions die for no real reason. 

This movie has gotten a weird kind of resurgence lately but those people telling you it’s worth revisiting are lying right to your face because this movie is bad.  Despite coming out in the wake of Star Wars success the film tries to ape 2001: A Space Odyssey’s style but without even 1/10th of that films visual flare or thematic vision.  Apparently the plot to this one was cobbled together from rejected scripts of the defunct Star Trek Phase II TV show and it really shows with how its full of superfluous new characters that exist only to get killed off and are never seen again.  

Some of this might’ve been forgiven if it was at least a decent effects driven spectacle film but it’s really not, with long drawn out go nowhere shots meant to show off effects that have aged terribly.  I know that some visual effects maintain a certain charm or a nostalgic value like the original Tron but Star Trek The Motion Picture is not one of them.  It trades character and creativity for unimpressive effects and an empty core. 

Ah Nemesis, the film that killed the franchise if you don’t count Star Trek: Enterprise.  Though this film gets a lot of well deserved hate I did think there were at least a few interesting ideas such as the new aliens, the Remans, being cool vampire creatures and there’s a fun chase sequence where Picard and Data fly a shuttle inside a larger ship.  Unfortunately, the film as a whole just keeps giving in to its worst elements like the dopey Picard clone, the stupidly over-powered and terribly designed villain ship, and killing off Data for no reason other than to have a sad ending.  

This movie has actually proved shocking influential on the modern series, with stuff like jumping through space from ship-to-ship and the whole “magic blood” McGuffin being transposed wholesale to future films but we’ll get to that with our next entry.  For now, I’ll just say that this movie represents the worst of bad 2000s blockbusters and is a terrible send-off to the original continuity. 

Bet you thought this one would’ve been lower.  As much as I detest Into Darkness for its whitewashing, sexism, boneheaded plot points, and plagiarism I can’t deny that there is at least the germ of a good idea here.  At the very least, it actually does manage to improve on some of the stuff it steals from Nemesis like the ship-to-ship jump, the mobile transporter, and the Enterprise having seatbelts.  

What’s more, I think there was something to Cumberbatch’s Khan before they just had him do a boring retread of the old movie.  Maybe with a more inventive and exciting behind the scenes crew this movie would’ve been better but J.J. Abrams remains as safe as they come as far as directors go and his cohorts Orci ad Kurtzman are only “exciting” in a “run for cover” type way.  Overall this movie only makes me angry because of all the wasted potential, that and the whitewashing.

Another surprising choice I'm sure but here’s my dirty little secret: I really don’t like this movie, not as a whole anyway.  To be clear, I like elements of the film, a specific selection of scenes, but looking at the film as one contained entity it’s just too weird and disconnected for me to really get on board with it the way everyone else has.  

Of all the original series films it feels the most like an episode of the original TV show, with the crew heading down to a planet and forced to blend in and pass for the locals and while that’s occasionally funny it’s mostly just tiresome.  I like stuff like Bones losing it in the hospital or Mr. Scott’s excuses about manipulating the timeline but the junky environmental message, the meandering plot, and the very jokey comedic tone make this one a slog for me.

8. STAR TREK (2009)
I know, I know; putting the 2009 reboot film about Voyage Home is sacrilege but I can’t help it; Star Trek is the film that got me into this entire franchise in the first place.  Even after going through all of the TV shows and other movies and coming back to this one with fresh eyes I can’t deny there’s something generally satisfying about it.  In fact, satisfying may be the best term for this movie; it satisfies, it fulfills the basic need of space based action and adventure without offering insult or injury.  

That’s part of why it occupies the midpoint of the list, it’s forever my baseline for the least a Star Trek film needs to do to be enjoyable.  Sure, Nero was a pretty dull Khan rip-off and the whole movie was a Star Wars riff (blonde farm boy teams-up with wise old mentor to go stop a planet killer weapon wielded by the man who killed his dad) but there’s enough good among the mediocre to recommend it, even if it does fade from memory pretty quickly afterward. 

That’s right, I said it, I like Final Frontier better than Voyage Home.  What this comes down to for me is that Final Frontier has more elements that I find interesting or evocative as opposed to simply amusing.  As much as I like fun and funny Star Trek stuff I come to the movies because I want dramatics, especially from the original series which billed itself as putting the operatic back in space opera.  As enjoyable as the funny parts of Voyage Home were the emotional beats of Final Frontier are just more engaging to me, even if they are off-put by some weird and junky elements.  

Stuff like the villain’s “I couldn’t help but notice your pain” mantra, the scene of McCoy euthanizing his own father, or the entire “what does God need with a starship” sequence stand up as great moments from Star Trek.  What’s more, the conclusion of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy sitting quietly around a campfire together is one of the most tragic and somber scenes in their entire history, heavy with the sense that these 3 friends will never again come together like this, never get the chance to simply sit as friends again. 

 The first of the Next Gen films, this is another one of those Star Trek films that holds up for me because it has a collection of really damn good scenes that stick with me while the rest of the film fades from memory.  Even though the plot revolved around a bizarre and quasi-mystic alternate paradise dimension and Kirk and Picard barely spent any time on screen together the good parts of this movie make-up for that in my mind.  

Like even though the Nexus is weird and poorly explained the scenes within it always strike a chord with me and touch on Star Trek’s themes of aging and the inevitable really well.  The scene of Kirk in his dream home made of lost chances and a life not lived because he was out on the bridge of a starship is beautifully tragic.  Meanwhile, Malcolm McDowell is absolutely superb as the villain Dr. Sauron and his speeches about time as a predator ring incredibly true to this day.

For the longest time this was the “other” one of the good Star Trek movies, in that everyone sort of agreed it wasn’t as good as the big three but it was good enough to get counted among them.  That’s because Search For Spock is a pretty fun and compelling film in its own right with a good amount of action, some deeply emotional and compelling twists, and an eye for iconography that’s stuck with the series till today.  This was the first film to feature the destruction of the Enterprise and it’s by far the best to execute that particular gambit.  

What’s more, you get the amazing sight of DeForest Kelly doing his Spock impression, that alone makes this a winning film.  Add in Christopher Lloyd as the villain and this really does stack up as one of the most watchable Trek films while the emotional beats like the destruction of the Enterprise or the ending stand out as a deeply impactful in their own right. 

Hey, this one just came out.  As it turns out the latest Star Trek film is one of the best the series has yet scene, pretty much proving that Justin Lin is the man you need to rehabilitate failing meathead franchises in the 11th hour (see also Fast & Furious and G.I. Joe.)  The latest Trek film does a great job adapting the original series format to the big screen with tons of cool monsters, a real imagination for the technology and future setting, and a deep understanding and appreciation for Star Trek’s message of multiculturalism and community.  

It even has the first legitimately good villain in one of these films since First Contact with Krall as a creepy, military obsessive convinced that the only true strength and development must come through conflict.  It makes the most of the cast, affording them all a greater story arc than they’d ever enjoyed previously, and finds new life and verve in the franchise where it had seemed fully exhausted, just a great shot in the arm to this franchise and a fitting tribute for the 50th anniversary.

When I first worked my way through this list this actually stuck out as my favorite Trek film but time has dulled my memories of it, which really isn’t a good sign.  Even so, this stands up as easily the 2nd best original series film and a strong entry as the #3 film for the franchise overall.  

The Cold War metaphor still holds today and stuff like David Warner’s Klingon leader works like gangbusters.  What’s more, we got to see Sulu running his own ship and being amazing so that was pretty great and the fact that this one found stuff for the whole crew to get up to was a nice change of pace from the previous entries.  

What’s more, it touches on themes of age and inevitability, which are two of Trek’s best subjects to address on film and is one of the only “how do men like us exist without war?” stories to actually have a hopeful message about moving forward as a person and defining yourself through something other than conflict. 

That’s right, it’s not number 1, maybe that’s not fair but this is my list so we’re doing it my way.  Obviously Star Trek 2 is the objective best film of the series, the genesis point from which all the series best aesthetic and thematic elements emerge and a beautifully crafted story that’s down right Shakespearian in its dramatics.  This was the film that proved the Star Trek movies were going to be more than just Paramounts’ half-baked Star Wars riff- that it really wanted to be the thinking man’s Star Wars.   

It brought adult themes and emotions to the world of junky space operas with a story about growing old, facing down your mistakes, lives we don’t get to live and the times that challenge our deeply held beliefs, both in terms of our ideals and our belief in ourselves.  It’s steeped in literary allusion and beautiful foreshadowing punctuated with superb performances and a memorable musical score like no other.  What could top that?

The fact that Star Trek: First Contact is my favorite Star Trek film probably says a lot more about how I relate to the world of Star Trek than about the quality of the actual films, but then again that’s the whole point of deeming something your favorite.  Sure, this movie has problems like the Earth stuff being pretty low key in comparison to the high stakes Borg combat aboard the Enterprise or Picard’s hatred of the Borg not totally gelling with his arc from the TV show but none of that matters to me, none of that diminishes the impact of that stuff that works for me and in the end it all comes down to one scene, one monologue: “the line must be drawn here.”

What I love about this scene is how much of a critique it is of the entire Star Trek vision of utopia.  I realize that there are some folks deeply wedded to that utopic ideal but I’ve never been one of them, for whatever reason it’s just something I can’t accept and this one scene basically sums up everything I’ve ever believed about this future: that it doesn’t go away, the hatred and violent impulses of humanity, it can’t be put out of our system, not completely.  It sums up, in one glorious scene, everything the Borg have come to mean to the Federation and to Captain Picard in particular, the standard barer of tolerance and evolved sensibilities; the man of peace. 

They’re the one enemy it’s okay to hate, the one foe with no culture to respect, no identity to afford consideration, nothing to redeem them or make them true people, just empty vessels to pour every suppressed impulse, every swallowed hateful view point, every loathing that’s been rejected by society gets placed on the Borg because they’re the one enemy who can take it.  It’s the federation with its mask off and a perfect inversion of the Wrath of Khan set-up, where the true terror and power of the enemy is what they let loose within ourselves.  

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