(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, October 2018) Now this is how you make a Star Trek movie. Learning from the lessons of the infamously slow-paced Star Trek: The Motion Picture, here comes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to set things right. From better uniforms to a pair of great space battles to a memorable antagonist to a thematic exploration of character flaws to zippy pacing and reasonable odds, this film still stands as one of the most-improved sequels in Hollywood history. Writer/director Nicholas Meyer wraps surprisingly dense (and appropriate) thematic concerns in a relatively short running time. I hadn’t seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in a long time, and I had forgotten that the film is efficiently contained to, essentially, a bridge set and a handful of other locations. Kirstie Alley shows up in an early role as a young officer, the innovative CGI sequence still looks good, the actors are comfortable with their characters (with William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban free to scream as much as they’d like), the film builds upon the existing series mythology and we do get the feeling of a story slightly too big to fit in an hour-long episode, but well aligned with the rest of the franchise. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is still a really good movie by anyone’s standards, but it also remains a particularly good Star Trek movie, perhaps still the best one so far.
(Second or third viewing, on Blu-ray, October 2018) I remember being fascinated by Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a kid in the early 1980s. To me, it was the epitome of high-gloss science fiction and sense of wonder. I watched it a few times on VHS. Another viewing right now has me jumping over to the camp calling it “Star Trek: The Slow-Motion Picture”: Not a whole lot happens over the more than two hours running time of the film, and the pacing makes a bit more sense knowing that it started life as a TV series pilot given a budget boost in the footsteps of Star Wars’ blockbuster success. While I still like much of the film’s concept (including a rather elegant tie-in with the then-topical Voyager space exploration probes) and do have some affection for seeing the original Enterprise crew back again for adventure (including a visibly older William Shatner), Star Trek: The Motion Picture definitely sputters on execution. Note: The Blu-ray version seen here is the original theatrical version, not the reportedly snappier 2001 re-edit with new special effects. As such, the 1979 picture shows its age: there are a lot of effects and they haven’t aged very well: It really doesn’t help that the entire film dwells on those visuals, allowing plenty of time to notice its imperfections. (That wormhole sequence … ew.) The pacing does introduce two other issues—early in the movie, the drawn-out overflight of the USS Enterprise was meant as a loving homage to a ship beloved by its audience, but now comes across as overdone fetishism for an audience that has since seen much better. (I’m an Enterprise-D fan myself). Second, the lengthy overview of the alien ship (especially during Spock’s ill-conceived solo outing) now comes across cut-rate attempts to replicate 2001: A Space Odyssey’s trippy third act. Does it work? Well, yes but probably only for an audience already receptive to Trek’s basic explore-and-empathize ethos. As I said: good concept, but sputtering execution. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is now best seen as the financial reason why the much-better Star Trek II exists.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) I’ve been more upbeat than most Trekkers about the modern Star Trek reboot series, but even I have to admit that Star Trek: Beyond truly feels like the truest follow-up to the classic series so far. Structured as a standalone adventure in deep space, this third outing wisely focuses on smaller stakes, characters as developed in the first two movies, a bit of fan-service and an upbeat attitude that makes for a refreshing evolution from the first two films. In other words, it is pure classic Trek, done with today’s attitudes and special effects technology. The result may feel a bit restrained after the galaxy-spanning intrigue of In Darkness, but it’s also satisfying with fewer afterthoughts than in previous films. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote the film) continue to be exceptionally good at incarnating the newest versions of their Trek characters, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Motorcycle usage aside, there’s one borderline-excessive “Sabotage” scene that harkens back to the first film, but it actually works well and is decently funny in itself. Still, the best aspect of the film has to be the look inside the Yorktown space station, a vertiginous showcase of SF dreams brought to life, visual effects and variable-gravity scene-blocking. It’s as memorable as anything is the series so far, and exactly the kind of showcase sequence to expect from a big-budget Trek film. I’m certainly ready for a fourth instalment.