(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, December 2019) I first saw Star Trek: First Contact in theatres on opening night, in melodramatic circumstances sitting next to a girl I liked and a guy who I thought liked the girl I liked. (She, on the other hand, didn’t like either of us, which is pretty much all you need to know.) I thought the movie was quite good, and it’s a relief to revisit the same film decades later under far less trying emotional circumstance to find out that it has held up decently well in the interim. Generally regarded as the best TNG Trek movie and deservedly so despite the underwhelming competition, First Contact plays on two of Trek’s biggest power chords, bringing together the Borg and time travel for an adventure that takes us back to First Contact between humans and Vulcans, and the Borg taking over the Enterprise. There’s a nice blend between hard-core body horror and comic relief in the result, with separate plotlines striking a surprisingly complementary tone throughout. The film is more action-packed than previous instalments, and even gives us a large-scale Federation-versus Borg space battle to begin with. Patrick Stewart has a plum role as a Jean-Luc Picard almost going mad with revenge, and he shows off his muscles in the film’s action climax. Most of the characters are used effectively (including Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden), and First Contact is a good big-screen take on the Enterprise-D/E crew. While I still have several issues with the details of the plot or the sad situation of post-WW3 Earth at the time, the overall result is worth a look and ends up being the last Trek movie (and even-numbered one) worth watching between 1996 and the 2009 reboot.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, December 2019) My memories of Star Trek: Generations were not good, but it took a while for me to remember why. The first hour-or-so of Generations is not bad, especially if you’re watching it shortly after the previous instalments. After a decent prologue that sees Kirk sacrifice himself once again, the focus of the series switches to the second series, the entire cinematography of the Trek series gets a visual upgrade and we’re back in the comfy aesthetics of The Next Generation. Plus, there’s Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis to look at. From a movie perspective, the series also gets an upgrade from 1980s to 1990s techniques, with much-improved special effects, better camera movements and a less stage-bound style. There’s even a good (if repetitive) space battle midway through. The early signs of the film’s problems are in the lacklustre script—Finally giving Data his emotion chip leads to scenes that go for cheap humour over wittiness, and as the plot of the film snaps into focus, it’s obvious that this is the least of the film’s Big Ideas that are wasted away. By the time Generations is over, Kirk is dead, the Enterprise-D is destroyed and Data has emotion … except that the scales are so small that it’s hard to reconcile the majesty of those ideas and the way they’re tossed off. The entire thing climaxes on … a metal platform in the middle of a desert—not exciting! The passing of the torch between both iconic crews, years in the making, ends up being a disappointment. With twenty-five years’ perspective, the Enterprise has been destroyed roughly five times in thirteen Trek movies—to the point when it’s now feeling like a cheap trick more than a momentous occasion. In fact, if we’re going to reflect on Generations in retrospective, it’s hard to avoid thinking that the TNG crew has only had one good movie in four attempts—while I’m upgrading Generations slightly in my mind, it’s still well under First Contact, and quite above the abysmal Insurrection and Nemesis. There were, of course, a few other factors harming the TNG movies—Paramount was almost paralyzed in fear of doing anything too crazy in the movie series with DS9 and Voyager running in parallel, and that may explain the timid and self-defeating lack of panache in those instalments. Generation at best manages a draw between good and bad, mostly because whatever is good (and let’s not deny the fun of having William Shatner and Patrick Stewart teaming up) is in service of a throwaway plot. It’s half-successes like Generations that lead otherwise well-meaning people to fanfiction.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, December 2019) There will always be a very special place in my heart for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, for reasons almost entirely unconnected to its quality as a movie—it was the first movie I decided to go see in theatres, along with a bunch of friends. Given that I saw maybe a handful movies in theatres before I was sixteen (growing up lower-middle-class in a small Eastern Ontario town with the nearest movie theatre twenty kilometres away meant that I only started “going to the movies” once I had my driver’s license), I will always consider Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country the movie at which point I started seeing new releases in theatres rather than on TV. At the time, my love for Star Trek ensured that I would assess the movie as terrific—but as it turns out, writer-director Nicholas Meyer’s work still holds up as one of the best of the Trek movies. It’s not quite as tight as The Wrath of Khan nor as funny as The Voyage Home, the plot has its dubious moments, and it’s often far too obvious about its humour, its Shakespearian references or links to circa-1990s geopolitics, but The Undiscovered Country is about as good as TOS Trek ever gets—there’s some good material here between the characters, core values of the series and movie-grade production values (despite some dated early-1990s CGI) to make this a very decent swan song for the Original Crew. The plot blends series-altering changes, a murder mystery, galactic politics, humour, courtroom drama, a prison break, a rather good space battle with a triumphant finale and some welcome character evolution in having Sulu captain his own ship. The core trio of the series (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Kelley Deforest) takes a bit too much space, but there are a few guest stars such as Christopher Plummer (hamming it up Shakespeare-style) and Iman to keep things interesting. To modern viewers, I suspect that the film will feel a bit stodgy—compared to modern aesthetics (as demonstrated by the 2009 Star Trek reboot, for instance), it does feel a bit stage-bound, a bit made-for-TV especially now that TV often has higher production values. Still, for those who were sixteen in 1991, I still found a lot to like in this revisit to The Undiscovered Country.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) Somehow, I ended up re-watching Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home exactly 32 years to the day after its release in theatres, a coincidence that I only realized while reading about the movie afterwards. I anticipated a happy re-watch and was not disappointed: The Voyage Home is fondly remembered as one of the funniest episodes of the movie series and with good reason, what with the crew of the Enterprise ending up in mid-1980s San Francisco through time travel shenanigans. The humour comes from seeing familiar characters trying to deal with the “real world” and fighting against contemporary obstacles to achieve their goals. The science-fiction elements are decent (thanks to series MVP writer/director Nicholas Meyer), the character work is fine, Leonard Nimoy turns in a fine performance as the director, and The Voyage Home ably wraps up a three-film cycle for the series. In the grand scheme of the movie series, it does work as a change of pace—to the 1980s setting (now charmingly dated), to a lighter tone, to a break after the intensive drama of the second and third films. As we now know, the series would continue its uneven pattern (even instalments = good; odd instalments = worse) and land next in Star Trek V, but that’s fine: Another re-watch of Star Trek IV can make everything all right again.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) The running gag about the first Star Trek movies is that the even-numbered ones were bad and the odd-numbered ones were good, but it’s all relative—Star Trek III: The Search for Spock may be a bit dull at times, but it’s not quite as bad as the first or fifth instalments. Directly picking up where Star Trek II left off and leading directly to Star Trek IV, this instalment is entirely dedicated to tying up the big loose end left by the second film: Spock’s death. It feels more like an episode of the TV show that a movie-worthy story, although there are definitely stronger moments scattered in the film. I mean: Spock is found! Kirk’s son dies! The Enterprise self-destructs! Compared to Star Trek: Genesis, at least it’s to save Spock, and part of the film’s explicit moral is that sometimes a single person can justify heroic sacrifices. At least The Search for Spock is reasonably interesting to watch, with nearly every original cast member getting something to do. The special effects, alas, are very uneven: Some sequences look terrible, while others look great. Leonard Nimoy’s direction is usually average, falling back on TV-worthy framing and never quite attempting anything out of the ordinary. The Search for Spock all amounts to an acceptable entry, and one that doesn’t quite overstay its welcome at 105 minutes.
(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.
(In theaters, December 1998) This reminded me, like the X-Files movie, of everything I really hate about the source TV series: Lousy science, complete lack of durable character evolution, horrendous dramatic structure, boring stories and the grating certitude that it’s written by people far from being as smart as they think they are. Above all, it’s the smug “see how intelligent / technical / philosophical we are?” attitude that’s insufferable, especially since nothing makes sense if you examine it closely. “Don’t ask” says Picard’s love interest after a particularly unexpected “magic” trick. Well I’d like to, but I’m sure that even the writers don’t have the answers. Even though it follows Star Trek’s well-known odd=bad/even=good sequence, it must be said that the final product nevertheless manages to entertain (and isn’t as bad at either Star Trek 5 or Generations) a bit. If you don’t expect much.