Over the past month, I went back and revisited the Star Trek movies. The initial movie franchise ran from 1979-1994 remain highly popular.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Directed by Robert Wise **1/2
Star Trek's big screen debut went for big ideas and baroque special effects. As a probe named V'GER is racing towards earth Admiral Kirk is recalled from desk duty to investigate. Set a decade after the original series, Star Trek: The Motion Picture cobbled together plot elements from a proposed TV series that never aired, entitled Star Trek: Phase II. The tone of the first film significantly varies from the sequels. The impressive effects failed to compensate for a dry as dust script. Star Trek works best when the stories are character driven. In The Motion Picture, the characters feel more like bystanders to the story. Nevertheless I have gained more respect for this film over the years for its willingness to explore big ideas.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Directed by Nicholas Meyer ****
The sequel emphasized character driven space adventure and includd an unforgettable villain. Producer Harve Bennett watched every Star Trek episode and wisely decided "Space Seed" would make a wonderful basis for a movie. Nicholas Meyer's smart script and exuberant direction achieved the feel of the original series. In "Space Seed" Kirk and crew stumble upon Khan, a genetically engineered super human who led a revolt on earth. Like Lucifer he was cast out and left adrift in space. When a resurgent Khan attempts to gain revenge on Kirk- all hell breaks loose. Themes of aging and rebirth are intricately woven into the script. Arguably, the best Star Trek movie ever made.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) Directed by Leonard Nimoy ***
A direct continuation of the story from Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock follows the crew's mission to bring Spock back to life. The camaraderie of the characters carries the movie. Kirk's decision to scuttle the Enterprise is a dramatic high point. Unfortunately the ending on planet Vulcan never worked for me. Nevertheless, a first rate entertainment.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) Directed by Leonard Nimoy ***1/2
By far the most crowd pleasing entry of the franchise, The Voyage Home used one of the best tropes of Star Trek: time travel. When a hostile probe threatens to destroy the earth's atmosphere, Kirk and company travel back to 1986 to save the whales and bring them to the future. Shatner and the cast were really hitting a stride: it's one of the best Comedy-Sci-Fi films ever made. Nearly 30 years later the jokes still work. Don't miss Kirk explaining the concept of profanity to Spock - and then Spock's hilarious attempts to use it!
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) Directed by William Shatner **
Here the franchise began to show its age. With Shatner taking over directing duties, Star Trek V came out during the busy summer of 1989. Unfortunately a wildly uneven script made for a muddled mess of a film. Watching The Final Frontier it appears Shatner wanted to split the difference between a high concept Roddenberry story with the goofy humor from The Voyage Home. We learn of Spock's long lost brother, a charismatic holy man who hijacks the new Enterprise. There are some interesting moments and the film remains oddly watchable, despite all the clunky plot devices. The Final Frontier bookends with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy sitting around a camp fire: now I would watch an entire movie with those guys shooting the breeze.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1992) Directed by Nicholas Meyer ***
The last film with the original crew slyly begins with McCoy sarcastically asking, "Is this a retirement party?" Yes, indeed. By the sixth outing, the aging cast were the laughing stock of pop culture. In retrospect it's refreshing the studio had the courage to make an action film with a senior citizen cast. With the Klingon empire in desperate straights and ready to make peace we get a fitting "end of history" Cold War allegory. Not perfect by any means, but not embarrassing either. Nicholas Meyer's direction and writing held everything together. Instead of limping to the finish line, as many franchises tend to do, Star Trek ended on a tasteful and fitting note.
Star Trek: Generations (1994) Directed by David Carson **
Star Trek: Generations holds an odd niche in the Star Trek universe. Generations tried to bring closure to the story of Captain Kirk and introduce the TNG crew to the big screen. Granted, screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, who both went on to successful careers in the Sci-Fi genre, were given an impossible task: How to bring Captain Kirk and Picard together? Unfortunately, Kirk and Picard were not given much to do and their final confrontation with the villain Soran (Malcolm McDowell) felt anti-climatic. Meanwhile, the rest of the TNG crew were relegated to the background.
More Star Trek films followed including the dismal TNG films and the ambitious reboots of J.J. Abrams. The success of the movies paved the way for several spin off series on television and the franchise remains a fixture in the universe of American pop culture. Live long and prosper.