… because I love and adore it, it’s just that I sort of think anything with the Star Wars brand done after 1983 (with the possible sole exception being Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy of novels) pretty much sucks monkey goats …
Thirty three years after the first film’s release, Star Wars remains the dominant cinematic sci-fi franchise, far outpacing Star Trek both commercially and critically. But between the success of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot and the continuing erosion of George Lucas’ Star Wars brand with shoddy prequels and spin-offs, Trek is starting to emerge from the shadow of Lucas’ moneymaking colossus. It’s therefore time to reevaluate Star Trek‘s filmic legacy, not as manna for pop culture nerds but as a legitimate counterpoint to Lucas’ visually stunning but increasingly impersonal empire.
Not that the Trek films don’t owe a debt to Lucas: Paramount and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry were inspired by Star Wars‘ massive box-office haul to launch a big-screen makeover, although their first installment draped itself in a seriousness that suggested they wanted very badly to distance themselves from Lucas’ giddy Saturday-matinee earnestness. A somber Solaris-meets-2001 drama, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture reunited the old TV cast to intercept a lethal gas cloud, beginning a journey to try to transform this Western-in-space show into cinematic entertainment. Solidly helmed by industry veteran Robert Wise, The Motion Picture wisely de-emphasizes the cast’s wildly fluctuating acting abilities (a recurring Trek problem) by putting the focus on the more reliable grandeur of space, striking a nice balance between solemnity and technology.
Responding to complaints from critics and Trekkies alike about The Motion Picture‘s brainy tone and lavish cost, the producers mapped out a leaner sequel, in the process confronting the dilemma of how to make wham-bang sci-fi movies on a miniscule budget, with actors entering their fifties. The superb solution of 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was to make those limitations part of a darker, character-driven story. Though directed by Nicholas Meyer with the steeliness of a submarine thriller, Khan is the most moving installment, tackling issues of mortality and regret while featuring the superb Ricardo Montalbán as Kirk’s megalomaniacal old nemesis, Khan. And all these years later, its poignant, bittersweet ending can still leave a lump in the throat.
They didn’t have the budget of a Spielberg film, or the visionary ambition of a Cameron film, and age and creative exhaustion eventually doomed the U.S.S. Enterprise‘s noble crew, but taken as a whole, the original six Trek films possess a light, thoughtful touch. Ironically for a franchise set three centuries in the future, the Trek films stick in the memory because of something lovably antiquated: a heroically corny focus on universal themes. II’s fear of aging, III’s salute to friendship, V’s examination of our need for charismatic prophets — the effects may look dated, and some of the performances lean toward the unsubtle, but the films’ skill at tapping into our collective hopes and fears endures. To paraphrase Kirk’s tribute to his beloved comrade, Spock, of all the interstellar franchises that we have known, Trek remains the most human — wonderfully so.
I feel a Star Trek Trilogy sometime this vacation (that would be Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock, and Voyage Home, which are a pretty much self contained trilogy within the six films).