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How Cinematic Are the Star Trek Films?

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As everyone knows, Star Trek  began life as a TV series in the ’60’s that lasted three years.  This was followed by a short-lived animated series that continued the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and a subsequent live-action show ended up transformed into the first big-screen adventure, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (though with ten sequels, the definitive article in the title has a sense of self-indulgence).  Four more shows hit the television airwaves from 1987-2005, one of which (Star Trek: The Next Generation) spawned four of the feature films.  While many TV shows were turned into movies, Star Trek is one of a few that retained the original cast and continued the story from one medium to another.  One criticism of the motion pictures has targeted its television origins in the fact that many people find the movies too “TV-ish.”  The question remains of exactly how cinematic these movies are.

Star Trek: The Motion PictureStar Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was directed by one of the best directors of all time, Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, The Haunting, The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story) and featured special effects that rivaled Star Wars.  The story was lacking because it was originally meant as a TV show episode and was just expanded to fill a feature film.  Regardless, Wise knew how to tell a cinematic story, using techniques like the split diopter lense and strange angles.  He filled the screen with memorable images.  Plus, the threat to Earth by V-ger was massive and more than any episode of the TV series ever attempted.  Visually, this is probably still the most cinematic of all the films, but the story often seems rooted in a message-of-the week format that series creator Gene Roddenberry promoted, that of a being searching for its creator and seeking meaning for its existence.  The cast, brought together on-screen for the first time in a decade, seemed oddly distant from one another, though by the film’s conclusion there’s a spark of the old chemistry.  It felt like a TV show cast was dropped into a big budget blockbuster and they were overwhelmed by it all.  However, the Enterprise itself had a big-screen makeover and felt like a character in itself.  The sets and the exteriors of the ship in space were expansive and awe-inspiring.  The director’s cut tightened up the loose editing of the theatrical version, making the overly long slogging plot move by briskly.  This is one of the most impressive science fiction adventure of all time from a pure visual sense despite the thin story.

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanStar Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) had big ideas, epic scope, and broad acting.  It also expanded the story by allowing the characters to age and move on with their lives and careers.  It had a doomsday device that was original and very cool.  Director Nick Meyer‘s (uncredited) script had shades of Moby Dick with an obsessed villain so large that he screamed cinematic as well as being reminiscent of sea-faring adventures like the Horatio Hornblower series.  It had death and sacrifice, long-held secrets, regret and loss, and ultimately a life-affirming message.  Meyer was a filmmaker who wasn’t too familiar with the TV show, but immersed himself in its lore before tackling this project.  He took characters meant for the small screen and made them big, filling the wide-screen with their scene-chewing charisma.  He re-edited the phenomenal footage of the lovingly filmed Enterprise from the first film and used new effects to bring to the screen a nautical battle in space.  James Horner’s music captured the needed intensity and emotion perfectly (with no disrespect to Jerry Goldsmith’s vast score for The Motion Picture that was later used for The Next Generation).  Meyer had to work with a smaller budget and creatively found ways to film it so that the story felt big, like a movie should be using great camera work and imaginative lighting.  It also helped that one of the earliest examples of computer animation was used to demonstrate the powers of the Genesis device.

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Star Trek III: The Search for SpockThe Search for Spock (1984) was probably the most TV-ish of the movies with the original cast.  By comparison to the first two, it felt small in scope.  The sets were very reminiscent of the TV show, just on a larger budget.  The Genesis planet looked very fake, especially when it was destroying itself.  However, the special effects (this time by ILM) were spectacular and big (though overly bright) and gave us a couple of new ships to look at (the Excelsior and the Klingon Bird of Prey).  This film continued a lot of the themes that Khan developed, mainly about sacrifice and doesn’t shy away from continuing the tradition of killing off important characters.  Whereas the first movie dealt with the possible destruction of the Earth and the second movie introduced a weapon that could wipe out planets, this movie just repeated Khan‘s threat with a different villain–this time a Klingon.  The main conflict was simply bringing Spock back to life, so even the story seemed little more than a special episode.  The Klingons with their re-designed makeup was definitely more suited for the big screen than their TV counterparts.  The destruction of the Enterprise gave the movie the one single cinematic image.  Even though the epilogue was on the boring side, the depiction of the planet Vulcan opened up the movie showing a vast improvement over the depiction of the Genesis planet.  Leonard Nimoy’s direction (his first time behind the camera for a feature film) was basic since he cut his teeth on episodic television.  The movie was a good follow-up to Khan, resolving a lot of the plot points the previous film set up, but as a movie it lacked the feel that a feature film needed.

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Star Trek IV: The Voyage HomeStar Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) was simply a crowd-pleasing comedy and served as the final chapter in an unofficial trilogy as the displaced Enterprise crew has to deal with the ramifications of their actions in Search for Spock.  The threat this time was again against the Earth, with some mysterious probe from across the galaxy sending out signals to extinct whales.  The conceit of this movie was that our heroes (in a captured Klingon Bird of Prey) travels back in time to rescue two humpback whales and bring them to their present.  Time travel is a device that was used a couple of times in the original TV series and showed up repeatedly in the follow-ups.  While the space scenes were pretty rote, the middle part set on Earth of 1986 had a sprawling feel to it that transcended a TV show.  Nimoy returned as director, and his comfort level behind the camera is evident.  He filmed this like a movie, not like a TV show episode.  Of course, since this film was a comedy, it worked best seen in a theater full of people who were laughing at the jokes rather than viewing it alone on TV.  The interaction between the characters (finally given fairly equal screen time) was a big draw and helped give importance to the plot.  The sparse special effects were effective, in particular the reveal shot of the new Enterprise 1701-A.  This may not have been the biggest adventure for Kirk and his officers, but the contrast between the time periods played nicely on the big screen.  If only something could be done about the Christmas music score.

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Star Trek V: The Final FrontierWilliam Shatner got his chance to direct with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) since his buddy Nimoy had two cracks at it.  He also helped develop the story, which was about Spock’s half-brother stealing the Enterprise so he could travel to the center of the galaxy (beyond “the Great Barrier”) to search for God.  While this is similar to the theme in The Motion Picture, which was deep and meaningful, it was silly in this film, especially since “God” turned out to be an imprisoned alien.  This film tried to bring back a good old-fashioned adventure, even placing Kirk on horseback (or some alien creature similar to a horse).  It featured shoot-outs, space battles, confrontations with monstrous aliens, rock climbing, and mutinies.  The tone is all in good fun, but the direction was largely inept (someone needs to explain to Shatner the concept of unmotivated camera movements), and the special effects were famously shoddy and even looked worse than the original series (even Shatner was upset by the quality of the effects).  The sets were low-rent, the costumes were strange, and the alien makeup was goofy.  The attempt at humor–something that worked so well with The Voyage Home– was lame, and the bonding of the characters was strained and often groan-inducing (“Beans, Spock!”).  The less said about Uhura’s fan dance the better.  Despite Shatner’s attempt at a “Lawrence of Arabia type epic,” it ended up looking like an over-stuffed and embarrassing episode of the TV show.

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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered CountryAfter the misstep of the fifth film, Paramount brought back Nick Meyer to write and direct Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and with it a return to a cinematic motion picture.  True to form, Meyer brought with him big themes, that of prejudice and hatred of others not like ourselves wrapped up in a story that is symbolic to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The Enterprise was now claustrophobic, feeling like a submarine with video monitors everywhere on the bridge.  We get to see the explosion of the Klingon moon (with an exciting new visual of an energy ring that was copied by Star Wars), a Shakespeare-spouting villain, an ice-covered prison planet, an inter-galactic conspiracy, the end of the Cold War between the Federation and the Klingon empire, a shape-shifting alien that takes the form of Kirk, and a murder mystery that leaves the fate of Kirk and Bones in limbo and threatens the entire existence of the galaxy as we know it.  Also, Sulu finally becomes a captain!  The special effects are back on par (though due to budget, there are moments where they seem skimpy), the sets are interesting, the aliens are cool, and the music by Cliff Eidelman is appropriately grand.  Of course, Meyer’s direction is taut and sweeping.  If only it didn’t have the forced humor that also plagued The Final Frontier.  The film was a fitting send-off for the original cast and felt appropriate for the theaters.

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When The Next Generation came to an end, the series immediately segued into feature films.  The first was Star Trek: Generations (1994), which began production just a few weeks after they shot the final episode of the TV series.  It was written by series regulars Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga and was directed by David Carson, who was one of the best directors of the TV show but had never directed a movie before.  It’s very apparent that what works well on television doesn’t necessarily translate to the big screen.  The story opens with the launching of the Enterprise-B, with a celebration attended by Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov.  An emergency calls for this untried ship to go to the rescue, ultimately causing Kirk’s apparent death.  Flashing forward 80 or so years, Picard and his crew pick up the action and face a villain who wants to return to the Nexus, a time warping ribbon floating through space causing destruction where ever it goes.  The madman wants to redirect its course so he can return to it, but by doing so it would wipe out an entire planet (that’s never seen).  Kirk happens to be existing inside the Nexus, and Picard convinces him to exit it to fight the villain, though in doing so Kirk is killed for real.  There is also a subplot involving the death of Picard’s brother and nephew, causing him grief that’s painful to watch.  This film tries to bring in as many elements of the TV series as possible, including Whoopi Goldberg’s character, a couple of Klingon sisters who meet their fate, and Data’s installation of an emotion chip.  We also get to see the Enterprise-D destroyed, which somehow has less impact than the first time this happened.  The cinematography is very filmic (other than mis-use of slow motion), but the story elements keep reminding us of the television show.  The segment with Kirk was big like a movie should be, but the rest felt like a very expensive TV episode.  At least the special effects were done very well.

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Star Trek: First ContactJonathan Frakes became the third cast member to direct a feature film with Star Trek: First Contact (1996), written by the same team from Generations.  This film brought back the most popular villain of the series, the Borg, who attacks Earth and wipes out a good portion of Starfleet.  The Borg travel back into Earth’s history to the point where warp drive technology was first developed and the Enterprise follows.  However, the ship is soon taken over by the Borg and is quickly converted to be a hive for the cybernetic aliens.  Like most episodes of the TV show, there is an A-plot (Picard fighting the Borg on the Enterprise) and a B-plot (Riker trying to get the first warp-driven ship off the ground).  This is the most popular of the NextGen cast’s movies, with good reason.  The Borg are fun to watch, there’s good action with Picard playing an action hero, characters go outside the ship for a shoot-out, and the Borg Queen is an exciting new villain.  But it’s not without problems.  The opening battle happens far too fast to have much of an impact, and the two-fold plot is too much like the TV show.  The television mentality is all over this film, even if it looks good.  While redressed, the Enterprise sets offer nothing new, and the action on the ground is limited to a small area so that the scope of the film is limited.  At least they used a forest instead of the standard desert, as was seen in Generations.  Also, the Enterprise-E is an awesome new ship but never gets the respect it deserves.  In all the other films, the ship is a character, but here it’s treated as a throw-away vessel–there’s even a line about more letters in the alphabet.  Regardless of these flaws, the story is engaging and entertaining, which filled seats in theaters.

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Star Trek: InsurrectionWhat is it about the third installation of a Star Trek series that makes it seem like an overly produced TV episode?  Frakes returned to the director’s chair in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), which was written by yet another TV veteran, Michael Pillar.  Rather than try to continue any story threads from the previous films, Insurrection was a stand-alone story about the Enterprise crew going against orders of a rogue Starfleet admiral who is part of a plot to relocate a settlement of people who seemingly do not age in favor of an alien race that has to have constant face lifts.  The theme of the displacement of a group of people like what the United States government did to the Native Americans is more of a social issue explored in a single TV episode rather than a feature film–in fact, it totally was.  Again, there’s an A and B storyline split between the Enterprise and a planet, though this time Picard is on the away mission leaving Riker in charge of the ship.  For some reason, the TV writers just can’t get away from this format.  The biggest disappointment in terms of cinematic value is that nothing of real consequence happens in this movie.  Despite the title, it isn’t about the Enterprise crew fighting against Starfleet, just one misguided officer.  The fate of the Earth is not at stake, only a village of about 600 peaceful people that need someone to protect them.  With the original cast movies, there’s always a sense that the characters are part of something bigger than themselves (even in The Final Frontier).  Also, the overall story advances from one movie to the next.  This is true in the first two NextGen films–in Generations Kirk is killed, the Enterprise is destroyed, and Kirk is killed again; the Earth’s population was assimilated by the Borg in First Contact and we got to see an important event in the history of the Federation.  Insurreciton offers a story that’s little more than a two-part TV episode.  The only lasting impact is that Riker and Troi recaptured their love for each other, which was long denied on the series.  This film completely missed the obvious choice of making a big-screen war movie, since the war with the Dominion was going on during the events of the film, as depicted in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and was even mentioned in Insurrection.  That would’ve been worthy of a motion picture.  It’s not that this is a bad movie, but the sets, locations, and special effects just seem like a good version of the TV show rather than something that calls for it being on the big screen.

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The last of the NextGen movies was Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), which was finally written and directed by people who worked in film rather than TV.  A lot of critics and fans decried the similarity in many respects of this movie and Wrath of Khan, in particular with Data sacrificing himself at the end.  Regardless, is this film just an overblown TV episode like Insurrection, or is it an actual motion picture like the film it emulates?  John Logan’s script featured a villain who turns out to be Picard’s evil clone.  There’s also (of course) a subplot involving a duplicate of Data, though the film oddly makes no mention of Data’s other duplicate, who was a recurring villain in Next Generation.  Stuart Baird’s direction was decisively more like a motion picture than a TV show, with stylish lighting, big action scenes in space, inside the ships, and on the planet with dune buggies.  This film served as a send-off to this cast of characters, as one perishes and others go their separate ways, though somehow it has less impact than the resolution in The Undiscovered Country.  Everything seemed tied up too quickly–just like in nearly every episode of the TV series.  It tries to be cinematic with its visuals, but the story still seems small and without major consequence.  Even Data’s death is not as dramatic as it should, since his memories have been transferred to his twin.  It took an entire movie to bring Spock back to life, even though the seeds were planted at the end of Wrath of Khan if you know what to look for, but Nemesis makes it clear that Data can be revived in one form or another.  At least we get to see another aspect of the Star Trek universe and explore the Romulans, giving the movie a bigger scope than it probably deserves.

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Eight years went by before Starfleet showed up again in the theaters, and four years since the most recent TV series, Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled.  The Trekkies were primed for a return of their beloved characters and in 2009 the motion picture Star Trek (not to be confused with Star Trek: The Motion Picture) was produced.  This was highly successful, both critically and financially.  Directed by J.J. Abrams, who got his start in TV (Alias, Lost, Felicity) and written by his television cohorts, it is probably the first of the eleven movies that doesn’t suffer in some way as a comparison to the TV series.  Telling an alternate version of how Kirk became captain with help from a cameo by Leonard Nimoy as a time-traveling Spock, it introduced a new, younger cast as our beloved characters but is still part of the overall continuity.  Because of its altered timeline story, the filmmakers can (and did) take the story in any direction they wanted and change the fate of the characters and even planets.  The scope is broad, the threat is dire (yet again, the Earth is in danger of being destroyed), and major events happen in the lives of the Enterprise crew–in fact, this is how they become the Enterprise crew, so besides seeing them retire or die, this is the most important of any story in terms of their personal events.  Much has been made of the director’s use of lens flair, but it set this film apart from the others cinematically and made sure that people knew that this was a Movie (with a capital M).  Much like the first film made a clear visual separation of itself from the TV series, this one made it clear that it not to be confused with the TV series.  It had big, bold special effects, huge set pieces, breath-taking action scenes, white-knuckle-inducing space battles, a plot that jumped around in time, and cinematography that needed to be seen on the big screen (the bigger the better, since its IMAX screenings broke records).  It’s ironic that it took TV people to make the biggest cinematic experience for Star Trek to date.

copyright © 2011 FilmVerse

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46 comments on “How Cinematic Are the Star Trek Films?

  1. Great post Jamie. I really like each movie. Perhaps I’m a sap who just missed the boat but they all were cinematic enough for me at the time. As I get older, I would chose to watch the television episodes over some of the movies though. I’m happy to follow your blog.

    • The Nostalgia Critic has some great reviews of the odd Trek films (the “bad” ones). I’ve linked his site under the category of Fun Stuff.

      • I have seen it and I heard Shatner’s account of what happened with V. His vision originally and most people agreed was worth making a film out of. Paramount officials got scared and everything was changed and what we saw is what was left over from supposedly a good movie. Originally they found God but it was too controversial for the powers that be…

        • Shatner writes in Star Trek Movie Memories about how he was so excited when the special effects reel came in, but horror came over him as he screened it. Unfortunately, that movie’s problems go far deeper than just bad effects and a misplaced deity (people are still in therapy over the fan dance).

  2. All of the Trek movies seem to suffer from the same paradox: grand potential versus wasted potential equals stalemate.

    “The Motion Picture” employed an epic look that lifted the series to the big leagues they deserved, but the “villain” was too remote (imho) to present the type of much-needed dynamic interaction that the “Nomad” (the inspiration for V-ger) character allowed. Great launch, but this drawback was detrimental; especially in the heels of Star Wars. Cinema score: 7/10.

    The only flaw to The Wrath of Khan (to the extent that one is even possible) is that maybe Khan was TOO awesome a character (imho) for one movie. When you think about it, this guy (with his fellow supermen properly deployed) could’ve subjugated star systems, built empires and generally given the whole alpha quadrant 3 or 4 whole movies’ worth of headache. For squeezing one of the best villians of all time down to 2 hours, AND killing him off, TWOK falls just short of perfection. Cinema score: 9.5/10

    Search For Spock was impressive LOOKING, and it tried really hard to out-do Trek 2 in the department of grand gestures. Problem was>> killing-off one of the most beloved sci-fi characters of all may have been bone-headed, but undermining its dramatic impact with a clumsy, trite, money-grubbing reincarnation movie was just pathetic. Cinema score: 5.5/10

    The Voyage Home was unnecessary. The warmth and humor helped make it watchable, but the time-travel gimmick (we had yet to find out how over-used this would become) and the absence of significant space battles after 3 full Star Wars movies (more on that later) did nothing to make up for wasting a movie budget on a silly, tv episode contrivance. Cinema score: 5/10

    The Final Frontier is an easy one>> monetarily speaking, don’t bring a knife to a starship fight. The plot was a great idea worthy of a big screen treatment, but attempting such a high concept on the cheap was just distracting…. way too distracting. Cinema score: 4/10

    The Undiscovered Country was more like it! Great story, great action, and the first one since Khan to have an appropriately suspenseful musical score. The downside: it’s bad enough they rushed a really big story (it could’ve been stretched out) into one movie, waiting until the principle cast had one foot in the retirement home was –cruel. Cinema score: 8/10

    Gotta agree with the writer about Generations: lame, lame, lame! Absurdly contrived excuse to bring Kirk and Picard together (freezing Kirk would’ve been less lame), snoozer of a villian, and a demise that was an insult to a legend of Kirk’s stature. And to top it all off –time travel!! Cinema score: 4/10

    First Contact was, visually, very attractive and cinematic. That’s the upside. The downside? …where to start? First, the father of warp drive shouldn’t be a shambling drunk, second, the inability to show a proper post-war dystopia can’t be covered over with a shoddy forest, and third, the Borg. I wish the writers hadn’t wussed-out and traded the unstoppable, de-centralized monsters for the glorified bee-hive. The swaggering, preening, trash-talking “queen” (we already had Gul Dukat for that) just added insult to injury. AND AGAIN WITH THE TIME TRAVELING!! Cinema score: 4.5/10

    Insurrection did not need to be made ..period. Cinema score: 0/10

    Nemesis. Compared to the others, it looked amazing! Unfortunately, every component of the story was blatantly ripped-off crap. Worse still, making a Shinzon concoction when there were far superior villains already in Picard’s past (Armus, Lore, even Tomalak) is only slightly less baffling than Rick Berman not understanding why this movie flopped! Cinema score: 3/10

    The new Trek (2009) is beautiful, just beautiful… and it definately LOOKS like a movie, but the story is a fuel-car trainwreck… a train wreck with TIME TRAVELING… the deus ex machina magic wand for the lazy writer. Cinema score: 5/10. Maybe the next one can raise the score –AND the bar…

    • Interesting perspective about Khan. Back then, not many people though about long-term story-telling with sequels being a part of a larger story. The unofficial trilogy of Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock and Voyage Home was purely unintentional. After killing off Spock, they realized they had to bring him back to life, which took one movie. Then they had to deal with the consequences of it, which was the next film (though the plot was a diversion away from this problem–I was looking forward to a story where the Enterprise crew was a band of fugitives). Expectations on Khan were not great; after all, The Motion Picture cost a ton of money and did well at the box office, but was a dud to Trekkies who expected more. It also didn’t impress those expecting it to be another Star Wars. I doubt anyone predicted the impact Khan would have on the audience since he was just a revived villain from the TV series (in a rather boring episode, in my opinion). If they had thought to do a Back to the Future type of thing where two (or three) movies were shot back-to-back telling chapters in a larger story with Khan, it may have been quite successful. However, it didn’t exactly work with Superman, so there wasn’t really any precedence for that. As it was, Star Trek II was primarily a submarine battle between two captains. But I can imagine if at the end of the film Khan got away, leading into a subsequent story where he was able to take over a base or a planet even, or maybe teaming with a race such as the Klingons to enact war against the Federation, they would have had something epic on their hands.

      • …that’s all i’m saying… if they’d have just left the door open by showing an escape-pod scene, i’d have been happy –even if they never came back to the character. Such a waste. But as long as i’m not the only one who saw the potential … :)

        • People keep speculating that J.J. Abrams may resurrect Khan in his sequel. Maybe that’s the way to do it, by scaling up the threat that Khan represents so that instead of just a ship-to-ship battle, Khan endangers the entire Federation…and there’s only one ship that can stop him.

          • star trek should be more than villians and cool space battles. thats what star wars is for. and no im not shting on star wars im just saying theres more to a movie being cinematic and in space than cool meglomaniacal villians and lots ships shooting at each other. bond crossed with star wars might be cool, but it is not star trek, just like eons of technobabble and perfectly played diplomacy itsnt really star trek either. maybe some day a star trek movie will have people actually exploring something.

          • Again, that’s another issue altogether. Cinematic quality has to do with production value and the scope of the story. I can imagine a very cinematic story where the Enterprise is assigned to explore an uncharted section of the galaxy and gets into trouble while running into a previously unknown alien species. This could involve epic landscapes on planets with a different look than we’ve seen before, a system of government that is contrary to the Federation, and dangers that the Enterprise faces. The thing is, the Trek universe is so rich with what has already been developed that more stories can be had from the Klingons, Romulans, etc. The impulse is to continue working within what the fans are familiar with rather than create something new.

            Of all the movies, The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier both could be said to have explored “strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before” with V’ger and the God creature beyond the Great Barrier. The time travel device used in three of the films could be construed as to do similar, though it’s a stretch.

            As for villains and space battles, remember that all stories must have conflict. The greater the conflict, the more engaging the story. With science fiction on the big screen, audiences want to see big special effects. Star Trek has always featured villains and space battles, and some of the best-loved episodes of the original series had these elements. The problem with The Motion Picture was that it had neither and was considered fairly boring. After Khan made such an impact in the second film, most of the subsequent movies tried to top him in both villainy and with the battles that ensued, but largely with disappointing results. Perhaps if another movie was made that went in a totally different direction, a satisfying film could be made that didn’t seem like it was covering the same ground.

  3. I grew up on Star Trek. My Dad introduced me to the original show a couple years before The Next Generation his the airwaves. The original show at the time was close to twenty five years old. Now The Next Generation is close to 25 years old and my kids are enjoying the further adventures of the Starship Enterprise.

    I do think the films haven’t done the story justice. The only two directors in my opinion that were able to capture the spirit of the television show while successfully making the movies they were making cinematic were Nicolas Meyer and JJ Abrams. Star Trek 2 and 6 were the best stories featuring the original cast. While they honored the original material, Nicolas Meyer found a way to make the films feel bigger than the other directors of the Star Trek movies did until JJ Abrams came along.

    Star Trek 11 is certainly a flawed film. But what it does right, it does it better on it’s worse day than anything Rick Berman could ever think of on his best day. And also, I love the idea behind the creation of this script. Having to reboot this franchise was not going to be simple. By leaving open the option of the original timeline still being available to fix and get back to, the screenwriters showed their love and respect for the source material. If they simply started over with no link to the past ceremoniously passing the torch, the film would not have been as successful.

    And Meyer and Abrams were also great in how they treated Vulcans. The Rick Berman era pissed me off since the Vulcans, and pretty much everyone else, became so serene and docile. Yet in the films Meyer’s and Abrams’ helmed, they were able to honor the history of the Vulcan people that Gene Roddenberry established while still showing that Vulcans are not bland, emotionless, BORING characters. It’s best encapsulated by Star Trek 11 when Spock makes his intentions known to the Vulcan council that he’s joining Star Fleet. When he tells them ‘Live Long and Prosper’, while it was said monotone, the delivery of the line showed everything you needed to know about how Spock felt about the council.

    Sorry about the rant…lol. Bottom line, for the most part the Star Trek franchise has been guilty of being glorified episodes of potential Star Trek tv shows. Yet when the right people are running things, the results show that there’s more of the Star Trek universe that can be explored that you don’t get on television.

    • Good rant. To be fair, though, Enterprise did show the Vulcans as being rather petty and prejudiced. They weren’t exactly likeable in that series. But yes, Abrams nailed the Vulcans perfectly.

      It’s great to hear that a new generation is discovering Trek. I love it when kids discover this wonderful universe.

  4. I’m 51, been a Star Trek fan long as I can remember, and thought JJ Abrams put out a very entertaining and well done movie! The opening sequence was one of the best I’ve ever seen. We’ve enjoyed watching it on DVD many times. BTW, I loved Trek-IV, lmfao. Thanks for the insightful article.

  5. I loved all the films, sans the latest one byJ.J. Abrams. The film doesn’t do anything for the Trek Universe nor was it anything more than just plain fun, which I will give it that. I just wish he had picked a different Sci Fi genre or came up with his own and not used Star Trek. In the time line, these movies would be apocryphal at best, kind of like folk lore or a wives tale. If you can’t stick with the formula then leave it alone. I think Star Trek stands on its own without making MAJOR modifications to the universe like he did. Just a die hard and don’t really want to hear anything other than movies that stay within the timeline.

    • If J.J. Abrams didn’t do his version, Paramount would have done a movie without him, which probably would have been a complete remake. At least Abrams tried to tie it in to what came before by using time travel and the alternate universe plot device. Of course, he angered many hardcore Trek fans by doing that, but he also re-invigorated the series that was dead. But to the point of the article, he brought a cinematic flair to Star Trek that wasn’t seen in quite this way before.

      • If fans were mad about the time travel story to bring back the original characters then they really need to evaluate themselves. The time travel device was the perfect tool for the screenwriters to respect the past history of the franchise while leaving the perfect out for Paramount and the fans if the film bombed. If it bombed then IT DIDN’T REALLY HAPPEN! lol

        • I actually expected the movie to end with the Enterprise being sucked into the black hole that destroyed Nero’s ship, sending them back to the moment when Nero originally came through time. They would encounter his ship and prevent it from destroying the Kelvin, thereby putting the original timeline back in order. I was surprised that they didn’t restore the original timeline, since that happened every time they altered things when time traveling. Of course, by doing so that would have put the filmmakers in a position of doing yet another origin story for the sequel. Come to think about it, that would have been very original, having two completely different origins with the same cast.

  6. i would actually count the motion picture wrath of khan and search for spock as the best trek feature films. and i would really say that only insurrection felt like an episode with a bigger budget. ok maybe final frontier did a little bit too, but your only definition of cinematic is visual scope and non datedness of special effects? really?

    • I believe I also addressed directing style, set design, story elements, the music, make-up, overall production values, and impact on the series. This was not an evaluation as to which movie was the best, but rather what impact each one made as a movie rather than just a big episode of the TV show like many people accuse them of being.

      • the reason you think trek 11 is the most cinematic is because you are wowed by the modern style of filmaking. give it ten years and it wont hold up nearly so well. i also vehemently disagree with you on your opinion of the search for spock. unless your entire definition of the word cinematic is “big and grandiose” and it seems to be i can understand why you would say any of the original cast films are the least bit television like. perhaps its that you simply discount anything not literal concrete and physical.

        • Let me reiterate my stance on Search for Spock (a movie I happen to love, by the way). As I said in the article, the sets feel much like they did in the TV series and looked like a fake planet. Nothing on the Genesis planet looked real, and when it was exploding, you could tell when they raised and lowered platforms to simulate the destruction. And yes, a movie should feel bigger in scope than a TV show, otherwise why bother? This film felt very episodic by comparison to the other films. Even the bridge of the Enterprise was scaled down so it wouldn’t feel empty with just five crew members driving the ship. I’m glad to see the Klingons getting decent treatment on the big screen (their appearance in TMP was a cameo and they had no personality), but their goal was a retread of Khan’s. This is a good “bridging” between Wrath of Khan and Voyage Home, but it doesn’t work as a stand-alone movie. Nimoy’s directing was standard with very little cinematic quality. The only real iconic big-screen image, as I previously stated, is of Kirk and his crew watching the Enterprise burn up in the atmosphere. By comparison, Nimoy’s direction in Voyage Home is very steady, and even though it’s a fairly straight-forward story, it feels important. The scenes on Earth feel like you’re watching a movie due to the way it was shot, the lens choice, the locations, etc. Search for Spock is lacking those aspects, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. I’m don’t know what you mean by me discounting “anything not literal concrete and physical.”

          As to the 2009 Star Trek, it’s not just being wowwed by “the modern style of filmmaking.” The fact is, more money was spent on this film than the first six put together ($150 million vs. $146 million, based on reports from boxofficemojo.com and imdb.com–though it’s not adjusted for inflation). When you have more money to play with, you can do more on screen. And yes, part of being cinematic as opposed to having a TV feel is the size of the production. The special effects were eye-popping, the locations were realistic (including a Budweiser factory standing in for engineering), the sets were impressive, and the story was epic. Part of the cinematic feel was due to the story taking place over several time periods, no less than three planets, introducing an array of aliens both old and new, and having several big set pieces including space battles and fist fights. Absolutely, money was spent and it is seen on screen. As to J.J. Abrams’ style, his is as distinct as Nick Meyer’s, where both set out to make movies and not just large TV show episodes. Both used techniques meant for the big screen and understood how to tell big stories. By the way, if you refer to “modern style of filmmaking” as the lens flair and shaky cam that Abrams put to use, those techniques have been around for a long time (Spielberg and Cameron have both used them in various films), so I doubt that they’ll look dated in 10 years. Maybe people will decide that the story doesn’t hold up as well as other Trek films (there is already a lot of backlash toward various plot points), but that’s a different issue. This article examines the cinematic value, not other elements of the storytelling.

  7. Star Trek 11 could have been terrific, but it was ruined by two things: the ridiculous camera work (including shaky cam and all-you-can-eat lens flare) and Uhura (they didn’t even try to make her character similar to the show, just intent on having a sassy female lead). It turned out to be kind of a joke. Great bad guy, great plot, but badly executed.

    • Perhaps, but my point is that it truly looks and feels like a movie, and not just a retread of the TV show like some of the entries. Personally, I liked the use of lens flare and shaky-cam, which was used to enhance the action and not simply be hand-held for the sake of being “gritty.”

  8. I really love Genesis and Insurrection, Nemesis was *so* crappy, and as much as I enjoyed the new film, it had a bad villain. I don’t mean evil-bad, I mean boring-bad. Nero was a one-note, implausible, annoying blemish on this new film, and you didn’t even mention him.

    I will say, that I really want to re-watch them all (except for Nemesis) again after reading this article. Kahn was epic. That is all.

    • Yes, Nero was pretty one-note. It’s too bad the scene of him breaking out of Rura Penthe was cut because it would have added to his character. However, his portrayal didn’t add or detract from the cinematic feeling of the film. I actually found Shinzon an interesting character, but he too was on the dull side. I find it interesting that two movies back-to-back featured bald villain and Romulans.

  9. The eighth Star Trek movie is “First Contact”, not “Final Conflict” (whch was a totally different show – also by Roddenberry) and the new ship is the Enterprise E, not D.

    And if Paramount had given the Star Trek films the money JJ Abrams had, they would have been legendary. Or give Abrams the money for Star Trek II, for all I care even if you take the inflation or deflation into account… let’s see what he’ll make with that.

    • Yep, the name screwup was mentioned by someone else and it’s been fixed. I’m surprised more people haven’t jumped all over me for that. One problem with blogging is that without another set of eyes to proofread and edit, it’s easy to overlook a glaring error that’s staring you in the face.

      I agree that what Nick Meyer and Leonard Nimoy were able to do with a relatively small budget was extraordinary (I’m not convinced that Shatner would have made a good movie regardless of his budget). I’m still upset that Undiscovered Country had to reuse effects from previous films and go skimpy on new effects (the Enterprise leaving Spacedock is a good example–all we saw was Scotty’s prideful expression and the doors opening). Abrams did have a lot to play with, but I’m glad that Paramount is finally giving Star Trek a budget it deserves.

  10. The Motion Picture still has a sense of grandeur that none of the other films can match.

    The Wrath of Khan still stands with Raiders of the Lost Ark as one of the best pulp adventure films ever made.

    The Search for Spock is clearly the most mature, even if a little flawed.

    The Voyage Home is a great fish-out-of-water story, and a wonderful introduction for any non-trek person, into the Star Trek universe.

    The Final Frontier is only relevant as another opportunity for fans to see the cast together again.

    The Undiscovered Country, although not entirely successful at it’s premise, is nonetheless a really good political thriller in space with brief spurts of Die Hard-like action.

    Generations had nice cinematography.

    First Contact was a nice, solid entry with a wonderful Goldsmith score. Well praised by critics, but many fans (even Next Generation fans) still considered it a bit hollow. Doesn’t hold up to the best of the original cast films, but it plays well on cable.

    Insurrection was laughably bad and many agree the worst of the Trek films. Even worse than Final Frontier.

    Nemesis was a great idea, but without competent direction. And it’s script suffered a really horribly overwrought studio development process, similar to that of Insurrection.

    And I’m sorry, but Abram’s Star Trek movie is vastly overrated, meaningless style and technology, without any merit or true meaning in relation to the Star Trek universe. It served its purpose: To keep Star Trek in the public consciousness.

    It’s been 20 years since Undiscovered Country and I’m still waiting on another good Trek film.

  11. Interesting article, and pretty fair overall, though I think you’ve overrated #6 and #11. Did you know that there was a book published about Robert Wise’s films a couple of years ago that analyzed ST:TMP and concluded that it was the best of Wise’s films? I don’t remember much about the argument, but it was pretty convincing, with lots of details about the relationship of the camerawork and music to the overall structure of the film.

    • I’m not familiar with that book, but I will check it out. I am a huge fan of Robert Wise (even though I have yet to be able to sit through West Side Story). I’m not sure I would agree with the assessment that Star Trek is his best film because it has some story problems that other films of his don’t have. However, it is masterful work of a great director.

  12. Spell check and fact check, please. There cannot be TWO Star Trek IV’s: “The Undiscovered Country” is Star Trek VI. The film following “Generations” was “Star Trek: First Contact”, not “Star Trek: Final Conflict”.

    • Actually, spell check would not have found those errors. One was a simple typo, but I have no idea how I screwed up First Contact‘s name. I guess I must’ve had the Omen series on the brain. Thanks for pointing these out. They have now been corrected.

  13. Been a Star Trek Fan for almost 40 years.
    I miss there being a regular TV show.
    I still watch all the movies once a year.
    But Star Trek 3 traumatized me to never ever beleive anyone dieing on TV or movies ever again.

    • To be fair, though, the seeds of Spock’s return were planted in Wrath of Khan–after all, they sent his body to a planet that was being reborn and Kirk indicated that he’d have to return here some day. Also, it took an entire movie to bring Spock back to the Leonard Nimoy form, so it wasn’t an easy plot device like so many TV series do (the Bobby-in-the-shower syndrome). They treated his resurrection with respect and let story grow naturally.

  14. The Enterprise D was destroyed in Generations, as you mention, so it’s unlikely to be the awesome new ship in First Contact.

    Anyway, no matter what anyone says, I like the Final Frontier, it gives you a sense that the crew are a family who have travelled, lived, fought and worked alongside one another for years.

    • Yes, Final Frontier definitely had the theme of the Enterprise crew being a family. That film did have some things going for it. To Shatner’s credit, he tried to make it a fun adventure, as the horse-back raid on Nimbus III proved.

  15. Ergh. While Star Trek 11 is a fantastic cinematic movie, it is still only a marginally above average film due to a horrendous script that avoids the genre it should be (science-fiction) and instead falters dismally into a messy science-fantasy. Shame because the style of the movie’s visuals was great.

    • Yeah, the story had a few problems (Spock would never strand a crewmember on a planet where he could easily die just because he was annoyed at the man), but I really enjoyed the film. Regardless, the point of the article was to compare each film from a cinematic standpoint, not debate whether or not they were good films. Thanks for your input.

  16. Oh, the lens flairs! They’re so beautiful when they’re used sparingly!

    I didn’t realize there were this many Star Trek films.

    • Not only eleven movies (with another on the way), but five live action series, an animated show, and countless novels and comic books. Star Trek is an industry upon itself. If you’ve never been exposed to Star Trek before, the J.J. Abrams film is probably a good place to start since it’s accessible to non-Trekkies. If you enjoy it, then you can start to explore the previous films. Of course, if you prefer substance over style, Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is probably the place to begin and follow the progression naturally.

      • I saw the 2009 flick for the second time just yesterday. I’m a fan of both of the more popular series, and I might look into some of the films.

        • The Wrath of Khan is considered the pinnacle of the films, and you don’t need to see the first film to understand it, but this is a good start if you’re going to watch the rest of the movie series. The Motion Picture is a stand-alone story, but the others connect in a story arc, in particular the second through the fourth that make up an unofficial trilogy.

    • That’s lens *flare* lol

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