Okay, I’m back from watching Star Trek Into Darkness (STID). I’m not going to say anything about it except that the top 5 spots are in no way of being endangered to be replaced by STID. So here’s my take on the next six best Star Trek movies, and part 1 is here if you haven’t read it already.
6. Star Trek Abramsverse (2009)
I have to say I quite enjoy the Abramsverse. There are some enjoyable moments and it is a smart action movie despite the annoying lens flares that has become the trademark of J.J. Abrams. The acting of the actors are really fine and they manage to embody the spirit of the original crew. However the most important aspect of Star Trek is still lacking in Abramsverse: the human drama and exposition of ethical problems that have became the trademark of the best episodes of Star Trek. Abramsverse’s Star Trek is all about shooting a bunch of phasers and kicking ass.
The problem has been told many times before: This is not a Star Trek for me or any older generation who remember TOS and TNG, but a Star Trek for the general audience who is not emotionally invested in the previous incarnation of Trek. What they know about Star Trek is just the general stereotype: The dashing womanizing Captain, the alien logical First Officer, and a bunch of other people speaking in foreign accent. Consequently everything has to be simplified much to the chagrin of the die-hard fanboys. I still long for Star Trek to be the cerebral Trek I once knew, however we might have to come to the realization that nobody is going to make any show like that, and that DS9 is the last great Star Trek show that has been made. Shows have to make money as much as possible and for that everything has to be simplified so that as many people can enjoy it and buy the tickets.
The great success of the Abramsverse Star Trek is that it can incorporate elements from the original series to produce an enjoyable action movie. However my problem with the movie is that above all Star Trek is not an action franchise but it is a human drama and moral play, and these are the most important elements in Star Trek that are seriously lacking in the last 5 Trek movies. Abrams make Star Trek feel and look like Star Wars… which is kind of weird because if I want to watch Star Wars I would watch Star Wars and not Star Trek.
5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
We have in this installment a hammy Doc Brown playing as a Klingon captain, Commander Kruge. Attempts to bring Spock back from the dead are a bit contrived here and I think the movie is quite unnecessary: They should have let Spock dead and move on. Spock’s death was an important moment that left Kirk a changed man. Bringing back Spock only renders those important moments about accepting death and cherishing life ineffective.
Having said that, I kind of understand why this movie should exists (other than to play it safe by bringing back Spock to the franchise): It was meant as a device to show how different Kirk is from Spock. “The need of the many outweigh the need of the few or the one” has been taken as an axiom by Spock, however at the end of the movie Kirk answered that he and his crew risk everything to safe him simply because “the need of the one outweigh the need of the many,” which shows that the logically-flawed humans (at least according to Vulcan logic) manage to do the right thing by sacrificing their career for their dear comrade.
We already kind of know that but we need to be convinced anyway, that’s why this movie exists.
4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
In this, the original crew went into their final adventure with the best way possible: By ending the fucking cold war! In this not-so-subtle allegory to the real world politics (True to its form, Star Trek was always about social commentaries), the space-Chernobyl in the Klingon Empire exploded and the wall then came tumbling down. Unable to keep up with the Federation’s defense budget, they sued for peace with the Federation and mutual disarmament of nuclear… er nope… photon torpedoes arsenal. It is then decided that Kirk and his crew are to be the foremost olive branch bearer in the peace process, much to the annoyance of Captain Kirk who still hold grudges against the Klingons, who he perceive to be responsible for killing his son David in ST3.
It is also a film that dares to be different in order to tell a story: Captain Kirk (and some of his crew) is portrayed as racist toward the Klingons. The hawkish stance of several Starfleet top brass is also a surprising turn of event. We know that Kirk is not a racist because he defended Spock in Balance of Terror despite him looking like a Romulan, so I was really shocked when Kirk said that the “[The Klingons] are animals,” and when Spock plead to help the Klingons because “The are dying…” Kirk respond, “Let them die!” Kirk’s bitterness and racist attitude towards the Klingons are understood as a traumatic effect of the death of David by the Klingons under Commander Kruge’s command, an inner demon that he must resolve. Gene Roddenberry reportedly did not like this portrayal of a racist Captain Kirk and Starfleet top brass, because his version of the Federation should be filled with holy people who is in no way should be racist. I’m quite happy that nobody listens to him and this move add some depth to the character of Kirk, and the issue of Kirk’s racist attitude was resolved by the end of the movie.
Although it is a bit too late, it is also nice to see that Sulu finally has been made a captain of his own ship, something that should have been done years before… probably after Spock’s death?
The movie also ends sweetly, as they ride into the sunset having the last joyride with the Enterprise while taking the last family picture. I was watching this final scene with my dad (who was busy writing something about press freedom, as usual), when the signatures of the actors were written in space. He took a peek and remarked, “Wow, these guys made television history and their names are now written in the sky.” Yes, dad, this movie marks the end of an era and the last scene is a sweet tribute to honor them. That’s why this made the best four.
3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Well, we all know the story of this one, do we? This is “the one with the whales,” probably the most famous among the old Trek movies simply because this is the first Trek movie that manage to raise the interest of non-Trekkies. For once Star Trek was watched not only by people who still live in their parents’ basement
Why was ST4 so popular (for some time it was held as the highest-grossing Trek movie… well not adjusted for inflation)? Probably because it strongly plays out one of the most important function of Star Trek: A social commentary on contemporary society. By bringing the crew back in time to the present day, the audience is presented with an idea of how we will be seen by our future descendants. Future values clash with contemporary values, and McCoy compared contemporary medical procedures like the dark ages and Spanish Inquisition (“My god, man! Drilling holes in his head is not the answer!”).
Having the crew moves back into the present time also provides not only comical situation about culture shocks between the future and the present, but also a commentary about how far we have to actually go before we reach the future presented by Star Trek. What seem to contemporary people to be an advanced technology turns out to be a quaint technology to people from the future.
ST4 is probably the first movie I watched that teach me about the importance of sustainability in setting up development policies, and that “to hunt a species to extinction is not logical.” It is a creative movie which shows what is possible with Star Trek, that it can also be used as something other than providing us with a vision of the future. It gives us a commentary on contemporary society: back then something that Star Trek never forgot to remind us is that how barbaric we are as a society, yet never forgot to provide us with hope that humanity can change for the better.
2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
There is a little scene in ST2 that easily mark this movie as one of the best Trek movies. When Chekov unwittingly discovered Khan’s compound and inspect his library, we see Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost and Moby Dick among his collections, which reveals Khan’s psyche and set the tone of the movie without having to say much: This is about a lost destiny as a ruler and living in hellish condition instead, and a man hell-bent on revenge.
Another thing that makes this one of the best Trek movie ever is the fact that Khan and Kirk were never on-screen together. They only interact through communicators or screen, but they never share the same place at the same time. Kirk does not have to beam into the Reliant to personally fight Khan and kill him. It can be said that Kirk does not have to finish Khan since he is already destroying himself by feeding to his thirst for revenge. It is this human aspect and choice that drives the action scenes and not the other way around, and that is what makes Star Trek great. It also has an effective battle scene that shows us the danger of space battle and how tense it is without having to show too much shootouts. The scene only relies on dramatic dialogues, tactical discussions, and how one torpedo hit can greatly affect combat. When we are shown scenes of battles with too many shootings, we get desensitized and can not appreciate how serious the situation is. Here we are shown how precious one shot is, and how important battle strategy is. The climactic battle scene between the Enterprise and the Reliant shows us that movie battle scenes are not all about outgunning your adversaries but also about outwitting them.
What makes the movie great is the effective pacing of the scenes and that all scenes are necessary to narrate the story, especially about how Kirk dealing with growing old, accepting changes, and superficially accept his desk job position despite knowing that this is not what we wanted.
1. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Yes, people, hear me out! Star Trek TMP is the best Star Trek movie ever! I know that many people hate this and put this in the bottom rung, even Sheldon Cooper hate it. Well fuck you Sheldon for hating ST:TMP and for saying that everything about it are bad! You just earn yourself immediately three strikes just for saying that idiotic thing and there’s no way I’m going to rescind all three strikes. The art direction of ST:TMP is top notch and still hold true today, and so are the sound. How dare you for saying that Jerry Goldsmith’s music is bad? This is the Star Trek theme song that would later became the opening theme of TNG! You just self-destroyed your nerd street cred man.
What is it that make me defend ST:TMP as the best Trek movie ever? Perhaps it is probably you, the reader, are the one who think that I am crazy for thinking that ST:TMP is the best Trek movie. People said it’s overly long, boring, nothing happens, and that it should be renamed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture.
These opinions and Sheldon’s reflect the contemporary way people appreciate the pacing of movies. The slowness of the movie is what’s bugging most people these days because we’ve been too much fed with the fast-paced shoot ‘em up and hypercharged emotional dramas as a form of entertainment, and thus are unable to appreciate a slower pacing of narration. With slower pacing the director is giving you the time to get emotionally invested in the characterization and to come to a realization of what is at stake. It also give you time to put your own thought as to what is going on. Movies are, after all, a visual art and ST:TMP manages to tell a lot by showing scenes without dialogues and using Jerry Goldsmith’s orchestration as an important dramatical element.
Take for example for the scene when we saw the Enterprise for the first time, which took around 5 minutes to show the Enterprise at all possible angle, intercut with Kirk’s expression. Many people complain that it is overly long. We’ve seen the Enterprise. Big deal. So what?
It is actually quite a big deal for an audience in 1979, because for ten years there were no Star Trek since the third season of TOS was cancelled in 1969. This is not only the return of Star Trek but also the first on the silver screen.
The audience are once again shown a majestic view of mankind’s awesome technological achievement: The Enterprise, a machine that allows us to reach the stars. In 1979 (and even right now) we understand how important it was because back then we were just 10 years from successfully sending people to the Moon and 2 years from sending a probe intended to leave the Solar System. We are made to realize that a machine like the Enterprise is our ultimate dream, and thus we are basked in the reflected glory of the Enterprise, accompanied by the glorious score by Jerry Goldsmith. Through this slowly moving shot we come to the realization that the Enterprise is not only a mere object but also an important character in the story as well, and through the close-up shot of Kirk’s expression we are made understood of what is going on with the relationship between men and machines: Not only a sense of pride of mankind’s technological achievement but also a sense of emotional dependence towards each other. Through these shots we are reminded of the notion that a captain is married to his ship and of Kirk’s remark in The Corbomite Maneuver that he does not want to be committed in a relationship because “[He's] already got a female to worry about. Her name’s the Enterprise.”
It is not only the pacing that allow us to get more emotionally invested in the characters and to put our own thought to what is going on, that make this the best Trek movie ever. It is also the underlying themes presented in the narration. In the spirit of 2001: A Space Odyssey, ST:TMP is a musing about the nature of intelligence and evolution: Where are the lines between a living being and a machine? Aren’t we just a very sophisticated machine created by nature, or we are a human being because there is more than just mechanics? What is the future of humanity?
ST:TMP is also a story about finding your place in the universe and your sense of identity: All the characters are there in search of who they are. Kirk is there to figure out whether it is his best destiny to be a starship captain, galloping around the cosmos. Spock is searching for a closure for his conflict of becoming both Human and Vulcan. Decker and Ilia are exploring the nature of their relationship, and even V’Ger is looking for its creator and to touch the Creator in search of an identity: Who built V’Ger and why was it built?
In many movies we get used to drawing a clear line between “good” and “evil” so that we can immediately side with the good guys. In this movie the line is blurred by showing that V’Ger—whom we immediately perceived as the “evil” one because seem intend to destroy the Earth—is actually an entity that is in search of its own creator, we can suddenly identify with V’Ger because deep inside we are all like V’Ger: Always in the quest for who we are and where do we came from. It is a very human quest.
All-in-all, ST:TMP is a superb film that are visually gorgeous with visual effects that still hold true even today, with a unique way of storytelling that offer musings about the nature of relationships and commitments, our place in the universe, and the future of humanity. The themes presented in ST:TMP is unique and was never again explored in subsequent Trek movies. ST:TMP is the closest Trek movie that embody the spirit of the Original Series, and a vision of what should a Star Trek movie be. That is why ST:TMP is the best Trek movie and not the others.
Scotty, beam me up.