Friday 15 July 2016

Star Trek: The Franchise So Far....

‘Star Trek Beyond’ is hitting theatres soon-ish and of course it’s a momentous occasion for ‘Star Trek’ as 2016 marks the franchise’s 50th anniversary. Now I hope you know how this goes because there are so many movies in this franchise that I have to skip the obligatory intro and go straight into the reviews, all twelve of them. Ready…..go.

By 1979 it had been a decade since ‘Star Trek’ had been cancelled but with a growing desire for more science fiction franchises (for which you can thank 1977’s ‘Star Wars’) as well as its growing popularity of the series it was revived for a feature length film. The original cast were all returning to their roles, series creator Gene Roddenberry was returning to helm the project and it would be directed by two time Academy Award winning director Robert Wise and….it was a complete and utter disaster. Well maybe not on a financial level, in fact until ‘The Voyage Home’ this was the highest grossing of all the Trek films. But in terms of quality the film lacks any kind of structure or pacing. Which is odd because initially it seems to wield a strong narrative thrust but the premise soon wears thin and although it juggles some interesting and occasionally provocative ideas none of the characters undergo any development and are consistently overshadowed by the special effects. There are more effects shots in ‘The Motion Picture’ than there were in ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ but unlike those films the effects have no kinetic thrust or active role, we just get a steadily moving effect, a bland reaction and repeat for 132 minutes and believe me, it really feels it. You could liken the effects to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ but without the poetic symmetry or Stanley Kubrick’s direction and the existential awe of the ideas it is carrying. Ultimately a slow and boring film that’s overshadowed by every other science fiction movie of its era.

But it’s alright because we move straight into ‘The Wrath of Khan’, often regarded as the finest of all the Trek movies, and it is difficult to argue. This time Roddenberry was forced out of the creative process and it does show because in many ways this makes up for all of the mistakes made by ‘The Motion Picture’. Firstly the film definitely packs a punch with its pacing, setting up the stakes and drawing out a personal connection for every character to the situation. Having Kirk and the crew personally involved with their nemeses (who is a physical person this time and not some weird space cloud) creates a sense of enthrallment within both the action and the development of the characters. We get both of those aspects in plenitude as well, both on a personal level with Kirk’s son and Spock’s moving sacrifice to the intensity of the battle and the nice twist of it being a duel of wits between Kirk and Khan, each manoeuvring to try and gain the upper hand. Maybe the duel in question becomes repetitive occasionally and no offense to William Shatner but he noticeably struggles to sustain a dramatic performance of this level. It may relegate the rest of the crew but by focussing on that trinity of Kirk, Spock and Bones it evokes the true spirit of ‘Star Trek’ and what it represented. Throw in that thrilling score by the late, great James Horner and you have a real science fiction classic, which is hard to do when your movie comes out the same month as ‘Blade Runner’, ‘E.T’, and ‘The Thing’ (best month in the history of anything ever).

Onto ‘The Search for Spock’ and while being one of the odd numbered ‘Star Trek’ films it is often associated with being inferior when in my opinion, it’s rather good. Granted it lacks the thrilling action of its predecessor and the humour of its successor but I always like to think of it as a decent blending of the two. Granted that makes it somewhat uneven in tone, pacing and character but there is still some decent emotional weight to the film like the destruction of the Enterprise, the death of Kirk’s son and that wonderful moment in which the resurrected Spock first recognises his old friend with the words “Jim…your name is Jim”. The only issue is that none of these moments feel as heavy as they should be, granted they do have some significant weight behind them but I can’t help but think that various factors and emotional arcs were pushed aside in favour of moving the already crowded narrative forward.   

I’ve always been somewhat conflicted over ‘The Voyage Home’, while I understand that the filmmakers were aiming for a more comedic tone and it was the intention of director and star Leonard Nimoy to go that route it sometimes feels like an odd match. Whereas the previous two films had done a commendable job at establishing a tone that harkened back to the true spirit of ‘Star Trek’ this one deviates almost disconcertingly. Then you have the strong environmental message and while putting such a theme in a blockbuster is certainly a good thing, it is not exactly what you call subtle, with the crew travelling back in time to save the whales (I guess if the charities fail than we can rest easy that Spock and the gang will be on their way any day now). With a contrived romantic sub plot as well it feels less like a science fiction film and more like a fish out of water romantic comedy. But audiences ate it up and ‘The Voyage Home’ became the highest grossing film of the franchise.

Its success meant that production was rushed forward with the next instalment and in no way does that come across at all apart from in every conceivable way. Hey, if Nimoy can write and direct one why can’t Shatner? ‘The Final Frontier’ is a laughably bad film, from the acting to the narrative and even the usually strong visual effects are all absolutely terrible. In the usual logical and rational franchise the plot revolves around a literal search for God. Now to be fair that premise could have potential if handled in the correct way but it’s so lacking in any cohesive structure and almost incomprehensible. The attempts at comedy are almost as painful as the rare attempts at action and there are so many plot holes that it isn’t even worth mentioning, you just have to accept them as they go.

Luckily though the original cast got to end on the high note that was ‘The Undiscovered Country’. It balances the humour and the action much better than its predecessor and is also able to tread in territory we’ve never thoroughly touched upon before. To see Kirk confronted with his own prejudices and reluctance to accept peace with a lifelong enemy is an intriguing one and provides some substantial emotional weight. In general the film’s production design and visual effects are back to their former glory as well and Christopher Plummer is on hand as one of the franchise’s strongest villains. Again it’s far from perfect with tonal consistency being a continuous problem and the cast themselves are mixed to average, with their age really starting to show at this point. But nonetheless it’s a dignified and subtly poignant way to wave goodbye to the complete original crew one final time.

I say complete because Shatner is immediately back for ‘Star Trek Generations’. With the original cast now gone a new series of movies were established to tie into the revamped Trek TV series ‘The Next Generation’ (which is better than the original, come at me internet). However that is not reflected in the new crew’s first film. Despite having homed the characters on TV for a good few years now the film was an unbalanced, unfocussed, nonsensical and sadly unsatisfactory entry. There are also so many strange subplots that go nowhere like Mr Data’s emotion chip and it deviates too often from the plot with trips to the holodeck and hanging out with Kirk in the nexus. None of it adds to the character development, plot or themes. I felt as if I had to remind myself of the main plot every ten minutes. Also I’m sorry, but Captain Kirk cannot die by falling off a bridge, I refuse to accept that is how an icon of science fiction dies and his final words are not “Oh my”, that’s wrong original cast member.

But it’s okay because we now reach ‘First Contact’, widely regarded as the best ‘Next Generation’ film and my personal favourite of all the Trek films (I know it’s not subjectively the best, but it’s my favourite so what can you do). I love how it feels genuinely cinematic for the first time in a while for the franchise, I love how it takes what we already know about each character from the series and manages to expand upon it one way or another. True, some get more attention than others but everyone feels as if they have at least one moment in which to shine. The cast themselves are utilized to their best potential here as well, with Patrick Stewart finally looking as if he gets to stretch his acting muscles aboard the Enterprise. By taking the story back to mankind’s first contact with alien life it reconnects with the human ambition and imagination that led to the creation of ‘Star Trek’ in the first place. The action genuinely feels enthralling and exhilarating as well as inventive, making good use of the improved special effects as well as their excellently realised practical sets. As well as that the Borg prove to be just as menacing and as intimidating as they were on the show. No it still isn’t perfect but in my nostalgic mind it is.  

Sadly, like the cruellest of addictions the high didn’t last long. We were back on that confused and tedious track with ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’. Far from the cinematic feel of ‘First Contact’ this instalment feels drastically scaled down which is remarkable with Jonathon Frakes returning to direct this one. Though to his credit he gives the film a slick and polished feel despite its shortcomings. But then again maybe that is what kills it, as instead of having any particular flair or style to compensate for the lack of development and painfully slow pacing. On top of that the film just has a general sense of being bland, from the action scenes to the visual effects and even the pseudo philosophical jargon. It is difficult to even find anything to write about due to how little it accomplishes, it’s not bad enough to marvel at but also not good enough to appreciate.

Sadly unlike the original crew ‘The Next Generation’ could not end on a high note. To be fair I would say this instalment is more entertaining and inventive than ‘Insurrection’ it fails to tread any new ground and hardly advances the ‘Star Trek’ mythology in any way. Not only that but we are not discovering new about any of the characters or introducing any new concepts. It is hard to watch ‘Nemesis’ and not feel as if the franchise has run out of steam. Also I don’t care if B-4 is supposed to be a clone or a digital copy or a brother or whatever relation to Mr Data, killing Mr Data and leaving B-4 to take his place is not how you end the movie. The original series had the cast united around a stirring speech from Kirk, The Next Generation had someone that looks like but isn’t Mr Data singing Blue Skies. Still, nice early role for Tom Hardy.

So with all the series cancelled and the movies long gone it appeared ‘Star Trek’ had reached its end. But along came JJ Abrams to bring new life into the franchise and he did just that fantastically. Like the best ‘Star Trek’ films it has a seamless blend of humour, action and development and while there is a noticeable push towards a more action oriented interpretation this is by no means a dumbing down of the franchise. It still retains that intellectualism and big thinking ideas the fuelled ‘Star Trek’ for so any years. On a technical level the film is superb, from the visuals to the sound editing and production design. The new cast may be the films strongest aspect, with each new addition being a unique interpretation of the characters we loved but also one that remains reminiscent to the core values of said characters. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho and of course the late, great Anthon Yelchin are all on hand to lift the film beyond your standard summer blockbuster. Having Nimoy return (as well as some inventive narrative choices) gives the reboot a real connection to the original series that maintains a grasp on the world we have spent so many years growing to love but simultaneously opening up a world of possibilities.

That only makes it more baffling why they felt the need to remake ‘Wrath of Khan’ for the next instalment. Technically this film is also well made with Abrams direction being just as superb as well as all of the other aesthetic elements being consistent to the previous film and excellently made. However I still don’t know why this newly established timeline felt the need to revert back to a storyline we have all already seen. At the very least they could have made it more ambiguous as to how one film influenced the other, I know we have a new incarnation of the character but does he really have to announce “My name is Khan”? A twist like that only alienates everyone, old fans are outraged that they have revised the series’ most iconic storyline and new fans are confused as to why the name is significant. It’s also a shame because along with the rest of the cast who do are still just as brilliant as their previous outing, Benedict Cumberbatch’s colder antagonist is played very convincingly and menacingly. When he says “Because I am better” you really believe him. I also quite enjoyed the role reversal between Kirk and Spock as it felt natural to where their character arcs were going, Kirk needing to accept the consequences of his own confidence, making the personal sacrifice for his ship and Spock realising the value of his emotional connection to others. Sadly the third act around them is so jumbled that any potential weight is minimal (though still present). I found the first two acts both riveting, well made and tonally consistent (something that many Trek films seem to struggle with). So while it’s undoubtedly a flawed film I can still find a lot of enjoyment from it.

That’s it, I made it through all twelve ‘Star Trek’ films. It’s been quite a voyage, one of great highs and terrible lows. With ‘Star Trek Beyond’ getting a positive buzz here’s hoping it can take the franchise to new heights and honour its 50th anniversary. Can it boldly go where no one has gone before?

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