Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ranking the Star Treks

It only took 11 days, but on Thursday, we finally watched our first BluRay on our new (and first) BluRay player.

The delay had a lot to do with getting the right HDMI setup. See, we have only one HDMI port on our TV, a consequence of having purchased it about three years ago. It still feels like our "new" TV, so this was one of our first pieces of evidence that it's not quite cutting edge. Our cable box had been hogging the one HDMI port, so we initially set up the BluRay player using ... um, regular cables. (Sorry, I'm not a component geek -- I don't have all my terminology down.) But we knew we weren't taking full advantage of the HDMI picture quality, so the day before we went into the hospital to give birth to my son, I bought an HDMI two-port hub, that would allow us to have both the cable and the BluRay player take advantage of the TV's one input at the same time. I didn't get to actually try it until a week later, at which point it proved to be a total dud -- thanks a lot, Radio Shack.

So we decided on a temporary solution of going old-school, and simply changing which cable was plugged into the back depending on whether we were watching cable or BluRay. This can't be our permanent solution -- it's just too much of a hassle. But we put it in place at least long enough to pop our BluRay cherry. And instead of watching either of the two BluRays we'd bought -- Where the Wild Things Are or Bram Stoker's Dracula -- we went with a rental from Blockbuster: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, which we'd both seen. Simply put, it looked beautiful.

There had been exactly ten of the "original" Star Trek movies -- six with Captain Kirk et al, and four with Captain Picard et al. Abrams' film goes back to Kirk et al, but of course recasts those roles with younger actors. (As well as including Leonard Nimoy as part of the plot's time-travel element.)

And though I usually like to choose round numbers to rank things, yesterday I got to thinking that it would be a fun blog post to rank the Star Trek films, since I've seen all 11 of them. If I want to add some kind of flimsy justification to ranking the top 11 of something, I can tie in the 11 films with the 11 days it took us to watch our first BluRay. Hey, I said it was flimsy.

One note before I begin: Many of these rankings are based on only a single viewing, which in some cases took place over a quarter century ago. But let's just say I'm not committed enough to fairness to re-watch ten other Star Trek films, just so I can be absolutely certain of the accuracy of my personal rankings.

Without further ado (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW):

1) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer). As I discussed in my post about good sequels earlier this summer, Star Trek II is almost certainly the most important Star Trek movie ever made, as it allowed all future Star Trek movies to exist. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture failed to register, a lot was riding on this movie to succeed, else they probably would have stopped making theatrical incarnations of the adventures of Kirk, Spock, Bones and the gang. And succeed it did -- even though the original actually made more money, this was considered to be the far superior effort by critics and fans. The Wrath of Khan gave us one of the great mano-a-mano cinematic battles of all time between Kirk and Khan, even though they never meet in the flesh in the movie. It's like a great chess match between two brilliant generals, and it includes some of the most quotable Star Trek dialogue of all time. (Not to mention Kirk's all time great melodramatic moment, seen here.) Not only are there some excellent space battles and military strategizing, but the film also contains some melancholy philosophizing on aging, which is nearly poetic. (Ironic in retrospect, considering that the Enterprise crew were just getting started in their cinematic adventures, not wrapping them up.) Ricardo Montalban surely gives one of the great villainous performances of all time as Khan. If this is not everyone's favorite Star Trek movie, it should be.

2) Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, Leonard Nimoy). However, I'd have a hard time begrudging anyone this as a choice for best Trek movie of all time. If you want to talk about truly going where no [Trek film] had gone before, how about making a Star Trek movie that could accurately be characterized as a modern-day romantic comedy? The film is suffused with a sprightly quality that was absolutely infectious -- I remember the audience I saw it with in hysterics over the writing, especially Spock's attempts to fit into life in 1980s San Francisco. It was a masterstroke, after two previous extremely dour entries, to give us a Trek movie in which not a single tragic thing occurs, and the primary conflict is whether humpback whales can be returned to the 23rd century, to communicate with an alien probe that is inadvertently sucking Earth dry in its attempt to contact them. This is a tight, exciting script, and it features a darling relationship between Kirk and a 20th century marine biologist (played by Gillian Hicks). That's where the romantic comedy element comes in. William Shatner and Nimoy lead the way as the cast gives us a bunch of loosey-goosey performances, and a helluva fun time at the movies. To add to the movie's quirk factor, they're riding around in a captured Klingon vessel. If there were ever a Trek movie for non-Trekkies, it was this one.

3) Star Trek (2009, J.J. Abrams). Or this one. I needn't go about praising this movie too much, because plenty of other people have already done that. But if there were ever a person who could bring Star Trek to the masses, Abrams was apparently the guy. Sure, you have to adjust for inflation, but Star Trek's $257 million at the U.S. box office was nearly $150 more than the next highest grossing film in the series, the aforementioned Star Trek IV ($109 million). The film is excellently cast from top to bottom, with Chris Pine effortlessly taking Kirk's confidence by the lapels, and Zachary Quinto seemingly born to play a Vulcan. This film may have spoken to audiences in a big way, but that doesn't mean it plays it safe. In fact, Abrams risked royally pissing off a nation of Trekkies (they actually prefer the term Trekkers) by messing with the Star Trek timeline, including destroying the planet Vulcan. But the kooky time travel logic actually makes a certain sense, and for the most part, I think Trekkers bought it. As well they should -- the new timeline will allow new, never-before-considered adventures for characters whose fates had already been known in previous Trek films.

4) Star Trek: First Contact (1996, Jonathan Frakes). And here's where I start to get a bit fuzzy. According to my records, I have seen this film only once, and it had to be in the theater, which means I haven't seen it in 14 years. But I remember thinking that this excellently continued the reliable "the even Star Trek movies are better than the odd ones" principle, this being, for all intents and purposes, Star Trek VIII. Again time travel enters into one of the best Trek movies, as the Enterprise returns to the moment on Earth when contact was first established with extra-terrestrial life, paving the way for the future of human space travel. But it also contains Picard's tangling with the ominous Borg, a great Trek villain that had not yet appeared in a movie. Both elements are carried off excellently. Also, Frakes continues the series' tradition of actors taking the helm for at least one film -- he also plays first officer William Riker.

5) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991, Nicholas Meyer). And speaking of the even-numbered movies, this is the other great example, in addition to II, IV and VIII. This and First Contact could easily flip-flop in the rankings, as I remember them about equally well, and they are probably about equally good. I clearly owe them both another viewing, as the primary thing I remember about this movie is that Kirk gets stranded in some kind of ice prison, and that David Bowie's wife, Iman, makes an appearance. The rest is just nebulously positive vibes.

6) Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, Leonard Nimoy). Hands down the most difficult-to-watch Star Trek movie. It surely helped solidify the "odd movies are bad" principle, but I think this movie is difficult more than it's bad. Even if it weren't about the rapid re-growth of a reborn Spock on the Genesis planet, and all the trauma that entails, the movie also features Kirk's son David (Merritt Butrick) getting killed by a Klingon, and the crew setting the invaded Enterprise to self-destruct. The movie is literally dark, shot in shades of red, and there's nary a happy or humorous moment in it. But in my book it gains points by really "going for it."

7) Star Trek Generations (1994, David Carson). I've actually re-watched this film in the last five years, and if not for that second viewing, it might have been ranked lower. However, this is a pretty good film. It's an effective torch-passing ceremony from the old Enterprise crew to the new, and contains perhaps the single-most momentous occurrence in the entire Trek narrative: the death of James T. Kirk. It's a pretty satisfying death -- he pretty much saves the universe in the process. Oh, and Brent Spiner is really funny as Data, who has an emotion chip implanted with hilarious results.

8) Star Trek: Nemesis (2002, Stuart Baird). This film earns extra points for its own sense of finality, as it was pretty much known that this was going to be the final Star Trek film (Star Trek X, if you are keeping count) -- at least that's what we thought before J.J. Abrams came along. In fact, it's the only even-numbered Star Trek movie that is not widely acknowledged to be significantly superior to its odd-numbered counterparts. I don't remember a whole lot about what happens in this movie, but it does feature a major character death as well: Data, who has always been the Next Generation's answer to Spock. Then again, they do create a new Data at the end, he just doesn't have the original Data's personality -- or should we say, memory banks?

9) Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, Robert Wise). Despite listing several Trek films earlier that I said were most urgently in need of revisiting, this may actually be the most deserving candidate for a second viewing because it's been over 30 years since I've seen it. That's right, I only saw it in the theater, and all I really remember about it is my profound sense of disappointment when I walked out. It must have been really boring to leave a six-year-old like me, who should have just liked seeing laser blasts and space ships, so totally unsatisfied. In fact, I remember actually feeling a palpable sense of uncertainty about Star Trek II when my dad and I went to see it in the theater, because of how much I'd disliked this film. But this is the one that demands a revisit merely for academic purposes -- it couldn't have been as bad as I remembered, could it? The other thing I remember is that there was a bald woman in it.

10) Star Trek: Insurrection (1998, Jonathan Frakes). This movie may actually be better than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but the reason it's ranked where it is is that it has the least grandiose plot of any Star Trek movie, despite that inflammatory title. In fact, I remember writing in my review that it was more like a regular episode of The Next Generation than a movie. The plot had something to do with saving people on a doomed planet, and I remember that Picard and his love interest spend a decent amount of time trapped in some kind of cave. As an interesting side note, this may be the only review I've ever written where I no longer have access to any copy of the review. For some reason, my review was replaced on the website with another writer's work, and I can no longer find the Microsoft Word original. Also, I thought I'd share a funny little story, this being Star Trek IX. Back when The Search for Spock came out, my friends and I had a joke that each of the next however many movies in the series would be the search for one of the other crew members. The one that always was funniest to me was Star Trek IX: The Search for Uhura. Because let's face it -- even though Abrams is trying to make her a more important character this time around, Uhura was a total afterthought in the original six Star Trek films.

11) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, William Shatner). You'd like to think that the only film in the series directed by William Shatner would be better than this, but it ain't. As a sign of my affection for the series in general, I still do not consider Star Trek V to be out and out bad -- but it's not good. Shatner wisely tried to continue the levity and camaraderie of Star Trek IV by having Kirk, Spock and Bones go on a camping trip and climb a mountain. It's a good effort but it doesn't quite work. Of course, the real lasting impression of this film is that the Enterprise crew goes to the edge of the universe (or some such) in a quest to find God. Who knew that God was a renegade Vulcan named Sybok, Spock's half-brother? Not how I pictured him.

Agree? Disagree? Actually seen all 11? I'd love to hear from you.


Rick "The Hat" Bman said...

Good list. Almost the same order I would have put them in. I might have movied The Undiscovered Country above First Contact, but like you say, they are both great and probably interchangeable.

I find The Search For Spock to be a pretty fun action/adventure Trek movie but it has sooooo many gaping plot holes that annoy the hell out of me. I really have to turn my brain off to watch it.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Rick! I definitely need another Search for Spock viewing to see where I may have missed the "fun" you are referring to. ;-)