A Look Back At: The ‘Star Trek’ Films

Drew Dietsch

The Bard once wrote, “What’s past is prologue,” and that certainly applies to our pop culture landscape. It’s always important to reflect upon and reevaluate what has come before. Doing so can help us to better appreciate something new, or possibly unlock some hidden meaning in the past that we never considered. To understand where we are, we have to know where we’ve been. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at… The Star Trek Films

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The USS Enterprise, flagship of the Federation

After three seasons, Star Trek had come to a close. The landmark television series had permanently changed pop culture, ushering a new wave of science fiction and space adventure. Plans to bring the crew of the Enterprise to the big screen had been underway, but it wasn’t until Star Wars was released in 1977 that Paramount fast-tracked a big budget feature. Since then, the franchise has spawned thirteen theatrical productions, the most recent being Star Trek Beyond. While that film will still require some time to carve out its legacy, we decided to take a look back at the previous twelve movies to see the journey this beloved property has taken over the decades. Starting with…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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The Enterprise jumps into warp speed

Ten years after the series’ cancellation, Star Trek: The Motion Picture energized onto screens in the winter of 1979. Fan anticipation was rabid, especially after Star Wars had reshaped the entire cinematic landscape. How would the crew of the Enterprise fare against the sweeping, swashbuckling adventure that George Lucas had created?

At the time, not spectacularly. The film’s plot had the crew encountering a God-being named V’Ger that was decimating the cosmos in search of its creator. It’s a classic Trek concept – somewhat inspired by the original series episode “The Changeling” – but it’s also one that doesn’t generate much action. The movie is contemplative and almost meditative, and audiences weren’t looking for that after Luke Skywalker and friends had brought such rousing fantasy to the sci-fi landscape.

However, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is probably the film that best represents the original series. There is a sharp focus on the ethical and metaphysical questions that pop up, and the space elements are treated with an almost religious awe at times. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey than it does Star Wars. Unfortunately, director Robert Wise went overboard in his visual adulation of the special effects, particularly the new model of the Enterprise, leading to overlong sequences that hang on mostly actionless shots. This led to many critics dubbing the film “The Motionless Picture,” and it’s a moniker that the film has never really escaped.

Regardless, this first outing deserves to be seen. The models and effects work is top notch, the cast is as enjoyable as ever, and the tone feels right at home with the series it spawned from. It’s the best “Star Trek” movie that’s ever been made, but there are far better films that carry the Star Trek name. [Drew Dietsch]

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

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Theatrical poster depicting the villainous Khan

The muted response to Star Trek: The Motion Picture meant that the next entry had to feel completely different in attitude and approach. Well, whatever decisions were made were right on the money. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is both the most beloved entry in the cinematic series and one of the best science-fiction films ever made.

Khan Noonien Singh, the megalomaniacal leader from the episode “Space Seed,” has been accidentally rediscovered during a Federation mission. Khan steals a starship and attempts to get his hands on the Genesis Device, an invention that turns inhospitable planets into veritable Edens. However, if used on an already thriving planet, it would wipe out all life in a matter of seconds.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan not only brings lots of exciting action to the table – the battle between the Enterprise and Khan’s ship, the Reliant, is pulse-pounding fun – but also thematically focuses on the characters much more than Star Trek: the Motion Picture ever did. The concepts of growing old and death permeate The Wrath of Khan and lead to the most heartbreaking moment in the series’ history: the sacrificial death of Spock. It’s a touching and heroic sequence that still resonates to this day.

With a healthy dose of adventure and propulsive plotting, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan single-handedly revived the Star Trek film series. It’s a movie that even non-fans can enjoy thanks to its excellent writing and understandable story. If you’re looking to get someone into Star Trek, you couldn’t start at a better place. [Drew Dietsch]

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

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After the magnum opus that was Wrath of Khan, Leonard Nimoy decided to return to Star Trek under very conditional terms. The Search for Spock begins with the death and burial of one of the most important characters in all of Star Trek. Bones has a major role for most of the film until Spock’s essence gets transferred back into his Genesis regenerated body. Kirk basically rebels against the Federation entirely for the sake of his friend but winds up losing his son in the process. Major developments were made that affected Star Trek lore to include the introduction of the updated Bird of Prey and Excelsior ships, and some fans still consider part three to be one of the best of the franchise.

This movie revolutionized Klingon fandom. Christopher Lloyd’s Commander Kruge set the bar for every Klingon warrior to follow afterward. The Search for Spock was Nimoy’s directorial debut and the first time a cast member helmed a film. Trying to compare this film to Khan is tough, but Kirk’s tale of rescue and revenge is not a story that should be overlooked. The whole film establishes the Klingons versus Kirk arc that would carry through to The Undiscovered Country, but no other film features anything nearly as fun as the They Live style street fight Kirk has with Kruge. The Search for Spock was a great return for the character and a very satisfying moment in the series. [Andrew Hawkins]

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

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Kirk and Spock depicted on the poster as out-of-place travelers in 1986 San Francisco

I’ll tell just about anyone who asks that The Voyage Home is the best Trek film hands down. It’s a perfect final act in the three-act play of The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home. The second and third films were both about sacrifice; sacrificing one life to save many, and risking many lives to save one. Now the crew must save two lives in order to save all of humanity. For what good is the power to create life if we can do nothing to protect it? The film is an exploration of friendship, a social critique of the Cold War, and a call to action for wildlife preservation and stewardship of the environment.

It also happens to be excellent satire. Chekhov, openly asking questions about “nuclear wessels” in a thick Russian accent, draws incredulous stares from the suspicious populace of 1980s San Francisco. The 23rd-century ideals of the Federation also directly conflict with the rampant materialism of the late 20th century. Kirk’s money naivety is a sharp contrast to the obsession with profit. Scotty and McCoy, too, are keener to share their knowledge of futuristic materials for the good of all and do so with little or no regard for material gain. Don’t forget that Gordon Gekko, too, was a product of the 80s. The film shows what we are capable of as a species, even just a small group of us, and that’s exciting. By showing the essential character of the Enterprise crew, it proves that the characters don’t need the Enterprise to be heroic.

National Geographic recently published an article highlighting incidences of humpback whales protecting members of other species from predators. How callous we look as a species by comparison when you consider that we hunted the creatures so close to extinction that an action-adventure movie franchise decided it was worth telling a story about saving them. Above all, the film is an admonition to always think of the myriad ways in which we are connected to, and therefore responsible for, our environment. It tells us that we, like Spock, must be aware that logic and fact aren’t enough when we’re weighing whether we should offer aid to another being. Sure, Kirk and the crew are out to save mankind, but the movie is just as much about saving George and Gracie as it is the whole Earth. For the good of the many so often depends on the good of the one. [Robert Mitchell]

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

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Spock faces down his half-brother Sybok

A false prophet is given a vision by an alien claiming to be God. William Shatner’s crack at the Star Trek film franchise is an interesting entry in the series, to say the least. Often relegated to being considered the absolute worst film of the TOS movies, The Final Frontier is actually really fun and entertaining if approached from the right angle. The original Trek family were growing old and the follow up to Nimoy’s eco-friendly “save the whales” movie needed a different approach and a return to what made Star Trek so charming. Shatner decided that this would be a perfect opportunity to tell an existential story about questioning the nature of divinity while throwing in a boatload of dad jokes and slapstick comedy too.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is riddled with continuity issues and poor special effects, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a terrible film. This is the first Trek movie I saw in the theater and I still think it paved the way for The Undiscovered Country and everything that followed. Shatner’s story hinges around a period where the crew of the Enterprise are on leave until a distress beacon sends them on a journey to discover the most powerful being to ever exist. Spock’s brother Sybok is an interesting character that would have benefitted from more time with the audience and any excuse to see David Warner on screen is worth pursuing. There’s a lot that Final Frontier has to offer for those that seek it out. [Andrew Hawkins]

Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country (1991)

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Theatrical poster depicting a Klingon

Star Trek VI taps hard into the power of allegory when the Federation must decide what to do with the broken remnants of the Klingon Empire. The Klingon Chancellor wishes to reconcile with the Federation and broker for peace. However, his life is in danger at the hands of secret dissidents within his own ranks. Captain James T. Kirk and Dr. Leonard McCoy become prime suspects after Kirk says some disparaging things regarding the Klingons and later is caught at the scene of a terrible crime.

The Undiscovered Country takes itself very seriously despite some moments of typical Trek campiness. (The floating purple Klingon blood is pretty great, though.) It’s an allegorical film about the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the West’s reluctance to allow them back into global society. This makes for intellectual, interesting stuff, but there has to be enough fun to keep the movie afloat. Shatner’s Kirk does this well, overacting at every turn and using his typical Kirk charm to woo ladies even in the freezing prison he and McCoy are sent to. There’s a lot of great Kirk/McCoy banter in this segment, a brief reprieve to the otherwise serious tone of the film.

One of the best things about The Undiscovered Country is its villain, General Chang. While many of the Klingon diplomats clearly want peace, Chang is an old-school Klingon warrior who longs for glory in battle. Portrayed with gusto by state veteran Christopher Plummer, Chang recites Shakespeare and quotes dictators. With his eyepatch and sneer, he’s the Trek equivalent of a Bond villain, but he fits in perfectly. His “Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!” from Hamlet is at once terrifying and fun. With a stellar villain, a classic Trek allegory plot, and baby Christian Slater in a Starfleet uniform, The Undiscovered Country is one of the best Star Trek films. [Danielle Ryan]

Star Trek: Generations (1994)

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Kirk and the Enterprise-D

Star Trek: Generations is the sort of film that everybody dreams of but knows will probably never actually get to see. Thankfully, Star Trek has little problem with breaking the rules and making the impossible possible. Using the Nexus, we are allowed to see a brief glimpse into the sunset days of the original crew, catch a glimpse of Guinan’s past and even bring Kirk back for another round.

During the maiden voyage of the Enterprise-B, Kirk is drawn once again into the fight and takes the captain’s chair. Despite the years of experience in command, Kirk is forced to recognize that his time has passed and gives up his command to the new captain. Decades later, Picard is given the heartbreaking news that his brother and nephew had sadly passed away. Tragedy seems to follow the Enterprise, in whatever incarnation it is.

After being sucked into the Nexus – which Guinan described as “being inside joy” – Picard is reunited with his deceased family and a new one of his own. After meeting Kirk, the two realize that they have to leave their paradise and stop Soran. Despite teaming up together, Kirk falls to Soran and is buried on Veridian III.

Despite the conclusive ending to Star Trek’s greatest character, Generations was a fantastic film. We saw Picard and Kirk unite against a common foe, the fall of the House of Duras and the end of the Enterprise-D. Data made the brave step forward in accepting the emotion chip he received from his father before dying. All in all, this is a brilliant part of the saga that I would watch time after time. [Graham Host]

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

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The Borg Queen with a captured Data

The eighth Star Trek film, First Contact, takes the crew of the Enterprise back in time to the origins of galactic travel. Captain Picard and company are sucked into a time travel warp while trailing a Borg sphere on its way to Earth. They arrive in the 21st century, after the third world war. Picard and his away team must stop the Borg from preventing Zefram Cochrane from launching humanity’s first warp-capable engine. If they fail, the Borg will assimilate the entire planet.

First Contact is fascinating because it examines the history of the Trek universe in a way previously unexplored. The events of World War III and mankind’s last hope at reaching the stars help define the cleaner, more politically correct future of the Star Trek we know and love. While the away team comes to understand the origins of Starfleet, Data has his own subplot with the Borg Queen. Data, who has always tried to become more human, is tempted by the Queen with skin grafts, stronger emotions, and sex. (That’s right, super creepy robot-on-insect-like-alien sex.) First Contact takes several different looks at what it means to be human, and our never-ending quest to always reach for the stars.

The Borg are one of the most formidable enemies in Trek lore. Unlike the Klingons, who are fueled by emotion and tradition, the Borg are a virus. Other than the Queen, they are all simply cogs in the machine, taken from various species and modified. Resistance is futile – the Borg can control anyone.  The Borg are scary and present a real threat against Earth in the film.

One of the coolest moments in First Contact is the titular moment of contact between spacefarers and humans. The Vulcans arrive on Earth and greet Cochrane, and it’s the beginning of everything we know about the world of Star Trek. This is where it all started, in a shanty town in Montana. It’s a good film with great moments, and every Trek fan should see it at least once. [Danielle Ryan]

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

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Considering the normal sci-fi formula of action and excitement, Star Trek: Insurrection is intriguingly political. The story centers around a duplicitous plot by a rogue Federation Admiral. Partnering up with an alien race called the Son’a, the Federation found a planet with a unique radiation. The six-hundred inhabitants, known as the Ba’ku, gain regenerative abilities from the radiation but the Federation now wants to harvest it. If they succeed, the planet will be uninhabitable and anybody on it will die.

As the Ba’ku only number six-hundred, Admiral Dougherty believes it acceptable to relocate them – ignoring the minority in favor of the majority. In a stunning plot twist, this is actually the logic that Spock follows. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Considering the situation, I feel that Spock would actually side against the Federation in this case.

Picard and the senior crew are against the plans but are ordered away. They will be unable to contact Starfleet Headquarters for some days if they follow orders. The only option left is to directly intervene, resigning their Starfleet careers and commissions. Despite the obvious ramifications of their acts, everyone unanimously decides to fight the invasion.

Politics is a key theme in this film. The Federation could heal millions of people at the expense of depriving six-hundred of their home. In the end, the Enterprise crew are able to convince the Federation to reach a peaceful settlement but it was a close call. Thankfully, the Enterprise was ready to intervene. [Graham Host]

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

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Shinzon, the Romulan clone of Picard

The final film entry in the original timeline, Star Trek: Nemesis features emotional highs and lows. Commander (soon Captain) Riker and Deanna Troi are celebrating their wedding reception on Earth. Picard jokes about the “damned inconvenience” the pair are putting him through – losing his first officer and counselor in one go. Data sings “Blue Skies” as Worf mutters Romulan ale should be illegal – Geordi reminds him it is.

Nemesis focuses around the ongoing Romulan-Federation friction. After staging a coup, the Remans – residents of Romulus’ twin planet – are now in command. Heading them up is a clone of Picard. In a previous government, a plan was put in motion to replace Picard with a Romulan clone agent. After it was scrapped, Shinzon – the clone – was thrown into Reman mines.

One of the lesser themes in Nemesis is the idea of growth. Both Picard and Shinzon remark that Shinzon shares traits that younger Picard had. That is actually how Picard beat Shinzon; Shinzon became overconfident – much as young Picard would – and the Enterprise collided with Shinzon’s Scimitar.

A more metaphysical question that arises concerns Data. As an android, Data already brought up the question of sentience and souls. After transferring his memories to B-4 and then dying, is Data still alive? If people are the sum of their experience, could it be said that Data is still alive? Hints of this are shown near the end when B-4 whistles “Blue Skies” – the same song Data sang at the beginning. Despite under-performing at the box office, I enjoyed the final acts of Nemesis where Romulan loyalists teamed up with the Enterprise to attack Shinzon. [Graham Host]

Star Trek (2009)

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Uhura, Kirk, and Spock in the new timeline

J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek soft reboot, entitled simply Star Trek, received mixed reviews from fans. The film uses a time travel paradox to create a brand new timeline for the characters to explore. This keeps everything from the original show and movies canon while allowing new possibilities for the beloved crew.

The film serves as a way for the crew to come together for the first time. Kirk joins Starfleet after Captain Christopher Pike talks him into it following a bar fight. There are flashbacks to Kirk’s childhood, as well as Spock’s, and the film primarily focuses on the relationship between the two. The casting is great. Each actor imbues their own style into the role while maintaining true to character. There are plenty of fun moments and little winks and nods to Trek fans, mostly courtesy of Simon Pegg’s Scotty. (His introduction is one of the best segments of the movie, and he shines every time he’s on screen.)

The plot of Star Trek is forgettable. There are some missteps, especially the inclusion of the older version of Spock. Vulcan gets blown up, old Spock and new Spock eventually meet, and that whole time-space continuum thing gets pretty confusing. What the movie gets right is in the details. The characters are all there, and it’s a blast to explore their relationships. Watching Kirk “beat” the Kobayashi Maru is a lot of fun, and aside from way too many lens flares, the space scenes are great. Star Trek lays down the groundwork for a whole new series of adventures and is still a fun re-watch now and again. [Danielle Ryan]

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Khan in the new timeline

Though the previous reboot film drew upon recognizable Trek elements in order to bring in a more general audience, Star Trek Into Darkness took it to a whole other level. J.J. Abrams’ sequel borrows so much from The Wrath of Khan that it’s not unfair to call it a remake of the most revered film in the franchise’s history. Unfortunately, Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t half the movie The Wrath of Khan is.

The plot is a convoluted mess about Khan being revived by a rogue Federation admiral who is trying to instigate a war with the Klingons. If the confusing story wasn’t enough, the characters have devolved into caricatures of their former selves. It doesn’t help that the entire story feels like a cynical betrayal of Gene Roddenberry‘s original intention. It’s not hard to read into the terrorist-heavy plot and find connections that support conspiracy theories involving the September 11th attacks. For Star Trek to be utilized in such a crass and disingenuous way is what damns Star Trek Into Darkness the most.

Of course, the special effects and action sequences are admirable but they are supported by nothing in terms of emotion or character. And the movie blatantly rips off the death scene from The Wrath of Khan but pretends to be clever by reversing the roles of Kirk and Spock. It’s also completely deflated as Kirk is revived only minutes later.

Garish, hollow, and morally misaligned, Star Trek Into Darkness is the antithesis of what Star Trek should be. Abrams’ sequel coasts by on its glossy superficiality, but that’s the only honorable mention it can receive. Hopefully, Star Trek Beyond will be remembered as a valiant course correction and the saga of Star Trek can return to its roots. [Drew Dietsch]

Check out other A Look Back At articles here.

Drew Dietsch
Drew Dietsch has written for CHUD.com, the News-Press, WhatCulture, and releases a weekly film review podcast, The Drew Reviews Podcast. He'll yak your ear off about horror movies, Jaws, RoboCop, and/or Batman if you let him. www.thedrewreviews.com
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