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Josh Ranks the Star Trek Movies — Part 2!

September 16th, 2013
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On Wednesday I began ranking the Star Trek films, from worst to best.  Here is the rest of my list, numbers 4-1.  These are, by far, my favorite Star Trek films.  These films are not only head and shoulders above the seven other Trek films in quality, but all four of them rank among my very favorite films, period.  Here we go:

4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home — Until J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot, I believe Star Trek IV was not only the most successful Star Trek film, it was also the one most well-known and liked by non-fans.  (The latter went hand-in-hand with the former, obviously!)  While I prefer the intensity of Star Trek II and III, it is undeniable how much fun the lighter Star Trek IV is.  Particularly in the decades since, when we have seen how badly the other two light/funny Star Trek films (Star Trek V and Insurrection) have stumbled, the success of Star Trek IV is even more impressive.  There is no question that the film is a joyous romp, with a lot of big laughs.  Even more impressive is that this comedic adventure is wedded not only to a film with real stakes — both physical and emotional — for our characters, but also that like the best episodes of the original series, this was a story with a strong message (in this case, about environmentalism).  The script is incredibly tight, with even throwaway lines (like Spock’s comment “judging by the pollution content of the Earth’s atmosphere, we appear to have arrived in the latter part of the twentieth century”) being so sharp and funny.  There are great moments for the entire ensemble cast (something many of the Trek films have struggled with), and one classic moment after another.  Also impressive: despite being designed to appeal to a wider audience than the usual Star Trek film, the movie is steeped in Trek lore.  Not only does the film take the time to explore the repercussions of the events of the previous film (with the terrific “there will be no peace as long as Kirk lives!” scene in the Federation Council, something we’d never before seen), but we get the return of Sarek, Amanda, and Saavik (albeit only briefly, my biggest regret with the film).  (I wrote a lot more about Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home here.)

3. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock — I think this is the most under-rated of all the Star Trek films.  I adore Star Trek III!  It’s a terrific adventure, and a terrific continuation of everything that was great about Star Trek II.  I love how of-a-piece with that film Trek III is, with the story picking up immediately after the end of Star Trek II, and everything from the costumes to the visual effects to James Horner’s score fitting so comfortably with the feel of Trek II.  Yes, the movie undoes the dramatic end of Star Trek II (the death of Spock), but what works about Star Trek III is a) how much the first half of the film makes us feel the repercussions of Spock’s death, and b) how much the film makes Kirk pay for the resurrection of his friend.  In terms of my first point, scene after scene in the beginning of the film emphasizes Kirk’s agony and loneliness, from his “and Enterprise feels like a house with all the children gone” somber opening Captain’s log to the wonderfully raw, emotional scene in which Sarek mind-melds with Kirk, forcing him to re-live Spock’s death.  (Both William Shatner and Mark Leonard are spectacular in that scene, and the quiet despair in Mr. Shatner’s delivery of the line “he couldn’t touch me,” realizing that a mind-meld might have allowed Spock’s consciousness to live on, is devastating.)  In terms of my second point, unlike the easy “freebies” found in Star Trek Into Darkness (that I repeatedly mocked in my Into Darkness cartoons) in which everything bad (Kirk’s death, the destruction of the Enterprise, the decimation of San Francisco) is easily undone, in Star Trek III Kirk is able to save Spock, but at the cost of the death of his son and — probably even more shocking and painful to Star Trek fans at the time — the destruction of the Enterprise.  Many decades and many different versions of the Enterprise later, the impact of that moment has been diluted — but man, the death of the Enterprise in Star Trek III HURTS.  It’s a gut punch, and Kirk’s “My God Bones, what have I done?” is another classic moment in a film filled with classic moments.  I haven’t even mentioned Christopher Lloyd’s fantastic performance as the Klingon Kruge, the fun with the Excelsior, Saavik and Spock’s pon far scene, the phenomenal escape-from-Space-Dock sequence, the terrific, somber “previously in Star Trek II” opening scene (such a great way to throw the audience right back into the story), “Don’t call me tiny,” and so much more.  This is a great film, I am surprised it’s not more-loved by Trek fans.

2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country — This is very, very close to being my favorite Star Trek movie, and on many days I think it is.  Ultimately I gave Star Trek II the edge by a nose, but boy do I love The Undiscovered Country.  This is pretty much the perfect Star Trek movie in my mind.  When I think of everything I hope new Star Trek stories will be, I think of The Undiscovered Country.  It’s got a terrific, engaging story.  It is deeply immersed in Star Trek lore and continuity, in a way that shows love and respect for Star Trek and its hard-core fans, but not in a way that would overwhelm a casual viewer.  It is visually gorgeous with spectacular special effects and an awesome action finish.  It has rich, compelling character-arcs for the main characters and some deeply emotional moments.  I love how dark Star Trek VI is.  The music is wonderfully ominous, a big change from the bombastic scores of previous Trek films.  The visual palette is dark, with scenes under-lit and, as a nice touch, all of the Enterprise computer screens being in blues and greens as opposed to the usual bright colors.  And, of course, the story is adult and serious, dealing with a political assassination, the compelling real-world parallel with detente between Cold War enemies the United States and the Soviet Union, and a rich story for Captain Kirk.  I love how the film dares to portray the heroic Captain Kirk as bitter and angry at the death of his son, filled with hatred and mistrust for Klingons.  How could all of his previous conflicts with the Klingons have taught him anything but that?  The quiet Kirk-Spock scene at the start of the film, in which Kirk angrily attacks Spock for roping him into the peace-envoy mission that he feels is dangerously misguided, and in which he bitterly declares that he is willing to let the Klingon civilization die, is one of my very favorite Star Trek scenes ever.  The whole script by Nicholas Meyer is wonderful, filled with political references and wonderful character moments.  The dinner scene alone is filled with one genius moment after another, from the comedy of Chang’s quoting Shakespeare in Klingon to the very real conflict found in Captain Kirk’s unwillingness to give up his Cold Warrior status.  There is a lot humor in the film (“the Russian fable of Cinderella”) as well as many deep emotional moments (Spock’s pained confrontation with Valeris: “what you want is irrelevant, what you have chosen is at hand”).  Most importantly, it is a minor pop-cultural miracle in that it provides a terrific, compelling end to the long-running adventures of Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise that had begun a quarter century earlier.  It elevates the entire Star Trek saga by providing such a wonderful end to the story.  How many stories and characters fail to get that final story that they deserve??  (Next Gen never got their proper send-off, just as an example — their movies just petered out.)  (I wrote a lot more about Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country here.)

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — And so we arrive at Star Trek II, not just the greatest of all the Star Trek movies but one of my very favorite films ever.  I have written about this film a lot (click here for an example).  Even better, I would direct you to this marvelous article by Meredith Borders for badassdigest.com.  Meredith had seen almost no Star Trek before seeing the film (the only Trek she had ever seen was J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film), and she has written a dazzling article describing her first viewing of Star Trek II, and how deeply she fell in love with it.  She hits the nail exactly on the head in terms of everything that makes Star Trek II great.  This is one of the great space operas of all time, filled to overflowing with tremendously exciting action spectacle and enormously compelling, larger-than-life characters.  The focus on the Kirk-Spock friendship is powerful, and I think this movie does the best job of all of the Trek movies and TV shows at encapsulating the bond between these two iconic characters.  On the other side of the coin is Ricardo Montalban’s fierce portrayal of Khan, the very best of all the Trek villains and the character that so many of the follow-up Star Trek films have chased.  The movie-long duel between Khan and Kirk is magnificent, one of the best hero-villain showdowns in cinema history.  I love how quiet Star Trek II is at times, how carefully and patiently it sets up the character moments and conflicts.  And I love how loud and bombastic it is at other times — from James Horner’s triumphant score to the spectacular action to Kirk’s classic “Khaaaan!!” bellow.  I love how awesome the visual effects are — they hold up magnificently thirty years later.  The Reliant’s first battle with the Enterprise is vicious — and the movie truly sells the impact of the first time we really ever got to see the Enterprise take damage and Kirk get his ass kicked.  The climactic battle in the Mutara Nebula could be the finest space-ship battle ever filmed, just magnificent in every way.  The film is funny (McCoy gets so many great moments, from “Did she change her hairstyle?” to “WE will”) and deeply sad (that first glimpse of Spock’s empty chair gets me every single damn time I see it, and man does Shatner sell that one powerful moment of understanding as to what has happened, when we see his face right before he bolts from the captain’s chair on the bridge to race down to engineering, too late to save his friend).  Wrath of Khan is pretty much a perfect movie.  Every scene, every moment works and serves to build characters and drive the story forward.  There is no bloat on this film, no wasted moments.  It is perfection.  I want to go watch it right now.

This was a fun look back at all the Trek movies!  Thanks for reading!  I wonder where we agree and where we disagree…?

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