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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Star Trek The Motion PictureI had thought I had reviewed all of the past Star Trek films I was going to review, but I figured, “Why the hell not?”  I’m not going to run through all the back story of the production of this movie because it’s been documented in great detail already elsewhere.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture is definitely very far from being the best of the franchise, and is rightfully ranked low on the scale.  However, there are some elements of it that I have always liked, and have never heard anyone else give credit to.  So, here I am to provide you my perspective on this misstep in taking this 1960’s television series into a feature film franchise.

When a destructive space entity is spotted approaching Earth, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returns to the newly retrofitted U.S.S. Enterprise to take command away from the young and driven Will Decker (Stephen Collins).  Kirk’s entire trusted crew is reunited with the addition of the alien navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), and the surprise return of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who seeks deep, soul searching answers from the mysterious intruder.  Now, the crew of the Enterprise must intercept and find a way to stop this alien intelligence before it destroys every human life on Earth.

Okay, let’s get the obvious critiques out of the way.  This movie is especially dated in so many ways.  Even though this was made because Star Wars was a big success, this is distinctly a science fiction film more akin to those made before Star Wars existed.  The grindingly slow pace and the very cerebral focus fall more into a 2001: A Space Odyssey or Logan’s Run mentality.  The costuming and general look of the film are quite 1970’s like Battlestar Galactica.  The one piece jumpsuits with their muted color palettes don’t have much of a progressive feel from the vibrant, yet simple uniforms of the television series.  There’s a definite reason why these uniforms never reappeared anywhere in Star Trek – they’re instantly dated, impractical, and unappealing.  The cast utterly hated wearing them.  There’s so much in this film that feels like a step backwards for its time.  Amidst films like Star Wars, Alien, and even Superman: The Movie, which all made large leaps forward with the science fiction and fantasy genres with special effects, exciting storytelling, and progressive filmmaking innovations, Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was lagging behind the times on all fronts.

The more immediate problem here is how little resemblance this bares to the television series.  Star Trek was an exciting piece of episodic science fiction.  It was usually quite intelligently written, and it had action, peril, consequence, and danger making for thrilling entertainment.  This film has almost none of that.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been called The Slow Motion Picture and The Motionless Picture by many people.  I do enjoy a slow burn, methodically paced film, but this is slow pacing simply for indulgence sake.  For example, this film takes almost an hour before the crew of the Enterprise actually encounters V’Ger at all, and every plot element is almost agonizingly drawn out with next to no impact.  Instead, this film concerns itself with a drawn out briefing scene, a malfunctioning transporter, a malfunctioning warp drive, and many graceful, yet frivolously time sucking visual effects sequences.  So much of this content could be chopped out entirely for an exceedingly tighter story structure, and leave room for building more substance and momentum into its intended story.

While there are character dynamics at play, the film takes no real time to develop a particular story to be engrossed in.  While Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta put in good performances as Decker and Ilia, respectively, not enough effort is put into developing them to the point where an audience is invested in their plight.  Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, just self-contained within this film alone, are infinitely more fascinating than Decker and Ilia.  This is firstly a script problem, and secondly, a directorial issue.  Robert Wise had a very highly acclaimed career, but nothing in his filmography says he was the right man to direct a feature film version of Star Trek.  This is the director who did several musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and methodically paced thrillers like Run Silent, Run Deep.  He could do critically acclaimed science fiction such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain, but none of his work aligns with the exciting, innovative style that was Star Trek.  Apparently, Wise really only directed this film because his wife was a fan of the television series.

Circa 1983, George Lucas did a very intelligent interview that coincidentally details the problem of this film, and unfortunately, makes you wonder where that George Lucas disappeared to.  He said, and I quote, “One of the fatal mistakes that almost every science fiction film makes is that they spend so much time on the settings, creating the environment, that they spend film time on it.  And you don’t have to spend too much film time creating an environment.  What they are doing is showing off the amount of work that they generated, and it slows the pace of the film down.  The story is not the settings.  The story is the story, the plot.”  Star Trek: The Motion Picture spends so much film time gushing over the exquisite detail of its models and visual effects that it forgets to actually tell an engaging, thrilling story.  I will admit that the models are excellent, but due to a rushed production schedule to meet an unrealistic release date, many of the film’s visual effects were less than what they were supposed to be.  The director’s cut released in 2001 went a long way to rectify that, but the fact still remains that this film is better suited as a dazzling visual effects reel than a well constructed and smartly conceived narrative movie.  However, while the script is terribly misguided, and the choice of director was way off the mark, there is one great element that flows through both the good and the bad first six Star Trek films – the core cast.

The one actual strength of this film are the character interactions.  The foundation of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is retained as solidly as ever.  When Bones first beams on board the Enterprise, I really love the exchange between him and Kirk.  How McCoy is still as fiery and cranky as ever is great, and how Kirk pleads with his friend because of how desperately he needs him on this mission has always been a favorite moment of mine.  It shows that the characters that we know are intact and the actors know exactly who they are inside and out.  Jim Kirk knows he can’t do it alone.  He’s already without Spock at this point, and so, he has to draft Dr. McCoy back into service.  Spock and McCoy balance out Kirk’s ego, passions, humanity, rationale, and decisiveness.  You can see this in the first minute that McCoy steps foot on the bridge, and once Spock joins them, the equation is complete.  DeForest Kelley did get all the best dialogue, and constantly proved to be an excellent talent in this role.  He doesn’t have a great deal to do in this movie, but the moments he does have are pitch perfectly filled with passion, depth, emotion, and wit.  Kelley is actually one of the few to inject a humorous, smart quip every now and then, which this film greatly needed to break up its monotonous tone.  It’s amazing that the entire original series cast did not miss a single beat slipping back into these classic characters after so many years, and that comfortable, sharp chemistry is part of what always made them work so greatly in any medium.

What I really like about James T. Kirk is that he is a man with an ego, but he’s not so consumed with it to not be aware of it.  He’s able to correct himself when he realizes he’s in the wrong, and that becomes clear when dealing with Decker.  When Kirk learns that his objection to Decker countermanding his phaser order was justified, he retracts his stance and acknowledges his error.  Later on, he catches himself quicker when Decker offers an alternative course of action in defending the ship, and it shows that he’s tempering his actions.  William Shatner really does a lot to enhance Kirk in this story as a man who is a little older and a little out of touch with his own ship.  He stumbles here and there, but is able to stay on his feet, on his toes.  The sort of ticking clock of V’Ger coming closer and closer to Earth forces him to make brash, impulsive decisions.  They may not be the wisest ones, but they are the chances he has to take as a Starfleet Captain.

The finest performance in this film, by far, is from Leonard Nimoy.  While other characters lack a through line arc, Spock is given one that is prominently at play throughout the movie.  In the midst of a Vulcan ritual that would purge all emotion from him, Spock telepathically connects with V’Ger, and begins to question if logic is enough.  He then abandons the Kolinahr ritual to seek out V’Ger in hopes of finding answers to his questions.  Early on, you can see Spock is troubled and distant.  Nimoy utilizes such subtlety in these moments, and it is very compelling seeing that unfold behind his masterful facial expressions.  Yet, we gradually see the more comfortable and familiar Spock take stage on the bridge.  The intelligent insight and perceptiveness of Spock is hit perfectly on the mark showing us exactly what value this character brings to this crew.  Spock progresses and develops as he explores V’Ger in depth, and he once again becomes whole through a introspective, soul searching journey.  What story there is in this film is really Spock’s in relation to V’Ger, but it certainly feels like a subplot that is almost drowned out by the constantly dull banality of the weak main plot.

What you have to give credit to is that despite all the blatantly obvious flaws of this movie, it does treat its characters with respect, and features some good character development.  At the beginning, Kirk is restless as an Admiral pushing the proverbial paper work around, and Spock is empty, incomplete, and searching.  By the end, Kirk has found his home and his purpose again as the commander of a starship, and Spock has embraced more than just logic.  And it is clear to me that there was supposed to be more going on with Decker.  He starts out ambitious and driven, a man who wanted this command, but had it robbed form him by the very man who endorsed him for the position.  In the end, he finds another purpose and path for himself.  While the film doesn’t convincingly drive him down that road at all, you can see there was an intention there for it.  The fact of the matter is, even if the movie is bad and ill-conceived, as long as the characters are treated with respect and the actors are solid in their portrayals, I can find some enjoyment and a little admiration for any Star Trek film with the original cast.

Now, I firmly believe that Jerry Goldsmith was the quintessential feature film composer for Star Trek.  I only find it unfortunate that he just happened to end up scoring some of the worst regarded films in the franchise.  While this film has its excessively long, drawn out sequences, they translate into some very inspired and wonderful compositions by Goldsmith.  Beyond the new main title theme, I have always loved his Klingon theme as it just encapsulates the feel of them perfectly.  Overall, Goldsmith sets the right tone with his score adding in cues that evoke danger, mystery, and the unknown.  Even if you can’t bare to sit through this film, listening to Goldsmith’s score is a pleasure.  I own the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition CD, and it is one of the late maestro’s finest epic scores.

While the film has visual spectacle, is fairly well directed, and is technically sound, it was a severely misguided attempt plagued with problems.  Nobody was happy with this movie during production or upon release.  There were constant creative disputes amongst Gene Roddenberry, the screenwriter, Nimoy and Shatner, and the studio to where rewrites happened daily with the ending being conceived essentially on the spot.  Today, a movie like this would kill any chance for a franchise, but Paramount was willing to revamp the creative team and it resulted in what is widely regarded as the absolute best of this film franchise – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  With this first movie, I suppose if, by some slim chance, this film does engage your interest and attention, it could be fairly thought provoking about your place in the universe, but there’s a long way it could go to improve upon that material by simply adding more substance into its proceedings.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture simply does not have enough meat on the bone to satisfy, and instead, fills itself out with a lot of pointless fat in the form of mind numbingly long visual effects sequences.  There are certainly fan edits out there which trim this movie down to under ninety minutes, and it’s likely a little better off for it.  I think it is important to say that this is not so much a bad movie as it is a mostly unexciting and dull one.  I can’t really urge anyone to go see it if you haven’t already, but if you have seen it, I hope that what I’ve had to say here at least opens you up to seeing that it does have some merits, even if they are lost in a vast sea of stillness.


The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The short version of this review if that The Amazing Spider-Man is a pretty damn good film.  I liked it.  Now, I fell off from being a fan of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.  The first one was okay, but very cartoonish.  The first sequel is something I passionately hate, and have no desire to ever subject myself to it again.  Thus, I never bothered with the third film.  That made the news of a reboot immensely pleasing to me.  I was very excited to see all that muck washed away, and allow a new filmmaker to start with a clean slate.  Mainly, what I like about this movie is how character driven it is, and how well developed the emotional qualities of it are.  Instead of a very self-pitying Peter Parker, we get one that feels like the character I’ve wanted to see, and is one that is highly enjoyable to invest myself in.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an outcast high schooler who was abandoned by his parents as a boy, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Like most teenagers, Peter is trying to figure out who he is and how he got to be the person he is today. Peter is also finding his way with his first high school crush, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and together, they struggle with love, commitment, and secrets. As Peter discovers a mysterious briefcase that belonged to his father, he begins a quest to understand his parents’ disappearance – leading him directly to OsCorp and the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s former partner. As Spider-Man is set on a collision course with Connors’ alter-ego, The Lizard, Peter will make life-altering choices to use his powers and shape his destiny to become a hero.

I want to start out with the tone of this film.  Some may have labeled it a “darker” approach, but that is an incorrect term.  This is a serious, dramatic approach to the character with substantive depth.  However, that doesn’t mean it is not fun.  In fact, this is a very fun movie that finally gives us the witty, charismatic Spider-Man that was sorely absent in the previous three films.  There is a scene where Spidey to webbing a criminal to a brick wall, and the Web-slinger is spouting off the funniest wisecracks which never border on campy or cheesy.  Spidey’s never been an intimidation type of hero like Batman or the Punisher.  He uses his sharp wit and humor to throw his adversaries off balance, but most importantly, it shows that Peter Parker is having a lot of fun being Spider-Man.

The more dramatic tone is handled exceptionally well by director Marc Webb.  The character is treated with love, respect, and integrity.  The relationship between Peter and Gwen is very heartfelt, and never shies away from Peter’s understandable awkwardness.  It makes the character endearing and likeable.  Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have solid chemistry making every loving moment magical.  Of course, the emotional resonance for Peter goes deeper and further than this.  When Peter loses loved ones in the film, it deeply penetrates through the screen.  The connection and mystery surrounding his parents’ death is the linchpin of Peter’s story here.  It’s what drives him forward through the narrative, and causes a lot of heartache and emotional pain for him.  He’s sad, angry, and curious about it at different points in the film.  Both Webb and Garfield make Peter’s pain strongly relatable and sympathetic.  It pours out even stronger after what happens to his Uncle Ben, which is handled with similar circumstances as in the original comics.

Marc Webb and the screenwriters made some smart choices in presenting a similar yet slightly different origin for Spider-Man.  Long standing events in the character’s origin still exist, but are simply given a different environment.  Same general context, but presented in a way to not be carbon copies of what was done in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man.  These sequences entirely retain the purpose and resonance they’ve always have, but we just get to see a different take on how they happen.  For instance, Peter gets bitten by the genetically altered spider because he goes snooping around OsCorp seeking answers on his father.  It’s not a pure chance that’s he’s at the lab.  Specific actions are taken by Peter to place himself in that situation, and Spider-Man is born out of it.  Again, these events are driven by character motivations.  They are plot elements that link back up with one another and tangle up quite nicely.

I love the newly designed costume.  Admittedly, I’m more of a general Spider-Man fan, not a die hard one.  So, I felt that Spidey’s costume could use a little updating, and this fits the bill very well.  The costume slowly comes together as Peter refines how he operates.  I also love how the web-shooters come about.  Sam Raimi decided to make them organic in his films because he didn’t think it was believable that Peter Parker could create an adhesive that some big corporation couldn’t invent.  Here, it is invented by a big corporation – OsCorp – and Peter merely obtains a supply of the material. That’s a brilliantly simple solution.  The mechanical shooters, however, are his creation.

The overall look of the film maintains that dramatic tone with a rich color scheme and respectably moody lighting.  Cinematographer John Schwartzman really does a fine job giving weight and beauty to the dramatic character scenes, and plenty of rousing, exciting camera work to the action sequences.  It looks like a big movie.  As always, I only go see the 2D versions, but I can see a few sequences theoretically turning out rather impressively in 3D, especially the Spidey point of view shots when he’s web-slinging.  There are plenty of dynamic and big shots in the action sequences to give your eyes a pleasant visual feast.  Complementing that is James Horner’s gorgeous score.  He’s done scores I’ve not cared much for, but he’s also done some wondrous work that I think highly of.  He does an exceptionally strong job here giving the film both its poignant emotional moments and its big heroic themes.  Marc Webb really pulled together all the right elements to encapsulate a cohesive tone overall.

And yes, Andrew Garfield is stellar in this role.  I like his take on the character.  He’s not some lowly geek with no spine.  He’s much more modern as a teenager who has a good heart and the desire to stand up to the bully in Flash Thompson, but just doesn’t have what it takes to physically or confidently take a stand.  He can be a little socially awkward here and there, but you can see his heart and charm shine through.  Garfield brings out a fully dimensional character that I truly felt for throughout the movie.  It’s a character journey where Peter has to come to grips with a lot of emotional struggles, and to grasp onto his responsibilities.  He helped Curt Connors find the missing equation that allowed him to become this mutated menace, and Peter knows he has to clean up his own mistakes.  As it has to be said, Garfield AMAZINGLY handles all these diverse aspects from the socially awkward to the heartfelt teenager in love to the emotionally hurting to the humorous wise cracker to the inspiring hero.  He is truly a rock solid fit for this character, and a substantive actor who can carry this franchise for a long time to come.

Emma Stone is equally as good.  She has talent to spare that makes an audience take investment in Gwen Stacy.  She’s a loving, caring, well rounded character brought to textured life by Stone.  She is beautiful and intelligent, making it no wonder why Peter Parker would be so fully taken by her.  I know that, in the comics, Gwen Stacy is killed by one of Spider-Man’s villains, but frankly, with an actress of this quality and breadth of talent, it would be foolish to dispose of her in any soon-to-come sequel.  Again, she has glorious chemistry with Andrew Garfield, and this film definitely takes its time to develop their loving relationship.  I hope to see it grow and flourish in any sequels Columbia Pictures chooses to make.

I also very much liked what Denis Leary did with Captain George Stacy.  Leary easily could’ve slipped into an area of comedy with his line deliveries, harkening to his role on Rescue Me with cynicism and such.  However, he keeps it restrained.  Leary has impressed me vastly with some dramatic roles in the past while also balancing humor such as in Suicide Kings.  Here, he keeps Captain Stacy a respectable man with a serious, focused mind.  He makes the character strong and pertinent as well as showing us some heart along the way.  It’s very exceptional that so many characters are given noticeable development as the film progresses.

I even like how Flash Thompson is given some development.  At first, he’s the usual hard ass bully muscling people around, but he’s given a few scenes where he softens a little.  He expresses compassion for Peter’s loss, and even sort of kids around with him at the film’s end.  That’s such an excellent touch to not make Thompson a one dimensional convenience.  So many times, a bully is just a shallow foil for the hero to overcome.  Here, we see that he is a human being with the capacity for being more than just a jerk.  That’s very nice work by the filmmakers with excellent execution by actor Chris Zylka.

Greatly compelling in the role of Dr. Curt Connors is Rhys Ifans.  He’s an intelligent character who slowly becomes more obsessed with his increasingly crazed machinations.  Once he’s injected with that serum, it begins to change him both biologically and psychologically.  Ifans goes from a fascinating, if distant character to much more unnerving and intimidating.  It’s a rather subtle performance he puts in, never trying to go over the top.  It entirely goes with the film’s general tone, and surely builds Connors up to being threatening as his psychological state becomes more unhinged.

Lastly with the cast we have Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May Parker.  I really, really liked them in these roles.  Sheen conveys the feeling of a surrogate parent doing the absolute best he can to be as good as Peter’s own father.  He’s compassionate and understanding, but also, stern when called for.  With the limited screentime he has, he creates a character that can resonate with an audience through Peter’s perspective.  Sally Field gives Aunt May a more modern sensibility than how the character is usually portrayed as some soft, grandmotherly type.  Field still gives her vulnerability and compassion, but feels like a parent most can relate to.  She has some spirit, humor, and inner strength that I very much admired.

I really just enjoyed how everything felt more contemporary here.  Characters felt like products of the world we live in, and have realistic depth.  It’s a long period of time before Peter Parker dons a costume in this because a lot of time is taken to develop the characters and the context of the world they inhabit.  It all feels very rich and dimensional.  This now feels like a film franchise that can have many layers to it that is not so action dependent.  It can create a compelling story driven by the characters and their emotional states.  Marc Webb definitely leaves the mystery about Peter’s parents open to be further explored and unraveled in another film or two.  There is a single scene just after the start of the end credits featuring Dr. Connors speaking to this effect with an unidentified character.  It’s a definite tease that keeps that storyline in the forefront of the minds of the audience.  I also like how Norman Osborn is continually mentioned, but never shown.  This sets up an unknown reveal of if and how the Green Goblin may enter into this franchise.

The visual effects are pretty good.  There’s a lot of really good stuff, and some effects that could still be better.  The Lizard himself can seem a tad lacking in the seamless realism.  Granted, it’s difficult to make a nearly seven foot tall Lizard appear realistic, but I just felt that it didn’t always interact well with its real world surroundings.  It could be a little cartoonish, especially when tumbling around with Spider-Man at times.  However, it never soured the movie to me.  Admittedly, the digital creation looks better in darker environments such as the sewers or nighttime exteriors, and that’s mostly where we see him.  Thankfully, essentially everything with Spider-Man as a digital effect is practically seamless.  I wasn’t so sold on it from the trailers, but in the film itself, I really can’t see any difference.  The motion of the character remains consistent with realistic weight given to his movements.  No loss of texture was evident to my eyes, either.

The action sequences tend to be very smart.  It’s very much making great use of Spidey’s various powers, and the environments they are set in.  I immensely loved the subway car scene where Peter is first discovering his powers, by accident.  You see the Spidey Sense in action as he reacts instinctually to threats and showcases his speed, agility, and strength without even realizing what he’s doing.  It’s also a rather funny sense as Peter unintentionally assaults some troublemaking subway riders.  There is a sequence showing Peter being overwhelmed by these strong powers, but he slowly reigns them in as he gets more comfortable having them.  It’s handled with some wit and humor along the way.  More dire action scenes really demonstrate the great dynamic between the Lizard and Spider-Man.  The former has the strength and size advantage, but that just forces Spidey to be more inventive and strategic in how he battles this foe.  The climax of the film is very well handled entirely shying away from the worn out “damsel in distress” scenario, and going with something far more organic from the plot that has more dire consequences for the whole city of New York.

However, as I said, this is a character driven story, and the film doesn’t end two minutes after the action climax.  It takes what time it needs to tie off the emotional and character threads that the film spent so much careful time developing.  I really, really like that, and it’s qualities like that which really elevate this film for me.  While I wasn’t astounded or floored by the film as a massively exciting experience, I found more value in that it was structured around character and the intent on building a deep, rich palette to draw upon for stories with more emotional depth and resonance than what was given to us previously.  I can definitely see some people not quite liking this film so much as does feel like a 136 minute film with its more easy pace.  It is a film that takes its time, but balances the drama with plenty of fun.

If Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was the equivalent of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, then The Amazing Spider-Man is the Batman Begins equivalent for this franchise.  I give The Amazing Spider-Man high praise and a wholehearted recommendation.  I was disappointed that The Avengers had such a weak plot and a totally stock villainous force with no emotional depth or character development.  This is just the opposite as I came to care for practically every pertinent character on screen because the writing was so strong and the direction was very strong and deeply impressive.  The story is injected with plenty of substance with beautiful chemistry from its romantic leads.  It never gets lazy by falling into clichés, and is intent on being fresh and weighty with a nice sense of fun.  The more I think of it, the more I love what this movie has to offer.  I wholly believe it is worth your time to experience it.  While it doesn’t have as much big action punch as The Avengers, I damn well enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man a hell of a lot more.  It feels like a full, fleshed out film with a world of possibilities to explore in subsequent entries.  I just hope most of the audience can see the value in it that I do because I really want to see more of this Spider-Man.


Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)

There is a myth in Star Trek lore that the even numbered movies are good and the odds numbered ones are bad.  That’s fairly simplistic, and not entirely a fair statement.  Yes, the franchise has had poorly conceived and problematic films in its lineup, but that hardly means that all the lesser entries are terrible.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a lot going against it, but as evidence by it, the talents of Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley have always been able to add redeeming qualities to all the original cast films.  Their chemistry, charm, heart, charisma, and depth have always shone through.  While there is a potential future review from me for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I wanted to delve into the follow-up to the franchise’s most critically successful film.  I wanted to address Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  While the first and fifth films have very obvious problems that have been well vocalized, I feel Trek 3 gets too much of a bad wrap.  I can pinpoint and agree with the reasons why, but I believe it’s been overly beat up because of it being in the shadow of The Wrath of Khan.  Time for someone to give it a more fair viewpoint.

The starship Enterprise is heavily wounded in the aftermath of her battle against Khan, but her crew survives by way of the sacrifice of Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  His body is launched from the ship in a memorial ceremony, and crash lands on the Genesis planet.  As the Enterprise and her crew arrive home to Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) finds his close friend and confidant Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelly) in Spock’s sealed quarters talking crazy, and eventually finds himself in lock-up after trying to charter passage to Genesis.  The hits keeping coming as Kirk learns that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned as the Starfleet brass believe her day has passed.  This is ever more apparent with the experimental new U.S.S. Excelsior ready to begin trial runs, ushering in a new era of Starfleet engineering.  However, Kirk is soon paid a visit by Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard), who tells him that Spock’s katra (i.e. everything that is not of the body) still lives, and they determine that Spock mind-melded with McCoy before his death.  This commits Jim Kirk to a course of action that could cost him his career by stealing the Enterprise to rescue Spock’s body from the newly formed Genesis planet, and reunite it what’s in Leonard McCoy’s mind.  Meanwhile, a ship of rogue Klingons, headed up by the cunning and merciless Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), seek to learn the secrets of the Genesis Device for the protection of the Empire with the science team on U.S.S. Grissom, including Kirk’s son David (Merritt Butrick) and Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis), caught in the crossfire.  The sacrifices of the crew of the starship Enterprise will be dire as they endeavor on their search for Spock.

I believe why this film is not as highly regarded as others is the lack of a strong theme.  In The Wrath of Khan, there was a prominent exploration of age, life, and death.  What they all mean in context to one another, and how someone like Jim Kirk dealt with them.  Here, there was enough room left open for strong themes to be explored, such as sacrifice and rebirth, but the opportunities are not taken with much ambition.  Considering all Kirk has battled through from Khan to the death of his friend, ship, and son, the story was ripe for deep resonance.  Of course, The Voyage Home doesn’t have such dramatic elements to it, and it has been widely beloved.  The Search For Spock is a segue between the tones of the films its sandwiched between.  It has its strong, dramatic elements, but also a lot of fun and light-hearted charisma.  One would think it would be praised for that fine blend, but it does lack the ambition that those other two films had.  They took some chances, pushing themselves for higher standards, and they succeeded.  While this second sequel doesn’t have much scope, I do gain enjoyment from it.  There are many aspects that I find are worth commending.

I love how the film is able to show the loyalty of the Enterprise crew.  Admiral Kirk gives them the opportunity to walk away before getting too deep into this rogue mission, but they have no hesitations in voicing their loyalties.  They are willing to stand by Kirk, regardless of the repercussions, because of  what they owe him, and ultimately, what they owe Spock for his sacrifice.  That strong, indestructible bond is not something that all Star Trek casts have been able to achieve, and that history amongst the crew of the original U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701 sells so much of Kirk’s motivations here.  Even if the film doesn’t dig deep enough to show how it penetrates to his soul, a seasoned viewer already knows it.  Tying into that is the always solid chemistry amongst the regular cast members.  They work as an ensemble that is very cohesive, and always on the mark.  Regardless of the quality of the film they are making, or how troubled the production may have been, the actors never get lazy or sloppy.  They respect their characters and the legacy they leave behind.  No pun intended, but Shatner puts in an admirable performance giving the film its constant pace through his wit and charisma.  He adds in the right touches of humor, as do his co-stars, but focuses the drama of the screenplay when it’s needed.

This film was really the dawn of the revamped Klingons.  The makeup redesign happened in the first film, but here, they finally explore the revised culture of the warrior race.  The concepts of honor, guile, and glorious death are well explored through Christopher Lloyd’s excellent Commander Kruge.  While the character himself is not explored with as much depth as he could have, Lloyd plays a surprisingly solid villain.  He’s cunning, deceitful, intelligent, and treacherous.  Lloyd has been known for a wide range of eclectic characters, but here, he delivers an excellent, calculated performance with a fine operatic screen presence.  Essentially, all Klingon actors followed in his footsteps as he laid the foundation and template for them right here.  I also enjoyed Kruge motives, which could have been the basis for fleshing the character out.  Like with Khan, Kruge sees the potential for Genesis as a weapon, but instead of using it as an instrument of revenge or tyranny, the Klingon Commander seeks it to protect his people.  He will not let the Federation have sole claim to something that could be used to commit genocide on his people, and he will stop at nothing to learn its secrets.  It could almost be an allegory to the nuclear arms race if Genesis was created as a weapon instead of as a terraforming device.  Kruge is calculating, and accepts nothing but the absolute best from his crew, lest they be met with fatal punishment.  Lloyd as Kruge was also the first to use the fully realized Klingon language.  It was great having the alien race’s culture more fleshed out and developed for this film to give the actors something solid and powerful to work off of.  The always impressive John Larroquette is here as one of Kruge’s subordinates, Maltz.  It’s a minor role, but he embraces it with his usual full commitment and high quality.  This film also introduced one of my favorite Star Trek starships – the Klingon Bird of Prey.  It’s an amazing design that is fierce and dangerous.  The green paint job was a smart departure from all the dull grey ships we had seen until then.  It gives the Klingons more personality from the moment the ship de-cloaks.  It is given an imposing, threatening introduction that serves the Klingons thoroughly.

I have always held Mark Lenard as Sarek in high regard.  You never get to meet the parents of the other Enterprise crew members, but for Spock, it has always been important to his character to see his family.  Lenard has always been able to portray Sarek’s wisdom and logic with a touch of heart.  While it’s hard to link emotional terms with the performance of a Vulcan, I would say that Sarek shows his soul in this film.  Losing his son is like losing a part of himself, as is the same with Kirk.  So, they share a rare moment which only Spock’s death could compel from them.  While Sarek & Spock’s father-son relationship has had its conflicts, Sarek is still a fine father that cares for his son more than he can ever allow himself to express.  No parent should see their child’s life end before their own, and Sarek sees a chance to reverse that tragedy.  Any parent would take that chance, no matter the odds.  Mark Lenard gave Sarek his wisdom, grace, conviction, and noble depth of character.  He was an incredible, inspiring actor that forged a legacy in this franchise that will stand for all time.

A possible issue of contention with this movie is the recasting of Saavik.  The role was originated by Kirstie Alley in The Wrath of Khan, but financial demands from her agent prevented her reprisal.  Instead, it went to Robin Curtis.  Both actresses play the role differently, but it was necessary to keep Saavik to maintain the character and story threads from the previous movie.  Both Alley and Curtis offer unique and admirable performances.  Alley’s Saavik was decently Vulcan with a subtle emotive quality.  She was a very untested Starfleet cadet with promise.  She came to grow over the course of the adventure, earning her keep.  Curtis’ Saavik is more confident and capable with a stronger Vulcan characterization and a sensitive nature that proves to be a strength.  She has a stronger will and sharper intellect to create a more complex character.  With the guidance of director Leonard Nimoy, she was given the freedom to make the character her own without the baggage of Kirstie Alley’s portrayal.  In the Vulcan legacy of Spock and Sarek, she adds great depth to Saavik beneath the surface.  Alley’s version entirely served the needs of The Wrath of Khan while Curtis’ portrayal suits the demands of The Search For Spock just as perfectly.

The visual effects are solidly up to the levels of the first two Star Trek films, as handled by Industrial Light & Magic.  They are definite proud achievements that hold up excellently today.  Model work and optical effects, when done by the master craftsman of the era, entirely stood the test of time, and should always remain available as milestones in cinematic history.  What doesn’t quite stand up over time are the scenes on planet Genesis.  The limitations of the budget are painfully evident with the obvious soundstage sets and painted backdrops.  Because of the limited budget, the filmmakers obviously couldn’t fly their actors to exotic locales around the world to feature all the diverse climates of this manufactured planet.  I can’t say that there was a feasible way to do this better at the time this movie was made, but even if it was the best solution, it’s still a detractor to the film’s production quality.  This is not a constant for every scene on Genesis, but the evidence is frequently apparent, regularly reminding you of this fact.

Another thing that I don’t care for here is James Horner’s score.  I’ve always been underwhelmed by his music for Star Trek.  For me, Jerry Goldsmith will always be the one and only master when it comes to cinematic Trek.  What John Williams is to Star Wars, Jerry Goldsmith was to Star Trek, in my view.  He ultimately defined the vast, sprawling, epic musical landscape of the franchise for me on the big screen.  Horner’s themes and cues are fine work, but they never became signature, identifiable themes for Star Trek.  Evidence of this is that Goldsmith’s theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture became the theme music for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Jerry was brought in to score five total films in the series over thirty-four years.  Horner was kept around for a total of three films, but I never cared all that much for the music he produced.  It was never outright bad, but it just never lived up to the musical potential of what Star Trek demanded.  It’s nicely arranged and gives the film some character, but it simply never does enough for me.  In this film, I seriously miss one of my favorite Goldsmith themes – the Klingon theme.  I can only imagine how awesome it would’ve been to see that Bird of Prey swooping around for the kill with that glorious fanfare in full orchestral breadth.  Kruge surely deserved a verbose and powerful theme to accompany his commanding presence, but James Horner makes no attempt to give the Klingons any presence in the film’s score.

The screenplay was written by producer Harve Bennett who was more akin to writing for television (such as The Mod Squad and The Bionic Woman) which, at the time, didn’t explore big thematic storylines with strong emotional resonance.  So, the scope of the film feels small for that reason.  As I said before, the limits were not pushed here to be ambitious and reach for something bigger or deeper.  That doesn’t mean the script is bad.  It certainly has its moments.  I truly like the part where the Excelsior’s Captain Styles tells Kirk that if he goes ahead with stealing the Enterprise, “You’ll never sit in the Captain’s seat again.”  Kirk doesn’t even flinch as he  just orders, “Warp speed.”  The first two films made a definite point that Kirk’s worth in life is directly tied to being a starship captain, but there’s something far more important at stake here.  He’d rather lose everything in his career if there’s a chance to bring Spock back to life, and restore McCoy’s mind to peace.  The dialogue is good and entertaining while encapsulating the characters perfectly.  The action scenes are nicely conceived, especially with the fight between the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey.  Seeing how the old NCC-1701 is overmatched because it is wounded and undermanned being run on automation was a fine touch.  It is entirely realistic that she can’t take the pounding.  While it would have been a glorious moment to see Admiral Morrow proven wrong with his statements of how old and outdated the ship is by seeing it triumph against such steep odds, I think it better fuels how much Kirk has to sacrifice to get his friend back.

While, clearly, I’ve said much about what is sacrificed on Spock’s behalf, but McCoy is at risk as well.  Jim Kirk has one friend dead and another in turmoil.  These two men – Leonard McCoy & Spock – are pieces to the whole that is James T. Kirk.  I always enjoyed the moment in Star Trek: The Motion Picture where Kirk drafts Bones back into service because he can’t do what he has to do alone.  “Dammit, Bones!  I need you!” says Kirk to McCoy.  Only after he has the wisdom, perspective, heart, and soul of these two men at his side can he succeed.  They bring balance to his ego, passion, guile, and intellect.  They re-enforce and focus his confidence.  They help him reflect upon himself.  Leonard McCoy is a vital piece of that formula bringing passion and humanity to the table.  Kirk can’t allow to see his friend’s mental state deteriorate, and lose him as well.

Regardless of anything else, ultimately, I have to praise Leonard Nimoy on his feature film directorial debut.  It was both a tough and enviable position for him to be in.  On one hand, he was unproven as a movie director, and had scrutinous limitations and supervision put on him in the shadow of a critically and commercially successful film.  However, he was working largely with a cast he had known for over fifteen years who knew their characters thoroughly, and that could allow Nimoy to direct with a built-in sense of respect.  I’m sure he had his difficulties, but his talent is clear to me.  He surely was allowed to soar with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home based on his success here.  It is a serious cinematic disservice that his career as a feature film director ended before it had a chance to soar.  He started out with solid hits including Three Men and a Baby.  However, he faced a crushing defeat, both critically and commercially, in 1994 with the comedy film Holy Matrimony which grossed less than $800,000 (less than 20% of its production budget).  Leonard really appeared to be a wonderful filmmaker with a great handle on action, drama, and humor.  I believe he would’ve had a lot to offer in a lengthy career had he gotten the right projects to his credit as a director.  Here, he delivered a very consistently paced and well balanced film that keeps is story elements in focus.  While there are likely plot holes in the reasoning of some characters here and there, they are minor bits and pieces that are relatively inconsequential.

At the end of this, I feel Star Trek III: The Search For Spock should not be viewed as a “bad movie.”  It doesn’t live up to the thoroughly solid thematic work of the previous film or the fun adventurous spirit of its follow-up, but it’s a nicely enjoyable film that had potential to be more than it was.  It has plenty of action, drama, and humorous moments to make it a consistent, satisfying and entertaining film.  The screenplay could’ve benefited from getting in deeper to the soul of the story.  It certainly touches upon it several times, but doesn’t stay there long enough to really develop the underlying themes in the story.  As it is, there is no reason to rank it poorly in the franchise.  It was commercially successful, and remains a fine classic Trek adventure for the original cast.  It merely in contrast to the exceptional and vastly superior films it is sandwiched between that give it a perceived smaller stature, and that I can understand.  But sometimes, you need to take things a little out of context to give them their proper due respect.


Unknown (2011)

Unknown was a lot more drama than actual action, despite what the marketing campaign tried to sell us.  Obviously, the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller hit Taken by marketing this movie as such, but this is hardly in the same league.

Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris who was come to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit.  However, attempting to return to the airport for a piece of luggage, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for multiple days.  When he awakens, his wife suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity.  Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally in the taxicab driver who saved his life (Diane Kruger), Harris delves into a dangerous mystery forcing him to question his sanity, his identity and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth.  Pieces gradually interlock to reveal more than Martin ever could’ve imagined about himself, and what is truly at work that he is now compelled to combat.

I’ve seen both positive and negative reviews praise the premise of the movie and its originality.  I do not know what movies these critics have been watching because my thoughts are to the contrary.  My main gripe is that the plot is a near carbon copy of The Bourne Identity with a few varying elements, but at its core, its the same basic plotline only not executed nearly as well.  Both Unknown and The Bourne Identity were based on novels, but the novel that Unknown was based on, Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, was published twenty-four years after Robert Ludlum’s well known novel.  So, there’s nothing really new to see here, and no one even attempts to disguise it.  Many films have similar plots, but the really good, even great filmmakers find ways to make it appear fresh, exciting, and interesting.  Unknown did not achieve that for me.  It’s not terrible, not at all, but it just comes off as not trying hard enough.  There are very good actors in this, but none of them seem to really put their full heart into it.  The film comes off as passable, not exceptional.

Neeson turns in a fine performance that carries the film nicely, possibly making it better than anyone attempted to make it, and of course, the action requirements are not a difficulty for him.  Nothing here is a challenge for him, which may be a shortcoming of the movie, but he doesn’t slack off at all.  It just doesn’t give him anything new to wrap his talent around.  Of course, that’s not something I really have any issue with.  What did bother me was how underused Frank Langella was in this movie.  His appearance as a sort of an old government “spook” is painfully underplayed to the point that any actor could’ve filled the role and done it just as well.  That’s a terrible remark to couple with Langella because he is an immensely powerful, enveloping actor with a wide range of talents.  He has inhabited so many diverse roles throughout his career that it’s sad to see him take on a role that seems like a quick, phoned in paycheck.  I can’t imagine he’s hard pressed for quality acting roles.  However, this does work as an example of the movie.  Whatever talent is involved is not motivated to push for anything better than mediocre.  It’s all standard fare, average offerings.

The action is very good when it happens, but there’s hardly enough to sustain momentum or interest for the plot.  I didn’t remain intently invested in the characters, or was as convinced of their motivations as better films have been able to do.  Circumstances and plot twists just don’t impact deeply enough to create believable reasons for the characters to push forward with their intentions.  Again, this is due to no one giving an extra effort to engage an audience’s invested interest.

The cinematography was entirely standard fare for the genre these days.  More handheld, shaky cam, fast editing stuff.  I’m beyond tired of that, and I wish filmmakers would get more inventive and clever when filming action sequences.  There are so many untapped ideas in that realm, it’s aggravating how many films just do the exact same thing every single time.  There was a time when action film directors had more self-identity and originality in the look and style of their own movies.  That time seems almost entirely behind us, now.  Why that is, I do not know, but this method of action cinematography and editing wore out its welcome a very long time ago.  Director of photography Flavio Labiano and editor Timothy Alverson really have nothing notable on their filmographies, and if they keep up this unoriginal, uninspired work, they won’t get any.  The same goes for the screenwriters and the director Jaume Collet-Serra.  Seriously, the director of the House of Wax remake?  I think that explains enough.

As I said at the start, this doesn’t have enough action to be really classified as a action film.  It’s closer to a dramatic mystery thriller.  It’s a lot of Martin Harris running around Berlin trying to piece together information and struggle with his sanity and perceptions.  Action sequences are not all that frequent, and again, when they do occur, they are poorly presented.  The quiet dramatic moments are nicely handled, mostly due to Neeson’s talent.  However, films ultimately fail when they market themselves as something they are not, and that occurred with Unknown.

I’ve seen review quotes stating this film’s superiority over Neeson’s previous action thriller Taken.  Personally, Taken was a far better crafted, more tightly executed, more emotionally investing, and more exciting action thriller.  This doesn’t have the pace, energy, or momentum to rival that film, and the studio would’ve been wiser to avoid such comparisons.  However, if they hadn’t they might have lost some box office revenue.  Even on its own merits, this is still a mediocre movie.  I can’t really recommend it because there are so many superior films in the genre, and other films that have done this premise with more success.  It’s not outright bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.