Star Trek: The Motion Picture
I was not surprised to see that Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the lowest rated film on Letterboxd featuring the original cast, but that doesn’t mean I’m less certain that the consensus is wrong. Whether you’re a fan of Wrath of Khan, the TNG series, or the Abrams reboots, y’all can suck on it because this movie is fucking Star Trek. Period. No, I don’t care that it’s similar to “The Changeling”. This is the quintessential Star Trek film.
Yes, it’s basically 2001 rewritten for the Star Trek universe, and that’s exactly as it should be. It’s about a giant ass AI ship that’s headed for Earth, and the crew must use their wits to subvert the AI’s logic protocols and save humanity from being snuffed out. What is more Star Trek than that?
Robert Wise was the perfect man to helm the director’s chair. People grouse about the pacing, but I feel he finally lent this franchise the gravitas for which it always strived in the first place. He takes his time introducing each character and you feel like you’re getting to know them for the first time while reveling in the special chemistry these actors shared in this setting. Of course, Scotty is stressed about the new design. Bones is a lovable crotchety grump about the new sick bay, but Kirk lays down the law and tells everyone to buckle up because humanity is at stake. Spock’s arrival aboard the Enterprise is easily one of best entrances ever. He’s bringing so much Vulcan stoicism that it approaches Eastwood levels of badass.
Thematically, this is just a remix of 2001, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The V’Ger AI had amassed tremendous quantities of information, but it had no human consciousness. It was an AI facing a Nietzschean existential crisis. Subsequently, it saw humans as pathogens to be eliminated. It wanted to evolve by merging with an actual human. If 2001 went over your head, Roddenberry repackaged the same idea for a younger generation. Now, folks like Ben Goertzel and Elon Musk are discussing these ideas openly.
The irony is that Roddenberry was a secular liberal globalist who had largely skeptical view of religion. While the show always presented the combination of Kirk’s human intuition and Spock’s ruthlessly rigorous scientific mind as a harmonious and heroic dynamic, the worldview itself leads to the barren ennui of V’Ger.
This is a minor gripe in what I consider the crown jewel of the Star Trek films featuring the original cast. Besides, you’re never going to see six full minutes of Kirk and Scotty just cruising through space dock taking in the glory of the USS Enterprise quite like this ever again.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Besides being one of the best sequels in modern cinematic history, it’s also a clever reimagining of Moby Dick and Paradise Lost. Even if you aren’t familiar with the literary references, the entire film can be seen as an extended exploration of one the RAND Corporation’s biggest exports: game theory. Specifically, the no-win situation.
The film opens with Kirstie Alley’s Lieutenant Saavik taking the now famous training simulation, the Kobayashi Maru. Rescue the Maru, and you violate the Neutral Zone treaty and precipitate hostilities with the Klingons. Ignore the signal and the crew dies. What’s a Starfleet cadet to do?
This conundrum is emblematic of the paradigm of enlightened scientific rationalism that has always been Star Trek’s calling card. We see the world through the eyes of a military starship captain. The welfare of the collective is always measured in terms of maximizing some Benthamite calculus. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
This is also an early and explicit example of geoengineering in film. Where Star Trek Into Darkness completely bypassed the moral implications of geoengineering by justifying it under the aegis of the Prime Directive, much of the drama of The Wrath of Khan comes from the fulfillment of David Marcus’s fear that the Genesis Project could be weaponized. Just as we saw in Avatar, we see an unholy alliance between the world of scientific innovation and the military-industrial complex. The movies always trick you by making you think there’s a bright line between the motivations of scientists and the military hierarchy overseeing them.
David Marcus’s reconciliation with Kirk is very heartwarming, but his skepticism towards Starfleet and militarized science is not unfounded. Khan is himself the byproduct of genetic engineering gone awry.
What’s truly remarkable is just how restrained the overall tempo and volume of The Wrath of Khan is. It’s a film that allows the tension to build organically. Especially in comparison to the Abrams reboots. Maybe attention spans have been permanently diminished, but one gets the impression that Abrams doesn’t grasp what made Star Trek tick in the first place.
The ending still gets to me. My love for these original films is eternal. Absolutely classic.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Star Trek has always glorified scientific utopianism, but anyone who doubts that it is deeply spiritual at its core needs to give this one a spin. Not only is it loaded with Biblical symbolism, but the Vulcan ritual at the end is as pagan as it gets.
Despite Star Trek’s overt sympathies for globalism and scientism, this film levels a scathing critique at scientific hubris. The Genesis project may have raised Spock from the dead, but besides being a failure, it was sought by the Klingons to be utilized as a superweapon.
I feel sorry for anyone who really thinks that the Abrams reboots truly represent Star Trek. If you want to understand the difference between then and now, just marvel at the way Nimoy managed to make the Enterprise’s escape from space dock dramatic. It’s the kind of patient filmmaking you’ll never get from a JJ Abrams.
- Aside from the very obvious Genesis/Lazarus symbolism, this film reveals that Star Trek is ultimately very concerned with spiritual questions but is packaging them in a veneer of scientific rationalism. Kirk undertook the mission because his soul was at stake.
- I suspect that James Cameron borrowed from the katra ritual to some extent for the conclusion of Avatar.
- Vulcan mysticism is very overtly pagan. I’d argue that it’s fundamentally Platonic.
- Star Trek glorifies the achievements of Starfleet and the Federation, but almost every one of Kirk’s great achievements requires him to buck the bureaucracy and disobey orders.
- Despite the radical scientific advancement that the Genesis project represented, it was a failure and it was sought by the Klingons so it could be exploited as a superweapon. Once again, you have the veneration of scientific advancement (e.g. warp capabilities, transporter tech, terraforming, etc) while simultaneously showing how these technologies can be weaponized.