Thirty three years after the first film's release, Star Wars remains the dominant cinematic sci-fi franchise, far outpacing Star Trek both commercially and critically. But between the success of J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek reboot and the continuing erosion of George Lucas' Star Wars brand with shoddy prequels and spin-offs, Trek is starting to emerge from the shadow of Lucas' moneymaking colossus. It's therefore time to reevaluate Star Trek's filmic legacy, not as manna for pop culture nerds but as a legitimate counterpoint to Lucas' visually stunning but increasingly impersonal empire.
The Royal will provide such an opportunity with a two-month midnight-screening retrospective of the first six Trek films — the ones featuring the 23rd-century characters from the original late-'60s TV show, including unshakably logical Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and cocky Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Although these plucky, uneven movies lack the zeitgeist-channeling wonder of the best Star Wars films, their dependably modest charms and ingratiating underdog spirit lend the Trek series a soulfulness often missing in other sci-fi spectacles.
Not that the Trek films don't owe a debt to Lucas: Paramount and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry were inspired by Star Wars' massive box-office haul to launch a big-screen makeover, although their first installment draped itself in a seriousness that suggested they wanted very badly to distance themselves from Lucas' giddy Saturday-matinee earnestness. A somber Solaris-meets-2001 drama, 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture reunited the old TV cast to intercept a lethal gas cloud, beginning a journey to try to transform this Western-in-space show into cinematic entertainment. Solidly helmed by industry veteran Robert Wise, The Motion Picture wisely de-emphasizes the cast's wildly fluctuating acting abilities (a recurring Trek problem) by putting the focus on the more reliable grandeur of space, striking a nice balance between solemnity and technology.
Responding to complaints from critics and Trekkies alike about The Motion Picture's brainy tone and lavish cost, the producers mapped out a leaner sequel, in the process confronting the dilemma of how to make wham-bang sci-fi movies on a miniscule budget, with actors entering their fifties. The superb solution of 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was to make those limitations part of a darker, character-driven story. Though directed by Nicholas Meyer with the steeliness of a submarine thriller, Khan is the most moving installment, tackling issues of mortality and regret while featuring the superb Ricardo Montalbán as Kirk's megalomaniacal old nemesis, Khan. And all these years later, its poignant, bittersweet ending can still leave a lump in the throat.
In the first two films, Nimoy's steady presence emerged as a happy constant for those who could only take so much of Shatner's shtick — which helps to explain why 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock drags. Directed by Nimoy, Spock features very little Spock and lacks the pathos and grit of Khan. But it sets the stage for future glory two years later.
Acknowledging its inability to continue competing with the effects-heavy adventures of the Star Wars sequels and Indiana Jones films, 1986's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home hits upon a new strategy: Make 'em laugh. Voyage Home's high-concept premise finds our graying heroes traveling back to then–present day San Francisco to retrieve humpbacked whales that can communicate with a destructive alien probe threatening 23rd-century Earth. Fish-out-of-water comedy and ecological messages ensue: What could have been a franchise-killing goof instead turned out to be a huge hit, the film's affable breeziness superbly complementing Khan's Shakespearian drama.
The Voyage Home would have been a strong final chapter, but instead, the cast lumbered through two more sequels. Chintzier-than-normal effects torpedo 1989's Razzie-winning Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, while 1991's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country coasts on nostalgia as it sends our heroes off into the sunset. Whatever –– they're still better than The Phantom Menace.
They didn't have the budget of a Spielberg film, or the visionary ambition of a Cameron film, and age and creative exhaustion eventually doomed the U.S.S. Enterprise's noble crew, but taken as a whole, the original six Trek films possess a light, thoughtful touch. Ironically for a franchise set three centuries in the future, the Trek films stick in the memory because of something lovably antiquated: a heroically corny focus on universal themes. II's fear of aging, III's salute to friendship, V's examination of our need for charismatic prophets — the effects may look dated, and some of the performances lean toward the unsubtle, but the films' skill at tapping into our collective hopes and fears endures. To paraphrase Kirk's tribute to his beloved comrade, Spock, of all the interstellar franchises that we have known, Trek remains the most human — wonderfully so.
Simply 70 (mm) Star Trek Spectacular-Spectacular Saturdays, Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., W.L.A. Through July 24, laemmle.com