It's Like a Trek, but in Space. A Space Trek, if You Will
So I recently picked up Star Trek Into Darkness on Blu-Ray. This in and of itself is not a huge revelation. I own WAY too many movies, and a solid portion of them are on Blu-Ray. Plus, I own the rest of the Star Trek movies on Blu-Ray, so Blu-Ray Into Darkness was going to join it's family sooner or later. I managed to get the film for ten bucks, and I was happy.
The thing is, I wouldn't have spent more than $10 for it. Ten is just about my cut-off point for decent (but not great) movies I'll eventually have to buy no matter what. I spent $7 on the Spider-man reboot. I managed to get away with spending only $5 on the Incredible Hulk (Hulk Smash Harder). Hell, I paid $10 for Dredd, and I loved that movie. Many movies are worth between $5 and $10, but few are worth more.
What it led me to think upon, though, was that the Star Trek Curse (ie, "every other Trek movie is bad") is still alive and well just so long as you rephrase it a touch. In other words:
"Every good Star Trek film is followed by one that is comparatively much worse."
If we look over the history of the series, we opened poorly with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This first movie was made as an attempt to cash in on the success of Star Wars (I'm sure some coked-out movie exec was thinking "that Space Wars movie was all about space. What space thing can we make?"). What Star Trek I: The Quest for a New Franchise did was commit the most unforgivable sci-fi sin: it was boring. Long, interminable shots of ships moving SLOOOOOOOWLLLLY through space, intercut with a whole lot of plot and talking, but not really any battles or action. If you're a fan of space, and long, loving shots of space, and guys just floating along in space, I have the movie for you.
It's called 2001: A Space Odyssey. Seriously, it's a much better movie. Go watch that.
Skipping along, though, the next flick was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Already we're doing better. The movie studios trust that we understand it's a "Motion Picture", seeing as how we're in a movie theater to watch it (the first film obviously thought we might be unclear about it, what with all the LOOONG SLOOOOW shots, so they decided the title should remind us. "Was that a motion picture I just watched, or a poster?" "Well, the sign did say 'The Motion Picture', so I guess it was.")
But Wrath of Kahn did so many things better than the first flick. It had tons and tons of action. It had great character moments. It has a villain that's actually interesting (plus, it has his meaty pecks for the ladies. Mmmm, rich, Corinthian leather). In fact, arguably the biggest "weakness" of Kahn is that it has no real plot. It's just a few minutes of setup, and then action, action, action, EXPLOSIONS, action, mic drop, credits. It gets yous everything you want in a space opera without any filler.
When Wrath of Kahn was a success (with how poorly the first movie did, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Kahn would make any money), a sequel was greenlit. I won't go into details about the plot of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock just in case someone out there hasn't seen it yet (and the plot ties very heavily into the second movie), but suffice it to say that it's a direct sequel to movie two, and yes, in a sense, Spock is missing (if they made a Where's Waldo style book where you searched the universe for Spock, I would buy the shit out of that).
Search for Spock isn't a bad movie. Don't get me wrong, it's perfectly serviceable. But, in comparison to the previous movie, it's kind of a let down. It doesn't feel as focused, it's not as action oriented, and the special effects aren't as good. By the reasoning of the old "curse", Star Trek III had to be considered a "bad" movie, which it really wasn't. It's just hard to compare it to what came RIGHT before.
Of course, the fandom is kind of split on how to classify the fourth film. Another direct sequel picking up immediately after the events of Star Trek III, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is, basically, the one with the whales. Some fans love it, while others detest it. If the thought of the Enterprise crew hanging out in "present day" Earth (1980s, when the film was made) looking for humpback whales so they can save future Earth from an environmental satellite doesn't thrill you, well... yeah, I can see that. You have to want to watch the crew in a fish out of water story. Otherwise, it just won't work.
But then, moving along as we are, the less said about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the better. It's the one with Spock's brother and, of all things, God. It's absolutely wretched. A real piece of shit movie. The only reason to ever mention it is to use it as an argument for why you don't hate Star Trek Nemesis so much.
That brings us, though, to my favorite movie in the classic franchise. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country feels like the first proper sequel to The Wrath of Kahn, which, really, is no fluke -- it was written and directed by the same guys that were behind the second movie (namely director Nicolas Meyer and writer Leonard Nemoy). It's just as much a space opera as number two, but with a mystery thrown on. Plot and action in just the right balance. it's everything this Star Trek fan wanted, and was a proper send off the the classic crew before the Next Generation took over.
But, wow, were the Next Generation movies universally bland. Movie seven for the franchise, Star Trek Generations, featured a magical plot device to explain how both Captain Picard and Captain Kirk could be int he same timeline, and if you thought about it at all for five seconds, everything fell apart. I'd say it was the worst of the movies, but we're not even close yet.
Movie nine (we'll get to the eighth one in a sec), Star Trek Insurrection featured the crew on a pleasure planet aiding one set of people who magically stayed young and lived forever outwit another group of people who lived forever through plastic surgery. It's dumb and ridiculous and never really works. It's tone is all over the place, it doesn't have enough action, and the villains are boring. If it had been an episode of the series, it would have been forgotten, unloved every time someone came across it while rewatching the DVDs.
The worst of the Next Gen movies, though, was Star Trek Nemesis (number ten for the franchise). Nemesis really, really wanted to be The Wrath of Kahn, but they could never recapture that magic without Nicolas Meyer on board (and he went no where near that failed production). I've seen Nemesis twice now, and I still can't tell you what happened during the movie. Something about a Picard clone and Romulans that aren't Romulans (Remans?). And... yeah. Stuff.
Don't watch it unless you want to make yourself feel better about the fact that you also watch Star Trek V.
Honestly, if it wasn't for movie eight, Star Trek First Contact, the whole Next Gen series would be a complete wash. First Contact is about the Enterprise-D getting sucked back in time by a Borg time-tunnel. While in the past (which is still our future), the Enterprise crew has to help Zephram Cochran build the first working warp engine all so the humans and the Vulcans can meet for the first time. Oh, and there are Borg. Borg are evil, and we needed a villain in all this.
Again, First Contact is the best of the Next Gen series. That's just not a very high bar. It's a perfectly decent film, and if you don't have any knowledge of the Star Trek expanded universe (one where good ol' Zeph had many different versions of that fateful meeting with the Vulcans), you'd probably like the flick well enough. Well, if you can around Captain Picard's need to chew all the scenery that every existed. At times it gets a little ridiculous.
So what is that, two good movies, three decent movies, and that don't seem to come in any real order. Highlighting the winners, we have: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, and some would argue all of those. The curse is no where to be found there, we can just confirm that the the very best (II and VI) were followed up by inferior movies. And certainly after part three, any half-way good movie was followed by a bad one.
So yeah, the curse never existed. I can confirm that the rule I want to establish in its place, "every good Star Trek film is followed by one that is comparatively much worse," is quite verifiable. And it's still going.
Although it may have its detractors, the sequel/reboot/alt-continuity 2009 film Star Trek is amazing. Most agree it's a phenomenal return to form for the franchise and, while not perfect (seriously, how do you escape a black hole, or even stay flying anywhere near it, when you've just ejected your only means of propulsion?), it's far and away better than anything since at least Star Trek VI. The movie would be a hard act to follow, even with the same production team.
And the sequel, Into Darkness, is not a great movie. For some reason J.J. Abrams and his production team felt that what we needed was Wrath of Kahn again, only this time more literal, as Kahn is actually in it once again. We already have Wrath of Kahn. Any other version is largely unnecessary. And that's the problem with the movie. It's fine. Very serviceable. It's just not necessary.
"Every good Star Trek film is followed by one that is comparatively much worse." Words to live by. I can't tell you if the next Star Trek movie will be any good. But I can almost guarantee you that, if it is, the one after it probably won't be.