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STAR TREK: MOTION PICTURE TRILOGY
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Kirstie Alley, Ricardo Montalban
Directors:  Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 7.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  335 Minutes
Release Date:  May 12, 2009

"What have I done?"

"What you always do...what you HAD to do."

Overview:

Star Trek has become such an indelible part of our culture and our lives that it's hard to imagine that at one point in history, it was practically considered a failure.  When Gene Roddenberry brought his futuristic vision to television airwaves in the late 60s, it enjoyed some fan support, but by the third year, the constant moving of the schedule had killed any chance it had of being a success and Trek went the way of so many other shows...off the air, out of our lives, and soon to be forgotten.

Well, if you think that last part is true, you've been nipping a little too much of that Romulan ale.  Instead of withering away and dying, fan support continued to swell throughout the 70s.  The Star Trek convention was born.  Stars and others involved with the series were invited to attend.  And soon, Paramount and Roddenberry both realized there was more life to be had...on the big screen.

After Star Trek: The Motion Picture proved a box office success, the Trek team knew that the movie format would work for their ideas.  The next three films in the series would be closely tied together, and be forever known to fans as the Trilogy.  Parts II, III and IV took the crew of the Enterprise across the galaxy, back to earth, and face to face with life, death, and the choices that bind them all together.  And through it all, the stalwart and intrepid crew reminded us all why we loved them in the first place.

Star Trek: Motion Picture Trilogy captures the heart of the movie franchise, and celebrates all that was good and possible with the series turning to the silver screen.  Their success kept the franchise going, and paved the way for future projects such as The Next Generation, Voyager, and even a little film that took these same characters back to the beginning.  So here there are...but a word of caution; if you haven't seen the films, you might want to skip down to avoid possible spoilers.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ***1/2

“KHAAAN!!!”

When Star Trek:  The Motion Picture first debuted in 1979, it proved the franchise still had legs.  Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan showed that those legs were ready for the long run.

We fans proved with our box office dollars that we were ready for more Trek, but may have also demonstrated with grumbling that we were expecting something a little more from the series that had captured our imaginations for the previous decade.  No one really knew what to expect from the first sequel, but it turned out to be something better than we ever hoped.

The fresh talent involved might have helped.  Harve Bennett proved a formidable producer, and by re-watching all the original television episodes, found just the idea he was looking for in “Space Seed”.  Nicholas Meyer had only one director’s credit under his belt at the time and actually had little familiarity with Star Trek when he signed on.  Without a Trekkie’s experience, he instinctively tapped into the most important aspects of the show, and gave them new life in this movie.

But the veterans were all back as well, from creator Gene Roddenberry to his indelible cast, led by William Shatner as Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, and DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, plus the rest of the favorites we all knew and loved.  Added to the mix were one other formidable veteran, Ricardo Montalban, and one fresh faced newcomer with a bright future, Kirstie Alley.  All of these elements together brought The Wrath of Khan an absolute wealth of raw materials with which to build a story.

From “Space Seed” came an idea and a terrific character called Khan (Montalban).  He was a genetically engineered super being who was picked up in space by the Enterprise and subsequently, along with his followers, tried to usurp the ship from Kirk.  The uprising failed, and Khan and his people were left alone on a healthy planet to live out their lives as they saw fit.

An unforeseeable disaster struck along the way, leaving many of Khan’s people dead (including his wife).  Embittered and enraged, Khan and the rest of his followers seize a chance encounter with the Federation as a means of hunting down and destroying Kirk and the Enterprise once and for all.

This is a film that remembered everything that was great about the original series.  Gone were the sterility and talkiness of the first picture, and back were the heart, humor, and the faith in well established characters.  The Wrath of Khan gave us suspense, action, excitement, and one of the most intensely dramatic finales in any Star Trek story…and amusingly enough, it did it all with the smallest budget of any of the franchise’s films!

The key to the success of the picture was the imagination of its creators, which didn’t cost a dime.  The filmmakers had the courage to add their own mark to the Star Trek lore, and their visions carried on far into the future of the franchise.  Kirk’s son, for example, or the impenetrable Kobayashi Maru test.  The Wrath of Khan even invented the concept of a Neutral Zone between the Klingons and the Federation…can you imagine what the course of Star Trek would have been like without that?

Many fans embrace the second film as the best of the series…if it isn’t THE best, it’s certainly one of them.  The Wrath of Khan built an empire upon the first movie’s simple foundation, and arguably was the keystone that insured that Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future would live to see the future.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock ***

“Jim…your name is Jim…”

With that simple phrase quoted above, Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock ends on a note of hope and anticipation like no other entry in the series.  It proved all that came before was not in vain…and all that was still to come was wide open, and fraught with possibility.

As such, I feel compelled to come to the forefront a little bit here and defend what I think is one of the better films in the long running series.  Fans over the years have tended to lump the even numbered movies together as the “good” Star Trek films, and the odd numbered ones the “bad”.  As with many things in life, that's a little too simple to be fully true. 

I have looked around on the web to see what other critics have had to say about the picture…mainly, I was interested in learning whether or not a fresh viewing of this film on DVD would warm its reception.  Apparently, it hasn't.  The complaints are still mostly the same:  without Spock, a spark was gone from the relationships between Enterprise crew members.  Or that the film is simply nothing more than a transitional piece from numbers II to IV.  Or that this picture has the least amount of action, and was too low key.

Well for starters, sure, I missed Spock's presence on the bridge, and his always lively dialogues with Kirk (Shatner) and McCoy (Kelley).  I certainly wouldn't have wanted a string of films without him.  But I appreciated the courage the writers showed in taking a well traveled franchise into a slightly different direction, even if only for a couple of hours.  I liked that they were willing to alter the chemistry a little bit:  change the ingredients a bit and see what the new flavor might be like.  I also liked what the missing element of Spock allowed in terms of story structure and character development for the others.  This was where the Enterprise crew really had to test their mettle; to seriously ask of themselves how far would they be willing to go, and what would they give up, in order to save a loyal friend.

And yes, the film is directly a transitional piece in the series.  No other movies in the franchise flowed as evenly into one another as did II, III and IV—afterwards, the movies became more self contained and episodic, and number V proved that would not always be a good thing, either.  The complaint I don't fully understand is the one whereby those who haven't seen number II would be lost with this movie.  Honestly, how many people did they think that would be who would watch the third film without having seen the second?

And yes, the action is light here, but the action is not the point.  The entire story is wrapped around the concept of a group of friends who put their lives, their futures, and their reputations on the line to preserve all that their shipmate and companion was in life.  It may be unfortunate for those who wanted a few more space dogfights or weaponry that they failed to appreciate the simple dignity of this tale.

The film opens with a few of the final scenes from number II, whereby we are reminded that Spock (Nimoy) gave his life to save the Enterprise and her crew.  We are also reminded that Spock's body was jettisoned onto the newly forming Genesis planet…a once dead world made live from a startling new invention created by Kirk's son David (Butrick).  The battered and weary ship is now returning home.

Soon, it is discovered that McCoy is carrying Spock's essence, placed there by his Vulcan friend via a mind meld before his death.  It turns out, Vulcans have a way of preserving their knowledge and experiences beyond death, to be shared by others.  All that is needed is the information McCoy now carries in his head…and Spock's body.

Because the Genesis device has come under scrutiny, everything associated with the project has been made confidential, and Kirk and crew are denied permission to return to the new planet.  Naturally, they disobey orders, steal the Enterprise, and make their way back, only to learn two things:  the planet is unstable and aging rapidly, appearing to have strange effects on their once dead comrade, and a team of renegade Klingons led by Kruge (Lloyd) have plans to steal the Genesis technology to use for weaponry.  Severely undermanned and unassisted by the Federation, Kirk realizes that he cannot hope to repay his debt to Spock without sacrifice.

For my taste, there's much more to this film than just a lengthy segue into the series' most popular entry in number IV.  This picture is not about loose ends being tidied up.  It's a story about real courage and commitment, about the price of honor and the reward of loyalty.  For me, it is the film that most demonstrates what was so great about this group of people, and why many years later, we still follow their adventures.  This was a quiet, shining moment for them all.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home ***1/2

"Don't tell me...you're from outer space."

"No, I'm from Iowa.  I only work in outer space."

Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home remains by and large the most popular entry in this film series.  Why?  Well, it’s a lot of fun, for one.  There was something about those old time travel episodes of Star Trek that we fans enjoyed…having familiar characters from the 23rd century forced to fumble their way through our maddening and dangerous world.  It was just enjoyable.  And this film, despite a serious and not-too-subtle ecological message at its core, doesn’t take the time travel thing too seriously here.  Consider how lightly Scottie and McCoy treat the whole notion of altering the future at one point…did they not remember the tragic consequences of “The City on the Edge of Forever”?

Number 4, of course, represents the final portion of these three most integrated Trek films, beginning with Wrath of Kahn and continuing through The Search for Spock, until completing here.  In other words, any other film in the lengthy series can be viewed pretty much independently of the others.  But it really helps to have seen 2 and 3 before watching 4.

Picking up where the third movie left off, Kirk (Shatner) and his crew decide to return to Earth and face the consequences of their actions from the previous movie (see what I mean?).  However, they cannot do that because Earth is in a dire state of turmoil.  A huge alien probe has arrived, emitting a powerful communication signal that has disrupted all systems and is ionizing the planet’s atmosphere, causing not only severe weather but a cut-off from the sun.  The humans cannot understand the message, so there seems to be no hope of responding satisfactorily to the probe, and thus surviving.

But leave it to Spock (Nimoy) to discover that the signal was meant for humpback whales…a species that is extinct in their time.  So, using the old trusty “slingshot” maneuver, Kirk and company travel back in time to 1986 in an effort to bring a couple of whales into the future and hopefully dispose of the alien probe.

Well, our primitive society causes no end of problems for the plucky crew, and the results are often hysterical.  Who could forget Chekhov asking passersby about the “nuclear wessels” (a scene that was largely improvised with actor Walter Koenig approaching actual San Francisco residents, who largely ignored him).  Or Spock’s use of “colorful metaphors” to fit in, whereby he throws in an awkward swear word every other sentence.

Once they discover the whales, the crew becomes involved in a race against time.  Can they create a suitable aquarium on board their ship, repower their fused energy crystals, and rescue a fallen teammate in time to take the whales before they’re let back out to sea?  Has the Enterprise crew ever not saved the day?  That is, if you ignore the fact that their aquarium was completely enclosed, which would have meant no air for the giant mammals to breathe on the trip back to the future, but dammit, man, they’re explorers, not marine biologists.

I also could have done without the ridiculous attempt at a suspense sequence where Kirk and company attempt to save the whales from a whaling ship.  Let’s see, a big wooden schooner versus a fully loaded Klingon Bird of Prey…I wonder who’ll win?  Plus, the point about humanity’s ecological irresponsibility had long since been well taken by that point.  Time to get off the soapbox and continue the story.

But in the end, The Voyage Home remains a fun, exciting thrill ride for the Enterprise crew.  So much so that even Spock seems to lose his character near the end when the crew has triumphed.  He can be seen smiling and laughing with his shipmates as they celebrate.  What the heck…even a Vulcan deserves to cut loose now and again.

Video:  Wrath of Khan ***, Search for Spock ****, Voyage Home ***1/2

Age still seems to be an issue with The Wrath of Khan.  This Blu-ray offers marked improvements over the prior incarnations, but certain scenes still seem a bit soft, grainy and murky...particularly the opening shots and some of the darker moments.  Others shine through with a greater detail, such as Kirk's home or the Genesis planet.

No complaints with The Search for Spock; it is quite a revelation in high definition.  The space sequences look sharp and crystal clear, and the level of detail on the starships and on the Genesis planet is remarkable, with strong and well contained colors and a vibrant sense of depth and clarity.

The Voyage Home is looking better, with less softness and more detail than before, and better overall coloring.  The outdoor earth scenes hold up well in the daylight; a few darker scenes still exhibit a touch of grain here and there, but still a solid presentation.

Audio ***1/2 (all)

These 7.1 TrueHD mixes are quite nice throughout...each film shows slight improvements as they progress, but overall, commendable work.  Dialogue is a tad thin here and there, but the overall mixes with effects and music are quite lively and dynamic, with some solid and clever uses of the surrounds and bass channel.  The activity on the Enterprise always sounds full and keeps you in the center of the action.

Features ****

To avoid any confusion...there's been controversy as to whether these Blu-ray discs did or did not have the extras included on the original Special Edition DVD releases.  I can attest that they are in fact there...they are not promoted on the box cover, but all the extras from the DVDs save for the text trivia tracks are included, as well as many new Blu-ray exclusive features.  In fact, on all three discs, you can access extra trivia via BD LIVE and watch the movies with the Library Computer, which offers one click info to characters, technical terms and more as you view...be warned, though, it can move a little fast.

The Wrath of Khan contains contains a commentary track from director Nicholas Meyer, along with the terrific documentary “The Captain’s Log”, which has interviews with Shatner, Nimoy, Montalban, Meyer and producer Harve Bennett.  I enjoyed it immensely…especially the bones Shatner still has to pick with a few people twenty years after the fact!  There are also featurettes on the design of the movie and the visual effects, which was quite interesting…some of the picture’s most memorable visuals were actually achieved quite simply and inexpensively.  There is also a trailer, storyboards, a short collection of original 1982 interviews with Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley, and finally, “The Star Trek Universe”, featuring exposition by ST novelists Greg Cox and Julia Ecklar.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray release is a second commentary featuring Meyer and Manny Coto, a look at composer James Horner, a collection of the movie relics, Meyer's touching tribute to the late Ricardo Montalban, and "Starfleet Academy" with a look at Ceti Alpha V.

For The Search For Spock, we get the original DVD extras including a terrific audio commentary featuring Leonard Nimoy, writer/producer Harve Bennett, cinematographer Charles Correll, and co-star Robin Curtis.  Though not recorded as a group, it's still a track that edits together well and has a good flow.  Nimoy does most of the talking, and his recollections and affinity for the project make for an enjoyable listen.  "Captain's Log" is a fresh look back at the making of the film, featuring new interviews with Nimoy, Shatner, Bennett, Curtis, and even the inimitable Christopher Lloyd.  Shatner's memory of 'teaching' his comrade Nimoy to direct is particularly amusing!  There are also featurettes on speaking Klingon (this was the first feature to really delve into creating a useable language for the Federation's foe), the special effects and models, costuming and make-up, a look at the real-life counterpart to the Genesis project: terraforming, plus storyboards, a photo gallery, and trailers.

The Blu-ray exclusives include a second commentary by Trek men Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor (neither worked on this movie, but both have worked on series and are fans).  There is a new featurette on Industrial Light and Magic, a look at one of the actors playing young Spock and some of his interesting stories, a trip to the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame with Harve Bennett, and "Starfleet Academy" with an explanation of the Vulcan Katra transfer.

Finally, for The Voyage Home, there's a special audio commentary by Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner together.  The two friends share warm memories, laughs, and some good inside information as they watch the film together.  A few gaps here and there doesn't keep this from being one that Trekkies are going to love! "Future's Past" features new cast and crew interviews, while "On Location" takes you through some of the San Francisco settings.  You also get a chance to compare dailies side by side and take a close up look at sound design.

"Time Travel" speaks with some modern day physicists on the subject of whether or not such a thing is even possible.  "The Language of Whales" brings you closer to the mysterious songs of our ocean going mammal friends.  "A Vulcan Primer" looks at Spock and the Vulcan legacy through the years.  "Kirk's Women" features new interviews with Catherine Hicks and three other of the captain's leading ladies throughout the years as they open their hearts about working with Shatner!

Two visual effects featurettes go back to the making of the film and show that not all of the creative problems came from the futuristic side of the movie, but rather, the present-day scenarios!  There are tributes to Gene Roddenberry (featuring his son), and to actor Mark Lenard who portrayed Sarek throughout the long lineage of Star Trek, featuring his wife and daughters.   The original DVD features close out with archived interviews with Nimoy, Shatner and DeForest Kelley, collections of storyboards and production stills, and the original trailer.

And exclusive to Blu-ray, this third disc also features a second commentary with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who are both involved with the new Star Trek film, an interview with Walter Koenig, a look at the three films that make up the central trilogy in the franchise, Star Trek for a cause, and the "Starfleet Academy" look at the whale probe.

All of the extras seem anamorphically enhanced, and everything made for the Blu-ray release is in HD.  When you look behind Mr. Koenig in his interview and see his expansive collection of memorabilia, you'll highly appreciate that fact!

Summary:

I hope we'll be seeing more of Star Trek on Blu-ray in the future.  This franchise always had an eye for what was to come, so the marriage between Roddenberry's vision and Blu-ray technology is a perfect match.  You can own the entire original six film set in the high definition format, but for the more budget conscious, the Star Trek Motion Picture Trilogy is a fine way to start.

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