Pop-culture recycling doesn’t get much knottier than this. In 2009, J.J. Abrams directed “Star Trek,” a reboot of a popular movie franchise spun off from a legendary TV series. The film succeeded beyond all expectations — it was rousing and sharp, nostalgic yet forward-thinking, an adventure for Trekkies and newbies and everyone in between. It was also a powerful reminder that the reason this particular movie franchise got off the ground in the first place had more than a little to do with the galaxy-altering success of “Star Wars.”
In 1979, the maw of Hollywood was hungry for space operas, and here was a mythical TV series, with its army of fans, that had had a major influence on George Lucas’s Movie That Changed The World. The first three “Star Wars” films are often thought of (with justification) as a joystick update of a “Buck Rogers” serial. But really, it was the innovation of “Star Trek” — the TV series — to treat an outer-space universe of rubber-gilled aliens and lurching superships and tech-jock pilots as casually miraculous, eye-popping science.
The whole Han Solo tone of wisecracks at warp drive (or light speed, or whatever we’ll be calling it in ten years) was, to a degree, a knockoff of the gospel according to Gene Roddenberry. As long as William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and company were starring in them, the original wave of “Trek” movies, of which there were six (I count the “Next Generation” films as, in essence, a different series), were always a slightly awkward hybrid, with one foot stuck in the stodgy land of ‘60s television and the other in the post-”Star Wars” nebula of FX dazzle.
The first movie was actually entitled “Star Trek — The Motion Picture,” which makes it sound like something you might watch at a nickelodeon. If I had to choose my all-time favorite “Star Trek” film, it would still probably be “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” even though it’s a movie whose human (or Klingon, or genetically engineered mutant tyrant) drama is ultimately more memorable than its cheesy-awesome trapped-in-the-’80s spectacle. Ricardo Montalban, seething with vengeance and a kind of mad-dog disco-chest-thumping virility, rocked and ruled, and what more could any “Star Trek” fan really want? None of the next four films in the series could hold a phaser to it.
By Owen Gleiberman