It’s long been said that the Star Trek movies work on an unwritten rule that the odd numbered ones wind up being disappointments and the even numbered ones wind up being the ones that are worth watching. If you go down the lineup and check the work on that theory, it seems to hold up. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was widely considered to be a misfire, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was considered to be the rebound that got things right, and then things keep sticking to that pattern all the way up to the tenth movie, Star Trek: Nemesis, which is said to have ended the streak of even numbered movies being good and is essentially the reason the franchise had to go through a reboot.
Of course, if you’ve read this column before, you can probably predict that I don’t agree with this assessment. The Wrath of Khan is widely considered to be the best of the Star Trek movies, but to my non-fan eyes it plays as a set-bound bore full of paunchy, over the hill actors who were well past needing to be put out to pasture. Maybe you need an emotional investment in the franchise to really get its appeal. Nemesis, on the other hand, starts really horribly with a cringe-worthy wedding scene full of clunky banter and fake laughter, but as it goes on it develops into becoming an entertaining enough big, dumb action movie. It’s the perfect thing for the casual viewer, and not worthy of being remembered as a franchise-crippling failure.
What do they have in common?
Well, you’ve got the obvious connection that they’re both Star Trek movies. But, in addition to that, they also both feature villains with personal connections to the Enterprise’s captains. Ricardo Montalban’s Khan blames Captain Kirk (William Shatner) for the death of his wife and is out for revenge in The Wrath of Khan, and Nemesis introduces us to Shinzon (Tom Hardy), who’s a god dang clone of Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, and who wants to harvest his brother’s blood and blow up all of humanity.
They also both involve big character sacrifices, so if for some reason you still don’t know what happened in old Star Trek movies and are worried about being spoiled, maybe it wouldn’t be the best idea to keep reading.
Why is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan overrated?
After Star Trek: The Motion Picture proved to be a disappointment, this one was made with a severely slashed budget, and those limitations are visible everywhere. The bulk of Wrath of Khan is set-bound, taking place on the bridge of ships and in the anonymous corridors of space stations, and it can have a claustrophobic effect on you after a while. This, of course, was the same setup of many of the episodes of the original series, but the closed-in effect is much less pronounced when you’re dealing with it one episode at a time. Stretched out to feature length, it becomes nearly unbearable. And at least they’d beam down to a new planet every once in a while on the show. Here they spend the whole film floating around in some sort of nebula that looks like a cheap black light painting.
These aren’t groundbreaking observations. The famous criticism of the Star Trek franchise has always been that it’s a boring procedural with people standing around a bridge set and reacting to things happening on monitors. But sometimes it’s a damned valid criticism. After the fairly creepy sequence where Khan and his people put mind control critters in Chekov’s head, they spend the rest of the film looking like members of the Spahn Ranch who were out in the sun too long and are now getting sleepy while sitting in the air conditioning of their spaceship. There’s a scene where Khan and Kirk turn their backs to each other in order to have strategy sessions with their crews while chatting on video monitors. The second act of the film features a sequence where we sit around for about 15 minutes waiting for repairs to be made to a ship. Editing is possible, you know. The audience doesn’t need to sit around too.
The Wrath of Khan contains the death of Spock, which is one of the most iconic moments in Star Trek history, so it’s understandable why it’s a big deal to fans who had been watching the adventures of the Enterprise crew for decades, but for those of us not fully invested in that emotional moment shared between him and Kirk, parts of it can be pretty brutal to get through. Who the heck wants to stare at Ricardo Montalban’s boobs for two hours? And let’s not even get started on how bad Kirstie Alley is playing a Vulcan character as pretty much Kirstie Alley with fake ears. Whose idea was that? Have you ever heard anyone mention anything about that classic chemistry between Captain Kirk, Mister Spock, and… Kirstie Alley?
Why is Star Trek: Nemesis underpraised?
Despite the fact that earnings on the Next Generation Star Trek movies were steadily decreasing after their strong First Contact debut, and they weren’t being handed huge budgets to work with, Nemesis still manages to make the Enterprise and the space battles it engages in look better than they perhaps ever had before; so its $60 million production cost was at least spent in the right places. The action stuff in the third act of the film is the best stuff it has to offer, so it’s good that all of the money got spent there and none was diverted toward making that abysmal wedding sequence look visually impressive. The space battles here may be the closest this franchise ever got to looking comparable to something like Star Wars—until JJ Abrams took over and got some real money to put the whole thing together, of course.
The visuals aren’t the only thing that makes the third act sing though. The action itself is actually satisfying, with characters jumping from ship to ship, getting in shootouts, and causing gigantic, destructive crashes. What we get here is certainly a far cry from the Star Trek stereotype of boring old men standing around on a bridge set and reacting to things happening on monitors. In Wrath of Khan we watch characters watch things happen, which introduces one step of separation too many between us and the danger. Nemesis puts us directly in the danger, which is something that even people who don’t have a strong emotional connection to Star Trek can appreciate. Who can’t get behind Jean-Luc Picard getting in a knife fight with his own corrupted clone?
Which brings us to the most underappreciated aspect of this movie—it has Tom Hardy as its freaking villain. Shinzon is a completely goofy bad guy. He wears sparkly rainbow armor, he spends far too much time monologuing, and what we think his motivations are change so much that we can never become completely invested in his struggle. But Tom Hardy is totally creepy in the role and somehow makes it fun to watch anyway. Whereas Montalban stood out from all the old fogies in Khan by going big and broad with his performance, Hardy plays everything with a completely straight face and injects his character with more menace than you would expect was possible. The guy is super-talented. It helps that we’re shown Shinzon’s backstory too, and we don’t have to remember an episode of a television show that originally aired decades earlier to fully appreciate his struggle. That’s the sort of stuff that makes Wrath of Khan a tough watch for people who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek.
Evening the odds.
While both of the big character deaths in these movies were handled effectively, Spock was, of course, the more iconic character, and his demise was more dramatically constructed to tug on the heartstrings. At the time he dies in Nemesis, Data was a character who had also been around for quite a while though, and the way they added a bittersweet epilogue to his demise by showing that his copy, B4, was now likely to follow in his footsteps and learn about humanity was a pretty interesting way to not close the book on the character completely. It was certainly more interesting than the hoops they eventually jumped through to bring Spock back—which could be used as a metaphor for the differences between Original Star Trek and the Next Generation. The Original is more iconic and beloved, and it paints in broader strokes, but the Next Generation was always a bit more cerebral and interesting, and it’s probably underrated because of it.