Let's face it: we haven't seen a truly great Star Trek film in decades. Even the 2009 reboot (which is leagues better than its sequel) feels more like "Really Cool and Extremely Entertaining Science Fiction Action Film" instead of Star Trek. And let's not blame J.J. Abrams for transforming Star Trek into an action series -- that had already happened. Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis are just as shoddily put together as Star Trek Into Darkness and they also ignore everything that made Trek special in the past in favor of action, action, ACTION! This is not a new problem. No one wants to finance a Star Trek movie that's about discovery and exploration and kooky sci-fi ideas.
Yearning for good sci-fi in the days after the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, I revisited one of my favorite films of all time: Fred M. Wilcox's 1956 film Forbidden Planet. I've seen the film a half-dozen times, but it was only in the wake of Star Trek Into Darkness that I realized that this 57-year-old film represents everything a modern Star Trek movie should try to be.
For those who don't know, Forbidden Planet follows the crew of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D, who arrive on a distant planet to discover the fate of a colony that was established there decades before. Led by Leslie Nielsen's Commander J.J. Adams, they discover that only two people and their personal robot are left alive and that there's some kind of mysterious, unstoppable beast living on the planet, killing indiscriminately. Eventually (SPOILERS for this old classic ahead), they discover that the colony was built on top of an extinct alien civilization who had developed technology that would allow them to project anything they imagined into reality. Of course, they failed to take into account the nightmarish aspects of the subconscious mind and their entire race went belly-up. We soon learn that the invisible beast that destroyed most of the colony and has been picking off Adams' loyal crew is the projected id of the colony's own Dr. Morbius, his subconscious evil self manifested in physical form.
Although Forbidden Planet predates Star Trek by a decade, the film feels very much in the same spirit as the original series. The brash captain who has a thing for the ladies (and vice versa). A planet with an odd mystery to solve. An alien presence picking off the various "red shirts." Weird sci-fi ideas, ethical dilemmas, a sense of teamwork and cooperation in the face of ridiculous odds... hell, there's no way Gene Roddenberry didn't borrow at least a little from this film! But what's truly striking about Forbidden Planet is how action packed it is. For a film that finds plenty of time to delve into its freaky ideas, there's a lot of running and shooting and special effects. It accomplishes what the Star Trek movies have rarely been able to do: it finds action and adventure in its science fiction rather than simply shoehorn action into a science fiction world. It manages to feel like Trek (without being Trek) while providing the audience with plenty of rousing excitement.
Take the main villain of Forbidden Planet. It's not traitorous commander or an evil terrorist with a chip on his shoulder -- it's the physical representation of human evil, brought to life by alien technology. It's menacing and scary as all get-out, but it also embraces the infinite possibilities of this genre. Turncoats and terrorists are commonplace in the movies. It's disappointing that Star Trek Into Darkness falls back on these tropes when it takes place in a universe where people can pilot starships to the distant corners of the galaxy. The climactic brawl between Benedict Cumberbatch's Khan and Zachary Quinto's Spock has nothing on the scene in Forbidden Planet where the crew battle an invisible monster, revealing its form every time they score a direct hit. The former is just an action scene, but the latter is an action scene that pays off the film's smart science fiction.
The Star Trek films have run into problems when they've tried to replicate the original series. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is all about exploration and ideas, but it's a colossal bore. Star Trek: Generations feels like an extended episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and it's almost impossibly dull. With that said, it's time for Star Trek to go back to its roots and embrace the kooky sci-fi spirit of its earliest incarnations. It's time to stop making action movies and start making science fiction again. If a half-century-old film can perfectly balance audience-pleasing action and sex appeal with thoughtful sci-fi, then Paramount and Bad Robot and whoever directs Star Trek 3 should seriously take a moment and wonder what they're doing wrong.
More: Boldly Going Wrong: Why There's No 'Star Trek' in 'Star Trek Into Darkness'