With the upcoming release of Star Trek Beyond, the Star Trek franchise will have had a whopping 13 feature film entries over 36 years. That’s not a small number–only the James Bond series has had more installments, and arguably the quality has been more consistent in the Star Trek features than Bond. But that’s not to say this series hasn’t had its serious ups and downs, quality-wise. The highs have been really high, but the lows have been pretty embarrassing.
While Star Trek is primarily a television franchise, there is no doubt that for many casual fans, the kind that couldn’t be bothered to tune into the show each week, the movie version of Trek is the only Trek they really know. And even for hardcore fans, the movies are special, because the greater “life and death” events for the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise were often saved for the films, as the TV episodes always had to put things back exactly where they started from at the end of each episode. Not so with the movies.
Before we rank each of the Star Trek films, a warning–there are major spoilers for all of these movies here, so if for some reason you don’t know that certain characters die in certain movies, even decades after said film was released, I suggest you bookmark this article, watch all the Star Trek films, and then come back. We good? Okay, now lets get started with the worst of the bunch, and work our way up…
12. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
While Star Trek: The Next Generation remains my all time favorite Trek series, without a doubt, the cast of that show had a rougher go of it on the big screen than the original crew did. It’s almost like it’s payback for the fact that TNG ran for seven season and was a ratings hit, while the original series struggled through three years and only became a hit in syndication after the fact. Insurrection isn’t the most embarrassing of the Trek movies, but it suffers from being the most boring, and the most small in scope. You watch it, and then almost forget it instantly.
From the first movie on, the Star Trek films focused on the big events in the lives of the Enterprise crews — from the relaunch of the Enterprise, to Spock’s death and rebirth, and so on. But Insurrection was really just a standard one-and-done episode that you had to pay for, at a time when there were two other Star Trek shows on the air each week — Deep Space Nine and Voyager — that were arguably better, and free.
The plot of the film revolved around a planet that has a sort of fountain of youth thing happening, and an aggressive alien species who wants it all for themselves, plus a corrupt Federation admiral, because there is always one of those…. and it all amounts to a snoozefest. Both the new alien species introduced in this movie are uninteresting visually — one is this weird plastic surgery obsessed species that get bizarre facelifts all the time, and the other is yet another hippy-dippy, agrarian humanoid species that wears a lot of cotton, the kind that the ’90s era Trek shows loved way too much. Jonathan Frakes returned to direct after the successful First Contact, and the script was written by the late Michael Piller, the man who saved The Next Generation in its third season, but they just couldn’t make any magic happen this time.
11. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
After chapters III and IV were successfully directed by Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner wanted in on some of that directing action. Unfortunately, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier gives into all of Shatner’s cheesier tendencies, and the lowbrow humor often totally conflicts with the seriousness of the main story. How serious is the main story? It actually has the Enterprise highjacked by a religious zealot (who is Spock’s long lost, never-before-heard-from older brother) who takes the ship on a mission to find God. Yeah, THAT God. From the get-go, you know this mission will be a failure, because you know they aren’t going to find God hanging out on some planet, so there is no dramatic tension. Also, because ILM was busy at the time with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the effects were farmed out to a low rent company who turned in the worst special effects in the film series thus far.
Still, there is some charming stuff here–the opening sequence with Kirk, Spock and Bones on a camping trip in Yosemite is fun, for instance. And there are a few other cute bits here and there. But when you combine it all with a cheap knock offs of the cantina scene in Star Wars, Lt. Uhura doing a naked “fan dance” to distract the bad guys like in an old Tex Avery cartoon, and too much other nonsense to get into, the best thing I have to say is that thank goodness the classic crew got one more outing to get a chance to go out with some dignity. Because if Star Trek V: The Final Frontier lacks anything, it’s dignity.
10. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Although it is often ranked at the very bottom of the Star Trek movie pile by many fans…I have to admit, I really don’t hate Nemesis. I mean yes, it shamelessly rips off Wrath of Khan with another vengeance-seeking enemy, this one being played by a young Tom Hardy. Called Shinzon, he’s a clone of Picard who was raised in the Romulan mines, who takes over the Romulan Empire and is hell bent on destroying his genetic father, mostly just because the script says so. This is not a good film, but it’s fairly entertaining, and I still think it’s a better finale for the TNG crew than Insurrection would have been. For example, it gives fans of the show the wedding of Riker and Troi after 15 years of “will they/won’t they”, and actually has cameos at said wedding by cast members the movie series seemed to have forgotten (Guinan and Wesley Crusher).
Sadly, outside of Picard and Data, who both have this whole “meeting their doppelganger” storyline, when Data encounters another similar style android named B-4, the other characters are very shortchanged. Once again, Riker, Geordi, Worf and Crusher are just there, aside from Deanna Troi, whose sole purpose in the film is being “mind raped” by the villain’s lackey for not much of a good reason (she does get some decent Elizabeth Berkely in Showgirls style revenge on the rapist in the end though). Like with the previous TNG movie, the budget on this feels very low, barely above a TV pilot. Director Stuart Baird had no previous knowledge of Star Trek, and in this instance, his lack of knowledge was a weakness, not a strength. While Data “dies” in this movie, it doesn’t mean anything, because it’s basically undone by the end of the film. At least Wrath of Khan knew to wait till the next chapter to bring Spock back.
But there’s some nice action-y stuff in the film, and it’s never really dull. Tom Hardy shows he’s got acting chops, and acts the hell out of an underwritten part. When the film ends, the last shot is not the Enterprise boldy going into warp, but in drydock, badly damaged. What a fitting metaphor for the state of the series at this point, as this was the lowest grossing of all the Star Trek films, making only $43 million dollars domestically, killing the franchise for seven years. Eventually, though, Star Trek would rise from the ashes, as it always does.
9. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
After ten years of false starts with various discarded scripts, a possible new TV series called Star Trek Phase II that almost happened, and the start of what we think of today as fan culture, Star Trek: The Motion Picture finally took flight in 1979 with a then astronomical budget of $45 million dollars. And for the most part, you saw every penny of that $45 million on screen — the effects were light years from the old show, and the Enterprise looked stunning for the first time ever. On top of that, all of the original cast returned, with an A-list director, Robert Wise, at the helm. What could go wrong?
Well, pretty much everything. The movie is long, boring slog. It’s essentially a remake of the original series episode “The Changeling”, where an old 20th Century Earth probe gets rewired by alien tech, becomes godlike and returns to Earth looking for its creator, wreaking havoc along the way. Except that old low budget episode told the same story efficiently, and with fun and humor sprinkled in, two things TMP is totally missing. The witty banter from the old show is gone, replaced with the cast giving long glares at pretty lights out of the viewscreen for what seems like forever. Instead of bright colors, everyone is in drab white or beige uniforms. Captain Kirk looks like he’s wearing a dentist’s shirt for some reason. Did Spock need a root canal or something?
Spock has some of the more interesting stuff going on storywise in the movie and actually has an arc, but everyone else is just there. The movie made bank, though, mostly because Trek fans had waited a decade for it to happen, but the reaction to this movie almost stopped the revival of Star Trek before it started. Luckily, they had one more shot at this, and everything worked out.
8. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Following up 2009’s Star Trek, one of the most well-received reboots in recent memory, had to be an unenviable task for all involved. Unfortunately, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did almost everything wrong when writing Star Trek Into Darkness. Even the name sucks. The reason this movie is as high as it is one the list is mainly this: The first hour of the film mostly works, and addresses certain big issues the previous film had –like the fact that saving the world or not, cadet Kirk was not ready to be Captain of a ship yet. The first act really hums along and has great moments.
And then the movie hits its second hour…and it all falls apart. Once Bendedict Cumberbatch reveals his true identity and hisses to the camera that he’s Khan, everthing just hits a wall. How did timeline disruptions turn the previously ethnic Khan Noonian Singh into a pasty white British dude? Why is it his master plan makes ZERO sense? There is no reason for Khan to be in this movie, aside from the fact that there was once another Star Trek II that had a Khan in it. But if you’re going to do Khan, do him right or not at all. And redoing the end of Wrath of Khan, but with Kirk dying instead of Spock, and the two of them sharing that particular heartfelt goodbye moment, feels totally unearned at this point in the series.
It’s to JJ Abrams’ credit that he’s such a good director of popcorn entertainment, that he can almost make you forget that the story in this movie makes no sense, and that the script has giant plot holes (some might even say he did this for The Force Awakens, but the plot holes are WAY bigger in this movie). There is a reason this movie has a high Rotten Tomatoes score–it’s actually very watchable, especially if you just want entertaining eye candy. It’s just not very good.
Oh, and Khan has magic resurrection blood in this movie. Because reasons.
7. Star Trek: Generations (1994)
There is a LOT about Star Trek Generations, the first big screen outing to the TNG crew, that just doesn’t work. Even the film’s writers Ron Moore and Brannon Braga admit as much on the film’s DVD Commentary. The pair of writers-who had just finished TNG’s final episode “All Good Things”–one of the best final episodes of any show, ever–decided to keep doing the opposite of what fans desired and expected with this story, instead of just giving fans what they wanted.
But sometimes, it’s best to just give the people what they want. Instead of being introduced to the TNG crew in a big action set piece, we are instead introduced to them in a cheesy holodeck scene on a boat. Instead of Picard being the stoic commander in his first movie outing, he’s seen mostly suffering and crying at the loss of his brother and his nephew who die off screen. All of this would be fine if this were just an episode of TNG, but this is their big screen debut, and you don’t really want to see Jean-Luc blubbering all over his photo album in his first movie outing.
Having said that, Generations isn’t boring, and has some genuinely fun moments. The opening scene featuring the launch of the Enterprise B (with Cameron from Ferris Bueller as Captain! What could go wrong?) shows Shatner’s Kirk in a last heroic moment, proving why he’s the prototypical starship captain. And as with most Trek films, this movie contains major moments in the lore of the series, keeping it from being “just an episode on the big screen”–(I’m lookin’ at you, Insurrection). Data finally gets emotions, and all those scenes with Brent Spiner coping with new feelings are gold. Also cool is the destruction of the Enterprise-D, which gets blowed up real good, just as it finally got well lit.
Malcolm McDowell as the villain Soran is ok; he’s neither the best nor worst Trek baddie, and falls squarely in the middle. His whole villain plot to get into some vaguely defined paradise dimension called the Nexus is pretty lame, though. But the scenes within the Nexus with Captains Picard and Kirk meeting face to face are pretty fun, even if you desperately wish they were on the Enterprise together and not on some ranch somewhere cooking breakfast and riding horses. Generations should have been a much better film, but the one we ended up with is hardly the worst thing in the world.
6. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
There is a long standing notion that the Star Trek films in the original series that are odd numbered are the “bad” entries, with the even numbered ones the “good ones.” While that’s mostly true, there is one exception to that rule, and it is The Search for Spock. At the end of Wrath of Khan, it was pretty obvious that the producers were giving themselves an “out” should they decide to bring Nimoy back as Mr. Spock, so the fact that some fans acted like it’s some out-of-the-blue, cheap cop-out that they took seems ridiculous to me. I mean, the final shots of Khan pretty much spell out what the next movie will revolve around.
The best thing about III is that the producers realized that if Spock were to come back to life, storywise there would have to be major reprecussions for Kirk and company. So Sure, Spock comes back at the end of the film (which Leonard Nimoy actually directed), but at what price. Kirk loses so much to get his friend back–by the end of the film, Spock may be breathing, but the Enterprise is destroyed, his son is killed, and his career is in ruins. All to save the life of his best friend, who may not even remember him for all he knows. It’s touching, powerful stuff, and it gives the whole movie a satisfying throughline. And the film’s villain, Christopher Lloyd, is still the most ruthless Klingon of all time as Kruge, the best bad guy the Enterprise crew faced after Khan. The only problem with Trek III in my book is that it’s just not as perfect as Wrath of Khan, and that’s it. Okay, and Robin Curtis is not as good as the half-Vulcan Lt. Saavik as Kirstie Alley was in the part, whom she replaced for this film. But that’s one very tiny complaint, as this movie is truly satisfying from start to finish
5. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
While the TNG crew had a rough time of it with their entries in the movie series, they at least got one genuine classic out of the bunch with First Contact. In many ways, this film borrows from the best of the original series features films before it, but does so in a good way. Sequel to a beloved TV episode? Check. A Moby Dick inspired revenge story, a la Wrath of Khan? Check. Time travel like in Voyage Home? Check. They ticked off all the right boxes.
The plot has the Federation nemesis the Borg go back in time in an attempt to stop the first contact between the Vulcans and humanity, therefore stopping the Federation from ever forming. Picard and the crew of the newly minted Enterprise-E go back to stop them from interfering with the first ever warp flight, carried out by Zefram Cochrane, played by veteran actor James Cromwell, who is a welcome additon to the cast, as is Alfre Woodard as his assistant Lily. Alice Krige as the Borg Queen even gives a bad idea on paper–giving the Borg collective an individual leader–a pretty spectacular result.
Although technically an ensemble film, this is really a Picard movie through and through. The Captain has to get through his own anger and trauma at what the Borg did to him on the TV series, when they assimilated him into the collective and made him Locutus, causing hundreds of deaths, and Patrick Stewart just brings it. When he hisses out “the line must drawn here, this far! No further!” you know he means business. Commander Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes directed this entry, and he gives almost everyone in the crew something to do that matters in the story, but never forgets that this is chiefly a Jean-Luc Picard story. This is the TNG writing, directing and acting staff firing on all cylinders, and it never got better than this for them on the big screen.
4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
After Star Trek V got horrible reviews and underwhelming box office, the prevailing thought at Paramount was to reboot the original characters with a set of younger actors, giving the Enterprise crew an origin story–something JJ Abrams would wind up doing 20 years later. But with the 25th Anniversary of the franchise around the corner, wiser heads prevailed at the studio, and decided that William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the rest of the original crew had one more movie left in them, and that they deserved a good swan song.
Wrath of Khan’s Nicolas Meyer returned to direct, working from a story that he and Leonard Nimoy concocted, and together they made sure that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was the finale the original crew deserved. Like the best of the classic series, this entry used real world situations as the basis for the story–in this case, the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the Klingon Empire standing in for the USSR. Combining that allegorical element with a wonderful “whodunit?” aboard the Enterprise, and great villain in Christopher Plummer’s Klingon commander Chang, and all the right ingredients come together for a terrific movie, and a great finale for the original series crew.
3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Having gone through life, death, and life again together, the Enterprise crew needed to lighten up a bit, and that they did in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Using two of the most often-used tropes of the original series–time travel and social commentary–this entry in the series winds up working on almost every level. But that’s mostly because after all that high drama in the previous two installments, they decided a little comedy was what this series needed, and were they ever right.
But just because it’s funny doesn’t mean there isn’t an interesting story going on. An alien probe comes to Eath and wreaks havoc, because the humpback whale species they are trying to communicate with is now long extinct. The Enterprise crew, dishonored and in a rusty old Klingon Bird of Prey after the events of the previous film, go back in time to bring the whales into their future in an effort to save the Earth. It sounds silly as hell on paper but it all works like gangbusters on screen.
The humor in the film is smart and not slapsticky (see: Star Trek V) and the “save the whales” commentary works and doesn’t feel as ham-fisted as it should. Each of the crew get a moment to do something important (Ok, maybe just something shitty happens to Chekov and he screams really loud, again). Leonard Nimoy returned to the director’s chair for this one, proving Trek III was no fluke, and thus began a long feature film directing career. (Nicholas Meyer also helped with the story as well). For years this was the most popular Star Trek film at the box office, because fan or not, it’s just a great time at the movies. It also helps make entries II, III and IV form a nice little trilogy. Had the original series ended here, it honestly wouldn’t have been the worst thing.
2. Star Trek (2009)
When JJ Abrams‘ big screen reboot of Star Trek came out, the franchise was dead as doornail. The previous TV series Enterprise never really clicked with viewers, and was the first Trek show to get cancelled since the original. The prevailing thought was that Star Trek as a franchise had its day. Then JJ comes along, and reinvigorated the film series with an incredibly re-watchable and fun entry, one that gives the classic Enterprise crew the origin story they never had before, and finds a way to give Leonard Nimoy’s Spock a proper swan song as well. Star Trek ’09 became the biggest grossing film in the franchise, and that’s even adjusted for inflation.
None of this would have worked if the re-casting of the original crew wasn’t as impeccable as it was. These were all giant boots to fill, and everyone from Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto right on down to Anton Yelchin as Chekov do their best to evoke the original characters, without resorting to impersonations. Ok, maybe Karl Urban is doing a Bones impression, but it’s so good I don’t care. There are tons of callbacks to the original series and the first round of films (as well as small hints to all the other shows too) but it all feels clever and not forced. The story moves at a crackling pace, and even if it is ridiculous that James Kirk goes from cadet to Captain over the course of one film, JJ works his magic so that every time you watch it, you just totally buy into it.
The movie gets some hate from hardcore Trek loyalists, but I think it’s just sour grapes that their once insidery cult franchise was fodder for a movie as mainstream and crowd pleasing as this one. It’s not “intellectual enough” they say. Well, listen–Star Trek is a lot of things, and that often includes grappling with philosophical questions of great import. It’s also sometimes “The Trouble With Tribbles” and all about starship battles as well. This entry in the series is all about character and fun…and that’s totally okay. I will agree with one often-vocalized complaint, in that there are probably too many lense flares. But that is one very tiny complaint.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The second Star Trek feature film should have been a total cluster*$%#. Paramount had several different scripts they were considering, but they couldn’t find one they liked. Leonard Nimoy adamantly did not want to come back as Spock after the last film didn’t satisfy him, and threatened to fire his agent if he ever mentioned the words “Star Trek” to him again. The budget was going to be significantly lower than the previous film. All of this was a recipe for disaster.
But then producer Harve Bennett hired a young genius named Nicholas Meyer to direct, who had recently directed the time travel thriller Time After Time, and he managed to do perform a miracle. He took the best elements of the various scripts they had–one about the return of TV series villain Khan, another about a Genesis device which creates worlds, one about Kirk’s long lost son–and put them together into one amazing script. This was now a story about aging and death, the mistakes of the past coming back to haunt you, and the sacrifices one makes in the name of friendship. Meyer weaved in a great death scene to lure Nimoy back, and it turned into one of the actor’s finest moments. Add to that a killer Moby Dick inspired revenge story with a sublime villain, played by Ricardo Montalban, a submarine-like battle in a nebula, a great score by the late James Horner, and you have not only the best Star Trek film of all time, but one of the best science fiction films of all time, period.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan saved the franchise–without it, we wouldn’t have had a film series, much less a Next Generation or any other Trek series on TV. Spock’s death resulted in new life for the franchise, and the franchise has been “chasing Khan” ever since. Both Nemesis and Into Darkness try to ape this movie way too much, but this film set such a high bar, neither of those other two movies could ever come close to this movie’s perfection. It’s almost certain that no matter how many other Star Trek movies come down the pipeline in years to come, The Wrath of Khan will remain the gold standard.
Which big screen Star Trek outing makes your personal favorites list? Be sure to let us know in the comments below.
Images: Paramount Pictures