The Star Trek franchise has had a whopping 13 feature film entries over 40 years, and Paramount is said to be developing at least three more movies. For more casual viewers and hardcore fans, the Trek movies are special, largely because the grander “life and death” experiences for the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise were often saved for the big screen. But that’s not to say this series hasn’t had its serious ups and downs over the decades, quality-wise. The highs have been really high, but the lows could be pretty embarrassing.
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 still don’t know about the major deaths of the Trek canon, I suggest you bookmark this article, watch all the Star Trek films, and then come back. Now lets get started with the worst of the bunch and work our way up…
13. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: The Next Generation remains my all-time favorite Trek series. But without a doubt, the cast of that show had a rougher go of it on the big screen than the original crew did. Insurrection isn’t the most embarrassing of the Trek movies, but it is the most boring, and the smallest in scope. You watch it and then forget it instantly.
From the first Trek movie on, the films focused on the big events in the lives of the Enterprise crew. From the relaunch of the ship, to Spock’s death and rebirth, and so on. But Insurrection feels more like a standard one-and-done episode. This 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 bearing a sort of fountain of youth. Of course, there’s an aggressive alien species who wants it all for themselves. There’s also a corrupt Federation admiral, because there’s always one of those. But it all amounts to a snoozefest. There’s also 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 directed this one after the successful First Contact, but he just couldn’t make any magic happen this time.
12. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
After Leonard Nimoy’s directing success with III and IV, William Shatner wanted in on the action too. Unfortunately, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier gives into all of Shatner’s cheesier tendencies. The lowbrow humor often totally conflicts with the seriousness of the main story. How serious is the main story? The Enterprise is hijacked by a religious zealot who is Spock’s long lost older brother. He takes the ship on a mission to find God. Yeah, that God.
From the get-go, you know this mission will be a failure and that they aren’t going to find God just hanging out on some planet somewhere. So there is no dramatic tension at all about the outcome. And because ILM was busy at the time with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the VFX were farmed out elsewhere, resulting in the worst 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. But when you combine it all with a cheap knockoffs of Star Wars‘ cantina scene and Lt. Uhura doing a naked “fan dance” to distract the bad guys? Oh boy. Thank goodness the classic crew got one more outing to get a chance to go out with some dignity. (If Star Trek V: The Final Frontier lacks anything, it’s dignity.)
11. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Nemesis is often ranked at the very bottom of the Star Trek movie pile by many fans, but I have to admit, I really don’t hate this one. Yes, it shamelessly rips off Wrath of Khan with another vengeance-seeking enemy, this time played by a young Tom Hardy. Shinzon is a clone of Picard raised in the Romulan mines who takes over the Romulan Empire and is hellbent on destroying his genetic father, mostly just because the script says so. But Tom Hardy acts the hell out of an underwritten part.
The film ends up fairly entertaining with some nice action, and is 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.” Sadly, outside of Picard and Data, the other characters are very shortchanged. (Perhaps because director Stuart Baird had no previous knowledge of Star Trek.)
The last shot is not the Enterprise boldly 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, killing the franchise for seven years. Eventually, though, Star Trek would rise from the ashes, as it always does.
10. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
After ten years of false starts with various discarded scripts, and a possible new TV series called Star Trek Phase II that almost happened, Star Trek: The Motion Picture finally took flight in 1979. It had a then-astronomical budget of $45 million dollars, and you see every penny of that on screen. The effects were lightyears from the old show, and the Enterprise looked stunning for the first time ever. On top of that, all of the original cast members returned. And with an A-list director like Robert Wise at the helm, what could go wrong?
Well, pretty much everything. The movie is mostly a long and boring chore. Essentially, this is a remake of the original series episode “The Changeling.” Both stories center on an old 20th century Earth probe rewired by alien tech. They both become godlike and return to Earth looking for its creator. Except that old episode told the same story efficiently, with fun and humor sprinkled in. Instead of the bright colors of the Trek series, everyone is the film wears 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 story-wise in the movie, and actually has a complete arc. But everyone else is just kind of 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 then everything worked out just fine .
9. Star Trek into Darkness (2013)
Following up one of the best-received reboots in recent memory has to be an unenviable task. Unfortunately, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did almost everything wrong when writing Star Trek into Darkness. Even the title kind of sucks.
The first act really hums along and contains great moments., and addresses certain big issues the previous film has. Namely, the fact that former cadet Kirk is not ready to be captain of a ship yet. And then the movie hits its second hour and it all falls apart. Once Bendedict Cumberbatch reveals his true identity as Khan, everything just hits a wall.
How did timeline disruptions turn Ricardo Montalban’s Khan into a pasty white British dude? Why is it that 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 character named Khan in it. And redoing the end of Wrath of Khan, but with Kirk dying instead of Spock, feels totally unearned at this point in the series.
But there is a reason this movie has a high Rotten Tomatoes score. It’s to J.J. Abrams’ credit that he can almost make you forget that the story makes no sense, and that the script has giant plot holes (some might say this is the case also for Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker, but the plot holes are way bigger in this movie). The film is actually very watchable, especially if you just want entertaining eye candy. It’s just not all that great.
8. Star Trek: Generations (1994)
There is a lot about Star Trek Generations 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 writing partners decide to do the opposite of what fans expected with the story of this film. But sometimes, it’s best to just give the people what they want.
Instead of being introduced to the crew in a big action set piece, we are introduced to them in a cheesy holodeck scene. Rather than Picard being the stoic commander we all admire in his first movie outing, he’s seen mostly crying. All of this would be fine if this were just another episode of TNG. But this was their big screen debut, and you don’t really want to see Captain Jean-Luc Picard this way.
Having said that, Generations isn’t boring, and has some genuinely fun scenes. As with most Trek films, this movie contains major moments in the franchise lore. 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. And just as it finally got well lit! Generations should have been a much better film. But the one we ended up with is hardly the worst thing in the world.
7. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
There is a longstanding notion that the odd-numbered Star Trek films are the “lesser” entries and the even-numbered ones the “good ones.” While that’s mostly true, there is one big exception to that rule: Star Trek III: 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 back Spock. The final shots of Khan pretty much spell out what the next movie will revolve around.
The best thing about Search for Spock is that the producers realize that when Spock comes back to life, there has to be major story ramifications for Kirk. To get his friend back, Kirk loses so much. A destroyed ship, a murdered son, and a career 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 (directed by Nimoy himself) a satisfying throughline.
The film’s villain, Christopher Lloyd, is still the most ruthless Klingon of all time. The only problem with Search for Spock 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 otherwise satisfying from start to finish.
6. Star Trek Beyond (2016)
There were lots of explosions and motorcycles poppin’ wheelies in the trailer for Justin Lin’s Trek, so everyone thought this was going to be a Star Trek in name only. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Despite all the heavy action, the film is very much in the vein of the original series’ ethos. It finally gets the Enterprise away from the vicinity of Earth and out exploring the galaxy again.
Taking place three years into the crew’s five-year mission, Kirk and company have fallen into routine. Then, a surprise attack from an unknown species forces the Enterprise to crash land on an unknown world. The assault comes from Krall (Idris Elba), an alien commander who needs a valuable artifact that’s aboard the Enterprise. With nothing but their gumption and their will to survive, the crew must now battle a deadly alien race while trying to find a way off a hostile planet.
At first, Krall seems like a generic alien villain. But a reveal in the movie paints him in a whole new light, and makes him far more interesting than he first appears. And while destroying the Enterprise is a cliché at this point, it serves the story in a big way. The crew has to discover who they are to each other without the confines of the ship. Warrior woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) is also a welcome addition to the cast. Here’s hoping it’s not the last journey of Pine and Quinto as Kirk and Spock… although right now, that seems iffy.
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 great way. Sequel to a beloved TV episode? Check. A Moby Dick-inspired revenge story, à la Wrath of Khan? Check. Time-travel like in Voyage Home? Check.
The plot sees the Federation nemesis the Borg going 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 (James Cromwell). He is a welcome addition to the cast, as is Alfre Woodard as his assistant Lily. Alice Krige as the Borg Queen even takes a bad idea on paper—giving the Borg collective an individual leader—and tops it off with pretty spectacular results.
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. 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 gets better for them on the big screen than in this installment.
4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Since Star Trek V met horrible reviews and an underwhelming box office, the prevailing thought at Paramount was to reboot the original characters with a set of younger actors. This gave the Enterprise crew an origin story—something J.J. 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. They decide that Shatner, Nimoy, and the rest of the original crew had one more movie left in them. And that they deserved a reverent 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 and the Chernobyl disaster, with the Klingon Empire standing in for the USSR. The Undiscovered Country has that allegorical element with a wonderful whodunit aboard the Enterprise, and a great villain in Christopher Plummer’s Klingon Commander Chang. 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, and a little comedy was exactly what this series needed. But just because it’s a lot of laughs that doesn’t mean there isn’t an interesting story going on. 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.
An alien probe comes to Earth and wreaks havoc because the humpback whale species they are trying to communicate with is now long extinct. The Enterprise crew 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 onscreen.
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 hamfisted as it could. Each of the crew get a moment to do something important for a change. Nimoy returned to the director’s chair for this one, proving Trek III was no fluke. For years this was the most popular Star Trek film at the box office, because for fans and newbies it was likewise a great time at the movies. It also forms a nice little trilogy with II and III.
2. Star Trek (2009)
Prior to J.J. Abrams‘ big screen reboot of Star Trek, the franchise was dead as doornail. The previous TV series Enterprise never really clicked with viewers, becoming the first Trek show to get canceled since the original. Then J.J. comes along and reinvigorates the film series with an incredibly rewatchable and fun entry—one that gives the classic Enterprise crew the origin story they never had before. It also finds a way to give Leonard Nimoy’s Spock a proper farewell.
None of this would have worked if the recasting of the original crew wasn’t so impeccable. These were all giant boots to fill, and everyone from Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto right on down to Anton Yelchin as Chekov did their best to evoke the original characters without resorting to impersonations. Okay, maybe Karl Urban is doing a DeForest Kelley 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, but it all feels clever and not forced. Yes, it is ridiculous that James Kirk goes from cadet to captain over the course of one film. But J.J. works his magic so that every time you watch it, you just totally buy into it.
Star Trek is a lot of things. That often includes grappling with philosophical questions of great import. It’s also sometimes silly antics like “The Trouble With Tribbles.” This entry is all about character and fun, and that’s totally okay. I will agree with one often-vocalized gripe, however: there are probably too many lens flares.
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 should have been 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 perform a bit of a cinematic miracle. He took the best elements of the various scripts they had and combined them. There was one about the return of TV series villain Khan, another about a device that creates habitable planets, and one about Kirk’s long lost son. Meyer put those scripts in a blender and we got one amazing screenplay as a result.
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 (Ricardo Montalban), a submarine-like battle in a nebula, a rousing 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. 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.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures