The title is a bit of a joke, of course. There are only 13 Star Trek films. At least, if you only count the official films produced by the rights-holders, and not fan works. Then there’s lots more.
(Incidentally, this is #8 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
But I was asked to rank all 13 Star Trek films. But I’m not going to do it the usual way, at least not at first. If I count down, from the worst to the best, then there are just no surprises. Nearly everybody agrees what #1 should be. Well, not actually everyone, but nearly. And if I count down the other way, then the post gets harder to write as it goes along because you’re just focusing on all these bad movies in a row at the end
So I’m going to tackle it in chronological order, only revealing my rankings for the films at the end of each section, with the final list at the end. How’s that for novelty? Pretty cool, eh?
Incidentally, a little known and fairly uninteresting fact is that the Star Trek franchise is the largest one for which I have seen every movie in the cinema. That’s right, all 13 movies, watched in the theatres. Some more than once. I guess I’m a fan.
Having said that, I’m not claiming to be any sort of definitive authority on this whole thing. Some of these movies I haven’t seen in a loooong time, and some I only saw once. So we’re going with a combination of considered opinion, initial viewing experience, and general impressions here.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) – Directed by Robert Wise
The first Star Trek film ever is important because it’s the one that proved the concept could be taken to the big screen. It brought back the entire cast of the original series and told a story full of deep ideas and grand concepts. It brought genuine development to the character of Spock. It updated the look of the Enterprise, the Klingons, and the special effects, so that for the first time, Star Trek really looked like a million bucks.
It also was slow moving, ponderous, self-important and unrelentingly dull, and I’m always mystified by its defenders.
Ranking: #11 / 13
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Easily the best of the Star Trek movies. Here was a film full of deep ideas–eg. What does it mean to grow old? What does it mean to face the no-win scenario?–but which also had a gripping antagonist, great characterization, lots of humor, battles both on land and in space, and space slugs crawling into Chekov’s ear. It also has the series’ perhaps best scene ever, the farewell between Kirk and Spock. Unlike the first outing, the film makers seemed to understand that what made this franchise interesting were the plot, characters and themes all working together. You know, like any good movie.
Ranking: #1 / 13
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) – Directed by Leonard Nimoy
A decent little film that admittedly has problems, but is often unfairly lumped in with the “bad odd-numbered Star Trek film” myth. Some of the cool ideas from the previous entry are disposed of (Planet Genesis, Kirk having a son) and the whole production is a little less tightly put together, but on the whole the story is still satisfying and packs an emotional punch. Sulu and Uhura have some of their best moments in the whole franchise, and it’s also a great outing for DeForest Kelly’s Dr. McCoy.
Ranking: #9 / 13
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – Directed by Leonard Nimoy
With the exception of some odd musical choices, this remains one of the most enjoyable Star Trek films, and potentially one of the most accessible to the casual audience. Kirk and crew being fish out of water in the 20th century is a great way to reconnect with the characters after all the soap operatics of the previous entry, and it proves especially to be a good environment for the audience and the crew to reconnect with the resurrected Spock, even as the character finds himself again. Plus, it’s really funny.
Ranking: #2 / 13
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) – Directed by William Shatner
No joke, I once heard Walter Koenig (Chekov) at a convention describe this film–before it came out–as “Star Trek V: The Ego Trip,” referencing the fact that William Shatner was directing it and that it would focus especially on Kirk, Spock and McCoy to the detriment of the other characters. And yeah, it’s pretty bad. It’s got some surprising character moments, but only some of them work, and it’s got a plot that hinges on a never-before-heard-of half brother to Spock brainwashing everyone and thinking that God is out there on some planet if we can only go far enough. Occasionally funny and dramatic but mostly just awkward and clumsy, it represents quite the misfire for the franchise after a few successful entries.
Ranking: #12 / 13
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) – Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Imagine the joy of Star Trek fans when they discovered that the director of Star Trek II and the writer of Star Trek IV was writing and directing the next entry in the series, especially after the disappointing Star Trek V. And in some ways, the strength of those better films is on display here. But at the same time, there story has some gaping plot holes and there is some bad editing going on. The dinner scene, where the Enterprise crew and the Klingons attempt some diplomatic relations, looks like it was chopped up in a blender and almost randomly put together for the final film, for example. But in the end, there’s enough good stuff for it all to be quite enjoyable. Sulu gets a smaller but better part than normal as the captain of his own ship, and Scotty gets to shoot someone with a phaser, I think for the first time ever. A satisfactory swansong for the original cast.
Ranking: #5 / 13
Star Trek: Generations (1994) – Directed by David Carson
I hate this movie. When it came out, I thought it was okay, a fun story with some good moments. But looking back at it, it has soured in my memory. It fails on just about every level: as a celebration of Star Trek’s history and its future, as a continuation of Next Generation, as a movie in its own right. The movie was produced by the same people who made the TV show very quickly after the TV series ended, and it unquestionably shows. The story might have played as an ambitious two-parter of the TV series, but as a movie it falls terribly flat. I need to write a longer post on it someday (I reviewed every episode of Next Generation, but I want to do the movies as well someday), but in summary a list of things I dislike about it include 1) the original series characters being wasted in a mostly silly sequence about a disaster that takes place largely because the Federation is incompetent; 2) Data’s decision to stick that emotion-chip in his head being given the flimsiest of motivation; 3) the TV-like division of the film’s main plot and subplot (Data & the emotion chip) that makes the story feel amateurish; 4) the unfunny and uncompelling way that Brent Spiner plays the emotional Data; 5) the deus-ex-machina nature of Guinan in the film, being present as a shadow of her reflection of her memory of her blah blah blah in the Nexus, just so she can explain things; 6) the lack of thematic consistency that could have been a way to tie-in Kirk and Picard’s story arcs; 7) the off-hand way that characters from one of Next Generation’s best episodes–Family–are killed off to try to lend weight to this incredibly stupid story; 8) the inconsistency with how the Nexus works and how easily Picard is able to break free of its spell when no one else is able to, and 9) the utter stupidity Picard and Kirk demonstrate by using the time-travel capacity of the Nexus to only emerge at a time when Soren has already put everyone’s lives in danger. Phew.
Ranking: #13 / 13
Star Trek: First Contact (1996) – Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Generally, First Contact is considered to be one of the good Star Trek movies, but I cannot bring myself to fully agree. While it is light years ahead of Generations, it has lots of problems. The movie still has such a stark division between the main plot (the Borg attacking the Enterprise) and the subplot (Zefram Cochrane’s flight) that it still feels like episodic TV writing, where we are used to these sorts of things because the show is trying to give all its characters something to do. In film this doesn’t come off as well, and the subplot feel distracting from the actual story, rather than supporting it. Also, some of the pacing is pretty bad, especially that oft-lauded deflector dish scene, which not only highlights the stupidest part of the Borg (their inability to recognize threats) but also desperately needed another pass through the editing bay to make it gripping. But in spite of that, there’s lots of good stuff in the movie as well, and it certainly is atmospheric and memorable, probably more so than any of the other Next Generation films.
Ranking: #6 / 13
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) – Directed by Jonathan Frakes
I’ve sometimes thought of Insurrection as my favorite Next Generation film, but really what I mean is that it’s the least bad. It’s the movie that has the least amount of annoying, stupid stuff in it. But it’s also flat and unremarkable. The movie doesn’t have any major problems, no terribly stupid story choices, it just sort of…is. The plot is fine, but nothing special. Picard’s romance is pleasant, but nothing more. The villain is serviceable, but not noteworthy.
For the second time in a row, Riker and Geordi are exiled to the subplot, but it’s less disconnected this time. The title is kind of stupid, as the “insurrection” idea is only vaguely there. But the biggest problem is just that it is sort of unmemorable. And so with reflection, I realize I’ll have to rank First Contact, with all its stupid stuff, higher than this one just because the cool parts of it stand out more.
Ranking: #8 / 13
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) – Directed by Stuart Baird
Perhaps more than any other Star Trek movie was Nemesis a wasted opportunity. There was a desire to tell a real sci-fi epic here, while keeping a strong connection to the characters. Shinzon had real potential as an antagonist – an embittered clone of Picard, out for vengeance. There are compelling themes at work about the roles of nature vs. environment in shaping a person, which are explored in a number of different ways. There’s a good sense of design with a variety of immersive environments. And there’s a story with real movie-worthy stakes–things feel like they really matter.
But in the end, all these elements fail to gel together. The movie is crowded, the pacing is choppy, and it’s all awkwardly shoved together. So much time is taken with things like the wedding at the start, the Mad Max-style car race, and the Romulan politics that the story itself feels like it never had a chance. And at times, the lead characters are ignored while the film dwells on Shinzon being embittered and evil, which also hurts the experience. I don’t think it’s as bad as its reputation, but you couldn’t call it a success by any means.
Ranking: #10 / 13
Star Trek (2009) – Directed by J.J. Abrams
There are great things about Abram’s Star Trek reboot, and there are not-so-great things. The beginning is a great, with the Kelvin‘s encounter with the film’s villain and the drama and pathos of Kirk’s father sacrificing himself to save his family. The story of young Kirk eventually joining Starfleet Academy (apparently, an easier institution to get into back then then in the days of Next Generation) and his misadventures there is also interesting: solid character work and funny situations all on a canvas of familiar Star Trek trappings and ideas. Once the story gets on the Enterprise itself, though, it’s more annoying. The power-play and tension between Kirk and Spock is tiring, and the way each of the familiar characters eventually ascends to their primary role is a somewhat forced. Then Kirk’s encounter with Old Spock on a planet he’s been randomly dropped off on is such a huge plot contrivance that it’s unbelievable that the writers didn’t address it in the script. The film is simply never able to completely pull together all its story elements in a satisfying way.
But with all this criticism, there is still a lot to enjoy. There’s a fresh energy that the franchise desperately needed, a lot of cool and impacting moments, and a reassuring sense of honor given to the previous incarnations of the franchise, especially with the involvement of Leonard Nimoy. The cast overall is good, even though I don’t really believe they are the same characters I used to watch on TV (Karl Urban’s McCoy comes closest).
Ranking: #7 / 13
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – Directed by J.J. Abrams
I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness the one time I saw it, but according to the internet and my friend Rod, I am wrong. Apparently, the movie is an abysmal mess, though I have to say that is not my memory. I remember seeing an entertaining tale with a strong villain. I don’t really believe that Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan, but then I don’t really believe that Chris Pine is Kirk either, so that’s all consistent. But I like the way that he is cold and vicious, and yet somehow almost sympathetic and even justified in his actions, at least until a point. On the negative side, it’s hard to make actual sense of a bunch of elements of the story: why Khan had his people hidden inside torpedo tubes, whether Admiral Marcus knew about it or not, etc. At the time this seemed like an acceptable flaw, since the movie avoided having the gigantic plot contrivances that its predecessor did. But in hindsight, this is probably a pretty big problem. Things get worse when the film seems to move into deliberate parody, with Kirk’s “death” scene and Spock’s shouting out Khan’s name in rage. It’s obviously meant to be an homage, but it’s a strange choice and only serves to take any long-term fan of the series out of the story. Suddenly, I’m no longer “watching” Star Trek, instead I’m watching some guys dressed up in costumes and “playing” Star Trek. But in spite of all of that, I still have positive memories of this movie and can’t tear it down like many do.
Ranking: #4 / 13
Star Trek Beyond (2016) – Directed by Justin Lim
There was a lot of good fun to be had in Star Trek Beyond, which is the movie which does a better job than any of the others on this list of actually giving all of the lead characters good business to work with. I appreciate the fact that the movie doesn’t feel bound to tell a story where “everything changes”. Even though Kirk and Spock are both considering moving on, and even though the Enterprise actually gets destroyed, the movie reads as just an honest-to-goodness high-stakes adventure of the Enterprise crew. Back when the movies were the sequels to TV series, that’s not what we wanted. But now that the films are telling stories about a crew we’ve never seen on TV (not really), then this is absolutely what we need. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot. It’s got all the illogical moments that any big sci-fi action film has, but it’s lots of fun and it avoids falling into the pitfall of the previous movie of trying to homage classic Trek moments, but drifting instead into self-parody.
Ranking: #3 / 13
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the complete list. I find the actual numbering difficult. If I put into brackets, I’d say that #1-2 are the great ones, #3-5 are the good ones, #6-10 are the okay ones, and #11-13 are the really bad ones.
The Countdown – Best to Worst Star Trek movies
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
- Star Trek Beyond
- Star Trek Into Darkness
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
- Star Trek: First Contact
- Star Trek
- Star Trek: Insurrection
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
- Star Trek: Nemesis
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
- Star Trek Generations
So, that’s it. Controversial? Maybe. But really, we’re talking about Star Trek movies. Is there any call to get heated over opinions of Star Trek movies? Anyway, feel free to post your take on this in the comments.