Star Trek movies have forever walked the tight rope of trying to appeal to a larger audience while still keeping its Trekkie fan base happy. It’s not an easy task, but despite the hits and misses, Star Trek is still alive and well in 2016. In celebration of 50 years of one of sci-fi’s premiere franchises, I am ranking the thirteen movies. I created my list based on a few criteria. This article contains light spoilers for anyone who has been living under a rock for the last 35-plus years.
One: Does if feel “Trekkish?”
As a fan of the shows, am I going to get those deep, “pop-philosophical” Trek moments that have always made the small screen Star Trek shine?
How likely I am to sit through an entire movie more than once goes a long way into making it a favorite.
Three: Is it a solid film regardless of it being a Star Trek movie or not?
Can a non-Trekkie sit and enjoy the movie as much as someone who knows Kirk’s middle name? In short – is it simply a good film?
With that out of the way, let’s get started.
13. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Of the post-Khan movies (which went in a decidedly different direction than The Motion Picture) I have always had the most trouble getting through this one; it’s a very small story for a very big moment – the resurrection of Mr. Spock. The story centers around Klingons trying to get their hands on the Genesis device – a Starfleet invention which can birth planets but that the Klingons want to use as a weapon of mass destruction. Kirk and company come to discover that this device, which had been jettisoned onto a planet with Spock’s dead body, has not only brought our favorite Vulcan back from the dead but will soon destroy the planet which he is on. It’s a race against time as the Enterprise crew, against Starfleet orders, head over to the planet to save their comrade. All the while, the Klingons are trying to reach the same planet for their own nefarious purposes. It’s a pretty paper thin plot without too many twists. The positives are that the movie doesn’t take long to get going and one character’s death has important future repercussions in the franchise. The negative is that The Search for Spock is simply not very memorable nor quotable, although stealing the enterprise is a great bit.
12. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
There are a handful of classic scenes in this movie which begrudgingly make me sit through it every once in a while and that also nudge it just slightly past The Search for Spock. But these elements are far and few between and really rely on one’s knowledge and love for the history of the series three main protagonists (Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Doctor McCoy) to be fully appreciated. What we get surrounding these few sparks of magic is a story that tries to reach for something big – finding God at the end of the Universe – but ultimately fails. This is a real shame, especially considering that the movie’s villain, Sybok, a smiling Vulcan, had the potential to be one of Trek’s greatest rounded out antagonists. Some describe this as a big screen version of a TOS episode, but I just see it as a lot of meat, and even some of the right ingredients, but unfortunately the wrong cook. Also, there is no forgiving the Lt. Uhura “dancing naked in the desert” scene.
11. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
I had to force myself to stay awake through this movie after many failed attempts at making it past the first thirty minutes. Eventually, for the sake of completion, I armed myself with Coca Cola and plenty of prior sleep and sat down to watch it with full attention. It turns out that it’s not as bad as the bad rap it’s given. In fact, by Roddenberry standards, it’s probably the most Trekkish of all the films in the franchise, as it’s more concerned with “the big questions” and the meaning of everything than action and adventure. If you can accept that there will be arduously long shots of nebulae and spaceships while cast members dressed in what look like pajamas discuss the film’s protagonist – a dangerous probe, you’ll be presented with a fairly solid and thoughtful Trek movie with a classic sci-fi “gotcha” twist ending. Just keep the caffeine close by to start or you won’t make it past the six minute introduction of the Enterprise in all its cinema glory.
10. Star Trek: Into Darkness
This movie is filmed well, acted well, and presented well, but that can only take one so far if the story is bland and has already been done. There’s so much to like about this movie, and it certainly kept me entertained when I went to the premier. But why redo the Khan story when you’ve spent a whole first film setting up an alternative universe of limitless opportunities for the rebooted Trek franchise? I nudge this film above the last three only for its cinematic scope – J.J. Abrams knows how to set up a shot even if he loves his lens flares and the material is not up to par with his skills. But in the end, despite the good pacing and great action sequences, it is pretty brain dead and falls completely emotionally flat – especially when doing a twist of one of Trek’s, and cinema’s, most famous death scenes.
9. Star Trek: Nemesis
This movie usually ends up at the bottom of the list for a lot of Trek fans, but I don’t mind it too much. The story is ambitiously trying to overcome the criticism of The Next Generation cast’s earlier film feeling too much like it could have been a season 8 episode. And while I think it does succeed in some areas, it definitely fails in others. The film is at its best during its various action sequences – even including the silly opening sequence in an all terrain buggy. The villain, played by Tom Hardy, is also sneakily diabolical and able to shift between adolescent petulance and outright vengeful madness within a few lines of dialogue. What hurts the film is that it doesn’t move the Trek universe story forward at all but more irritating is that it’s more or less the Picard and Data show. Fans of TNG know that the relationship these two share is extremely important, but I never felt it matched the Kirk/Spock partnership, and it didn’t need to because of how deep and talented the TNG cast was. Relegating everyone else to practically extras was a disservice to the the ensemble in what would become their last voyage. This film has aged well though, and it is worth checking out on a rainy day for the adventure alone.
8. Star Trek: Generations
This is far from being a perfect movie, but it has two “wow” moments that make it worth the boring stuff in between. One, the beloved Enterprise D crash lands. And two, Captain Picard meets Captain Kirk. Aside from these monumental pieces of Trek big screen magic, the movie lacks direction and pacing. I remember how even while sitting in the theatre I cringed during the long sequence where Captain Picard finds himself inside the Nexus, (some “timey-wimey” Trek plot device) being greeted by his imaginary wife and kids. Thank God that now I can simply press fast-forward – Jean-Luc and children should simply not ever share the screen. The film’s climax is also a let-down, especially a certain death by way of obvious stunt double attached to an exploding bridge. But I can’t dislike this movie too passionately because it was the first TNG film, and it did come on with a lot of life and wide-eyed wonder. And there is Kirk with Picard! And The Enterprise D does crash land! What more can you say about that scene? Watch it, it’s still cool after all these year.
7. Star Trek: Beyond
This movie hit the right buttons for me for one important reason – it managed to move “beyond” Star Trek Universe Prime. Even the small nod to the classic cast was done in a quick, delicate, and sophisticated way. But in the end, there was no Spock Prime (as Leanord Nimoy had just recently passed), no rehashed villains, and the crew of the Enterprise seemed comfortable in their own skins. The story itself was a bit flimsy, but that was the fault of the villain, whose motivation was not believable. He also never seemed to pose a real threat to the crew, thus making the action sequences wonderful to watch, but lack any real urgency. The best aspect of the movie was the crew itself – everyone had a part to play, and the updated characterizations of these pop culture icons finally felt fleshed out. There was enough breathing room for them to talk and laugh and not feel as if they were trying to fill the shoes of those who had come before. Ultimately, Beyond needed a better villain to drive its plot, but it gave me hope for a future installment to the franchise which can match the best that the Trek movies have to offer.
6. Star Trek: Insurrection
Yes, the critics are right – this is basically a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode on the big screen – but a damn good one! I have always been a fan of Jonathan Frakes’ handling of Trek; he seemed earnestly concerned with the details and sensibilities which make the franchise stand out amongst the many space dramas out there. This is a humanitarian story about some of Star Trek’s biggest themes such as: Do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many? Is technology really man’s greatest achievement or is it his greatest burden? Is love and faith the true force that binds the universe? As the crew decides to save a colony of people who are at risk of losing their home-world, a very low-key (yet heart-filled) story unfolds that has plenty of big twists and emotional moments for all the crew. If the worst criticism is that this is a TNG season 8 episode, than I can live with it.
5. Star Trek 2009
This movie marks the division line between Trek-movies I enjoy because I am a Trekkie and Trek-movies I enjoy because they are actually great fun, and imaginative films – and I think that Star Trek 2009’s popular appeal beyond the core fan base echo my feelings. That said, a lot of traditional Trek fans really dislike this movie mainly because they felt it focused more on the action than on the “Trek Philosophy.” I disagree with this criticism because although The Next Generation may have been heavy on the talking, the original series (and particularly the original cast films) has its fair share of “Western In The Sky” motifs. What gave the series depth was the interaction between the crew – even if Roddenberry’s Utopian vision was used as a backdrop. So to see Kirk, Spock, and company actually run (as opposed to quick jog) towards danger was a thrill. Also watching Leonard Nimoy give his last great outing as Mr. Spock (I am not going to count the super brief cameo in Into Darkness) is really a special treat. This is not to say that this movie did in fact lack some of the deeper character sketches and Trek-philosophy that make the original cast and movies so great to watch, but the urgency in which the story is presented and that these actors take on these roles makes up for that. Excluding the overused lens flares and the not so scary villain, Star Trek 2009 stands up pretty well against the other films in the franchise as a great film to pull out the popcorn for.
4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
It’s difficult to forget our first, and this movie was my introduction to Star Trek – it’s also a favorite among non-Trekkies. The story is flimsy (the crew must go back in time to bring a humpback whale back to the future so it can talk to a destructive probe), but it’s also tongue in cheek and unpretentious; it doesn’t try to be more than the sum of its parts. It’s humorous and cynical while managing to preach a big message without being preachy. Another plus is that the movie really allows for the whole cast to shine as they run around Los Angeles looking for a way to repair their ship so that they can get back to the future and figuring out how to transport two huge humpback whales along with them. Watching the always prepared crew of the Enterprise fumble their way through this both familiar and alien world in a plethora of memorable and quotable scenes never gets old. There is Scotty breaking a few time travel principles to make a water tank; Chekov, right smack in the middle of the cold war era, in his thick Russian accent, asking a policeman how he can get to a naval base where they keep the nuclear wessels; Dr. McCoy going completely bananas over the “primitive” medical practices of the 80s; and a whole lot of other classic scenes in between. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Star Trek IV except for, as I stated, the paper thin plot – for the final hard hitters keep reading.
3. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Confession booth time – I was never a huge fan of this movie while growing up – and mostly for the much lauded slow motion submarine style final battle between Khan and Kirk – what happens to Spock as a result was always much more gripping. But as I got older, and experienced a little bit more of life’s hardships, I began to appreciate the straight forwardness of this movie. It’s a basic revenge and search and destroy story like Jaws or Moby Dick, the latter which is constantly quoted in Star Trek. This movie begins what essentially is a story arch that concludes with the sixth and last film with the complete original cast, and it ignores the occurrences of the slow as molasses first film in the franchise. Although the plot is crisp and moves at neck break speed, the real reason to watch this film is Ricardo Montalbán’s Khan. Having been marooned on a planet by Kirk for fifteen years, has given him plenty of time to brood over everything and everyone he has lost. When he sees an opportunity escape and seek vengeance, he takes it. With the combination of his superior strength and intellect, he nearly succeeds in his plans. It is Spock’s unforgettable act of bravery which saves the crew. Although Star Trek IV is more enjoyable for me to repeat view, this movie stands a notch above it for its tighter script and powerful performances. It’s too bad JJ Abrams thought that it was so good that it needed to be remade.
2. Star Trek: First Contact
This is The Next Generation crew’s finest moment. After literally burying the original series cast, they moved ahead with a story centered on their own most beloved villains – The Borg. This film has the humor and cast chemistry that made the original films glow but the action and special effects that they couldn’t afford. Like Star Trek IV, it’s a time travel story that has no fear of making fun of itself and gives each crew member of the extremely large cast ample things to do. It also knows hows to hit all the right dramatic buttons. Captain Picard’s Ahab analogy and Mr. Data’s human flesh experience are notable stand outs, but my favorite is Lt. Worf, after being called a coward by Picard, telling the Captain that he would kill him where he stood were he any other man and the goosebump inducing apology from Picard later. And of course, it has the element that unites my top three movies on this list – one of Star Trek’s finest villains, The Borg Queen. She is both mecha-sexy and frighteningly cunning. Her devious plot is so well played that one is left hanging on to the edge of their seats until the final moments. First Contact is always a pleasure to sit through when the mood hits.
1. Star Trek VI:The Undiscovered Country
This is a movie about ushering in new eras and letting go of things we love most while exploring the complexities of those actions. It is also a Cold War allegory that ties into The Next Generation universe, where The Federation and The Klingon Empire are no longer mortal enemies. The story centers on the assassination of the Klingon chancellor, whom the Enterprise crew had been escorting back into Federation space for a peace summit. The assassins appear to be Enterprise crew officers and so Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are charged with the crime and sent off to a prison planet. Meanwhile, Spock and the crew try to discover who truly assassinated the chancellor. The whodunit plot is expertly executed but what really makes the movie stand out is its character portrayals. The main crew of the Enterprise are old and unsure of their purpose, the universe is changing fast and they are not sure how to adapt. The film explores these contemplative moments without affecting the movie’s pace. The Undiscovered Country also has my favorite Trek villain in Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of Shakespeare-quoting General Chang. He is captivating and sly but also manages to bring a full dimension to a Klingon antagonist – something that hadn’t occurred yet in any of the films. There is so much meat in this movie for both Trekkies who love exploring the details of the Trek-universe and the casual viewer who simply enjoys a good political drama. Most importantly, though, it treated the cast with the respect it deserved as they took their last voyage around “the final frontier.”
Thanks for reading. I hope you liked my list, but I hope you disagree with it plenty so you can tell me what your favorite Trek movies are. Live Long and Prosper.
P. Ray 2016
Follow me on Twitter by clicking here.
Follow me on Facebook by clicking here.
Follow me on Instagram by clicking here.
Read why I think DS9 is the best Star Trek series by clicking here.
Read about what I really want for Christmas by clicking here.