We boldly go where everyone has already gone – to give you our top (and bottom) STAR TREK films.
Story by Matt Cummings
In the long – and sometimes sad – history of the STAR TREK franchise, we’ve been gifted with both truly amazing moments and head-scratching, nearly unwatchable garbage. For a series that’s endured for so long, fans have dutifully stuck around for all the highs and the lows, trading one great film for a terrible one. But where do the 12 films rank if you compare them side by side? Do the William Shatner films beat the Patrick Stewart ones? And can the JJ Abrams movies hold a candle to the great STAR TREK films of days past? On the eve of the release of STAR TREK BEYOND, we take a moment to rank each, to boldly go where every STAR TREK fan has already gone before!
12. STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002)
NEMESIS isn’t just a bad STAR TREK film, it’s a terrible film in general, a disaster on par with any franchise-ending effort we’ve ever seen. Hoping to re-capture the formula behind The WRATH OF KHAN, Paramount unwisely hired a team that knew little about the series and had no interest in learning about it. From an elderly captain wielding dual phasers like a John Woo movie, to the crew violating the Prime Directive within the first 15 minutes, it’s no wonder why NEMESIS turned the soil fallow for 7 years until the Abrams reboot. Not even the soon-to-be-great Tom Hardy could rescue this pile as a (supposedly) perfect Romulan copy of Captain Picard, while Data needlessly sacrifices himself and the Enterprise is (once again) wrecked. Please allow this one to be deleted from our memory banks!
11. STAR TREK: INSURRECTION (1998)
Right behind STAR TREK: NEMESIS is this absolutely boring affair. THE NEXT GENERATION series always teetered on unwatchable, toying with greatness (see THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS) only to revert back to dull soon after. In many ways, STAR TREK: INSURRECTION makes my point for me, amounting to little more than an over-budgeted television episode. But what makes it truly awful is that it had the audacity to show its face after the spectacular FIRST CONTACT, which seemed to place the franchise on a footing it hadn’t seen in years. But again, INSURRECTION demonstrates the struggle fans have endured for so long: make a great film, make an awful film to follow up.
10. STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)
I hate to admit it – because I’ve met William Shatner and appreciate his work – but STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER is not a great film. Partly a disaster because Paramount slashed its budget and forced Shatner to give up much of what he had envisioned, FRONTIER is just a poorly-conceived and executed film. Shatner really had no business directing this, chucking out years of great storytelling about age and mortality in favor of a swashbuckling adventure with over-the-hill actors behaving like 30-something action stars. Having said all this, FRONTIER does manage to escape the TNG failures with an incredible climbing sequence, a heart-breaking talk around the fire, and a great score by Composer Jerry Goldsmith. It’s not one I’d recommend starting with if you’re attempting to bring newbies into the franchise, but older fans like myself still appreciate Shatner’s directing eye, as well as the more ridiculous elements from the television series. But this is film Mr. Shatner, and your one (and only) venture occupies a less-than-ideal location on our list.
9. STAR TREK GENERATIONS (1994)
For someone who loved THE ORIGINAL SERIES, STAR TREK GENERATIONS was a slap in the face. The death of Captain Kirk was reshot after test audiences rejected the original ending, but fans in general didn’t like the final result, which repeats the many mistakes of the very successful television series. Chalk up GENERATIONS’ ‘success’ to fan goodwill, but its story – about a rip in space that can transport people to an ideal world of their creation – was not well executed. The idea that handing off the STAR TREK universe by killing one of the most recognized characters ever is no different than killing off James Bond. Still, watching the USS Enterprise slam into a planet was one of the best scenes of any film that year, but the retreading of battle footage from THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY was downright unforgiveable.
8. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)
For all that THE MOTION PICTURE gets wrong – it’s boring, pedantic, and never captures the spirit of TOS – there’s some truly spectacular parts behind this space opera. The special effects (especially in the much better Director’s Cut) are outstanding, and the beauty of the refitted USS Enterprise is celebrated throughout the film. Once a greenlit television follow-up, Paramount saw THE MOTION PICTURE as the next STAR WARS, but what Director Robert Wise really gave us was a watered-down version of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But this one has huge pacing errors, never able to balance the love of space exploration with the very human drama of people working in space that TOS got so right. Still, it was a decent place to start the franchise, and future films would borrow elements from it, along with Composer Jerry Goldsmith’s (perhaps?) best score ever. It’s powerful, epic, and if you watch the supplements on the Director’s Cut you’ll learn how it was almost never created.
7. STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)
STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK is generally regarded as a disappointment, and who could blame them? It follows the beloved WRATH OF KHAN, and its rather slow pacing seemed to whipsaw the series from cool action to dull space drama. Oh, and it performs perhaps the greatest reversal of a character death ever in one of the weirdest and least effective ways. But again, this one features some spectacular scenes, including a ‘Genesis’ planet coming undone, an important character death, and the self-destruction of Kirk’s beloved ship. It’s still pretty gut-wrenching to watch that scene, but it’s done so beautifully that Director Leonard Nimoy should be praised for giving the ship such a graceful ending. Again, it’s not a film I’d start new fans with, but it’s solid enough not to hate.
6. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)
The first of the JJ Abrams films to enter our list, reaction to INTO DARKNESS depends if you’re a fan of TOS or not. If not, the reveal of the villains’ true name – one of the worst-kept secrets for a film ever – might be cool, along with Spock shouting Khan’s name after the death of a certain crew member. But for most of us DARKNESS is just that: an ill-conceived project that needed more time in the oven. The always solid Benedict Cumberbatch plays a very good, sympathetic bad buy in the vein of MAN OF STEEL’s General Zod. You almost feel bad for him, until he breaks a hot chick’s leg, crushes an admiral’s skull, and pile drives a gigantic starship into San Francisco. But JJ’s amazing eye for talent shows through with a still-perfectly-cast Enterprise crew.
5. STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)
STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY does many things quite well: it bids a fond farewell to TOS’ crew, wraps them in quite a good Cold War murder-mystery, and features spectacular effects. It features the return of Director Nicholas Meyer who helmed STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, who directs the grittiest and most violent of the STAR TREK films by also bathing it in nostalgia. It’s also a stunning commentary on the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a group of Klingons conspire with Federation officers to start a war, rather than laying down their arms to work peacefully alongside that very same Federation. That kind of social commentary – which made the original series so damn great – hadn’t been seen since the very good 1988 TNG episode CONSPIRACY. Check out the trailer for this one, as it features one of the best monologues ever, as well as scenes from the franchise’s then-early history pressed onto the USS Enterprise just before it goes into warp.
4. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)
If you had been in the Pitch Room on the day this one was presented back in 1985, you might have laughed out loud at its ridiculousness: a time-travelling comedy science fiction film? No way. And yet, STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME is terrific, a fish-out-of-water tale that sees Kirk and crew voyage to 1980’s San Francisco to rescue two humpback whales so that the future won’t die. It’s got great comedy – including a now-classic exchange between Kirk and Spock over dinner – and an important social message about the dangers we people are doing to whales and wildlife in general. Sometimes, films like these work for all the reason they shouldn’t; but it’s so much fun to see our crew here that any issues with the premise are soon forgotten.
3. STAR TREK (2009)
It’s not easy for a fan like myself to accept what I saw in Director JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot, not because of how it turns the franchise on its ear (we’ve seen that played out brilliantly in the TOS episode MIRROR, MIRROR), but due entirely to the film’s many structural problems. After an incredibly moving opening, we get time-traveling folks that pussy-foot around for a quarter century before doing any real damage, venting drive plasma in the form of galaxy-sized plot holes. But, Abrams can cast like a Mutha and it’s what keeps this ship from crashing into a sun. Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and the terrific Karl Urban as Bones are as perfect as you can get. It’s fast-paced, thrilling in many parts, and kicks off Star Trek 2.0 with tons of style. Forget about Abrams’ lens flaring ad Apple Bridge, he made a sexy, cool, and hip STAR TREK film by doing the one thing he had to do: change the course of events leading up to TOS. The results shocked die-hard fans with its brazenness, but also brought a ton of new people into the franchise. That was the film’s point, even if Abrams’ screenplay is sometimes worth little more than a Tribble.
2. STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996)
Clearly the best of THE NEXT GENERATION films – and one of my favorite films of all time – STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT rips into high gear from the start and never looks back. It returns us to the nightmare that is Captain Picard’s greatest folly: his capture and alteration by The Borg, and sends our crew back in time to the Vulcans’ first contact with Earth. This really is a great film, built upon the oft-repeated TOS theme of obsession, and fueled by another impressive score by Composer Jerry Goldsmith. It’s a frankly terrifying film, because The Borg look so menacing and their methods to bring the android Data (Brent Spiner) into their ranks is downright diabolical. It also features a seminal moment, that of the Vulcans actually arriving on Earth to make contact with the Terrans. Too bad that it was exploded out in the truly awful STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE. But the film itself is still a great space adventure.
1. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)
From the moment STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN flickered on the big screen to give us The Kobayashi Maru, we knew that things in this universe were going to be different. And man, was it ever. It’s clearly the best of the series, standing up to every bit of scrutiny that critics can throw at it. Heralding the return of super-bad guy Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán), you didn’t need to be a Trek fan to appreciate the wild times Khan produces at the expense of Kirk and his crew. From the impressive practical effects of Khan’s sneak attack on The Enterprise, to the themes of friendship and aging explored by Kirk and Spock in a pivotal scene, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN is also an impressive submarine adventure film. Add in an emotional 15-minute ending – with one of the best deaths of a major character ever made – and no wonder it’s a top five film for me. Yes, of all time; it’s that good. Check out the recently-released Director’s Cut, which expands on the dangers of the Genesis device and in general rounds out our Number One choice.
So there’s our list! Where do you rank all 12 STAR TREK II films? Be a part of the conversation and add your list below! STAR TREK BEYOND arrives in theaters on July 22, 2016.