Star Trek: The Original Series was a ground-breaking television event when it first hit the airwaves in 1966. As the famous tagline promised, the show went to places where no man had gone before, breaking boundaries and presumptions about science fiction and sindicated television on the way. By the late 1970’s, reruns expanded the shows’ popularity, and Star Wars paved the way for a transition to the big screen. 37 years, 13 films, and 3 generations of casts later, Star Trek still has a place on the big screen.
This is my personal ranking of those films, as a more than casual fan who grew up watching the films more so than the television shows. Are you a die-hard Trekkie? Or how about someone who has only been introduced to Star Trek through the reboot films? Comment below your own ranking and we can compare the films that resonate strongest.
# 13 – Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek is supposed to be about venturing where no man has gone before. As such, the producers thought that it would be a good idea for the Enterprise to try and find God. Star Trek often mixed supernatural and religious themes in the TV series, so it’s not too much of a stretch for a film to follow suit. Unfortunately, The Final Frontier trips up on just about every opportunity to get there. First of all, the search for the answer to the ultimate question comes off as a pretty silly excuse to out-do anything the series had done before, now that the story arc in the last three films had been completed. The script is borderline embarrassing compared to the wildly creative and influential places Star Trek has been in the past. Worst yet, they handed the directing responsibilities over to Mr. Shatner, who clearly had no idea what he was doing, and no one had the ability to convince him otherwise. There’s very little sense of cohesion, the performances are the worst in the series, and the pacing is just dreadful. It approaches ST: TMP levels of boredom without the great visuals (despite a big budget) and music to at least keep you awake. Unless you are a diehard fan, it’s safe to skip this one.
# 12 – Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek Nemesis was released at perhaps the lowest point in the franchise. Next Generations and Voyager had finished its run, and Enterprise would eventually fail to meet studio and audience expectations of re-inventing Star Trek for the new century. Therefore, Nemesis was supposed to be a grand send-off to a beloved cast, the last hurrah for fans to celebrate what Picard and crew had accomplished. Instead, it was like a last-ditch effort to try and get people to pay attention to Star Trek, going so far as to almost parody itself (Wrath of Khan) despite an interesting premise. Nemesis is Star Trek trying to tweak its formula to compete in the modern movie scene rather than stick to its roots. It is a 180 degree change in direction from Insurrection, trying NOT to be like the TV show, and in doing so, it felt like an uninspired CGI-filled mess going through the motions rather than actually belonging to Star Trek. Fans were disappointed and no one else went to see it. Can we also mention how terrible the trailer is? It gives away all the twists.
# 11 – Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Generations is an interesting idea for a film, but it just doesn’t quite come together well enough to be a cohesive end product. As a tie-in between two eras of Star Trek, it is meant to give the Kirk era closure while passing the baton onto the Next Generations crew. Unfortunately, the send-off isn’t as momentous an event as you might expect, and the film career of Picard and company gets off on the wrong foot. The premise of the film is creative, if confusing and ridiculous. To have both of the captains, who lived centuries apart, be able to exist in the same frame feels more like an unnecessary gimmick than something that adds to either storyline. The biggest problem, and indeed an issue in many Star Trek films, is that the plot fails to deliver the on the exciting proposition of two generations of Star Trek coming together in an epic adventure. Instead, the entire middle section of this film is a slow-moving overdramatic quagmire that otherwise ruins any benefit of seeing Kirk in action for the last time.
# 10 – Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Of all the Star Trek films, Insurrection feels the most like an extended version of the TV show on which it is based. In general, that may seem like not being a bad thing. The Star Trek films are, after all, based on the universe and characters created in the Star Trek show, so why not bring that same tone and approach to the big screen? Insurrection proved why that is a bad idea. For one, audiences have to pay money to see a film, so they are expecting more than just another TV show episode, which they can get for basically free on their couch. The plot of Insurrection is on the sillier side of all the films, which makes it even more difficult for audiences to buy in on the idea. Worst of all, despite having more time and money to work with than what we would see in an episode of the show, Insurrection doesn’t take advantage of these resources. The plot doesn’t have enough meat to fill up the full run time, so it feels weak and drawn-out. The special effects aren’t really that great either, a definite disappointment after First Contact. Insurrection ends up being a mediocre experience overall, rarely exciting, but also not completely incompetent.
# 9 – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture originally started as an effort to bring Star Trek back to television after it gained popularity in the 1970’s. Then Star Wars happened and suddenly science-fiction was profitable on the big screen. The formula was changed and Star Trek was sent to movie theaters. However, the studio misunderstood what exactly made Star Wars a success. Instead of releasing an adventurous big-budget effects-driven film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a plodding big-budget effects-driven film. Cast more in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey and less like Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a complete bore. Despite boasting impressive special effects for the time, a fantastic soundtrack, and having the excitement of seeing the original cast back in action, ST:TMP simply did not engage with its audience. Overlong and without much character interaction (let alone performances with any emotions) it is difficult for anyone but devoted Trekkies to enjoy it. That being said, ths film is still a tremendous accomplishment, and that’s the main reason I didn’t rank it any worse. In terms of being a late 70’s science fiction picture, it is impressive in many regards, I’m just not so sure those aspects are what best represented Star Trek. In the end, it made few people excited about the prospect of Star Trek in the 1980’s and almost killed off the entire franchise for good.
# 8 – Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
After much thought, I could not, in all good consciousness, rank Into Darkness higher than Beyond. Into Darkness is ⅔ a good Star Trek movie. Like the 2009 reboot, it’s action-oriented, carves its own way into the new Star Trek parallel universe, and is the first time we get to see the legendary Klingons in the new series. Also, like the 2009 film, Into Darkness takes place close to Earth, which is something that was rarely seen in the other Star Trek films (the time-travel films being the only exception). But, for every good thing this film does, it also does some very bad things, which is why I could not rank it higher. The last third of this film is like a giant slap in the face to every Star Trek fan. It blatantly rips off the #1 film on this list in a spectacle finale of nonsensical writing laziness. Not to mention, the film’s smothering dark tone is contrary to the optimistic futurism that Star Trek has at its core. Star Trek has questioned the motives and benefit of its core principles in the past, but this film takes that to a whole new, counter-productive level, and in the end, leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
#7 – Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
The old saying is that the even numbered Star Trek movies are good while the odd ones were not so good. This list is evidence that this pattern is not true, although of the first few films, it seemed to be accurate. Search for Spock is not the strongest of the original films, nor is it the weakest. Instead, it is just an average Star Trek film. It has a lot going for it, but also things working against it. Bringing back Spock is definitely a winning idea for fans, and to continue the story from the last film officially made Star Trek into a major movie franchise. The action is not as good as Wrath of Khan, but there is some great character drama and the cast is superb. Bringing Christopher Lloyd in to play a villain was memorable; finally we get a formidable Klingon antagonist. The film is fun with Kirk & company becoming renegades of sorts. However, while the scrappy plot was definitely something different from what we had seen before, it doesn’t really have the excitement or special effects to back it up. Furthermore, the film in general just feels like filler material in between the monumental Wrath of Khan and the change-of-pace Voyage Home. It doesn’t feel as important or well-constructed as those other films. Nevertheless, Search for Spock is an acceptable Star Trek film, especially for fans of the original cast.
# 6 – Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Star Trek Beyond is the big-budget Star Trek blockbuster that the reboots have been promising. It effectively takes the Star Trek formula and applies it to a modern action film, something that Star Trek films have struggled with since their inception. Beyond doesn’t have to waste much time setting up its alternate reality, and doesn’t rely on a connection with the older films in order to feel like a Star Trek film (see Into Darkness). Instead, Beyond feels like a Star Trek film because of the way it highlights the characters. Sure, there is a lot of action, and the plot may not be the strongest, but the characters shine through, which is something that fans will enjoy and have been waiting for. The decision to ground the crew on a planet and split them up really makes each of them important and the actors performances remind us fondly of the original cast. What better way to celebrate the franchise’s’ 50th anniversary (and pay respect to those who have passed) than to have a film that points the franchise in an interesting (and fun) direction for the future?
# 5 – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
For some, The Voyage Home may seem like an inconsistency among the Star Trek films. The plot is downright silly (travelling back in time to save the whales?), and the tone is very light. This is a big contrast to the films that had come before, which had been dark, mostly emotional affairs. However, look back through the original TV series catalog and you will find many moments of silly lightheartedness. In fact, the original series’ campiness is one of the reasons it is so fondly remembered. Amongst the heavy and dark backdrop of space, this lightness gave the series its heart, and made the characters endearing. It’s only fitting that one of the films showcase this side as well, and The Voyage home does a great job of this. The cast shines in an enjoyable journey that is unlike anything else we’ve seen from Star Trek on the big screen. It may not be the Star Trek film that defines the franchise, nor is it a good choice for the uninitiated, but it is a film that fans love adamantly.
# 4 – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
In response to the two previous films showcasing a more light-hearted and strange side to Star Trek, the sixth installment went to a very serious place. The fact that it manages to be a fun, enjoyable film despite the heavy premise is what makes it so great. It helped that the studio took no chances and hired back Nicholas Meyer, who has shown that he knows his way around a Star Trek film. Undiscovered Country is the a political thriller of the Star Trek film universe. Interactions between the Federation and the Klingon empire always made for good television in the TV show, so why not bring that type of drama to the big screen? Add in the mystery element, and the film is both unique and fitting as a connection to current events. Star Trek has such lasting power because despite being science fiction, it related to real life. This film was further evidence of that insight the series possessed. It is an all-around great send-off to the original cast, giving them one more adventure on the big screen with the story and production to do it right.
# 3 – Star Trek (2009)
The most successful Star Trek film is the one that is the most different from what has come before. J.J. Abrams’ reboot/remake sets the tone for the next generation of Star Trek films for the 21st Century without overriding any of the accomplishments of the other films. It is a big, loud, and action-packed spectacle that is incredibly entertaining and fun to watch. Although it may not feel much like a traditional Star Trek film, that ends up being a good thing. While the previous films in the series often had trouble translating the feel of the television shows to the big screen, Star Trek doesn’t have a corresponding TV show with which it has to relate. Instead, it is free to head in a new direction, one that both old fans and new audiences can enjoy together. For old fans, there is something special about seeing an origin story of the characters that they love, and also seeing new actors tackle those roles convincingly. For new fans, Star Trek has a relatable coming-of-age story at its core, coupled with all of the high production values and top-of-the-line special effects common to todays’ summer blockbusters. Even if the plot has some logic holes and the film is the biggest departure in the Star Trek film series so far, it remains a memorable and entertaining picture.
# 2 – Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
The only good Next Generation film is also one of the best all-around Star Trek films. First Contact has a great, action-packed story that is delivered in a more energetic and creative way than anything leading up to it. The story has held up over time, depicting an important moment in the Star Trek universe which feels like it was meant for the big screen. This is one of the few Star Trek films that doesn’t seem like an oversized television episode. There is enough plot development and interesting interactions among the crew to keep this film engaging the whole way through. Star Trek is typically at its best when there is a formidable antagonist that keeps the crew on their toes. The Borg menace fits the bill perfectly, giving the film a creepy, terrifying tone that makes it feel that much more urgent and important. At the same time, in order to get a more action-oriented approach, First Contract doesn’t feel like it has to sacrifice anything to make it feel like Star Trek.
# 1 – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Wrath of Khan is not only a great Star Trek film, but a great science fiction film in general. Everything about the production adds up to be an exciting and interesting film. For one, you have a story that mines Star Trek’s past in order to set the film franchise off on the right foot. Star Trek films are at their best when it is their beloved characters that shine, and this film is one where they shine the brightest. Bringing back a memorable villain from the show was one way to appease fans and make them forget about the boring Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but it was also a svelte way to add a new and threatening conflict that could only be told on the big screen. The plot is as exciting and emotionally-driven as they come, with a real intense climactic sequence that is among the best in all of science fiction. Director Nicholas Meyer works some kind of magic to pull out a decent-looking film on a meager budget. Add in a timeless score by James Horner, and one of the best performances by Shatner in company, and you get the best all-around Star Trek film to date.