That title is a bit of a misnomer since I’m listing all of the Star Trek films here so really it’s about ranking them from best to worst, but if we consider the fact that all Star Trek movies are awesome simply by being a Star Trek movie then it’s entirely apt, right?
That might not be entirely true either. After watching through all 11 movies (again) I can say without a doubt that some of them are pretty bad, and yet even the bad ones have their redeeming values. As I ranked them I was often torn between loving a film for one reason and hating it for another. And while the franchise has had it’s ups and downs in the theater if things continue getting better, as our review of Into Darkness suggests they are, I may just be adding a new number one to the top of the list.
1. Star Trek: Insurrection
Does anyone remember this movie? This isn’t the forgotten Star Trek movie, it’s the one that never was. Most likely this is because it feels like an episode of the TV series and not a full budget film. There’s very little bigger picture stuff here, and by this time the crew of the Enterprise (or whatever crew we were watching on TV) disobeying commands was almost cliche. It can be said that this film had some stellar effects and Frakes direction definitely got better from his previous solid work on First Contact. Still, while it may have been a decent episode of the TV series it’s missing that je ne sais quoi that makes for a great movie.
2. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Having given the director’s chair to Leanord Nemoy twice the producers figured giving it to William Shatner wouldn’t hurt so much if it kept him around… and then they let him develop the screenplay. I’m a massive Shatner fan, but he easily made the worst TOS Star Trek film. It probably didn’t help that there was a writer’s strike going on, but that still doesn’t excuse the horrible attempts at being philosophical with the story’s “God” plot. Philosophy and human nature are things Star Trek usually addresses incredibly well, and yet here they come of as cheap and melodramatic. There’s just a clear misunderstanding of what makes the series work. And yet the movie delivers one of Shatner’s greatest lines: “What would God need (wait for it) with a star ship?” A ruthlessly banal line that only Shatner could turn into a memorable piece of dialog.
3. Star Trek: Nemesis
This is the one that put the nail in the coffin, but it really isn’t as bed as everyone remembers. It’s not good, that’s for sure, but Picard’s tortured story arc, though ridiculous thanks to cloning, is actually pretty solid and it features some of the best space battles the films have seen. The darker overall tone in both mood and visuals also gives it a differentiating factor from the rest of the films. The death of Data at the end of the movie does pack an emotional wallop for any fan, but it’s sadly not as good as it could be. The movie is really just boring at parts, and while it succeeds at others it never makes up for its faults.
4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is spaceship model porn. This is the only conceivable way the movie came about: a script was turned in that wasn’t actually feature length, and while it was interesting and very Star Trek the movie wasn’t a movie. Instead of fleshing it out the filmmakers decided they would instead shoot endless minutes of the Enterprise in varying situations. Thus the opening sequence in which the camera pans around Enterprise like it’s got to remember every last inch of the thing. Now, I’m sure everyone was impressed with what was going on with the special effects, but unless tiny plastic space ships sexually arouse you that gets boring really quick. Sadly, they decide to do it four or five more times throughout the film. Maybe they just didn’t want to look at the ridiculously ugly Star Fleet uniforms?
5. Star Trek Generations
Kirk and Picard finally meeting; Generations is basically every Star Trek geek’s fan-fiction turned into canon — or it should have been. The film never feels grand enough for its own purposes, and Picard and Kirk’s meeting falls a bit to flat. This is in large thanks to Kirk’s death, which is executed horribly thanks to some poor delivery by Shanter, poor direction and a unfortunately cheesy conclusion. Still, the movie is fun to watch and when Picard and Kirk bump heads it shows off some greatness. There’s plenty for Star Trek fans to enjoy here, but not enough to make it as great as it should have been.
6. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
This is the forgotten film. Not bad, just forgotten. It’s the one that comes after the best film (list spoiler) and before the one with the wales. You’ll be hard pressed to find a casual fan who remembers it, and yet it works really well. The crew of the Enterprise going rouge might seem cliche now thanks to decades of TV and movies making it seem like that’s all any starship ever does, but back then it was still fresh. Spock’s rebirth, a gimmick cooked up after Leonard Nemoy was lured back with a promise to direct, is handled surprisingly well. Plus, in the grand tradition of Shatner being awesome, the final battle is some down right ridiculous hand-to-hand combat between him and a Klingon. It might anger fans, but one of the best parts about Star Trek is that it has a sense of humor that allows for its own cheesiness.
5. Star Trek: First Contact
Again with the time travel. Much like Journey Home it works, though not as well. The inclusion of the Borg, possibly Star Treks greatest alien race, make this stand out, and the Borg Queen is a great villain (though her eventual rebirth and history make little sense). What makes it work once again is the juxtaposition of the idealized Star Trek present and humanities darker past. While Jonathan Frakes direction is certainly dated he had an understanding of the series and its cast that made up for it. Most importantly it delivered a thinking mans Star Trek with nods to Moby Dick and questions on revenge.
4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
One of the things Star Trek did smartly is basically decide that time travel was a thing and it happened. The crews of Star Fleet time travel all the time and it’s brilliant and no one ever really explains anything. It’s just something that happens. Surprisingly one of the least Star Trek movies in the franchise, since it neither involves stars or treks, it is also one of the most Star Trek of the franchise. With the removal of the ship and space battles the film focuses on friendship, humanity and social messages — three things that have always been the foundation of the franchise. It also doesn’t help that this might be one of the smartest screenplays in the series with Nemoy and Harve Bennett (before he got out of control) delivering a solid story that the screenwriters built on wonderfully.
3. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
This is so very close to being the best of the series. The Klingons return and get the most focus they’ve had in any film and the final battle between an obviously aged Enterprise crew and a cloaked Bird of Prey is perfectly executed. The lead up to Kirk figuring out how to destroy the Bird of Prey is capped by an ending shot of him clenching his fist as he says fire. It’s a fantastic moment that seems to not only build on the film’s tension, but year’s of Star Trek history. Leave it to Nichaloas Meyer, director of Khan, to come back and close the original crew’s story so strongly. Also, zero gravity Klingon blood is still cool to this day.
2. Star Trek
Brilliantly rebooting the franchise without destroying decades worth of canon by using (you guessed it) time travel, Star Trek saved Star Trek. While it’s definitely a far more action oriented series in this new incarnation the reboot grabbed the essence of the show and crammed it into a stylish, lens-flared extravaganza. Instead of desperately clinging to the past, the movie revitalizes the franchise while still delivering enough fan service to keep everyone happy. It’s easily the most accessible of the Star Trek films and would be number one if Khan didn’t have Spock’s death scene in it.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
To make up a quote from Mr. Spock, the inevitable cannot be avoided. It was indeed inevitable that this be the number one Star Trek film. Despite struggling to keep it out of this spot for reasons of not being cliche, it ended up here anyway. It definitely has its flaws from some of the cheesiest direction (KHAAAAAAAAAN) to plenty of flawed logic. However, it’s shortcomings are easily eclipsed by its fan service, its stellar use of the cast and, most importantly, its ending. One of the few moments in film where its OK to weep like a child is the death of Spock. What’s more impressive is how perfectly the film builds to it, taking a crew and turning them into characters people could have a passion for again. If there’s a reason Star Trek is still alive it’s because of The Wrath of Khan.