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Ranking the "Star Trek" Movies

Matt Bird writes all sorts of nonsense, but he dedicates a large chunk of his time to writing game walkthroughs.

Copyright 1991 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1991 by Paramount Pictures.

Though the Star Trek franchise is - and probably always will be - best known for its television shows, much of its history is defined by its big screen offerings. There are a lot of Star Trek movies, and while they seldom ever offer up the same level of moral and philosophical deep-thinking as the shows, they're still, on the whole, quite entertaining. No Star Trek show to date has managed to portray a battle against the Borg as well as the movies, for example, or created as suspenseful a showdown as Wrath of Khan. There's plenty of value in giving these movies a try.

All of them, though? Ah, therein lies the rub. Along with the aforementioned value, there's a lot of hit-and-miss with the Star Trek films. The wibbly-wobbly nature of the movies got so bad at one point that 'only the even-numbered films are good' was a pretty strong rule for several decades. Not every Star Trek movie is worth your time, and this article will attempt to point out which ones you should watch - and which you should avoid.

Copyright 1998 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1998 by Paramount Pictures.

13. Star Trek: Insurrection

Compared to the television show, Star Trek: Insurrection is fine. The whole cast gets a decent amount of screen time, there are plenty of quiet moments to offset the action, and F. Murray Abraham gets a good turn as the squicky, face-pulling villain. That right there is the problem, though: Insurrection feels like an extended episode of the TV show, and not much else.

Insurrection sees the crew of the Enterprise-E heading to a remote planet to pick up wayward android Data (Brent Spiner). He and a Federation force have been secretly observing a people known as the Ba'ku, and a quirk of their solar system grants the Ba'ku effective immortality. A heretofore unmentioned race known as the Son'a want this power for themselves, and Jean-Luc Picard must deal with the moral implications of displacing a small group of people for the betterment of others.

In short, it's a classic Star Trek episode, and would have fit perfectly into The Next Generation's run. But this isn't an episode of Star Trek, it's a movie. Movies need high stakes and excitement to justify their existence, and Insurrection has neither. Good acting, decent character moments, okay direction, and, jeez, even Gilbert and Sullivan can't save Insurrection from becoming a boring, pointless slog.

In general the most successful Star Trek films call back to the TV shows and expand on concepts that were already cool. Insurrection fails to do this. It's still worth watching - all the films are ultimately worth watching, if you have the time - but this is a one-and-done viewing experience.

Copyright 2013 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 2013 by Paramount Pictures.

12. Star Trek Into Darkness

Hilariously, Star Trek Into Darkness does everything Insurrection didn't do... and still fails. This is an exciting, action-packed, sleek, call-back film that raises the stakes everywhere it goes, and should have been an easy critical win. The fact that it isn't speaks to some fundamental problems with the film's DNA, and early script and casting choices doomed Star Trek Into Darkness before it got off the ground.

After an explosive, fun intro with a lot of running, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is stripped of his command of the Enterprise and reduced to first officer. In the aftermath of two terrorist attacks he's reinstated, however, and sent to the Klingon world of Kronos to track the man responsible - no less than Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch). Working with Khan Kirk and crew uncover a Federation plot, and things just keep ballooning from there. The movie culminates with a high-speed fist fight.

That summary sounds messy, and it should be, because this is a messy film. Attempting to pull elements from a bunch of earlier Star Trek movies, Into Darkness is all over the place. Kirk is demoted? No, he's captain again. This terrorist is some guy named Harrison? No, it's obviously Khan. Scotty is mad at the crew? Only for as long as it takes for him to get critical information. Kirk is dead? Nah! Into Darkness undercuts itself over and over and over, turning what should be an easy grand-slam proposition - Kirk versus Khan - into a frustrating chore.

Star Trek Into Darkness is not boring. Director J.J. Abrams seems incapable of making a boring movie. But it is profoundly stupid, in ways that insult both the viewer and the movies from which it supposedly draws inspiration. At no point should Khan be depicted as a dumb man, yet that's exactly how he seems here. Disappointing.

Copyright 1989 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1989 by Paramount Pictures.

11. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Sandwiched between two of the best Star Trek films, The Final Frontier is a sad experience that should work a lot better than it does. There are some really neat character moments, along with great bonding work at the beginning, but... yeah. The Final Frontier kinda sucks.

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After a spot of fun shore leave, the Enterprise-A heads out to save some diplomats from radical terrorist Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) who manages to hijack the Enterprise for his own purposes. It turns out that Sybok is Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) half brother, and despite his Vulcan origins Sybok embraces his emotions and has incredible charismatic sway over people. His plan is to breach the center of the universe and find Sha Ka Ree, a planet said to be the beginning of all creation.

It's a neat idea, and some of The Final Frontier works pretty well. Kirk has a great introspective moment in this movie, and Sybok is a solid, surprising character. The entire shore leave section - namely watching Kirk, Spock, and Bones (DeForest Kelley) sing around a campfire - is a great bit of levity. Unfortunately the brightness of the tone deflates what should be a serious, spiritual subject - finding God - leaving the film feeling really uneven. It doesn't help that the few action sequences stink.

Similar to Insurrection, The Final Frontier feels like it could be an episode of the TV show, and it should be so much more. There's just not enough wonder and reverence paid to the idea of seeking out God. Couldn't Sha Ka Ree at least look interesting, rather than a heap of rocks? Granted, the crew doesn't actually... find... well, never mind. Point is, The Final Frontier is pretty boring, and could easily be skipped after watching The Voyage Home. And that's a shame.

Copyright 2002 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 2002 by Paramount Pictures.

10. Star Trek: Nemesis

The final sendoff for the crew of the Enterprises-D and E, Star Trek: Nemesis is a film that probably looked a lot better on paper than it wound up being on the big screen. Though far from boring, this is a pretty dumb movie, and a sad way to wrap up Jean-Luc Picard's story.

Kicking off the action with both a coup and a marriage, Nemesis quickly has Picard facing off against... himself. A clone of Picard, Shinzon (Tom Hardy), has seized control of the Romulan Star Empire, and he professes to want peace. This is of course a ruse, and Shinzon needs Picard to prevent his own demise. He also wants to invade Federation space with his big fancy ship and kill a whole lot of people. Plenty of action ensues.

Though Hardy provides a neat villain in Shinzon, there's not much else to recommend Nemesis. It poses a number of questions and then refuses to answer them effectively. Why does Shinzon exist? To replace Picard at some point, apparently, though you can tell at a glance that they aren't identical. Why is there another Soong-type android? Well, because we want to kill Data at the end of the film, but, you know, not really kill him. Why is there an entire underclass of Romulans who have somehow never been mentioned before? Don't ask questions, just watch the movie. As a Star Trek fan it's a frustrating experience, and the average moviegoer probably won't find what remains interesting enough to enjoy.

Nemesis' main problem is that it feels dumber than most Star Trek movies. It tries to pander a little too much to non-Star Trek fans, going so far as to throw in a high-speed dune buggy chase just because. It's not the worst film of the lot, but Star Trek is better than this.

Copyright 1994 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1994 by Paramount Pictures.

9. Star Trek Generations

With Generations we leave 'bad' territory and enter a stretch of Star Trek movies that are more 'ho-hum'. It's unfortunate that three of the four Next Generation films are so far down the list, but the second Enterprise crew just didn't have the same luck as the original cast. Oh well.

The only appearance of the Enterprise-D on the list, Generations is a split film that begins on the maiden voyage of the Enterprise-B. Kirk, Scotty (James Doohan), and Chekhov (Walter Koenig) are present to see the new ship off, only for disaster to strike and Kirk to be whisked off into the unknown. The movie then jumps forward to Picard and company, who have to stop a traumatized madman named Soren (Malcolm Macdowell) from destroying a star system in order to gain access to the Nexus, an extra-dimensional paradise. Kirk, naturally, joins Picard in the final act to stop Soren.

Generations was designed to hand the Star Trek movie legacy off to the Next Generation crew, and it doesn't really succeed in that aim. Only the captains ever get to interact, and that aside most of the movie belongs to Picard's Enterprise-D. Even then it doesn't feel like everyone has equal billing, with most of the important scenes belonging to either Picard or, to a lesser extent, Data. Macdowell is a great actor, but his Soren is too outwardly villainous for his character to seem sympathetic, even though his aims are quite understandable. Picard and Kirk barely interact with Soren until the finale, and their showdown - shot amid a sea of boring rocks - does little to excite the viewer.

There are some funny bits in Generations - Data steals the show multiple times - and the crushing descent of the Enterprise-D is a fantastic scene. It's also nice to see show villains Lursa (Barbara March) and B'Etor (Gwynyth Walsh) again. But they, like everyone else, are under-utilized, and the concept of the first two Enterprise crews mixing is wasted. Imagine how cool Generations could have been if we'd seen Geordi and Scotty working together again, or Data and Spock arguing logic over emotion, or Bones arguing with Crusher over how to properly set a broken leg? So much potential. Oh well.

Copyright 1979 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1979 by Paramount Pictures.

8. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

A movie that was, at the time of its release, considered almost infamously boring, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is yet another film that probably could have been a two-parter episode of the series instead. It's a stand-alone story that doesn't develop its characters that much, and involves a lot of standing around... but the concept is cool enough that it finds a respectable place on this list.

The Motion Picture begins dramatically, with a group of redesigned Klingons (look them up from the original series, there's a big difference) getting destroyed by... something. A massive energy cloud with something at its center is headed towards the Federation, and Admiral Kirk has to take back the Enterprise, fly into the vessel at the heart of the cloud, and stop the intelligence before it reaches Earth. It's a simple premise...

... and it almost doesn't work, just because the movie takes so danged long to make anything happen. The machine at the heart of the cloud envelops the Enterprise, and what follows is countless panning shots of cool-looking architecture. Perhaps series creator Gene Roddenberry was trying to evoke wonder and suspense, and while there's a decent amount of wonder the suspense is stunted by how slow everything moves. We get it, the Enterprise looks cool, stop showing us the hull. It doesn't help that the lion's share of the character development is relegated to two completely new characters, leaving the rest of the crew to gawk blankly at their computer consoles.

Sound dull? Well, at times, it is. Yet the conclusion of this film is somehow neat enough that it makes up for a lot of the flaws, and the hints leading up to said conclusion are pretty tantalizing. If The Motion Picture was remade with more obstacles for the crew to overcome - and, perhaps, two fewer crew members - it could easily be one of the best on the list. As is... well, it's a solid movie to throw on if you just want something in the background.

Copyright 1984 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1984 by Paramount Pictures.

7. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

The ultimate in bridge movies, The Search for Spock is about as dead-middle as Star Trek films come. It's a decent, kinda cheap, fairly short experience that gets you from the end of one awesome movie to the beginning of another awesome movie. You won't be tantalized or appalled while you're watching, because The Search for Spock does nothing incredibly right or offensively wrong. It just... is, and that's okay.

Picking up from the traumatic end of The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock returns the Enterprise crew to the Genesis planet in - you guessed it - a search for Spock. Their comrade is gone, but traumatic memories implanted in Dr. McCoy's head hint at Spock's return to the living. The crew must shanghai the Enterprise, against orders, and head back to Genesis before the planet destroys itself. Klingons get involved at some point, because everybody loves Klingons.

While watching the crew steal the Enterprise is pretty fun - and the ship's fiery destruction is traumatizing - the rest of The Search for Spock happens without much fanfare. There's no doubt that they will retrieve Spock by the end of the movie, so attempts at suspense don't amount to a whole lot. The film also doesn't feel like it has the same budget as many of the other titles on the list, so while it stands above an episode of the TV show in quality it's not as far above as you might think. The primary standout here is Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon commander, who deserved a recurring role on The Next Generation. He plays scummy villain really well. As it is, though... don't expect to see Commander Kruge again.

The modern equivalent of The Search for Spock would be a film split into two parts, making this, like, the Deathly Hallows Part One of Star Trek. It's essential for getting the band back together, and when they do you'll get a much better film in the sequel. Fortunately The Search for Spock clocks in at under two hours, so the trip across its metaphorical bridge is brief and relatively painless.

Copyright 2016 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 2016 by Paramount Pictures.

6. Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond feels like a film that was seen and then forgotten almost immediately. It came with little fanfare, received pretty good reviews, was notable for the death of Anton Yelchin (Chekhov), and then... vanished. The reboot series hasn't been heard from since. It's a shame, too, because while not a cream-of-the-crop Star Trek film, Beyond is still a lot of fun.

Picking up a few years into the Enterprise's five-year exploration of the galaxy, Beyond quickly removes its crew from the ship and puts them on a dangerous planet, surrounded by enemies with mysterious motives. Kirk and company are soon joined by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), and the whole lot have to fend off the troops of Krall (Idris Elba), a monstrous alien with a more personal agenda than it first appears. It's a very Star Trek story, albeit with higher stakes - just as you'd want with a film.

Some pacing issues on the planet aside Beyond moves pretty quickly, and gives characters who don't interact much a chance to work together. Strongest of these are Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban), whose chemistry is as great as it was in the original show. Watching them bicker and bond is great. It's also surprising how well Jaylah fits in with everybody else, and given how the movie ends she would be a shoo-in to join the crew for a sequel. Not everything is great - Zoe Saldana as Uhura feels a bit wasted this time, considering how prominent she was in the last two movies - but in a cast this large you can't use everyone effectively.

Some strange choices aside (really going to throw "Sabotage" in there again?) Star Trek Beyond is a good time. It's a shame this appears to be the final instalment in the reboot series, given how well it started, but there are far worse ways they could have capped off the Abrams branch of the series. (Looking at you, Nemesis.)

Copyright 1986 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1986 by Paramount Pictures.

5. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Imagine being pitched a Star Trek script that involved the crew going back in time to the 1980s to steal whales. Sounds ludicrous, right? Sounds like a massive waste of money, right? We'll, you'd be correct to think that, and conceptually Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home shouldn't work. It sounds really stupid. But... by god, they pulled it off. This is a genuinely good film because it seldom takes itself seriously.

After the theft and destruction of the Enterprise, not to mention commandeering a Klingon Bird of Prey, Kirk and his shipmates must return to Earth and answer for their actions. On the way home, though, they discover that Earth is under attack by a mysterious space probe, and Spock (yes, he's back) determines that the probe is emitting the song of humpback whales. Humpbacks are extinct, though, so Kirk orders the crew to slingshot around the sun, return to the 20th century, and snag some whales. The crew lands in San Francisco and must bumble their way around the past, with the skeptical aid of Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), without attracting too much attention. Spoiler, they fail. Repeatedly.

The premise is bonkers, and silly, and stupid, and The Voyage Home fully realizes as much. This film is a comedy, forcing Kirk and company to deal with the realities of modern life from the perspective of the future. The whole cast gets in on the fun, from asking directions in San Francisco to ordering pizza to infiltrating naval bases to fleeing from a hospital with Chekhov strapped into a gurney. (There's even whimsical chase music in that last one.) Tension is non-existent here - you know everything will work out okay in the end - but the comedy is the point, and The Voyage Home delivers on that front. It's easily the funniest Star Trek movie.

As the final film in an informal trilogy that began with tragedy, you'd think The Voyage Home would be more serious and climatic. But, no, it's a silly bit of flotsam in the Star Trek canon, and considering how dark The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock got, the franchise needed the levity.

Copyright 2009 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 2009 by Paramount Pictures.

4. Star Trek (2009)

It is something of a minor miracle that 2009's Star Trek works as well as it does. Where the Star Trek franchise is usually known for deeper, slower-paced, thoughtful plots and character work, this Star Trek is fast, quippy, surface-level, and action-packed. It feels more like a Star Wars film, yet manages to set a tone that is fun for everyone while still being recognizably Star Trek. (For the most part.)

Star Trek jumps back to the origins of the Enterprise and her crew, in particular examining the lives of Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) long before they set foot on the ship. Much of the movie is spent with Kirk as a hot-headed, talented, screw-up cadet, and he only takes command at the very end of the film. Yet this is also a sequel to every other film in the franchise, and features time-travelling Romulans - led by Nero, played by Eric Bana - who want vengeance on the man that failed to save their homeworld.

The pacing and storytelling of this movie probably wouldn't work if the cast wasn't amazing. Pine, Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Bruce Greenwood... every one of them is a great actor, and all of them fill in for the original actors so effortlessly that this almost doesn't feel like their first film together. Star Trek's usual high-brow science and moral quandaries are replaced by endlessly-fun character dynamics, and it's great to see the actors bouncing off one another constantly. There are some plot holes, sure, but the movie is over before you have time to think about them.

Star Trek is, in short, a J.J. Abrams movie. It's swift, punchy, personable, funny, a little sloppy on the plot, and moves at breakneck speed from the first scene to the last. So long as that kind of pace doesn't bother you - and it can be irksome, as Star Trek Into Darkness shows - this is a great movie to watch over and over.

Copyright 1991 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1991 by Paramount Pictures.

3. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Considering its name, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier sure sounded like it was going to be the final outing for Kirk's original crew. Thank god it wasn't, because a much, much better film was waiting to be made, and The Undiscovered Country still stands as one of the best Star Trek movies. Even removing the context of Star Trek, this is just a damn good movie in general.

The Undiscovered Country paints a Klingon Empire in peril, and Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) sues for peace with the Federation. But not everyone wants peace, and the chancellor is assassinated in the middle of the peace talks. Kirk and McCoy are framed and arrested by General Chang (Christopher Plummer) and, after trial, are sent to an icy moon to live out the rest of their lives. They look for a way to escape while Spock, now in command of the Enterprise, tries to discover the true identity of Gorkon's killers.

The Undiscovered Country has a bit of everything. Kirk and McCoy are dropped into a jail that feels very Star Wars-y, Spock has to solve out a murder mystery, Plummer's Chang gets to wax poetic and quote Shakespeare, there's a tense trial with a defense attorney called Colonel Worf (Michael Dorn, obviously)... it's a packed film, and all the pieces work well together. It's also a consequential event for long-term Star Trek fans, as the peace accords signed in this film remain important in the TV series for well over a hundred years, and it resolves Kirk's long-standing grudge against Klingons in an emotionally-believable way. (And it finally gives Sulu command of the Excelsior! About time!) Most of the movies are stand-alone events, so getting one that contributes so much to the overall lore of Star Trek is pretty great.

Though not everything works - the shape changer on the ice planet was a weird choice - Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country manages to stuff a remarkable amount of good into a brisk 110 minutes of runtime. Not everyone on the crew gets their moment in the sun, but The Undiscovered Country still feels like the end of an era, and it's a great end.

Copyright 1996 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1996 by Paramount Pictures.

2. Star Trek: First Contact

Picard's crew got the short end of the stick when it came to the movies, and at best their stories were just 'okay'. There was one major exception to the rest of the tedium, and it's Star Trek: First Contact. Tying back to events from the show and finally spotlighting the moment humanity leapt into the stars, First Contact is the kind of film every Next Generation fan hoped to get.

First Contact begins with a dramatic battle against the Borg, one of Star Trek's biggest of bads. After an awesome fight the Borg launch one of their vessels towards Earth, and it opens a portal to the past, leading to a time just before humans make first contact with aliens. The Enterprise-E follows, and while half the crew heads down to the Earth to ensure first contact still happens the other half remains on the ship... and quickly discovers that their vessel is being overrun with Borg.

First Contact is a split story that works remarkably well on both fronts. The earthbound crew led by Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) gets the lighthearted half of the script, dealing with oddball engineer Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) and the construction of his faster-than-light vessel. Cromwell has a lot of fun with the role, disillusioning the Enterprise crew constantly with his cowardice and vulgar behavior. The goofy time travel antics echo those of The Voyage Home to a welcome degree.

Much more notable, though, is the horror story spearheaded by Picard on the Enterprise-E. The Borg are a relentless threat, and Picard - once turned into a Borg himself - is forced to reckon with his intense hatred for the cyborgs. Data is given a chance to become more human by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) when he's captured, and the final standoff between Picard, Data, and the Queen makes for some great, tense acting. Yet the standout surprise may be Alfre Woodard as Lily, Cochrane's partner in crime, who has to talk Picard down from his suicidal crusade against the Borg. Their scenes together are some of the best in Star Trek history, and Lily gets to (loudly) put Picard in his place in a way his crew never could.

Though Star Trek: First Contact is arguably the starting point for the defanging of the Borg, they are at their best here. They're grim, implacable, and legitimately scary at times, and there are few situations in Star Trek where the heroes feel more endangered. If you want a well-balanced, harrowing movie with plenty of emotion and a few solid laughs, First Contact is the one to watch.

Copyright 1982 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 1982 by Paramount Pictures.

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The future of Star Trek was in doubt after the lackluster reviews and overbudgeting of the first movie. If there was to be a sequel it needed to be snappier, more action-packed, and cheaper. Paramount Pictures decided to give it a try - albeit without Gene Roddenberry on the writing staff - and the result was the best Star Trek story ever committed to film.

Wrath of Khan revolves around the Genesis Device, a projectile capable of bestowing life upon dead worlds. The Reliant, a Federation ship tasked with finding a suitable world for testing Genesis, checks a barren rock - and unfortunately comes upon the genetically-altered crew of Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), adversary of Captain Kirk. Khan commandeers the Reliant and begins a plan to lure in, capture, and strand Kirk, the man Khan hates more than anyone.

The Wrath of Khan is a classic revenge story, and it does its job wonderfully. The whole cast is great, but it's Shatner and Montalban who really need to shine, and both men perform admirably. Montalban's Khan is brilliant and malicious, and the story allows his ego to creep into the equation just slowly enough that Khan's downfall feels earned. Yet this is not a movie without cost, and in perhaps his greatest acting achievement Leonard Nimoy provides an incredibly moving end to Spock. His final scene with Shatner is heart-wrenching. (And, yeah, he'd be back in The Search for Spock, but it's easy to forget that when you're watching The Wrath of Khan.)

Toss in the tensest cat-and-mouse space battle in Star Trek history - and possibly its grossest alien creatures in those damned ear worms - and you get a winning combination of elements. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a sci-fi masterpiece that knows exactly how to motivate its characters, and no other Star Trek hero-villain pairing has quite managed to reach the cinematic levels of Kirk and Khan.

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