Being a 'Star Trek' fan can be tough.
First of all, you've got to deal with the fact that you're a fan of 'Star Trek,' the best (but least cool) science fiction franchise of them all. Then you've got to deal with the fact that many, many hours of the various 'Star Trek' TV shows are no good. Finally, you've got suffer through a bad 'Star Trek' movie for every good 'Star Trek' movie. It's hard life -- it's not like we asked to be 'Trek' fans! This thing just happens to you, you know?
With 'Star Trek Into Darkness' in theaters, it's time to revisit all of the films and compare them side-by-side. Who had the best movies? The original, William Shatner-led crew? The 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' team led by Patrick Stewart? Or is it JJ Abrams' rebooted series? Find out as we rank the 'Star Trek' films from best to worst!
To revisit 'Star Trek: Nemesis' is to realize exactly why the franchise lay dormant for so long. This isn't just a bad movie (there have been plenty of those in this series), this is a disaster, an epic miscalculation of awfulness. Written and directed by people who know little about 'Star Trek' and obviously didn't take the time to learn, 'Nemesis' is a lifeless bore that spits in the face of fans at every opportunity. Want to see the 62 year old captain of the Enterprise duel wielding phasers like a John Woo character? Want to see the loyal and responsible Enterprise crew gleefully shatter the Prime Directive in the first fifteen minutes of the movie? Want to see a fan favorite character needlessly sacrifice himself for dramatic effect? The only interesting thing about 'Star Trek: Nemesis' is the performance by a young Tom Hardy, which is so bad that it's hard to believe that he's actually, you know, Tom Hardy.
'Star Trek: Insurrection' isn't nearly as bad as 'Star Trek: Nemesis' (few things are), but its greatest sin is that it's just plain boring. Feeling more like a mediocre episode of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' stretched to unbearable lengths, 'Insurrection' is a cheap and lightweight affair that doesn't feel like it ever belonged on the big screen. Like so many of the 'Next Generation' movies, it feels the need to be an action film, which means that any potentially worthwhile sci-fi ideas are pushed to the side by the halfway point to make room for characters firing phasers at robots. This movie is a drag.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Universally considered to be one of the worst films in the franchise, 'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' manages to scrape by because it's a train wreck that has to be seen to be believed. With William Shatner in the director's chair, all of the themes about aging and mortality that permeated the past few films are chucked out the window, replaced by sheer, unadulterated ego. Shatner has made a film that would've been bad with a young cast, but with the older cast, it often feels downright sad. Still, it's not everyday that you get to see a team of 60 year olds get abducted by an evil Vulcan and dragged off to a distant planet to meet an alien that claims to be God.
You see, 'The Final Frontier' makes up for its outright badness by being insane, a cinematic fever dream that could only be made by someone as nutty as Shatner. You certainly don't want to show it to any burgeoning 'Trek' fans, but longtime fans will appreciate its awful, horrible, amazing, ludicrous delights.
'Star Trek: Generations' is fine. If we could just leave it at that, we would. Outside of Captain Kirk's eye-rollingly dull final bow, the film is an adequate (if occasionally nonsensical) sci-fi adventure. Coasting on a certain amount of fan goodwill, 'Generations' does what every other 'Next Generation' film fails to do: it never devolves into an action film and attempts to remain thoughtful sci-fi about boldly going where no man has gone before. The results are mixed, but in this company, an "A" for effort really is something special.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
There's no geting around it: 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' is kinda' boring. Although greenlit based on the box office receipts of 'Star Wars,' director Robert Wise seems to draw his inspiration from '2001: A Space Odyssey' rather than George Lucas, resulting in a space adventure that is often mindbogglingly slow. Crushing pace aside, 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' is gorgeously shot and dripping with atmosphere, one of the very few 'Star Trek' films to feel like an actual prestige project. The 'Trek' universe wouldn't look this good again until 2009. Like 'Generations,' the film's emphasis on exploration and ideas instead of action separates it from the rest of the pack. Despite being the first film, it's not a good place for new fans to start, but it definitely has plenty of rewards for the already faithful.
The best of the 'Next Generation' films, 'Star Trek: First Contact' never reaches the highs of the best of the franchise, but it's a more-than-solid sci-fi action flick that manages to squeak by on personality alone. A direct sequel to the famous two-part episode "The Best of Both Worlds," the film reintroduces the villainous Borg and with a movie budget, they become more terrifying than ever. Much of the film's success can be laid at the feet of these cybernetic monsters, who are the most fascinating and existentially frightening bad guys to come out of 'Star Trek.' Unfortunately, much of 'First Contact' is downright dumb, from both plotting and character perspectives. Thankfully, the film moves so fast and with such confidence that these problems don't arise until you've finished the film. However, like a few other films on this list, the whole thing just falls apart the moment you start really thinking about it.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country' has one job and one job only: to say goodbye to the original series crew with tact and grace. As a swan song, it's quite good. The fact that it's also good as its own movie is icing on the cake. The return of 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' director Nicholas Meyer means that this is one the toughest, roughest and most violent films in the series, putting Captain Kirk and his crew up against a Klingon Empire that is is on the verge of massive change. The film isn't shy about being a metaphor for the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that's the kind social commentary that was common on the show and woefully absent from the films. Besides, is there a better way to send off the crew of the Enterprise than having them struggle to build an alliance with one of their most hated enemies? 'Star Trek VI' is solid, pulpy stuff with just enough treacle to make it a fitting farewell.
How does this film work? The screenplay isn't just bad -- it's broken. On top of that, it openly and defiantly demands to be directly compared to the number one film on this list, which is simply a fool's errand. However, like its predecessor (you can read about that in a bit), 'Star Trek Into Darkness' is one helluva ride, an action movie of such scope and visual imagination that you can't help but forget the film's sloppy plot...which begins to unravel the moment the credits roll. It's a testament to JJ Abrams and his perfectly cast Enterprise crew that the film is watchable. It's a miracle that it is, somehow, this high on this list.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
On paper, everything about 'Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home' sounds horrible. Imagine the pitch: "It's about the crew of the Enterprise going back in time to bring a few extinct-in-the-future Humpback Whales to the 23rd century so they can help prevent an alien force from destroying the world. Oh, and it's a comedy!" But somehow, 'The Voyage Home' is a joy, a goofy fish-out-water movie that finds Kirk and his crew attempting to navigate the hostile and unfriendly world of the 1980s. Although some fans be bemoan the lack of actual science fiction here, the film proves that these characters are so strong that they can survive (and flourish) when ripped out of their traditional setting. This film has no right to be as much fun as it is, but filmmaking is alchemy. Sometimes, these things just happen.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
Have you seen 'Star Trek III: The Search For Spock' recently? It's bonkers. There is literally no 'Star Trek' movie quite like it and there probably won't be for some time. Or ever. Let's bet on "ever." Although it does the unthinkable and undoes one of the greatest character deaths of all time (see: 'Star Trek II'), it does so in the strangest way possible, whole-heartedly embracing the fantastic and the unknown. Although 'The Search For Spock' does have traditional villains (Klingons, of course), the film is really about the bizarre alien world of the "Genesis Planet" and what the crew encounters as they explore it. Unlike 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture,' this one has the crew exploring something that's actually, you know, interesting. This surreal and occasionally spectacular film is proof that "odd numbered 'Trek' films are bad" myth is completely untrue.
It's easy to the list the problems with JJ Abrams' 2009 reboot of the 'Star Trek' franchise. It's dumb, it's full of plot holes, nothing makes sense, etc. However, Abrams is a magician -- he makes sure you don't see any of these problems until much, much later. While you're actually watching 'Star Trek,' it feels absolutely and completely perfect. The film is so fast, so fun, so exciting and so beautifully designed and shot that it leaves the poor screenplay in the dust. This is a film that manages to outrun all of its problems and there's something admirable about that. Of course, there's also the new cast. Given the job of stepping into the shoes of some of the most iconic characters in all of pop culture, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and everyone else perform with aplomb, actually standing toe-to-toe with their predecessors. For the first time since, uh, ever, this cast and this director made 'Star Trek' sexy and cool. And you know what? That's perfectly okay.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
It had to be 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.' It had to be. Out of all the classic 'Trek' films, it's the only one that stands alone as a great movie. You don't need to have seen the original series. You don't need to have seen the first film. Heck, you don't even necessarily need to be a science fiction fan. This is about as good as genre cinema gets, folks. Although it's a fun, fast sci-fi adventure movie on the surface, 'Star Trek II' takes advantage of its middle-aged cast to tell a story about aging and friendship and mortality and letting go of the things (and people) that you love. Come for the kick-ass "submarines in space"-style showdown between Captain Kirk and his greatest nemesis, but stay for the emotional catharsis of the final fifteen minutes and one of the great character deaths in cinematic history. To not like 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' is to not like good things.