Ranking the Star Trek Films: A 50th Anniversary Celebration

Ranking the Star Trek Films: A 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Best and the Worst

by Randy Krinsky

In honor of the latest installment in the "Star Trek" franchise, albeit a newer, alternate franchise, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and review all thirteen films spawned from the little, ahead of its time, television series. It’s been fifty years since Gene Roddenberry's creation, now referred to as The Original Series (TOS), first aired on NBC. The series ran for three seasons before being cancelled. The immense fan base for the characters and the ship, the U.S.S. Enterprise, revived the classic mythology with additional successful television series as well as the aforementioned dozen-plus feature films. That’s not even taking into account, the upcoming series, books, comics, and animated shows. "Star Trek" is definitely a successful franchise if ever there was one. With the most recent chapter, Star Trek Beyond, ‘beaming’ into theaters as we speak (see what I did there…), join me as I 'boldly go' and rank every big screen voyage success, and some cinematic embarrassments, of the crew of the starship Enterprise.

nemesis

#13 Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

This is the film that doomed “The Next Generation” (TNG) crew from making further films. After Nemesis, Paramount put the franchise on ice until J.J. Abrams came along to reboot it. Remember, at this point, not even the television series, “Enterprise”, was really that outstanding. Directed by Stuart Baird, this film is a mix-mash of plot points that really didn’t work well: a Picard clone, a Data version 2, Troi’s mental rape, Data’s sacrifice. We did get a pretty solid performance, albeit in a badly-written role, by a young Tom Hardy as the Romulan baddie, Shinzon. Of course, Patrick Stewart is always a joy to watch, but not even he could save this cinematic fiasco.

A few cool things we did get to see include the Enterprise ramming into Shinzon’s starship, and the return of Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), in a cameo. In fact you could say the only highlight of the film for many fans was getting to learn the fate of Janeway, former captain of U.S.S. Voyager (of the series, “Voyager”). Yes, she’s doing well, thank you, the tough-as-nails officer was promoted to vice admiral upon bringing her crew safely home after spending all those seasons in the Delta Quadrant.

stewart-picard

Standout characters? Well, maybe not in this film, but let’s use this as an opportunity to talk about Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart). He’s more of a diplomat as opposed to Kirk’s cowboy antics. His first few missions in TNG featured some easy right/wrong command decisions, but as the series continued the more grey areas Picard was forced to delve into. His command became more complicated and we saw a starship captain evolve, adapt, and become one of the most respected men in the Federation. When he was assimilated by and then escaped from the Borg, he was thrust into a situation that not even Captain Kirk had to deal with. The experience left Picard redefined and even emotional as we saw in First Contact. While this film was a dud and chronicled his final theatrical mission aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is still considered by many to be the finest starship captain the franchise ever produced.

insurrection

#12 Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

After the success of Jonathan Frakes’ First Contact, I had high hopes for Insurrection. Alas, I was disappointed. An exaggerated bad guy and a predictable climax made this just another run-of-the-mill sci-fi film. For all the promise the film’s plot held, the tone vacillated back and forth from seriousness to just plain pointless. For example, Worf’s acne? The story about the Federation collaborating with an alien race, in violation of the Prime Directive, to covertly relocate a planet’s native inhabitants to obtain the secret to everlasting youth could have been so much more. This storyline opens up the Federation to corruption at the highest level, yet this is never explored and all is wrapped up nicely and quickly as if an episode of a television series. The film never really lived up to its potential and didn’t really gain the investment of the hearts and minds of the audience, at least not mine.

final-frontier

#11 Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

The summer of 1989, such memories. That was the season we saw Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, and Lethal Weapon II! It was a summer of classics! Being obscured by so many great films wasn’t the only reason William Shatner’s directorial debut got wrecked at the box office. The film’s low budget, amateurish special effects, half-cocked storyline, and a cast that would’ve rather have been somewhere else all contributed to Final Frontier’s low ranking on this list.

There’s no sugar-coating it, this film is the definitive low-point in the original crew film canon. Though the campfire scene is good, most of the film’s humorous attempts fall flat. The half-backed story revolving around Spock’s long-lost half-brother, that in decades we’ve never even known about, culminates in the crew meeting “God.” No, it just didn’t work. Taking a group of 60-something year old actors and watching them gallivant across the universe just doesn’t hold up, especially when you remember the previous film’s themes about mortality and growing old. Even with a younger cast, the film wouldn’t have held up.

It’s a wonder this film didn’t kill the franchise. Its saving grace was probably that it was so bad when compared to the others of the series that die-hard trekkies still appreciate it for all its ridiculous amusements.

into-darkness

#10 Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

I liked this film, but to say it was a worthy successor to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek is a bit much. The film was packed with action and visual delights, and earned enough critical praise to be deemed a success (just not much of one). If you add in all expenses and weigh them against the grosses, Deadline.com estimated the film only profited about $30 million. That’s not much, in terms of blockbuster films.

It was probably a bit blasphemous to reboot the plot of what is universally acclaimed to be the best of the "Star Trek" films to date. The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh was originally denied but once the film came out and the character revealed, it was met with disdain and cries of whitewashing and miscasting. Don’t get me wrong, Cumberbatch is awesome in everything he does. His interpretation of Khan is no different, yet his character should’ve been an original one and not a rehash of Ricardo Montalban’s iconic role. The rest of the film is still impressive and visually stunning, giving many fans mixed feelings. Plot holes abound (trans-galaxy transporting? Magic blood?), but sitting in your theater seat you still can’t help but go along for the ride. The action sequences are massive and do their best to cover up the slipshod story. In a countdown of the best Star Trek films, many fans would most likely rank this film lower on the list and I’m sure they could come up with a cogent argument for doing so.

generations

#9 Star Trek: Generations (1994)

What should have been an epic meeting worthy of the title, Generations, was lackluster and just, well, okay, I guess. What was supposed to be an iconic passing of the torch from the TOS crew to the TNG crew just didn’t quite hold up to expectations. I mean the series finale to TNG was actually better than this, their first film. Malcolm McDowell’s villain failed to inspire and just seemed annoyed that the rest of the characters were constantly trying to stop him from just getting back to the Nexus, I mean, c’mon, let the man move along…

The idea behind Generations was good: unite the classic and TNG crews in one monumental adventure and then pass the storytelling along to the new crew. However, most of the TOS crew wasn’t even featured, notably missing was Leonard Nimoy, with only William Shatner’s Kirk having any real screen time, and even then only with Patrick Stewart’s Picard. The meeting of the Enterprise’s two most famous captains should have been done with more spectacle. Also, Kirk’s death was anti-climactic, just not as touching or with the emotional weight that such an iconic hero’s death should have carried. But, you only work with what you’re given and Shatner and Stewart should be commended for being great given what they had to work with, even if that means having their first and only meeting take place over chopping wood and cooking breakfast.

The rest of TNG cast is pretty good, as well, and the cinematography is well-done (I mean the crash sequence alone will have you gritting your teeth). The movie straddles the line between sci-fi and action quite well, never quite falling into straight action fare, which pleased fans just fine.

Standout characters? How about Michael Dorn’s Worf, the first Klingon to enlist in Starfleet? His character has come a long way from just being that awkward ridge-headed dude on the bridge. Worf spent the first couple of seasons really not fitting in with the rest of the crew. Motivated by honor, he lowly rose to becoming a fan-favorite and even carried over to a new series, “Deep Space Nine,” when TNG ended.

the-motion-picture

#8 Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

In an attempt to capitalize on the fanfare generated by Star Wars, Paramount pulled out their sci-fi property, “Star Trek”, for a turn on the big screen. The story is interesting and efforts to address some philosophical themes as much as the series did ikelley-mccoyn its day. However, the special effects are put front-and-center and that actually detracts from how good this film could’ve been. I mean, spending 20 minutes as we watch the camera lens caress every square inch of the lines and curves of the new U.S.S. Enterprise. I almost felt like I needed a shower after that scene. However, the chemistry that was the Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic was still there and kept us all watching. The storyline is the most sci-fi of any of the films, rather pure science; very little action. This fact had som
e fans yawning the film away as ‘boring.’ However, the cinematography is great and the mood of the film hangs heavy. If nothing else, it was the film that brought the crew of the Enterprise back into our homes.

Characters to watch? Dr. Leonard McCoy, of course. The wise, grumpy member of the classic trio. McCoy is the bridge between the emotional Kirk and the logical Spock. He was never a third wheel and also brought balance to the group. DeForest Kelley was endearing and made the cantankerous old doc a welcome part of the crew.

beyond

#7 Star Trek Beyond (2016)

This film did the 50th anniversary of "Star Trek" proud; it was a great mix of thrills, heart, humor, and visual excitement! It redeemed what was missing from Into Darkness yet was far from a perfect film. The baddie, the great Idris Elba as Kraal, was missing something. I just didn’t quite get him, his motivation, or his whole character in general. The film barely touches on his longevity, his transformation, or his philosophy. What about his “bees?” Besides those bad guy plot lapses, the film was visually stunning and reminded me of what made the original series so much fun to watch. The back-and-forth between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban) was vintage TOS. The ending was grand as we got to watch the newest incarnation of the U.S.S. Enterprise being assembled as well as the original TOS theme being played at the film’s conclusion. Having Chris Pine’s Kirk pulling out and gazing upon a vintage photo of the TOS crew (Shatner and the gang), that belonged to Spock Prime (Nimoy) was a nice touch.

search-for-spock

#6 Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Wow! What a film. Having lost his best friend, Kirk then loses his son and his ship when the Enterprise is destroyed. Leonard Nimoy’s directorial debut did quite well despite following what is universally respected as the best Trek film to-date! Of course, having followed Wrath of Khan, did somewhat overshadow this film for some time and left it underrated. However, this film focused on the aftermath of Khan, the emotions and bonding of the crew in the wake of Spock’s death. This film sees Kirk enduring some of the most emotionally overwhelming moments of his life. Yet he shows his true character by carrying on and then when we are introduced to a reincarnated Spock at the end, it doesn’t feel cheap, it feels well-deserved. Nimoy was able to bring some of the best performances out of Shatner in this film. Christopher Lloyd as the bad guy is okay, but hardly up to the task of following Khan. A stronger villain might have placed this film better on the list.

shatner-kirk

Characters to watch? James Tiberious Kirk! Sure, he’s been inundated with Tribbles, seduced every alien female from one end of the galaxy to the other, but he’s always been there to fight for his crew and his ship. Earning a reputation throughout the Federation as a no-nonsense, tough captain has gained him respect from friend and adversaries alike. He cheats death at every opportunity and, to him, there’s no such thing as the no-win scenario. That is until he lost his best friend, Spock. We got to see the softer side of Kirk, the side that he never showed, reminding everyone that at his core, he’s not superhuman, but just a man with incredible resolve. You could always count on Shatner’s Kirk to look death in the eye and never flinch. If he’s going down, he’s going down defiant to the end. His death in Generations might have been a little lackluster, but he still left Chris Pine some pretty big black boots to fill.

sarek

Hey, wait! What about Sarek? Spock’s Vulcan father was a role-model to him. Sarek was the kind of Vulcan that all Vulcans strive to become: logical, emotionless, brilliant, and respected. This ambassador always had a strained relationship with his half-human son, Spock, and even rejected him somewhat for being too human. But at his core, Sarek has admitted that he not only married his human wife, Amanda, for political reasons, but because he loved her. Ultimately, Sarek’s love for his wife and son, Spock, has shown through over the many years that actor Mark Lenard has portrayed the character. In J.J. Abrams’ Kelvin Timeline, Ben Cross portrayed the Vulcan ambassador but the austerity of the character showed through as Spock defies his father once again in favor of a career in Starfleet.

first-contact

#5 Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Definitely the best movie with the TNG crew, it’s Picard vs. the Borg at its core, as Patrick Stewart’s Picard goes all-out in this film with overarching themes of revenge and destiny. This film offers up a pretty cool space battle, an awesome bad guy, ahem, bad girl, uh, villain, in the Borg Queen, as well as one of the most quoted movie lines of the franchise in Picard’s, “The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!”

borg-queen

Jonathan Frakes, who also portrays loyal Commander Riker, impresses in his directorial debut. The Borg Queen (Alice Krige) is both terrifying and seductive in her attempts to persuade Data (Brent Spiner) to willingly join her at the head of the Borg Collective (which is a bit weird since the entire race is supposed to be of a hive mind, but whatever, let’s go with it…). The storyline about the Borg going back in time to stop humanity before they make first contact with an alien race, thus forestalling the creation of the Federation, and leaving Earth vulnerable to Borg assimilation, is quite ingenious and a great piece of sci-fi writing. The film pretty much picks up where the great two-part TNG episode, “The Best of Both Worlds,” ends and, with a feature-film budget, gives us a successful action-packed conclusion to that storyline.

spiner-data

Character standouts? Brent Spiner as Commander Data, the Federation’s first android officer. His first appearance in TNG’s “Encounter at Farpoint” was a bit stiff and awkward, but over the years, he’s become one of the most respected members of the crew and a strong ally to Captain Picard. In First Contact, his resistance to and ultimate betrayal of the Borg Queen is a highlight of the film.

Speaking of which, let’s get back to the Borg Queen, the ultimate sci-fi female villain! As the brains behind the Borg Collective, or as she puts it, “I am the beginning, the end, the one who is many. I am the Borg.” She rules their mission of universal subjugation and assimilation. Her spectacular entrance, descending from high above, just a head, torso, and spinal column makes for one helluva dramatic sci-fi entrance. She captures Data in an attempt to coerce from him the encryption codes to the Enterprise computer, and while he holds out as long as he can, the two share philosophies and even a little smooching as she attempts to woo him with humanly pleasures he’s never really experienced.

star-trek-2009

#4 Star Trek (2009)

J.J. Abrams’ reboot/alternate universe of “Star Trek” was fresh, energetic and made the decades-old franchise seem brand new. The film opened up the fan base up to newcomers, and newcomers did it receive! The scope was huge and Abrams didn’t really make it feel like a reboot (which I’m fresh out of patience for actually). The film seemed more like what it was intended to be, an alternate timeline created by the events in the film’s prologue. This introduction to the new Kelvin Timeline is entertaining and offered a great theatrical experience. The premise was pure genius, allowing a reboot without erasing the entire canon that came before it. The casting was superb. Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban really channel their inner Nimoy and Kelley, in bringing their versions of Spock and McCoy to life. Chris Pine as the young James T. Kirk has just enough of the impetuousness and impulsiveness of Shatner’s Kirk to be a believable representation of what we believe he was like in his younger academy days. The whole cast does an incredible job stepping into the uniforms of some of pop culture’s most recognizable sci-fi icons. Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as Spock Prime cemented the whole affair. The rest of the screenplay is average and one could be forgiven if they don’t even remember the intricacies of it, but the new crew’s overall dynamism is what makes this kickoff a success.

Outstanding characters? How about Fleet Captain (later Admiral) Christopher Pike. First portrayed by actor Jeffrey Hunter in TOS’ 1965 pilot episode, “The Cage,” Hunter’s Pike was replaced by Shatner’s Kirk for the rest of the series. It appears Hunter, known for portraying Jesus Christ in 1961’s King of Kings, was good enough to die for our sins, but not good enough to captain a starship (actually, I heard it was Hunter who told Gene Roddenberry that he was stepping down from appearing in the series, but I don’t know if that is true or not). TOS brougreenwood-pikeght the character back in 1966’s “The Menagerie,” but it wasn’t until 2009, with the casting of Bruce Greenwood, that we got to see Captain Pike in action as Kirk’s predecessor as captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Pike is a tragic character, plagued by the realities of battle, he is an analytical and serious commanding officer; a man of respect. In the TOS timeline he suffered paralyzing radiation-induced injuries while saving the lives of Starfleet cadets during a training exercise gone wrong. It was Spock who abducted (liberated?) Pike and delivered him to the reality-altering aliens of Talos IV, where Pike could live out the rest of his days content with the illusion of a perfect body.

Bruce Greenwood’s version shows us perhaps what possibly could’ve occurred between the time Pike commanded the U.S.S. Enterprise and when Kirk took over. He serves as mentor and role model for the young Kirk. He brings the best out of Kirk and shows him what it means to command, setting him on the course that will forever define him.

voyage-home

#3 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

This is the film that I owned on VHS as a kid; the only “Star Trek” film that I owned. Co-written by Nicholas Meyer, director of Wrath of Khan, and directed by Leonard Nimoy, this film focuses on Admiral Kirk’s mission to save the galaxy by time-travelling back to 1986 San Francisco to retrieve a pair of humpback whales. Outlandish, I know, but they pull it off brilliantly. The film is entertaining and has its emotionally moving moments. Watching the crew trying to accomplish their mission while also trying to assimilate into 1986 society is a fun thrill ride that will have you laughing (…and I don’t go to see sci-fi films to laugh! But I loved thdoohan-scottyis one!). The film never descends into campiness and is funny in a fish-out-water way, with some of the best moments coming from the straight-faced Spock (Leonard Nimoy). This film is definitely more light-hearted fare when compared to the darker tone of Star Trek II and III. We are rewarded at the end with the unveiling of a brand new U.S. S. Enterprise. This film was the franchise’s biggest box office success until Abrams’ films.

Standout characters? Our Scottish Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, the miracle worker who keeps Kirk’s ship running and in one piece, relatively speaking. No matter the issue, time travel, dangerous probes, Klingon torpedoes, Romulan warbirds, sabotaging the U.S.S. Excelsior, or even retro-fitting a hijacked Klingon bird-of-prey, Scotty is always up to the challenge, givin' her all she's got! The late James Doohan, actually a Canadian war hero, will be forever linked to the high-strung Scottish engineer. In Abrams’ Kelvin Timeline, British comedic actor, Simon Pegg, takes over the role and does the character justice (in my opinion). Doohan would be proud.

undiscovered-country

#2 Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

The Klingons suffer a devastating setback and realize that they can longer survive an ongoing antagonistic relationship with the Federation. They sue for universal peace. Kirk and his crew must stop war mongering conspirators from sabotaging the peace initiative. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the man who brought us Wrath of Khan, this film is the perfect send-off for the TOS crew. It is one-third murder mystery, one-third prison break, and one-third race against time as the crew try to juggle solving a murder, freeing their wrongfully imprisoned captain, and stopping unknown assassins from devastating an upcoming peace conference. I believe this film never got the credit it deserved.
William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy give incredible performances. The story slows a bit in the second act, but is redeemed when the indomitable Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) joins the fray for a space battle and poignant farewell address. You’ll find it hard not to get choked up as the cast’s signatures sign across the screen one after the other as the U.S.S. Enterprise flies off into the distance at the end. I believe the focus of this film was to say farewell to the original cast and crew of the Enterprise, and in my opinion they did that very well.

takei-sulu

Standout characters? Captain Hikaru Sulu, commander of the U.S.S. Excelsior, a big ship but not as big as her captain. Takei’s Sulu started out as a science officer aboard the Enterprise, under Captain Kirk. He later served as the ship’s helmsmen. On occasions, he would assume temporary command of the Enterprise when the need arose. Later, during Undiscovered Country, Sulu would assume command of his own ship, the ultra-modern flagship, U.S.S. Excelsior. He displayed unwavering loyalty to his former captain, Kirk, by disobeying Starfleet orders and covering for the Enterprise as they attempted to rescue Kirk and McCoy from a Klingon prison. He later flew his ship directly into a battle between General Chang’s stealth bird-of-prey and the Enterprise, assisting in the destruction of Chang’s ship. Sulu then helped prevent an assassination at the Khitomer Conference on the planet below. He rejoined his ship and sent a final farewell to his former captain and crew on the Enterprise, “Nice to see you in action one more time, Captain Kirk. Take care.”

Later, in Star Trek: Generations, Sulu’s daughter, Demora, assumed the helm of the U.S.S. Enterprise-B. Kirk remarked, “It wouldn’t be the Enterprise without a Sulu at the helm.”

wrath-of-khan

#1 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

It was only a matter of time. Everyone knew there could be no other film to hold this position. This film covers the epic battle of wills involving one of science fiction cinemas supreme rivalries! Ricardo Montalban returns to the role he made famous all those years ago, Khan Noonien Singh. Even thirty years later, this is the film that all Star Trek films are judged against. It is not only the best “Star Trek” film, but one of the science fiction genre’s best films; this is the gold standard, people.

After the not-so-stellar first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount brought in some fresh eyes to take a look at their aspiring film franchise, producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer. Though neither had many films to their credit, they instinctively looked into established “Star Trek” lore and found an established villain which would allow the story to show the passage of time and aging, comment on mortality and friendship, all the while giving the audience an inspiring space battle reminiscent of a chess game. Ricardo Montalban is epic in his performance as the megalomaniac Khan and quickly became one of science fiction greatest baddies! The TOS cast returned and looked more natural in this outing, falling back into their rhythm aboard the Enterprise. Then the ending, to top it off, was equally epic! Spock's sacrifice and the whole, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,... or the one," was heartbreaking (I know he came back in the next film, but still, we didn't know that at the time!). You didn't even have to have seen any other "Star Trek" episodes or films, and you still would love this movie!  All that and more is why Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the franchise films, and ranks amongst the best of all science fiction films!

khan

Standout characters? What, are you kidding? KHAAAAAAAAAN! A maniacal genius, a product of late-20th century bioengineering, he was supposed to be the best mankind had to offer. Instead he reveled in his superiority, as "his is the superior intellect." After a single appearance in TOS where Kirk thawed him out of cryo-sleep only to have him try to kill Kirk and take over his ship. The two parted ways amicably at the end of the episode with Kirk leaving Khan and his followers on a deserted planet where they could rule as they pleased. But, we all know now how that worked out for them. A nearby planet exploded, causing the eco-system of Khan's planet to erode to a wasteland. Khan vowed revenge on Kirk for never coming to visit and checking on his progress, or heck even calling once in a while. No, Khan was intent on serving his revenge cold, as we all know the dish is best served. Khan would go down in history as the antagonist to best challenge Kirk's views on the no-win scenario.

You can't talk about Wrath of Khan's standout characters without also giving a shout out to Spock. Spock made the Vulcan race an integral part of pop culture, with his pointy ears and finger-spread salutation, "live long and prosper." If his impact on the franchise is in question, just look at how much his death in this film effected the franchise going forward. He died in II, was brought back in III, and then had to struggle to find his identity in IV. Those were his greatest moments.

When Abrams brought Nimoy back as Spock Prime in Star Trek, it was pure genius. His words of wisdom to both Chris Pine's Kirk as well as his Kelvin Timeline counterpart Zachary Quinto are inspirational and pure Spock insight. Nimoy made the character of Spock a true gift to the science fiction genre and to pop culture itself!

So there you have it! The best "Star Trek" films counted down. I hope I made it interesting and I hope maybe you gained a little understanding into the impact these films have made on the genre. If you're not a fan, or you haven't watched any of these films, I urge you to do so. You won't regret it!

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