Star Trek is a sci-fi tour de force on television, but when it comes to the movie theater it has a slightly more rocky history. We look back on all 13 films— movies I've plucked off my father's shelf and watched more times than I can remember. (Hat tip to Dad for having the of the original cast Star Trek movies that formed a picture of the Enterprise when all the tape spines were correctly aligned.)
So, which movie gets to sit in the captain's chair?
This is not the least enjoyable Star Trek movie. Not by a longshot. Like the J.J. Abrams reboot it succeeded, is at least an action-packed and rollicking romp, something its baffling script cannot diminish. It's watchable. The reason I don't like this movie, the source of that constant sour taste in my mouth, is the Big Reveal. Benedict Cumberbatch hisses, "My name is Khan," is an timbre that's supposed to send chills down the fanboy's spine.
I'm not saying Star Trek shouldn't be in the business of fan service and intertextuality. When you're five decades deep in franchise with a dozen films and hundreds of television episodes, what else is there to do? But this. This is not J.J. Abrams listening to his better angels; it is a nonsensical and cheap way to draft the goodwill of the amazing Wrath of Khan.
I've seen Star Trek II. You're no Star Trek II, senator.
I have seen it, twice. Other than the fact that Data dies, I could not remember what happens in this movie until I re-read the Wikipedia summation. Sure, is a bad movie. But is just so forgettable.
Everything about the first movie is just so… odd. The glacial pacing and sparseness. The baby blue and brown color palette, compared to the blood red uniforms of the other original series movies. (Maybe it was a failed Starfleet rebranding?). Decker. Even the name is odd. "The Motion Picture" sounds like something a producer from the 1920s would say—talking pictures, they're the next big thing.
Yet there is something so particularly Star Trek about the core themes—a machine that thinks and maybe feels, new life and new civilizations, what it means to be human—that the actually works on some level, even if its template was to be thrown out to make way for a vastly superior movie in Trek's second outing. This movie is a re-edit away from being a very solid Saturday afternoon TBS outing.
"Oh, ? It's a William Shatner passion project that questions whether man can ever truly find God, but with camp songs. Wait, where are you going?"
Star Trek V is easily the most ragged-on in the series, and the driving force behind the commonly held belief that the odd-numbered Trek movies stink. I'm not going to sit here and tell you this movie is good. I am going to tell you that I'd rather watching this preposterous -meets- spectacle than the ponderous Motion Picture, or .
To recap: The good race of people are immortals—because, it turns out, they are shielded by magical radiation. The bad race of people want to steal this radiation for themselves, wrecking the pristine planet in the process, and bad dudes high in the Federation are helping them do it. The big reveal is that the two are the same race, with the latter being rebels who left the immortal colony on a forever Rumspringa to embrace the technological life.
You don't have to be an English major to get the environmental subtext here. But it's a bit weird coming from a franchise built upon techno-utopianism, where technology has led the way to a more or less peaceful, money-free, pretty great world of tomorrow.
Then again, "The Next Generation" always lusts after what it cannot have. finds Picard falling in love with a woman in paradise, following the show's familiar trope of teasing him with hints of romance, family, more to life than captaining a ship. Sometimes it works. of the best TNG television episodes will contain "The Inner Light," a brilliant hour in which Picard lives a lifetime as a husband, a father, a family man who put down roots and saw them grow, only to wake up from the fever dream alone again, gazing across the starfield.
The what-if stories are fine, but let's be real. Everything about "The Next Generation" works because of who Jean-Luc Picard is—the wise, stubborn stoic married to his career. The man alone in the ready room. TNG stories are the strongest when the captain is the captain.
On the other hand, .
This is Star Trek's version of a comic book movie, something that came to the cineplex because somebody important enough in Hollywood finally said, "wouldn't it be cool if these two iconic characters finally shared the screen?" feels a bit slapdash as a result of its genesis, its time-defying plot line totally contrived in the name of fan service.
That said: It's kind of fun even though it's corny, right? Also, Generations is not a 2010s comic book movie. It didn't end with a post-credits scene that leads into three more mediocre movies meant to milk the money out of you. It was just an entertaining one-off that killed James T. Kirk, and that's it. As such, it deserves a place below the good movies but above the bad ones.
Star Trek Beyond is the first film of the new trilogy that actually feels like a Star Trek film. Where the previous two entries misplaced the charm of the crew of the Enterprise, Beyond tapped into Kirk and Spock in ways that made you care about the characters.
The film opens with Kirk doubting his future aboard the Enterprise and in the Federation, and then the evil Krall attacks the Enterprise during a rescue mission. What unfolds feels more like a tight, well-done episode of Star Trek rather than the boisterous action films where entire planets and races hang in the balance. The action is more sparing, making it feel actually exciting when it happens, but the movie still comes with great visuals and plenty of plot twists.
It won't ever be remembered as one of the greats, but it certainly isn't the worst.
There's nothing like the sight of Christopher Plummer in heavy makeup declaring the superiority of Shakespeare in the original Klingon to make you think, okay, this is the last go-round and they are Going For It. Still, remains a fulfilling watch, especially its opening. It's got Spock in his own detective story, Kirk and Bones on a final sardonic adventure together, and an allegory about the Berlin Wall in space that somehow doesn't feel too ham-fisted or stuck in 1991.
Without the narrative trappings inherent in being a Star Trek movie and a finale for the original cast, the sixth film to the truly great movie status of (which Nicholas Meyer also directed). Instead, it is a good Trek movie, and that's fine.
Bringing a beloved character back from the dead is a storytelling trope best left to soap operas and . So on its surface, resurrecting Spock right after the most dramatic moment in the Trek canon is a major cop-out. What saves the old Star Trek movies is that they don't just revive the science officer, reset the series, and go about their merry way. Spock's death and then life have consequences that reverberate through this movie and the next, creating a continuity that turns II, III, and IV into a sort of accidental trilogy that has to resolve Spock dying, the blowing up, and the crew finding itself on a leaky Klingon bird of prey.
Speaking of: Bonus points to for blowing up the , pioneering a Trek trope to be repeated in and
Imagine trying to explain the plot of to somebody who'd never seen Star Trek. I'd give you time travel, humpback whales, and a colossal malevolent paper towel roll in space before they cut you off. Even so, this silly outing is one of the best of the original cast movies.
Like , this is a fish-out-of-water story that gets the characters off the ship and onto the streets of a place basically recognizable as Earth. The real genius of IV is that once the exposition is out of the way, the great whale caper forces the crew to divide up into pairs, a plot device that drives lots of little buddy-cop scenes. "Double dumb-ass on you," "nuclear wessels," neck-pinching the bus punk, Scotty inventing transparent aluminum—all these memorably fun scenes are made possible this way.
And then they save the planet. I just want some Italian food. And so do you.
Forget the two Spocks and the dynamite cameo by Leonard Nimoy. Forget the inspired branch-off timeline that let J.J. Abrams start over with Kirk and Spock without negating the original series. And forget the raw power of seeing Star Trek reimagined as a proper 21st century action movie. What really grabs you about the 2009 reboot Star Trek is that they're so young.
The '80s and early 90s brought all these cinematic adventures in which the original crew coped on screen with the onset of middle age, handled admirably in a way that advanced those stories. But four-plus decades after the original TV series, it was a jolt to see Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, and the rest as young things fresh out of the academy.
Origin stories are boring now thanks to the current glut of superhero movies. But James T. Kirk never really had one, so it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch him crash sports cars and get in bar fights.
Finally, a freewheeling action movie and not a ponderous meditation about the Prime Directive. A much-needed shot in the arm for a franchise that too often settles for preachy talking. These are the kinds of notions we heard plenty of when J.J. Abrams revived the series in 2009. They are the same kinds of things you could have said about First Contact, the first movie to feature the Next Generation cast exclusively and the best of the trio by far.
The creators clearly recognized the good thing they had going in the two-part TNG episode "," when Borg assimilation and de-assimilation lets the philosopher Captain Picard play warrior-poet. First Contact stretches Picard's personal war into a feature-length film that's a little heavy on the Moby Dick symbolism, but totally works. As is the case with (another whale movie), time travel cooks up a stranger-in-a-strange-era scenario that loosens up and enlivens the characters.
Where the "Next Generation" TV episodes (mostly) used the Enterprise's weapons as a deterrent, First Contact is an all-out war movie more in the spirit of what "Deep Space Nine" became. Where the NCC-1701-D looks like a bubbly platform of peace, the E is a proper military machine that gets down to deadly business right after the opening credits.
Must the line be drawn here? It must.
I have been, and always shall be, the best Trek movie.