This week marks the 54th Anniversary of the launch of Gene Roddenberry’s iconic Star Trek. While it may have began life as a TV show, running for three seasons before being unceremoniously cancelled, syndication of the series gave it a life beyond cancellation, eventually leading to the move to the big screen. From that point on, there’s rarely been a moment when Star Trek hasn’t been on our screens, both big and small, in some capacity, demonstrating the lasting power of Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future.
It hasn’t always been easy, particularly when it comes to the larger scale film productions, as even today the franchise has fallen into a something of a limbo. Films have amazed, disappointed, and even very nearly sunk the whole franchise. That is the Trek we shall go on today, as we set out to rank the movies that have seen the crews of multiple Enterprises, of generations old and new, take to the stars to deliver tales that aim to take fans and audiences to the very edges of the final frontier. So, without further ado: Engage!
13. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Dir: William Shatner, 1989)
The fifth Star Trek movie is one that is regarded by many fans to be something of a bewildering misfire. The trouble began when Shatner entered a clause in his Trek-contract that meant that whatever co-star Leonard Nimoy was offered, Shatner had to be offered it too. Nimoy had directed the two previous instalments, which meant Shatner had to be given a shot at calling the, well, shots. The results, albeit hindered by a rushed production, limited budget and hastily thought up story ideas, is the film franchise at its worst.
The story follows Kirk and the crew having to face Spock’s delusional half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), who is on a search for the creator of the universe and all things.The story itself deals more head on with religion in a way Star Trek tended to avoid under Roddenberry’s charge, and while the concept certainly may be intriguing enough on paper, the execution leaves you adrift in space. The effects look bad even for a film of its time, the sets often dimly lit and shaky, while there is very little sense of momentum or drive behind the confused narrative that quickly crumbles apart.
There are simply too many bizarre detours (chiefly getting Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura to do a weird naked dance with feathers) paired with a predominantly dour tone that makes this at the very least a darker entry, but one which doesn’t have enough conviction behind its own ideas to convince as a more spiritually minded and morally complex journey. In a summer that also included the release of Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Final Frontier barely had the room to make a splash, to the point where producers did start to wonder if the franchise had any future at all. Thankfully, it bounced back.
12. Star Trek: Nemesis (Dir: Stuart Baird, 2002)
The final cinematic adventure for The Next Generation crew was not meant to be so. The story developed here by John Logan and Data himself Brent Spiner, was supposed to set up threads that would lead to the intended big screen finale for the crew, that also would have brought in characters from Voyager and Deep Space Nine for the crossover that many fans had likely been craving. But it never happened, simply because Star Trek: Nemesis underperformed, and as a result left the franchise in limbo for seven years.
The problem with Star Trek: Nemesis lies in, once again, a fairly morbid tone that doesn’t have much room for fun, as Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) comes face to face with a clone of his younger self, Shinzon (a young Tom Hardy, wearing what looks to be a very uncomfortable rubber suit). What follows is a series of uninspired action sequences that never are particularly convincing. It culminates in a painstakingly dull battle between the Enterprise and Shinzon’s ship in a sequence that doesn’t have enough energy to truly excite.
The main issue with Nemesis though is that the cast just don’t seem to have their heart in it anymore, which leads to something of a vacuous tone. This tone is only further enforced by Hardy’s awkward performance and the serviceable-at-best action. It is a shame that the beloved TNG crew fizzled out in such a fashion. While the adventures of Jean-Luc may have continued earlier this year with Star Trek: Picard, there’s still a sense of a missed opportunity when it comes to the legacy of TNG and their final big screen adventure.
11. Star Trek Into Darkness (Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2013)
Having knocked it out the park with his 2009 relaunch, it was a given that J.J. Abrams would come back with his smartly assembled crew, led by Chris Pine’s Kirk. The four years it took to arrive certainly got fans antsy for further adventures with the new original crew. While there were tantalising elements on offer in the marketing, from Benedict Cumberbatch as a mysterious villain, and some more morally complex issues for the crew to contend with, the results left fans cold.
The main issue with Star Trek Into Darkness is that it seems to squander the potential that its predecessor laid forth. Establishing these movies in an alternate universe paved the way for the writers to not be slavish to what had come before. But what starts off breezily enough quickly becomes a rather bleak outing, and one that has very little original ideas up its sleeve. These problems are particularly exhibited by the fact that the film becomes far too concerned with hitting the same beats as The Wrath of Khan, constricting itself to supposed fan service when the potential is already in place to offer something new. You’re left thinking, is this really the best the writers could think of in those four years?
Star Trek Into Darkness is both the most financially successful Trek movie and the one voted for by fans as the worst film of them all. Personally, the cast remains too charming, and the production design remains too dazzling to put this at the bottom of the pack. But there are clearly too many bad ideas in the mix here, ideas that feel out of whack with the ethos of this universe, all the while narratively cutting corners under the paper thin guise of franchise reverence.
10. Star Trek: Generations (Dir: David Carson, 1994)
While The Next Generation had come to an end on television earlier in the year, Trek fans of 1994 didn’t have to wait too long to see their favourite characters up on the silver screen with the winter release of Star Trek: Generations. Very much sold on the idea that this film would offer the chance for fans to see William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard team up for the very first time, Generations is an occasionally exciting entry, that ultimately disappoints as a team up for the ages.
The film follows Picard chasing down a mad scientist (a sadly rather tame Malcolm McDowell) as he seeks to harness the power of a mysterious Nexus, the same Nexus that seemingly claimed the life of Captain James T. Kirk some 70 odd years ago. The concept of the Nexus, a space cloud that essentially transports any individual to their idea of paradise, is never quite visually interesting enough to convince as an intriguing central plot element. When paired with the fact that the eventual team-up that the film has been building towards ends up feeling like a bit of a damp squib (fights in a rocky landscape on a rickety bridge doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping), Generations ends up being a rather bland cinematic debut for the Next Gen crew.
While never quite as bad as you remember it being, Generations rarely gives off much of a spark across its runtime. Ultimately, you can’t help but feel that it is the desire to pair the two Captains together that ends up sinking this film, robbing the crew of much of a chance to stand on their own two feet in their debut feature.
9. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Dir: Leonard Nimoy, 1984)
The first time Nimoy sat in the director’s chair for the franchise was all part and parcel of convincing the veteran actor to keep going in the franchise, even though The Wrath of Khan seemingly closed the door on the character of Spock. It was also his directorial debut full stop, talk about throwing yourself in at the deep end.
The Search for Spock involves the crew of the Enterprise abandoning their orders to return to the planet of Genesis, when they discover that there may be a chance to bring back Spock alive. It is very much a sequel designed to reset the table, get the gang back together and leave things at a point where the next instalment can get back to more business as usual. As a result, this sequel is somewhat thin on the ground when it comes to much in the way of strong thematic ideas, never quite planting its feet when it comes to establishing much in the way of threat (despite featuring a band of murderous Klingons led by Christopher Lloyd).
As a directorial debut, it’s not the greatest, but certainly not the worst. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves under Nimoy’s direction, it’s fairly well paced and there’s some strong production design throughout. Nimoy would get another shot to make a Trek movie, with decidedly more successful results, but Search for Spock is a pleasant enough adventure with the original crew, just never a particularly remarkable one.
8. Star Trek: Insurrection (Dir: Johnathan Frakes, 1998)
First Officer William Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes, returned to direct following his success with the previous instalment, 1996’s First Contact. This time, things are a little less exciting, with Insurrection not offering much beyond what audiences had already seen the crew do in a 45 minute episode of television., Yet, there’s something undeniably charming about this more unassuming entry.
This instalment sees Picard and his crew head to the planet of the Ba’Ku, whose way of life is being threatened by the Son’a, who are obsessed with using the planet’s secrets for their own gain. Much of the time of the film is spent within the idyllic Ba’Ku society as it goes about telling a story that’s cluttered with the kinds of political and social allegories that the franchise has done before. But there’s a lightness of touch to the proceedings that invites you in warmly to spend some quality time with characters you love.
Insurrection is arguably the franchise at its least ambitious, but it is also a well performed and comforting watch, with a pleasingly icky villainous race of aliens for the crew to contend with. It is a very hard Star Trek film to dislike, even if nothing particularly that exciting ever really occurs. A milky cup of Earl Grey, not particularly hot but undoubtedly cosy.
7. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Dir: Robert Wise, 1979)
The very first Star Trek film was also almost the only one. With a budget that kept ballooning, a script that was never in a finished form, and a rush to get the numerous effects shots ready for a release in Christmas 1979, the film very much nearly killed the franchise on the big screen before it had a chance to take off. While it ended up making enough money to convince Paramount that another instalment might work, The Motion Picture has taken on a bit of a reputation as the most boring Star Trek movie of them all. While there’s certainly enough here to make that case, time has also made it one of the most curious entries of the bunch.
The film is unquestionably slow and ponderous, with many scenes really testing the limits of your patience (should it really take over five minutes to dock with the Enterprise). But there is undoubtedly an intriguing sense of mystery driving the adventure as Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest of the crew are tasked with uncovering the secrets of a powerful alien cloud that’s on course for Earth. That paired with the kaleidoscopic visual effects, makes this a very bizarre, undoubtedly languorous, but strangely captivating experience.
The signs of a troubled production are clear in the fact that the story and moments of incident feel quite random and cobbled together. This is very much Star Trek trying to figure out if it can work on the silver screen. While it clearly has some teething problems, there’s plenty of elements to admire, with the introduction of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme and his beautiful score being chief amongst them.
6. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Dir: Nicholas Meyer, 1991)
The final outing for the whole of the Original Series crew, the sixth instalment was met with the challenge of how to bounce back from the critical and financial disappointment of The Final Frontier. The answer was clearly quite an easy one: bring back the man who made The Wrath of Khan.
Operating as a Cold War murder mystery thriller in the 23rd Century, the film finds the crew of the Enterprise in a race against time, when it becomes clear that conspirators are at work attempting to destroy any chance of peace between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. This is a case of the franchise taking elements of a different genre and putting them through the prism of Trek, and it works incredibly well, thanks to a well constructed central mystery that plays on the characters prejudices. It allows for the Original Series crew to bow out with pride, getting plenty to do in one of the most thematically substantial of their movies.
Audiences clearly responded too, with the film being both a more financially and critically appreciated film than its predecessor. It also further established Meyer as quite possibly the strongest directorial fit across the entire franchise, with this and The Wrath of Khan going on to become two of the best received Trek films of them all.
5. Star Trek (Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2009)
Before Abrams came along, it would be fair to say that the Star Trek franchise was in something of a limbo, following the disappointments of Nemesis on the big screen and Enterprise on the small. It needed a jumpstart, and Abrams and his team certainly gave it that, opening the door for a whole new kind of Trek and a whole new generation of fans.
Taking a concept that had been knocking around the minds of Trek producers for decades, this retooling introduces us to the Original Series crew as they all meet at Starfleet Academy. They are quickly thrust into action when a Romulan from the future arrives with a devastating weapon, resetting their destinies forever. It is a smart way to reintroduce a franchise to allow the devoted to hold on to the fact that the previous adventures have not been written off, we’re simply in an alternate reality. It allows Abrams and his team to deliver a different flavour of Trek, one fuelled more by action and excitement, but still keeps the characters front and centre.
The real reason this reboot works so well is the pitch perfect casting. Chris Pine, Zachery Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Zoe Saldana and the late Anton Yelchin shoulder their responsibility of taking on iconic characters with confidence and charisma. They are simply a joy to be around, and that confidence extends to Abrams visual flair. Yes, it can all be a little frenetic, but there’s action with heart here, no better exemplified than in the startling opening sequence. It also brought the world Michael Giacchino’s take on Trek, delivering one of the finest blockbuster scores of the last 20 years. It is the film that opened the door to Star Trek for many, this writer included, and it does so with bravado and energy to spare.
4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Dir: Leonard Nimoy, 1986)
Having cut his teeth in the director’s chair for Search for Spock, Nimoy returned for the fourth instalment, one which is very clearly driven much more by his sensibilities. What resulted is one of the most beloved Star Trek movies, and for good reason; it’s just so much damn fun.
On paper, the film shouldn’t really work at all. It is a sci-fi movie that involves time travel, fish (or should that be whale) out of water comedy, with an impassioned cry for animal conservation and the environment very much front and centre. It is Nimoy’s clear passion for his thematic subject matter that allows him to make a Trek film with purpose and heart, as we follow the Enterprise crew on a mission back to 1980’s San Francisco to bring a Humpback Whale back to the future, where they are now extinct. It’s a very silly premise, but one that embraces that silliness to deliver a genuinely very funny comedy with a sincere intent to both entertain and educate.
The loosest, most laid back Star Trek entry of them all is also the most unconventional. The Voyage Home is an infectiously fun comedy outing for the franchise. It exudes charm thanks to its refreshingly carefree attitude, whilst also taking the time to construct a story that holds as much relevance today as it would have done with audiences some 30 odd years ago.
3. Star Trek: First Contact (Dir: Johnathan Frakes, 1996)
The best of the Next Generation films, First Contact marks a slight change in sensibilities in that it takes the stoic Picard and forges him more in the mould of a Hollywood action hero. That it manages to do so in a package that still very much captures the spirit of the franchise is impressive, with Frakes making his franchise feature directorial debut with one of the most exciting entries of the lot.
Much of its success has to come down to the decision to feature The Borg as the chief antagonists. Still one of the most iconic figures of the Trek villain gallery, the menace of The Borg is used to great effect in a plot that sees them travelling back in time to prevent humanity’s first contact with an alien species, enslaving the planet before it can ever become a part of the Federation. Forcing Picard to deal with the trauma of his experiences with The Borg, as well as offering a look at a significant moment in the lore of Star Trek, First Contact offers an adventure that both deepens the world of the franchise, whilst also working as an action-packed blockbuster in its own right.
First Contact takes ingredients from throughout the franchise (Time travel! Moby Dick references!) and peppers them amongst some wonderful performances, particularly giving Stewart his crowning moment as Jean-Luc Picard. It is a film that acknowledges the legacy it is a part of, and finds ways to expand on it with a sense of urgency not often seen in the franchise before.
2. Star Trek Beyond (Dir: Justin Lin, 2016)
Who would have thought that the go-to director for the Fast and Furious franchise would be the one to find that near perfect balance between the old and new worlds of Star Trek? Cearly, Lin is a fan of Star Trek, and that more than shines through in an entry that re-examines what it is people love about this franchise after the mixed reception to Into Darkness. The result is the franchise at its most good-natured and charming.
With a story that tackles notions of legacy head on, as well as directly referencing a sense of complacency that must’ve befallen this cast and crew once JJ left for a galaxy far, far away, Beyond is quite possibly the most underrated film of the entire franchise. Its story may feel less audacious than some of the beats of Abrams’ previous two entries, but it is also less chaotic, giving a chance for these characters (and actors) to breathe and firmly settle into their incarnations of these characters. With the crew separated on the surface of an unknown planet following an attack by a mysterious alien, each member gets their moment here, shifting the focus more on the value of teamwork and the strength found in unity than the more Kirk-Spock focused dynamic of the previous two instalments.
Star Trek Beyond is a film that celebrates all the best qualities of Roddenberry’s vision in a package that’s both familiar and fresh, thanks once again to the wonderful cast, with Pine in particular truly coming into his own as Kirk. Trek has always been best when focusing on its characters, and Beyond refocuses the attention on the Enterprise crew, leading to the first film in this rebooted series that feels truly designed to find the best balance for both the legions of pre-existing fans and new audiences alike.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Dir: Nicholas Meyer, 1982)
Were you expecting something else? The film that saved Star Trek, The Wrath of Khan is a large part of the reason why Star Trek has continued to endure for as long as it has. It is the instalment that demonstrated that this franchise had a future on the big screen and beyond, delivering a tale full of excitement, intrigue and menace.
Largely chucking out the ponderous pacing of its predecessor, The Wrath of Khan ups the ante by bringing in Ricardo Montalban’s deliciously intimidating Khan. What takes place is a showdown of minds and egos in the first film to embrace the characters strengths and flaws in a manner that provides irresistible drama. It has the best villain, the best character beats and the most palpable stakes. It is also the best in terms of performance from the Original series crew, with Shatner in particular delivering his most rounded performance as Kirk.
That no film in the franchise has quite reached the heights of The Wrath of Khan should say plenty when it comes to talking about how significant this film is for the franchise as a whole. With a script rich in subtext and character, as well as being packed with intriguing concepts surrounding creation and hubris, it is as close a Star Trek movie has come to being akin to enjoying a fine glass of vintage wine. The iconography of The Wrath of Khan looms large to this day, and it is a testament to its quality that it remains the most thrilling of all the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.