"Second star to the right... and straight on till morning."
By Daniel Epler
Thanks to the recent release of Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek is back in the cultural zeitgeist! Due to my Trekkie dad, Star Trek has always been in my life and I have long been a fan of The Original Series and The Next Generation. But a few weeks ago the folks on the Screen Drafts podcast (one of my very favorites) announced an epic 4-hour episode on the entire Star Trek film franchise, something I have only dabbled in here and there. For the first time, I went through the 13-film series in about 2.5 weeks. I had an amazing time and it's reignited my love for the Enterprise and her crew.
This is my personal ranking of the franchise. I've looked at some other people's rankings, and learned that mine is pretty unconventional, so do keep in mind this is only my opinion and in no way an attempt to be objective. I've also read a few rankings in which over half the films are considered bad. This is not the list. I love this series, and the negativity will not last long. Also, "mostly widely known spoilers" alert. Let's punch it.
13. Star Trek: Generations (1994, dir. David Carson)
This film is known as the one where Kirk and Picard meet. The cinematic passing of the torch that some considered necessary. This is not an objectively terrible film, it's more just it's very existence that I take issue with. The film that proceeded this was a beautiful send off for James T. Kirk, and everything I needed to say goodbye to him. To bring him back in a glorified cameo to face off against an uninteresting villain with a dull plot was something I never needed to see. And I certainly never needed to see him die. I loved seeing him ride off into the sunset with his dear friends in The Undiscovered Country (more on that later). That is the where I say goodbye to him. Everything else in the film is certainly not offensive, it's just nowhere near as interesting as an average episode of Next Generation. This is not Kirk's send off for me, so I have no real use for the film.
12. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998, dir. Jonathan Frakes)
It's hard to find much to say about Insurrection, and perhaps that is the heart of the issue. It's a fairly uneventful and uninteresting movie. Most fans would agree that The Next Generation was at it's best when it was political, philosophical, and dealing with complicated moral questions. Star Trek: Insurrection trades that out for a generic and sloppy action flick with a recycled plot from several episodes of the series (and done far better there). It's not a movie I hate at all, I just have no connection to it. That being said, Riker and Troy's rekindled romance is pretty adorable, out-of-left-field though it may be.
11. Star Trek (2009, dir. J.J. Abrams)
After the franchise being absent for 7 years, Star Trek came back with a massive crowd-pleasing reboot! There is a lot to like about this movie, and nothing can take away how much I loved it as a teenager when it was released. But this was a tough one to come back to after diving deep into the series. I'm not going to say I have a problem with it being an action movie (because the films have been since 1982), but this film is constant running, yelling, and fistfights. Constant. It refuses to slow down long enough to get to know these characters or think about the plot at all. After a little while it just got exhausting for me. I also take issue with how wrong it gets the character of Jim Kirk. Kirk in this film is your typical hotshot douchebag who is constantly cat-calling women and yelling at people until he gets his way. This film is 2 hours of watching him be rewarded when he doesn't deserve it and win when he hasn't earned it. The ease with which he gets into the academy and climbs to the rank of captain feels disrespectful to Starfleet. Starfleet is better than this. But all that being said, I love Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban, and most of the rest of the cast. The cinematography and score are breathtaking, and I love the costume design. But all that aside, my issues with the film will keep me from revisiting it for the foreseeable future. It's fallen apart for me and I don't think I can put it back together.
10. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, dir. Robert Wise)
The beginning of Star Trek on the big screen! I'm so glad it was decided to use movies as a way to continue the story of Kirk, Spock, and their crew that was cut tragically short in the original series. This, however, wasn't quite the way to do it. It's very clear to me that they hadn't yet figured out how to make Star Trek into a movie, and not just a television episode. This is an average episode of the series stretched far too long into feature length. Nevertheless, it is not without it's charms. The score (which would go on to become the opening song of The Next Generation) and the special effects are extraordinary. Of course, the cast is great even though they don't have near enough to do. And special points for the most involvement Gene Roddenberry ever had in one of these movies. There's nothing offensive about this one, it's just far too slow and nowhere near as interesting as it should be. And don't even get me started on the uniforms.
9. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002, dir. Stuart Baird)
If you didn't think this list had gotten controversial yet, here's where it gets real nuts. I really like Nemesis, despite the fact that it has the reputation for being one of the very worst Star Trek movies (which I really don't understand). This is a blast of a space adventure film, with a fantastic villain performance from Tom Hardy. I love the idea that Picard had an angry and dying clone that has done nothing but dream of killing the version of himself that had the life he never had. Despite the fact that turning The Next Generation story into action movies never quite made sense, this is a solid example of it. Especially the space battle at the end, which is one of the very best in the series. I recognize some of it's problems, like B-4's meaningless inclusion, and certain messy plotting. But this movie is damn fun and I can't help but be a fan.
8. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, dir. William Shatner)
This one might be something of a guilty pleasure. The Final Frontier is silly and sometimes dumb, but I can't help but enjoy it so much. Shatner directs with a ton of enthusiasm (but perhaps not skill), and makes his undying affection for Jim Kirk abundantly clear. Kirk is awesome in this movie right from the moment he's climbing a mountain to the moment he's interrogating a false god. How much more "original series" does it get than the crew finding a false god? The film has a ton of energy and all the characters have time to shine. I'll watch Kirk, Spock and McCoy sing "row, row, row your boat" around a camp fire any day.
7. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013, dir. J.J. Abrams)
Oh boy, this is the controversial one. Perhaps despite my better judgement, I still really like Into Darkness. It a huge bummer that its a remake of another Star Trek story and its problems are glaring and obvious. The mirrored sacrifice from Wrath of Khan may be the most embarrassing scene in the entire franchise. However, most of it is original material and there's so much good stuff there. Its way better paced than Star Trek '09 and since there's less action overall the action scenes hit much harder. I also care about the characters far more. This film gives me the Jim Kirk I want. Into Darkness makes him earn his victories, and question the morality of his actions. I like Kirk best when he's struggling. While I'm being controversial, I'll out myself here as being a fan of the Spock and Uhura relationship. I see no reason to expect Spock to be some kind of a celibate priest (when Vulcans in general are clearly not), and they are very sweet in this movie. I love Spock, I want him to be happy. It also seems like Benedict Cumberbatch knew how dumb it was to bring back Khan, so he gives the performance every shred of over-the-top intensity he possibly can to make it as entertaining as possible. He may be no Ricardo Montalban, but I would say he succeeds. This is the most underrated Star Trek movie.
6. Star Trek: First Contact (1996, dir. Jonathan Frakes)
The first true Next Generation film is a slick and entertaining as all hell action flick. I may prefer to see this crew dealing with philosophy and diplomacy, but First Contact is a decent argument for the opposite. The action is exciting, the time travel aspect is really fun, and Frake's love for the characters shines through. The Borg were obviously terrific villains in the show, but Alice Krige (from my beloved Sleepwalkers) as the Borg Queen does so much to make them more interesting. The intensity and creepy sexuality she brings lift the film to a greater level. I admit it's weird seeing Picard run around in a John McClain tank-top shooting baddies, but Stewart gives it all he's got and you gotta respect that. First Contact is real fun.
5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, dir. Leonard Nimoy)
"Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many."
This film relies almost entirely on how invested you are in the bromance between Kirk and Spock. I, for one, am extremely invested, so this film plays my emotions all the way. There is so much I love about The Search for Spock. I love that Spock's sacrifice was so significant in the previous film that it took an entire movie to bring him back. I love the extreme lengths Kirk and the crew have to go to, and how much they care to make it happen. I love the crazy, unexplainable Vulcan mysticism that expands the lore of their race. And I love the ever entertaining Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon antagonist. This is a weird and crazy Star Trek movie and I'm on board for all of it. Star Trek has moved on to many other stories and characters, but Kirk and Spock ARE Star Trek. Them being back together at the end is everything I need.
4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, dir. Leonard Nimoy)
"No, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space."
How on earth did a Star Trek movie get made as a lighthearted comedy? I have no idea, but I am so glad it happened. There's just no better word to describe this movie than "delightful". This time travel movie dedicated to saving endangered whales is a wonderful experience with some of the best performances in the series. Shatner, Nimoy, and newcomer Catherine Hicks are all fantastic and funny as hell. But besides them, the other actors also have fun comedic beats. Nimoy clearly has the most love for the ensemble of any of the series' directors, and he gives everyone time to shine. The movie is wonderful, funny, and I dare you not to smile throughout.
3. Star Trek: Beyond (2016, dir. Justin Lin)
"We change. We have to. Or we spend the rest of our lives fighting the same battles."
My estimation of the third film in the Kelvin Timeline has grown enormously in the time since I saw it in the theater. Beyond is co-written by true Star Trek fan Simon Pegg, and it really shows. This is essentially a terrific episode of the original series with a big budget and a fresh cast. It's bright, optimistic, and joyful from start to finish. I would estimate it has about half the amount of action as either of the previous entries, so it gives far more screen time for the characters to talk and build their relationships. Much like The Voyage Home, it's far less concerned with plot than it is those character relationships. This is more about the ensemble than perhaps any other Star Trek film, with almost equal time given to each character. I have a lot of affection for this cast and this is the first time they're all used to their full potential. Newcomer Sofia Boutella is also terrific as Jaylah, a welcome new character to the franchise. But not to pretend Beyond is devoid of action, when it comes it is exciting and energetic. The motorcycle chase and the "Sabotage" sequence come to mind as major highlights. The villain played by Idris Elba follows the themes of The Undiscovered Country as a solider who can't handle the reality of peace. As is said in that earlier film, "If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it." But more on that one in a moment. Star Trek Beyond is a fantastic addition in the franchise.
2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991, dir. Nicholas Meyer)
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends."
The Undiscovered Country is Star Trek's version of a political thriller, and it is wildly successful. It tells the story of the Federation and the Klingon Empire finally making peace, and the tensions that arise from that suddenly changed relationship. I mentioned before that I like Kirk best when he's struggling, and this film is a fantastic example of that. Kirk finally deals with the death of his son (that happened 3 movies ago), and struggles with his own racism, bitterness, and lust for aggression towards the Klingons that he didn't know was there. This leads to actual ideological tension between him and Spock that does the most to deepen their relationship since Wrath of Khan. It definitely has the best dialogue in the franchise, partially evidence by Christopher Plummer as the Klingon General Chang, who is constantly quoting Shakespeare. I love it when Star Trek gets literary. But last and certainly not least, this film finally gives this cast a proper finale, something they were robbed of on television. I often think about Kirk giving the ship's final course, "Second star to the right... and straight on till morning." And in the final moment after Kirk has dealt with his prejudice, he makes the necessary transition in the iconic mission statement from "no man" to "no one". It is beautiful and earned. But besides all that intellectual nonsense, The Undiscovered Country is a kickass good time. I want to watch it again right now!
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, dir. Nicholas Meyer)
"I feel... young."
I think many Star Trek fans would agree that the franchise tends to be at it's best on television, it's first and most important home. Nevertheless, Wrath of Khan is my favorite Trek of all the Trek. It tells the story of an aging Admiral Kirk who is lost without command of a starship and feeling his age in the worst ways. Over the film he encounters a ghost of the past, a foe he has all but forget (the incredible Ricardo Montalban as the franchise's greatest villain) who has done nothing for 30 years but dream of killing him. It is a towering tale of revenge, sacrifice, and the regaining of one's purpose. Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite films of all time. This is William Shatner's finest hour, and he gives one of the best performances a Hollywood blockbuster has ever received. To put this movie in a genre, this is ultimately a submarine film about two men in glorious combat from across the stars. They each sit in their respective starships and never share the screen together. And yet, it is absolutely thrilling. No other Star Trek film comes close to this one's intensity and heart. It also features the best score of the series (by the great James Horner), that I listen to very frequently. And of course, I would be remiss not to mention the best scene in the franchise, that of Spock's sacrifice. From watching the original series, I have a theory that their relationship was never quite so meaningful until this film. This is the best they ever were. Wrath of Khan is a perfect movie.