To celebrate this year’s 50th anniversary of Star Trek, I thought it would be fun to rank all of the Trek films to date. I grew up with my father being a pretty big Trek fan, though my brother took to it more than I did. I always preferred The Next Generation until finally coming to love the original series beyond a few episodes in college, and it wasn’t until recently that I finally watched Deep Space Nine (I did watch most of Enterprise during its original run!). Most of the Trek films are pretty good…but we’re going to do this worst-to-best style, which means we have to start with…
14. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
William Shatner only has two directing credits to his name, and I’m not entirely sure the other one was ever released (neither Box Office Mojo nor IMDb list any records for box office returns). That’s really as much as needs to be said about this entry in the franchise, as it is a disaster on nearly every level. The premise seems fine for an episode of a Trek series, but the film feels padded despite being shorter than two hours.
13. Star Trek: Nemesis
I quite like the concept for this film, but the execution is poor at best. The final outing for The Next Generation crew brings together bad writing and a half-baked Roman Picard clone idea into a film that is trying to accomplish too much. Reportedly, much of the character-driven scenes were cut from the final version of the film in order to focus more on the action, which really seems to miss the point of a farewell film.
12. Star Trek: Insurrection
Thus begins the tier of films that are just fine. Insurrection has some cheesy moments and forgettable characters beyond the main crew, but it works well enough. It mostly feels like a padded out episode, but there are some decent character moments. This is not one I would recommend to non-fans. It was also the first Trek film I saw in the theater.
11. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
This is another tough one. It is hard not to acknowledge that it is a miracle this film even got made, yet it cannot be denied that this one can be a bore even to fans of the franchise. Seemingly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001, the film has a slow pace that revels in looking at the startup Enterprise that likely works better on a big screen than at home.
10. Star Trek: Generations
For fans, Generations is a lot of fun. It opens with a final(?) farewell to the original cast before using some time travel shenanigans to bring Kirk and Picard together to defeat Malcolm McDowell. This is a film that leverages series continuity in a fun way (those Klingon sisters appeared in a few episodes before this film), but doesn’t exclude casual fans from enjoying it.
9. Star Trek Into Darkness
This is a reverse from the last few entries on this list in that it might be more fun for casual fans of the series. As much as I object to a few of the major themes of the film (government conspiracies, taking place mostly near Earth, and cribbing too much from another film much higher on this list), there are great action moments. The opening of the film on the planet Nibiru which includes the Enterprise underwater and a volcano rescue is exactly the sort of thing I love to see in these films. Chalk it up as an entertaining mixed bag.
8. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
This is a hard one to rank, because it forms a trilogy with two other films on the list. They’re the best parts, but Spock forms a middle chapter that is both essential to the ongoing story and contains some of the best character work in the entire franchise. It’s good enough, but just lacks some of the panache of the films that are great Trek movies and great movies over all. The kind of ‘utility player’ that is always nice to stumble upon when its on television, but only purposefully watched if you’re running through the trilogy.
7. Galaxy Quest
If actual Trek fans can include this on their list (and the director was interviewed on the official Star Trek podcast, Engage), then so can I! This film isn’t so much a parody as it is a loving homage to the fans, actors, and creators of Star Trek. Charming and funny enough for mainstream audiences, the film has specific humor tuned for Trek fans.
6. Star Trek: First Contact
This is the best movie featuring the cast of The Next Generation, drawing on some of the best episodes of the original series, a dash of time travel, and nails the idea of raised stakes for a film, but having equally high stakes for the characters involved. I don’t know if it has aged as well as the films with the original series cast, but it has to be given a lot of credit for the inventive ways the familiar Enterprise is shot, and the lighting especially gives it a much different feel from the television series. From here on out, these are all great films.
5. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Possibly the most underrated film in the franchise, it seems to be rediscovered by fans every few years. After Star Trek V: The Final Frontier almost killed Trek in cinemas, more creativity and less budget were required for this film, set to be released for the 25th anniversary. It was also the last appearance of the entire original cast. Deliberately drawing on contemporary politics, with a tense peace between the Federations and the Klingons. It’s a taut political thriller as well as a mediation on the nature of history, growing older, and dealing with change.
4. Star Trek Beyond
Because it is so new, this is a hard one to rank, especially since I didn’t get a chance to see it a second time in the theater. However, this film earns this high a spot on the list by giving me everything I love about Star Trek including the camaraderie and relationships between the crew members, as well as a hope for the future. The reputation of this film will only grow over time, and while not as broad in scope as some of the others on this list, seeing a real incarnation of Trek after 7 years was worth the wait.
3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Yes, the one with the whales. I will often argue that some of the best issues of The Avengers comics are the ones that feature Captain America, Iron Man, et al, sitting around a table eating pizza and bouncing off one another. Ditto for the original Star Trek characters. With a clear environmental message and no villain, this film is a great way to spend time with the characters in a place where they are ‘fish out of water,’ 1986 San Francisco. Star Trek, at its core, exists to hold a mirror up to our times and calls us to be less bigoted, more open-minded, more educated, kinder, and more inclusive. And while it may be a bit on the nose in this film, it is just as powerful. (It also makes a great double feature with Time After Time.)
2. Star Trek (2009)
This is a wonderful movie. It captures the spirit of Star Trek while also doing its own thing. It riffs on what comes before, but isn’t slavishly devoted to it. And the cast has amazing chemistry, with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yeltsin all giving great performances that mesh perfectly. If J.J. Abrams’ success comes from a magic genie, his first wish was to always have the right cast for his films. The film balances fun science fiction concepts, action, actively rewriting continuity and character development, which is an impressive feat no matter what you’re doing. I’m going to watch it again right after I finish writing this post.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
There is no other choice for the number one slot on this list. This movie might as well be perfect, and each time I watch it, I appreciate it more and more. Perfectly paced. Dizzying special effects. Ricardo Montalbán. Fine Corinthian Leather. This film is one of the best naval films ever committed to screen (I’m pretty sure The Hunt for Red October would have been awful if not for this film coming first). Khan and Kirk don’t ever actually share a single scene face-to-face and this is still one of the most tense, gut-wrenching franchise blockbusters ever.
Which Star Trek movie is your favorite? Which is your second place pick?
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.