Star Trek has been a cultural phenomenon since it hit our screens in 1966. Often seen as the show that introduced many fans to science fiction, Star Trek has entertained viewers and inspired countless writers, directors, and actors to create some of the most imaginative TV episodes and movies of the last 50 years.
When the original series was cancelled after three seasons, fans immediately began to demand that the series continue on. With the massive success of both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, producers hurriedly began to raid the vaults for sci-fi properties to adapt onto the big screen. Naturally, they came across Star Trek, and a movie series was born. What would follow is four decades of highs and lows for a franchise that continues to this day. This July, Star Trek Beyond will hit theaters, marking the third film of the "rebooted" series.
Looking at the 50th anniversary of this seminal franchise, we rank all the Star Trek Movies!
The Final Frontier suffers from issues of quality in story and direction that easily make it the weakest of the series to date. William Shatner (Captain Kirk) had a stipulation in his contract that he was to receive equal pay and opportunities to that of Leonard Nimoy (Spock). With Nimoy having directed the last two movies of the series, Shatner wanted his turn at the helm.
While the themes of belief, religion, and human nature were explored, they were done with far too much humor, giving the movie an unbalanced tone. The main villain, Sybok, is unthreatening despite being able to take over the Enterprise. While he has charisma, and chews through his poor dialogue with epic zeal, he just can’t match previous antagonists such as Khan.
The scenes with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy sharing shore leave are entertaining, but once they get on board the Enterprise, things become muddled and the plot feels directionless. Coming after the trilogy of films from Wrath of Khan through to The Voyage Home, The Final Frontier had a lot to live up to. While it didn’t scale to the same heights -- indeed, Kirk’s failed attempt to climb El Capitan at the beginning serves as a metaphor for Shatner’s failed attempt to produce something of equal quality to his friend -- the movie does deliver some entertaining moments, just not enough to make it feel like a true Star Trek picture.
The least profitable of all the Trek films, Nemesis (the tenth film in the series) is notorious for breaking the rule that “equal-numbered Trek movies are good, odd ones are bad.” Nemesis fails for a mere two reasons: the uninspired work of director Stuart Baird and the general feeling that the franchise had finally run out of ideas.
The whole “Captain meets polar opposite of himself plus throw in a superweapon plus throw in a heroic sacrifice of logical crew member” has a bargain-bucket Wrath of Khan feel to it. Indeed, director Stuart Baird was very open about having seen the previous movies but never the TV shows, indicating that he would be looking at the more action-heavy elements of the series as opposed to the more faithful Trek themes, such as exploring what it means to be human.
Shinzon (Tom Hardy) does well with what he has, playing a younger, evil clone of Picard, but as the movie so heavy-handedly states over and over again, he’s a copy of what’s gone before and adds little to Trek canon.
Overall, Nemesis is a by-the-numbers action movie. The initial diplomatic efforts of the crew, along with any character arcs, are swiftly brushed aside to set up the space-battle between the Enterprise and Shinzon’s Scimitar. Far from unwatchable, it lacks the humanity of what Star Trek is. It boldly goes nowhere the crew hasn’t already been before.
JJ Abrams’ second Star Trek movie should have, and indeed could have, been one of the best science fiction movies ever made. A great cast from the previous entry, aided by the modern-day icons Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Weller, amazing effects (despite the over-use of lens flare) and riding the hype-train of the previous entry's success, it should have pushed the boundaries of what a Star trek movie could be.
Instead of offering something new, JJ Abrams pays homage to Wrath of Khan almost from the outset. With elements such a damaged ship, needing a desperate manoeuvre to fix, a heroic sacrifice by a major character from inside a reactor, and indeed the appearance of Khan himself, the movie again only goes where we these Trekkies have been so many times before.
The addition of Alice Eve also caused controversy. While a young Carol Marcus (a character from Wrath of Khan) is welcome, she is overly sexualized, seen in her underwear for no reason other than to exploit her figure. They did the same thing with Uhura in 2009’s Star Trek. While romance is a key element of Star Trek, exploiting female cast members just feels out-of-place and unnecessary in Gene Roddenberry's world.
The movie has amazing effect, a relatively fast pace, and massive amounts of action. But it’s a knock-off of Wrath of Khan, and worse still, it seems to know it. Also, the not-so-subtle references to 9/11 provides little effective social commentary.
Had Star Trek: Insurrection been an episode of The Next Generation, it would have been a great, if not classic, entry. Moving away from the action and explosions of the previous entries, Insurrection went back to doing what Trek does: explore. Given that The Voyage Home had been the most successful entry of the series, the producers wanted to duplicate its success with a much lighter, almost comedic tone. But, while the movie focusses on the moral implications of moving settlers from their adopted home world and the Federation willing to compromise their ethics in order to exploit a natural resource, the characters themselves are largely forgotten.
While fun, Insurrection only gives us what we’ve seen before. Indeed, the whole plot involving moving a population from one planet to another in a holodeck had been done in an episode of The Next Generation called "Homeward." As a feature-length episode of the show, it works. As an addition to the movie series, it’s a largely forgettable affair.
Generations was very much seen as a passing of the torch from the original crew of the Enterprise to the crew seen on The Next Generation, but added very little to Trek lore besides that. The movie opens with the supposed death of Kirk aboard the Enterprise-B and then shifts to the crew of The Next Generation and follows them as they investigate strange occurrences on an observatory. They discover that a rogue El Aurian scientist, Soran, survived the disaster that seemingly killed Kirk but is attempting to re-enter the energy ribbon known as “The Nexus.”
In order to defeat Soran, Picard enters the Nexus. In the Nexus he finds himself in the strange dream world of The Nexus, where he runs into Kirk, putting the two captain on the same screen for the first and only time.
While the themes of mortality, particularly in Picard’s story-arc, where he loses his brother and nephew in a fire, are powerful, there’s a sense of been-there-done that as the last few movies in the original run had covered that pretty well.
One of the undeniable factors in the success of the Star Trek movies has been a sense of nostalgia. With this movie being made as the series ended, the characters were altogether too familiar. There was no avenue to discover what they had done in the years between the series ending and the movies beginning, as they were right there where we left them. While not it’s only flaw, it’s certainly a bigger factor than Paramount realized at the time.
Coming ten years after the original series ended, The Motion Picture is where the movie series began. It earned mixed reviews upon release, and remains divisive to this day. While many praise the production for not being tempted to add a “Bad Guy” and make it a battle, keeping it true to Star Trek’s legacy of intelligent exploration, others criticized it for its slow pace and lack of action.
Truthfully, while many of the TNG-era movies are criticised for being too much like an episode of the show, this movie actually is a re-worked version of what was going to be the pilot episode for the never-made “Phase Two”of the Star Trek series. However, it made use (perhaps overuse) of the emerging special effects technology of the time to be something much bigger than anything Star Trek had ever been up to that point. It was a grandiose visual movie that attempted to be something akin to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as opposed to an action-orientated movie like Star Wars.
While the Enterprise struggled to truly go anywhere, and the crew mainly react to the view screen as opposed to actually exploring, the movie did at least create enough interest to progress and offer us much, much more in time. Despite a massive budget, which many feared it wouldn’t earn back, the movie was a reasonable commercial success and the studio proceeded with a sequel.
The middle entry of the trilogy, which began with Wrath of Khan and ended with The Voyage Home, is often considered the weakest. Indeed, it suffers from being sandwiched in between the series' high-points, and looks worse than it is due to this. Objectively, however, The Search for Spock has some of the series' best scenes. While it may not flow as well as its predecessor, the main themes of death and rebirth are of a biblical scale, and Kirk deals with sacrifice and friendship in a touching, revealing manner.
With a high degree of death and destruction for a Trek film, the movie does manage some genuinely upbeat moments too. Sulu being called “Tiny” by a gigantic guard who he then skilfully knocks out remains a series high point. And while Nichelle Nicholls is criminally under-used as Uhura, her few scenes still show her as a vital member of the crew and one with much more to offer than merely answering the phone.
After Star Trek had been seen by many as having simply run its course, JJ Abrams' simply titled Star Trek breathed new life into the franchise. When news of a prequel first surfaced, many fans feared a repeat of the critical disaster of the Star Wars prequels. However, via time-travel and JJ Abrams' love of McGuffins a new timeline is established that both follows what has gone before but allows for a fresh slate.
Critically and commercially successful upon release, Star Trek is not without its faults. It forgoes many elements essential to the spirit of the series, such as what it means to be human, or science, ideals, and wider philosophy in favour of breakneck action and a pace more reminiscent of the Star Wars movies.
The visuals are (lens flare aside) breath-taking, and pay homage to the aesthetic of the original series. Each of the main characters has a moment to shine with each one respectful to their predecessor and yet adding something uniquely their own. While some Trek fans regard it as a departure from the more cerebral entries in the series, others welcome it as a breath of fresh air which introduced a whole new generation of fans to the beloved franchise.
The last voyage of the entirety of the original crew is a near-perfect send-off for both the cast and characters. Not only is it a love-letter to what makes Star Trek so unique, it also does what many Trek movies have struggled to do: be something new!
The overall theme of the movie was an allegory of what was at the time, current political events. The Klingons, often used as a Soviet-style antagonist to the Federation, have a large-scale disaster (the destruction of their moon, and key energy producing facility, Praxis) and, with their strength seemingly threatened, sue for peace with their long-standing rivals. This mirrored the events which followed the real-life crumbling of the Soviet Union, which led to the eventual end of the Cold War.
A second theme, and one touched upon ever since The Wrath of Khan, is that of the aging crew. Both Kirk and Spock begin to question their respective life choices and the legacy they leave behind. Kirk has a bitterness towards Klingons in general due to the death of his son, David several years earlier, while other members of the Federation also express xenophobic notions about the Klingons.
In between the political intrigue, Shakespearian dialogue, and the whodunnit regarding the traitors on board the ship, The Undiscovered Country manages to deliver one of the best series antagonists in General Chang. Chang (Played by Christopher Plummer) is a Klingon general secretly opposed to the peace-talks, who wants to end the cold-war-in-space by having the all-out war he has been training for his entire life. Like Khan, he is both a physical and cerebral villain. Also like Khan, he is not entirely unsympathetic. The theme of men afraid of change is seen from both sides, but unlike Kirk, Chang cannot change.
By far the best of the Next Generation movies, First Contact takes the series’ greatest antagonists, The Borg, and makes them truly terrifying. Much like how Wrath of Khan used the episode Space Seed as a prequel to the events of the movie, First Contact takes into account the events from “The Best of Both Worlds,” where Picard was assimilated by the Borg six years previously, and uses those events to motivate Picard’s actions.
The Borg time-travel to Earth’s past after their cube is destroyed in an invasion attempt. The Enterprise follows and seemingly thwarts them quickly. It is discovered that The Borg had been targeting the site of Earth’s first Warp-capable ship, which would lead to Earth joining the galactic community and eventually forming The Federation. One group goes to Earth to help repair and pilot the ship, ensuring history follows its intended path. The rest of the crew remain on board the Enterprise-E but soon discover that it has been infiltrated by Borg, who begin to capture and assimilate crew-members.
The themes of vengeance felt by Picard echo Kirk’s anger towards the Klingons, as well as Khan’s feelings toward Kirk. The movie doesn’t make it the sole focus however, with the scenes on Earth allowing for some traditional Trek humor and levity, giving the film a balance that few Trek movies have accomplished.
While the Borg Queen is rarely referenced as one of the key antagonists of the series, her blend of sadistic horror and overtly sensual seduction make her a unique Trek villain.
The final part of the trilogy of Trek movies is unique in numerous ways. Most of the story takes place in present day Earth (in the 80s, when the film was made), and there isn’t an antagonist or in-space battle of any kind. It’s also by far the lightest in tone, which was much-needed after the previous two entries having been so dark. It also stands out as the only entry to have almost no scenes that include the famous Enterprise.
The plot follows the crew as they head back towards Earth to face judgement for stealing, and destroying, the original Enterprise and engaging in conflict with the Klingons led by Kruge in the previous entry. During the journey, Earth is contacted by an alien probe of unknown origin. The probe is sending a signal into the oceans which is threatening to destroy the planet. The crew of the Bounty (the Klingon ship stolen by Kirk and used in place of the Enterprise) surmise that the probe is trying to communicate with Humpback whales, which, by that era, are extinct. If the probe is not answered, Earth will not survive, so Kirk and Spock plan to go back in time and retrieve two Humpbacks to save Earth.
While often praised for its humor and the much lighter tone than its predecessors, The Voyage Home brings back elements of social commentary, in this case a strong environmental message about the short-sightedness of mankind when it came to the environment. It also brings a romantic sub-plot for Kirk, something the previous entries lacked but the original show used frequently. Interestingly, it gave each member of the cast a moment to shine. While it still focussed on the Kirk/Spock dynamic The Voyage Home manages to give everyone a key role in the mission besides their established roles on the ship. It’s also notable for pairing the characters of McCoy and Scotty, who rarely had much to do with each other. Their comedic interactions make you wish they had been paired more often throughout the series.
After a lackluster response to The Motion Picture by both critics and audiences, the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry was removed from creative control of the franchise. While that would indicate a jump the shark moment for many series, in this case it actually worked.
While The Wrath of Khan is at odds with the optimistic view of the future that had always been synonymous with Star Trek, it opened up new possibilities for the franchise. Starfleet, always a science and exploration force first and a military one second, is slightly more balanced with David Marcus referring to them as “The Military” at one stage. While he was being petulant at the time, their role in the movie certainly do make them appear more militaristic than seen previously.
The theme of vengeance that is most clearly on display (hence the title). In searching for previous antagonists, the producers hit upon bringing back the character of Khan Noonian Sing, seen previously in the classic episode “Space Seed”. Khan had been a genetically engineered superman, rising to power in the late 20th century and exiled into deep space in cryo-sleep. The Enterprise had discovered Khan’s ship and, not knowing his identity and nature, reanimated his lifeless form. He attempted to take over the ship, but Kirk managed to defeat him and left him and his crew on Ceti Alpha 5 where they could build a new colony away from anyone else.
Kirk never kept tabs on Khan, and didn’t realize that due to an astronomical event, the orbit of the planet shifted drastically, causing the lush world to become nearly inhospitable. Khan and his few surviving crew members managed to live on that world for years, unable to leave until the Star Ship Reliant happened to stumble across them. Commandeering the Reliant, Khan seeks out Kirk and sets a trap for him.
The much faster pace than its predecessor matched the adventure of the original series, and the focus on the characters themselves set the tone for the future of the series from then on. Both Shatner and his on-screen nemesis Ricardo Montalban (Khan) give career-best performances and the supporting performances of series regulars James Doohan and Lenard Nimoy stand out as some of the best the franchise has ever delivered. The Wrath of Khan stands out as not just one of the best Star Trek movies, but one of the finest science fiction movies of all-time.
Do you have a differing opinion on the order of our rankings? Or do you have thoughts as to where Star Trek can go in the future? Let us know in the comments!