Star Trek movies have been with us since the late ’70s and have received very mixed reactions. Some are revered as the very best of sci-fi films, while others received vicious barbs from fans and critics alike. Now that there is an even dozen films, it’s time to rank them in order.
The way my rankings work are basically four tiers. The first tier includes genuine classics that still hold up today and are iconic; the second tier features films that are undeniably enjoyable and worth watching, though they have their faults; the third tier is filled with flawed but noteworthy movies that have some good qualities and are sometimes underrated; the fourth tier, naturally is littered with the bottom-dwelling movies that are just terrible with little to recommend about them.
1. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986): I know this may shock most fans who expected Star Trek II to be the number pick. Choosing the very best Star Trek film was quite difficult and honestly, it’s more of a tie between the two films. To those that would argue that Star Trek II is the best one, you won’t get an argument from me, but time and time again I keep going to the fourth film in the franchise.
Why? To me this one showed the original cast and filmmakers at the top of their game. Everything was top notch with this film: production values, special effects, acting, and the story. The movie which was about the original Enterprise crew time traveling to San Francisco in the late 20th century to find whales was a great example of a fish-out-of-water yarn. We got to see the crew out of their element, yet persevering in the strange environment of the past. The movie presented a lighter, more comedic side but it was still exciting and engaging. It also showed that a Star Trek film didn’t need a scene-chewing villain to carry a film.
Finally, this film allowed all of the cast members to have their moment in the sun. They contributed to the story and had many outstanding scenes. Still, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley were the highlights, especially Shatner. His James T. Kirk wasn’t morose as in previous films, he was more confident, surprisingly funny and showed off his famous romantic, charming demeanor. By the film’s end, you feel completely satisfied. The crew had a new ship, Kirk was doing what he was meant to do and there was the promise of new beginnings as the Enterprise-A headed out to the unknown.
2. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982): On a different day I might’ve ranked this as so many do, as the best Star Trek film ever made. This is still the most important film in the franchise because it’s the one that saved it in its infancy. After the wooden and pedestrian debut film, there was doubt another expensive Star Trek film would ever be made. The filmmakers’ challenge was to put out an exciting, edge-of-your-seat thriller that would leave people talking about it for a long time to come. And they succeeded.
One of Kirk’s enemies from the original show, Khan (Ricardo Montalban), commandeers a Starfleet ship and goes on a warpath against Kirk. He blames our hero for marooning him on a desolate planet and wants Kirk to suffer as he did. And boy does he give it to Kirk. The battle of wits between the two adversaries became famous thanks in part to the performances from both actors. This is Shatner’s best performance as a Kirk, who finally faces middle age, while Montalban clearly relishes his role as the battered but regal Khan. His character is undeniably one of the best movie villains of all time.
Even though the special effects and Nicholas Meyer’s direction are exemplary, what makes the film endure is its focus on the characters and its themes about dealing with your past, the destructiveness of vengeance and facing the future with dignity. So why isn’t this my favorite Star Trek film? Well, it nearly is and on some days I’ll admit it. But the film feels a bit ponderous and pompous at times. The script tends to go overboard with its constant quoting from classic literature. Then there’s Spock’s (Nimoy) death, while it’s eloquent and heartfelt, given that the character returns in later films, the death feels a bit empty. Those are just minor quibbles though and this movie is a must-see classic for everyone.
3. Star Trek: First Contact (1996): It’s not only the best Star Trek film that features The Next Generation cast but one of the franchise’s very best efforts. Director Jonathan Frakes (who also plays Riker) and the production team hit all the right marks in this great Star Trek film. Its success started with this well-written time travel/alien invasion saga.
Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his Enterprise-E crew time travel to Earth’s mid-21st century to prevent the evil cybernetic Borg from conquering the planet. Successfully incorporating action and horror elements, Star Trek: First Contact was both exciting and suspenseful with a morality tale about obsession and dealing with destiny. This film is full of so many cool moments. One of the best was when the experimental warp ship the Phoenix launches from a missile silo as its pilot, Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) blasts Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”. Another was Picard’s histrionic ranting about the Borg, which forced him to look within himself. The Borg themselves are presented as the fearful, unrelenting force they were meant to be. The movie’s main villain, the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), is one of the more interesting and unique foes. She isn’t some revenge-minded madwoman but is cold, calculating, and with a strange allure.
As with the better films, this one showcased many of the supporting characters and featured smile-inducing nods and cameos from the other Star Trek shows. The best one had to be the cameo of Star Trek: Voyager’s EMH (Robert Picardo) who appears as the Enterprise-E’s own EMH. One of his lines is also a nice tribute to Dr. McCoy. After falling short with the previous entry Star Trek Generations, the filmmakers had to get the franchise back on track and succeeded with this one. Everyone involved is to be lauded, from the actors, to the composer, to the production team and, of course, the director, who like Nimoy understood Star Trek.
4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991): It’s the last hurrah for the original Star Trek cast in this analogy to the end of the Cold War. Like so many great Star Trek stories, this one had several moral messages, this one being about letting going of your hatred and embracing change. Kirk was forced to look into his soul as he grappled with his feelings about the antagonistic Klingons.
The film has an ominous, but ultimately hopeful tone that starts when the Klingons unexpectedly make peaceful overtures towards the Federation. Kirk and his crew get caught up with intergalactic political machinations as dubious parties go about trying to sabotage the peace process. At the time the film came out, the Cold War was just over and there were many concerns about the new normal. Star Trek VI, like the show, was an entertaining analogy to current events thanks to a top-rate script and direction (Nicholas Meyer returned to helm his second Star Trek movie).
This movie also had many nods to the original show and The Next Generation and served as a bridge of sorts between the two entities. But more importantly, Star Trek VI allowed the original cast and crew to have their final moment in the sun in a meaningful and bittersweet way. Its final moments when Kirk gives a final course heading and his ship soars off towards a nearby star is unforgettable. As a finale, it couldn’t end any better or more poignant.
5. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): This latest entry is as controversial as its predecessor and more so because it shamelessly rips off Star Trek II at times line for line. But some of the vitriol it has received is over the top. Unlike that ludicrous poll taken in Las Vegas, Star Trek Into Darkness is hardly the worst Star Trek film ever made.
In fact, it would’ve rated a lot higher on this list if not for the sloppy and lazy writing. Overall, the story about Kirk (Chris Pine) hunting down a super terrorist, while dealing with an internal threat to Starfleet is quite good. The direction by J.J. Abrams is engaging and the production is just spectacular. This film has the best, most luscious view of the future seen in any of these films. Abrams knows how to deliver a tense and exciting story and it’s one of the most amazing thrill rides in the franchise. More importantly, the movie had many relevant messages such as how we deal today with terrorism and national security and the nature of vengeance. Through these themes, this movie becomes a battle for the soul of Star Trek itself, which was surprising. Many characters bemoan the fact that they’re supposed to be explorers not warriors. And while the pyrotechnics and other effects are rousing to watch, those worries ring very true and teach young Kirk lessons about sacrifice and humility.
The problems are that the movie then seems to revel in high-octane action scenes, shamelessly copies Star Trek II and sports glaring plot holes. There isn’t anything wrong about the action stuff, in fact, the original show had its fair share of action, but all the moralizing about being true to the Federation’s principles seems like lip service. True, while Benedict Cumberbatch gives a terrific performance as Khan, the use of the villain feels unoriginal. The point of the reboot was to go into new territory not retreads. It would’ve worked better if Cumberbatch’s character was another genetically enhanced despot and Khan was left frozen. As for the plot holes, well, they are glaring and should be mentioned. Start with the use of intergalactic transporters that have effectively made starship travel obsolete. Or go with using super blood to bring back the dead. Or having an epic starship fight right by Earth’s moon and no one notices. I could go on but I won’t because the movie was exciting enough for me to overlook many of its flaws. Compared to the other films in this rank, Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the better entries.
6. Star Trek (2009): For better or worse, director J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise with this film that chronicles the early days of the original Enterprise crew. Before this film came out, Star Trek was considered dead. The last film in the franchise at that time performed poorly and the film series itself felt tired and out of ideas.
Abrams was hired to give the franchise a much-needed boost and he did so by rebooting Star Trek. There is a lot to complain about with this reboot but like it or not, Abrams revitalized Star Trek and the film does that by going back to the beginning. For the first time, we see Kirk in his younger years and see how he meets his famous crewmembers like Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban). In their first adventure onboard the Enterprise, Kirk and the others encounter a mad Romulan (Eric Bana) from the future intent on destroying the Federation.
Star Trek is a great thrill ride of a movie with beautiful production design and effects. The future is high tech but more realistic and grounded. However, with so much going for it, the film loses steam midway as Kirk and Spock needlessly argue like children. What’s worse is that the story goes into cop-out mode when instead of being a pure reboot a convoluted sub plot is introduced to show that what we’re seeing is an alternate timeline. To me, it feels like Abrams and company wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. Another quibble has to do with Kirk…he comes off as a cocky jock, which is hardly heroic. True, maybe the real Kirk was like this in his youth or the time disruptions may have changed Kirk’s character, but the result is that he is less likable. Still, this film is a good introduction to the rich Star Trek world and is accessible to non-fans. To say that it can be called Star Trek For Dummies isn’t inaccurate, but the bottom line is that Star Trek is fun to watch.