With Star Trek Beyond beaming into theaters this Friday (July 22), it's time to take a look back at the franchise's big-screen adventures to date.
Even when you take away the TV component (five series and a sixth on the way) and all the books, comics and other assorted media, Star Trek remains an impressive franchise based just on its film output. With 13 movies released over 37 years, the series may be second only to James Bond in terms of longevity and productivity. Of course, the quality has varied as well; while Trek has produced some genuinely great science fiction films, it's also let slip some real embarrassments.
And yet the series continues, with Star Trek Beyond out this week (and worthy of the better entries in the franchise) and a 14th film just announced a few days ago. With that in mind, here's our ranking of all 13 outings to date, including the new one. Hopefully new fans can use this as a helpful guide, while the diehards out there can debate and discuss below. Ready? Let's boldly go down the list...
13. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Yep, there's no getting around it: William Shatner's sole directorial outing in the Star Trek canon remains the franchise's absolute bottom of the barrel. The jokes are not funny, the cast members are all visibly uncomfortable and made to look foolish (poor Nichelle Nichols), and the story -- which starts with Spock's previously unheard-of long-lost half-brother and ends with our heroes coming face to face with "God" -- is just plain stupid. Shatner's direction is hamfisted and the movie just looks like hell too -- even for 1989 the effects are cheap and amateurish. Coming off a trilogy of good-to-great entries, and followed by one of the series' best, it's easy to see The Final Frontier as just an anomaly. It's a credit to the overall strength of the Star Trek brand that Shatner's folly didn't kill the franchise entirely.
12. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
This one really was a franchise killer, as it put big screen Trek on ice for seven years (the brand was limping along on TV at the time too, with only Enterprise running when this came out). Frankly, the series needed a rest: Nemesis is a mix of scattershot ideas that are just silly (the new Romulan leader is a clone of Picard and we know this because they're both bald) or rehashed (another Data duplicate is found). Add to that risible moments like Deanna Troi's mental rape by that Romulan ruler, Shinzon (a young Tom Hardy in an otherwise solid performance), and Data's climactic attempt to wring a Wrath of Khan-like ending out of the film by sacrificing himself, and you've got a pretty disappointing affair. As we said earlier, Hardy is good, Patrick Stewart always elevates whatever he's in, and the ramming of Shinzon's ship by the Enterprise is something cool that we had not seen before. But Nemesis is ultimately its own worst enemy.
11. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Technically impressive as hell, and graced with a cast that still manage to justify themselves as the heirs to the original seven, Star Trek Into Darkness is nevertheless incredibly and deeply insulting to Trek fans on many levels. The script is horrendous, either riddled with ridiculous concepts like beaming via transporter across the galaxy (what do we have starships for, then?) or "magic blood" -- a conceit also used by screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurztman in their equally horrific The Amazing Spider-Man 2. There are also the noxious politics that find their way into the film courtesy of Orci, a documented 911 truther, and of course the cynical attempt at fan service by making Benedict Cumberbatch into a half-baked version of Khan and then doubling down by remaking the third act of The Wrath of Khan -- only without the emotional investment and truly gripping climax. Director J.J. Abrams still stages some terrific individual sequences, but his worst pandering to nostalgia is also on display. The release of this moment was indeed a dark moment in Trek history.
10. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
It's funny: Trek really did stick for a long time to the format of even numbered movies being good and odd numbered ones being either less interesting or bad -- and this ninth big screen outing was proof of that (the next movie, Nemesis, broke the tradition). There are just a lot of silly moments in this film, from Worf having acne to Data bonding with a little boy, but the whole thing feels less like a movie and more like a ponderous, overlong TV episode. The locations are bland, the story -- about the Federation and an alien race secretly in cahoots to move some natives off a planet that's essentially a fountain of youth -- is murky and the villains (Anthony Zerbe and F. Murray Abraham) chew up any scenery in their vicinity. There is the germ of an interesting idea about corruption within the Federation, but it's never fully explored. For a movie with such an incendiary title, Star Trek: Insurrection is decidedly lukewarm.
9. Star Trek: Generations (1994)
The idea behind Generations was a great one: find a way to unite the classic and Next Generation casts in one epic adventure that would also act as a symbolic handing of the big-screen torch from one to the other. Sadly, however, more than half the originals -- most notably, Leonard Nimoy -- did not participate. Of the three that did, only William Shatner gets actual screen time with anyone (namely, Patrick Stewart) from The Next Generation; James Doohan (Scotty) and Walter Koenig (Chekov) are gone after the opening scene. The story that eventually brings the two Captains together, with Malcolm McDowell as a scientist bent on exploding a star in order to enter an alternate reality known as "the Nexus," is confusing, vague and feels too small -- yes, even with an exploding star -- for such an historic occasion as the meeting of the Enterprise's two most famous commanders. Also, Kirk's death is nowhere near as elegant or moving as that of Spock five films earlier. But Stewart and Shatner are both great given what they're working with, most of the Next Generation cast make solid debuts in their first theatrical outing, and the crash-landing of the Enterprise is a gripping sequence.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture trailer
8. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
I vividly remember watching this in a movie theater and seeing the Enterprise -- bigger than ever -- sailing practically right over my head. And it kept sailing...and sailing...and by the time the camera had lovingly panned over every inch of the ship, 20 minutes had gone by. The first attempt to transfer Trek from the small screen to the big one was a bloated (it was briefly the most expensive movie ever made at the time), ponderous and self-important affair that nevertheless holds a special place in this Trekker's heart and perhaps that of others, if only because it was great to see our heroes in (slow-motion) action again. Shatner seems uncomfortable and stiff, but Nimoy and Kelley slip back into the personas of Spock and McCoy as if six months had passed instead of 10 years since the end of the series. The plot is perhaps the most purely science fictional of the entire series, and new characters Will Decker (Stephen Collins) and Ilia (the late Persis Khambatta) bring some fresh energy to the proceedings. It's not quite enough to make The Motion Picture better than it seems, and while a shaky launch, at least it got the Enterprise back into space again.
7. Star Trek Beyond (2015)
Placing the latest Trek adventure somewhere on this list is tricky, since it's not even out and it's a bit too early to tell whether it will rise or fall in the rankings as time goes by and perceptions of it change. So I'll say that putting it squarely in the middle of the list may not matter for now. What does matter is that Star Trek Beyond is a welcome return to the spirit and optimism of classic Star Trek after all the turgid paranoia of Into Darkness; it plays as a feature-length episode of the original series, only with top-notch visual effects and modern (read: hyper-edited) action sequences. Some of those are effective, but director Justin Lin jiggles the camera too much for his own good on a number of them -- Lin actually proves more adept at the quieter character moments. There is some great, right-out-of-Roddenberry interplay between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban), while Kirk (Chris Pine) is at his most decisive and commanding here -- finally seeming like he belongs in the center seat. Idris Elba's Krall is also a terrific villain and his ultimate motivations tie nicely to the film's overall themes. Star Trek Beyond is uncomplicated in its desire to simply recreate the essense of Star Trek -- and it mostly works.
6. Star Trek (2009)
Purists may balk, but director J.J. Abrams' reboot/origin story for the crew of the Enterprise was, against all odds, a rousing success. For starters, the idea of setting this story in an alternate timeline (now known as the Kelvin Timeline) is a brilliant one, allowing the new cast to forge their own path without erasing the previous 43 years of canon. But Abrams' best achievement was the cast itself: each of them rise to the occasion with respect for the cultural icons that have come before them. Quinto and Urban are the standouts, but Pine really gives us a sense of what the young, brash and impulsive James Tiberius Kirk might have been like when he was raising hell at Starfleet. Leonard Nimoy's cameo provides a welcome and poignant linchpin as well. The story, with its renegade Romulan (Eric Bana) and reality-warping "red matter," is needlessly busy and forgettable, but the new crew and the movie's overall energy successfully make the case that Star Trek could live again -- in any timeline.
5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
No, it's not as good as its predecessor, but living in the shadow of The Wrath of Khan has, perhaps, left Star Trek III somewhat underrated over the years. For one thing, it really focuses on the chemistry between the central crew members (minus one, of course, for most of its running time) and also puts Kirk through some of the most emotionally devastating moments of his life. On top of losing his best friend in the previous film, the good captain loses both his ship and his son in this one -- and yet gets back on his feet (literally) and keeps going. That's why when Spock does come back to life at the end of the movie, it feels earned and not contrived. Nimoy makes a confident debut as director, and Shatner gives a great performance here; everyone else gets interesting stuff to do as well (except poor Uhura) and the destruction of the Enterprise is a powerful moment. On the downside, Christopher Lloyd is fun as Klingon baddie Krug but not up to the level of Khan, and the Genesis planet sets look unconvincing. Still, if you're searching for a reason to rewatch this one, there are plenty.
Star Trek: The Voyage Home trailer
4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
After the relative darkness of Star Treks II and III, producer Harve Bennett decided to lighten things up a bit -- as much as a story about a space probe that's about to destroy Earth and can only communicate with long-extinct whales can be considered light. Nimoy returns as director and is back on full-time duty as Spock too, although watching him reclaim his memories and take Kirk way too literally at almost every turn is a joy. This is Trek at its most fun as the crew navigates modern-day San Francisco to retrieve those whales, and even when things get a bit zany they never descend into camp or pure slapstick. The unveiling of the new Enterprise at the end is also a shiver-inducing moment. Working without the original ship for an entire film was an indication of how rich and well-loved these characters had become on their own terms, and the result was the franchise's biggest box office success until the modern era.
3. Star Trek: First Contact (1998)
The second Next Generation film remains the best out of the four starring that crew and one of the finest overall. Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker) makes an impressive debut as director, and Patrick Stewart hits it out of the park as a wounded Picard, whose assimilation by the Borg years earlier has left him with scars that may prove more of a threat to his humanity than the Borg themselves. I'm still not sure about the concept of a Borg Queen (since they are supposed to be a hive mind), but Alice Krige is surprisingly sensual in the role. The Borg traveling back in time to stop humanity's first contact with an alien race (thus sowing the seeds of the Federation) is a clever idea, as is Riker and company helping to get Zefram Cochrane's first warp flight off the ground. Some great action sequences, an overall elegant script and Stewart's work all make this a peak moment for the Next Generation gang.
2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
For my money, The Undiscovered Country is the great underrated entry in the Trek series, and there are times when it's even jostled in my mind for the top spot (it's never gotten there, but still). Nicholas Meyer's second outing as a Trek director (he worked on the story as well) proves why he is one of the most valuable players in the franchise's history, bringing back elegance, excitement and clarity to a series that was brought to its knees by the inept The Final Frontier. Shatner and Nimoy are at the top of their game here, with the central premise of the shaky peace negotiations between the Federation and the Klingons putting them (gently) at odds with each other and providing Kirk with a real chance to examine his own conscience -- and perhaps find it lacking. The movie drags a bit in the middle during the visit to the Klingon prison planet, but it's saved by a fantastic third act that includes not just a superb battle in space but a genuinely poignant exchange between Shatner and Nimoy that doubles as a perfect farewell address. And I defy any Trekker not to feel like they're getting a little dust in their eyes as the cast's signatures scrawl across the screen with the Enterprise sailing off into the stars behind them.
Star Trek II Trailer
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Okay, no big surprise here, I have to admit. But Star Trek II simply has yet to be topped as the gold standard for all Trek films past, present and future. Regrouping after Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not a smash home run, the studio wisely decided to have some fresh eyes take a look at the franchise, nudging creator Gene Roddenberry aside in favor of producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer, who had one previous film to his credit. They cleverly looked back at Trek history and found a story and villain with which to comment on mortality and memory, allowing the characters to acknowledge the passage of time while still putting them headlong into a rousing space adventure. Ricardo Montalban gives an outsized (and appropriate) performance as Khan that remains one of sci-fi's great screen antagonists, while the regular cast rises to the occasion and seem much more at ease than in The Motion Picture. And that ending...yes, Spock eventually came back from the grave, but Star Trek II was the rare sequel where, at least for a while, you weren't really sure. That's why it works, and that's why this movie remains the best Trek of them all.