"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise." Star Trek fans have heard these words several times before, and throughout the past few decades (which has exceeded well beyond five years, at this point), they've seen several mission and explorations — many of which have made their way to the silver screen. Suffice to say, through many years of films, they've boldly gone where no man has gone before several times over.
There are 13 Star Trek movies in total by now, and it hasn't always been a smooth journey for the series. For every triumph, there have been several adversities. And for every rise, there is inevitable a fall or two. Nevertheless, it has been an extraordinary turn of events for the Star Trek series, and it is the failures that make the successes all the more sweeter. Therefore, we'll take a look back at all the Star Trek films and rank them from worst to best.
Now, it should be noted that I am simply one man. In this enterprise known as CinemaBlend, I can only speak for myself when it comes to the Star Trek filmography, and I can assure you that my picks will not always be conventional. Don't fret. Feel free to voice your own picks in the comment section at the bottom of the page, and we can disagree accordingly there. It is fair to say, though, that my picks won't always match up with common perceptions of the film, and I'm especially nervous about one film in particular.
But without further ado, here's how I would rank the Star Trek movies thus far! (Also, expect spoilers for a few of these movies.)
13. Star Trek: Generations (1994)
On paper, Star Trek: Generations has fantastic potential. A chance to mold the past, the present and the future in this futuristic sci-fi series, the seventh Star Trek movie is the only one to feature both original cast members and The Next Generation crew. The latter, having recently concluded its TV run, finally made its first journey onto the big screen, and it would allow fans —old and new —to come together to celebrate an epic Star Trek experience.
Oh, what could've been. Generations, which finds Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) joining forces in order to bring down an intergalactic bad guy hoping to destroy a planet, is an exciting idea in theory, and it could've been something truly special if it were done well. But the poor screenplay, mixed with a rushed and manufactured feel, resulted in an unsatisfying end for one of the most iconic characters in science-fiction history, and a similarly disappointing big-screen foray for our Next Generation crew. Just a big bummer all-around.
12. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
The late '70s were a different time. The public's perception of sci-fi was painted by one of Stanley Kubrick's masterpieces, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it was clearly an influence on a number of films after its run. That includes Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first foray for the television series to make it on the big screen, and the filmmakers clearly wanted to make it into a spectacle. The film certainly fills out the screen, to its credit, in a big way.
But alas, without the same meaningful commentary and intellectual insights to the psyche of man and its relationship with advancements, technology and machines, particularly at the brink of evolution, you get a painful dull movie (and a weirdly hyper-sexual one too), with no clear sense of plotting or structure that's an absolute slog to endure. Star Trek: The Motion Picture follows the Enterprise as they attempt to discover the hidden powers of an unknowable alien intent on destroying planet Earth. That could've been interesting, but as a pale imitation —at best — of a great film, it's hard to sit through its hyper-slow orbit through space.
11. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Unlike the original Star Trek crew, The Next Generation never found the same success on the big screen. While there were some box office highlights and one or two movies that broke through the mold, these were the exceptions rather than the norm. Unfortunately, Star Trek: Nemesis, the final Next Generation film, not only ended the franchise on a whimper, but also stalled plans to make another Star Trek film until Paramount decided to reboot in 2009.
The premise is kooky enough that, in the right terms, it could've been a lot of fun. The Next Generation team is dealing with a threat to the United Federation of Planets from Shinzon (Tom Hardy), a clone of Captain Picard, who takes control of the Roman Star Empire. It's goofy, but it's also not the worst idea for a late-in-the-game Star Trek movie.
Unfortunately, unlike the thoughtful and nuanced television series, The Next Generation movies are often uniformly dumb, and not in a campy, silly sort of way. They're more annoying than charming, and that is no exception here. But it is fun to see Tom Hardy in such an early role in his career. Thankfully, it's safe to say that things worked out for the British actor in the long run, despite this big hiccup.
10. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
While he's an easy person to imitate and make fun of, there's no denying that William Shatner's acting carries a weirdly charming charisma. It's formal, in a very theatrical sort of way, yet it's incredibly captivating and often likably sincere. It's the sort of campy showmanship that drove the original 1960s series into the hearts of science-fiction lovers everywhere. The show (and the Enterprise) wouldn't have the same magnetism without him at the helm.
That said, William Shatner's direction leaves a lot to be desired. After four movies, and his co-star Leonard Nimoy commendably calling the shots on the last two, Shatner's ego got in the way and he decided it was his time to be in the director's chair with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The results, sadly, weren't particularly great.
While I'd (tentatively) argue that this fourth sequel, which follows the Enterprise in the search for God at the center of the galaxy with a renegade, might have more going for it than its reputation might suggest (including an intriguing brainwashing scene that shows that Shatner might've had some promise as a director if he tried it a few more times), it's unfortunately as stilted as a half-hearted Shatner imitation, and it doesn't have the fun you would hope to find in the series after the last few exciting adventures. It's an sadly middling film, and not worth searching for.
9. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Alright, this is the point where my list officially becomes controversial — depending on how you felt about the last few films, admittedly. While Star Trek: First Contact is the most critically acclaimed Next Generation movie and one of the most financially successful in the series, this eight Star Trek movie is better than Star Trek: Generations, but it never matches the success of its predecessors — even if it once again brings time-travel into the Trek fold.
First Contact brings The Next Generation crew to the year 2063, specifically the day of Earth's first encounter with alien life, in order to prevent first contact from the opposing Borgs. The Borgs were always a fan favorite from the series, and there is more energy and life in this new film than there were in the past couple Star Trek movies prior — including a stunning and memorable opening dream sequence.
But Jonathan Frakes, in his feature directorial debut, is not able to make the smoothest transition into blockbuster filmmaking, with awkward tonal shifts and some baffling story decisions getting in the way of admittedly strong action sequences. First Contact is not the worst, by any means, but it's ultimately not quite as strong as people make it out to be.
8. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Admittedly, Star Trek: Insurrection is not a great film. It's corny, wonky, notably cheaper after the more cinematic First Contact and not without its own story problems. But of all the Next Generation movies, Insurrection is the one that, for my money, is the closest to capturing the charm and wit of the spinoff series. I don't expect a lot of people to agree with me on this one, and that's perfectly okay. But I would put it a smidge above First Contact.
In Insurrection, the Enterprise discover a conspiracy with the species Son'a to steal a peaceful planet known as Ba'ku for its rejuvenating properties. It is a silly plot with some environmentalism thrown in, and it does feel a lot more contained and corny compared to the more robustly action-packed First Contact. But I think that's what makes it appealing to me. More than any other Next Generation movie, Insurrection feels like an extension of the series that inspired this spin-off series, and it's the only one that feels like it fits in the perimeters the show made. It also has Picard doing the mambo.
7. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)
Following the triumphant success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock had a lot to prove. With the television series finally making a great transition onto the big screen, this second sequel had a chance to make or break the foundation being formed. It was critical for Star Trek's longevity that this film worked. Thankfully, it did. Although, it's safe to note that, between II and IV, it does not have the same success.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock had an interesting proposition: how could it backtrack from the most emotionally-impacting moment in the series, the death of Spock, and justify it while still holding true to its tenants. The result, which as the title suggest, finds the Enterprise hoping to bring Spock back to his Vulcan form as his spirit is revealed to be lodged in the mind of Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley).
As a Star Trek movie, it's a pretty enjoyable one, filled with a nice mix of action, pathos and humor. As a sequel to The Wrath of Khan, however, it is a bit underwhelming. In the end, it's a commendably decent Star Trek adventure, if one that never quite reaches the highest highs or the lowest lows of the extensive film franchise.
6. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Once again, I'm making a fairly controversial statement here, as far as Star Trek lore is concerned. But I have to be honest, I think Star Trek Into Darkness is a totally enjoyable slice of cinematic cheese. It's filled with great spectacles, a terrific sense of pacing, some good jokes, some strong performances and a great deal of energy. But where it ultimately falls short — and this is a big, very crucial error — is being a good Star Trek movie.
When discussing director J.J. Abrams' one-and-only Star Trek sequel to date, there are two factors at play: how does it work as a blockbuster and how does it work as a continuation of this new, freshly-rebooted Star Trek series. To me, it does succeed in the first category, while completely falling short in the second camp, which is why I believe it is so controversial to suggest that Into Darkness holds any real merit.
The sequel retraces the steps of The Wrath of Khan by making Benedict Cumberbatch a more malicious, vindictive variation of Star Trek's most notorious foe. It's far from the strongest idea for a sequel, and it only makes itself look inferior to such a great film. But through its burst of energy, well-shot action, visual splendors from engaging set pieces and another pair of strong performances from Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, you have the weigh the good and the bad. I ultimately like it.
5. Star Trek Beyond (2016)
With J.J. Abrams stepping out of the director's chair to focus on another sci-fi galaxy, this one far, far away, director Justin Lin (Fast Five, Furious 6) took over the directorial reigns, which many fans assumed would spell out more action and less contemplative science-fiction. But surprisingly, Star Trek Beyond is the film that's the closest to what Star Trek used to be: a thoughtful, character-driven sci-fi exploration into what it means to live with others.
Sure, there are action and stunts galore. But Star Trek Beyond is a notably much more contained sequel, one that harkens back to the fundamentals of the series in a way that feels more respectful to the material than the previous sequel. A lot of the credit should likely go to screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, a pair of Star Trek fans who wanted to make a sequel they wanted to see on the big screen and which continues the communal spirit of Star Trek actors taking over creative reigns on the series.
They seem to get the property, crafting a story that feels like an extension of the Star Trek of yesteryear, while still promising that this franchise can go to bold new places. It also features Chris Pine's best Star Trek work to date (maybe ever) and it makes shockingly excellent use of Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." The result is a strangely bittersweet and lovely reminder of what Star Trek can be for a new generation.
4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Following the underwhelming response to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the producers decided to return the keys to the man who made the film series what it was once before: Nicolas Meyer. The screenwriter/director is the main reason why Star Trek became a cinematic treasure with The Wrath of Khan, and it was surprising that it took Paramount this long to bring him back to the fold. It's better late than never, as this movie would suggest.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country isn't quite as strong as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but it's nevertheless a commendably well-crafted send-off to the series, before the producers would get too cocky and mess everything up again with Star Trek: Generations. The final film to feature the entire original cast, there is a somber, melancholy feel to this particular Star Trek adventure.
It does feel like the end, at least to a moderate extent. And the story, which finds the Enterprise racing to stop conspirators with a militaristic agenda, does have more to say, thematically, than the past couple films. It's not quite as quotable or iconic as the last Star Trek film under Meyer's helm, but it's still quite a solid film. If only they left things well enough alone.
3. Star Trek (2009)
After the disappointing slew of films based on The Next Generation, it was apparent that Star Trek needed a facelift. At this point, Star Trek was becoming a franchise where old people were running around trying to perform stunts they shouldn't be doing for their own health and safety. It was clear that the series needed a way to appeal to a younger, more energetic crowd. Something that could make Star Trek a little more accessible again.
While there are many folks who object to what Star Trek did with the franchise, there is no doubt that Star Trek was the kick in the pants that was needed at this point. It made Star Trek fun again, in a major way, with a return to the characters we loved with an excited crew of young actors — all of whom provide some engaging, enjoyable performances that feel just enough like impressions to respect their elders while still giving them a bit of their own spin to make them individual to their new performers.
Along with hot young director J.J. Abrams taking the helm, Star Trek (2009) became the enthusiastic return-to-form that the franchise has needed for a long, long time. Even if the following two sequels did not quite match its same success.
2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek has always prided itself on focusing on a brighter utopia of a future, one that humanity should hope to strive for as we live out our days. That promise has been filled in many different respects, though we still have a long ways to go before we will ever board our own Starship Enterprises. In any case, what if Star Trek was able to move forward while also going back in time? It's an intriguing premise, and one done well with their fourth film.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a curious little movie. Once again directed by Leonard Nimoy, who helmed Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the film finds the Enterprise going back to then-modern day 1986, where the space crew finds themselves fishes out of water in order to protect the extinct hunchback whales. It is a wacky movie, and one that could've easily fallen flat if this sequel wasn't easily the funniest film in the Star Trek series.
One of the first times in which Star Trek aimed for full accessibility, the result is a splashy good bit of fun, while still respecting the integrity of the franchise and promising the hope of a brighter future — if we come together and fight the fight towards preservation and harmony. It's a great tribute to optimism.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
What else could we put at the top of this list? Is there any film that comes close to topping this Star Trek adventure? Whether it comes to action, high stakes, thrills, suspense or emotion, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the finest film Star Trek has to offer, and it might remain that way for a long time.
Easily the most quotable and heavily-referenced film in the franchise, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan takes a page or two from Moby Dick to tell a tale of formidable opponents fighting against one another in the great recesses of space and time. Yet, this is the first Star Trek movie to really drive home the humanity of this space-based adventure, capturing one of William Shatner's best performances beat only by Richardo Montalban's title villain.
It is also the only Star Trek film to truly understand that in order to win, you must also lose. The needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few. It is these sacrifices, while in the desire to do good and preserve what must be righteous, that makes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the greatest Star Trek.
Again, I should note that I know these picks won't meet everyone's fancy, and that's okay! I'm just one guy. There are so many Star Trek movies out there that there are a wide array of list options to be made. This is only one. But if you would like to voice your own picks, feel free to comment below on what you think is the best (and worst) that Star Trek has offered to the silver screen.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.