Star Trek at the movies. A mixed bag to be sure, as are the different series we’ve been treated to over the last five decades, some are great, other are terrible, and some sit somewhere in between. Thirteen films. That’s pretty impressive for any franchise, Star Trek has evolved over time, changing what the final frontier truly means.
Now, I consider the top 3 to be largely interchangeable, going in a different order depending on which day of the week it is. In my mind, they’re all ‘Number 1’.
1. The Undiscovered Country
Perhaps not the film you were expecting at no.1? TUC was the final film for the original crew, and although several of them did reprise their roles in later films and TV series, this genuinely feels like a goodbye. But what a film to go out on, a brilliant villain in Christopher Plummer’s General Chang, a vicious but fun space battle, and most importantly TUC is Trek with something to say.
The central themes of TUC revolve around getting older and letting go of your prejudices, those that you’ve held all your life, such as Kirk’s hatred for the Klingons. It examines racism, and our willingness to help those who are different from us, people who might hold differing values but need help all the same. Kirk response to hearing the Klingon race will become extinct is “Let them die!”, which may not sound very heroic, but it is real and true to the character.
2. First Contact
First Contact is the rarest of Treks. It looks and feels like a big screen adventure, not just an extended episode, it is epic and cinematic from the moment it begins. The space battle against the Borg Cube is the stuff of Star Trek fans dreams, the reveal of the new Enterprise in its glory. But more than that, FC is different because it plays out like a horror film, it is easily the least child friendly Trek movie, the Borg making a terrifying reappearance, along the somewhat sultry Borg Queen. As a film it works on every level, as Star Trek it offers everything, delving into the past, but still our future, it is a film of two halves. One half is set aboard the Enterprise, and the other on Earth, trying to save their own history. A great character piece for Picard and Data, with everyone getting something to do and memorable moments. It is also one of the most accessible films in the franchise. If only the two TNG films that followed were able to keep a tenth of FC’s quality and scope, they might have rivaled the TOS movie series, instead we just this amazing entry.
3. Wrath of Khan
What is there to say about Wrath of Khan that hasn’t already been said? It is the emotional core of the franchise in every way, giving us one of the all time greatest on screen deaths, and a wonderful performance from William Shatner who silenced all of his critics by showing Kirk’s vulnerable side. WOK saved Star Trek, made it a success among fans and critics alike, bringing everything fans loved about TOS and giving it a budget and the big screen treatment the show deserved. What really makes WOK spark is the villain, Trek will likely never top Khan as an antagonist, so important and consuming to the narrative, it is surprising that Kirk and Khan never actually share any screen time. This is a film where you feel every phaser blast and photon torpedo, with a truly unforgettable climax that J.J Abrams sadly chose to revisit many years later.
Of all the Star Trek films I have encountered, this was the most… human!
4. The Voyage Home
“Captain! There be whales here!”
The Voyage Home has possibly the zaniest plot of any of the movies and arguably of the franchise as a whole, but it manages to create possibly the most fun adventure in all of their 50 years. Travelling back to the 1980s to rescue to humpback whales (George and Gracie!) to take them back to the future and stop an alien probe from destroying earth by devastating the oceans. See? I said it was crazy. The film plays out as a comedy in a lot of ways, and it is still incredibly funny, seeing the Enterprise crew displaced by more than 200 years, in a world all too familiar to us. The Voyage Home is a blast from start to finish, and a good entry point to the franchise for those who claim they don’t like Sci-Fi.
5. Star Trek
Everyone was dubious. The long rumoured reboot was upon us, we’d known for years that the studio were despearate to reboot the series with younger versions of Kirk, Spock and Co. Long term fans were worried, and while it didn’t resonate with some fans, Star Trek 2009 delivered an amazing thrillride and alternate take on a universe we know and love. The reason for this success came down to two things, J.J Abrams imbued it with a sense of energy and pace we simply hadn’t seen before, but more importantly, what made ST09 work is the brand new cast.
Chris Pine wasn’t the obvious choice for Kirk but he made it his own by taking the qualities of the character and not doing a caricature of William Shatner, that simply wouldn’t have worked. Karl Urban is pitch perfect as McCoy, Quinto as Spock bordered on eerie at times, and the rest of the cast are equally great. The inclusion of Leonard Nimoy and the fact that this wasn’t quite the reboot we were expecting, the old timeline remains intact and we’ll see it again. Charming, exciting and kinda sexy, this was a whole new frontier.
6. Star Trek Beyond
The newest of the movie franchise and it is sitting near the middle of my list. Hopes weren’t high for this, with J.J Abrams having jumped ship to a galaxy far, far away, and Fast & Furious director Justin Lin taking over the helm, rumour of extensive reshoots and constant script and writer changes, the signs were not good. And yet, they managed quite possibly the most exciting Trek to date, the standout sequence being the total destruction of Enterprise, which was awesome and spectacular. Again, the Kelvin timeline suffers from a lame villain and the motorbike scenes were a touch unnecessary. Beyond manages to be a great character study, Chris Pine’s Kirk is the standout here, we see the realities of longhaul space travel and the true dangers it would hold. While it hasn’t set the box office on fire, Paramount have already confirmed a 4th film in this alternate universe and I suspect it will be the last.
7. The Motion Picture
Yup. Here it is. What so many have dubbed the ‘Slow Motion’ picture. And while it’s true this is hard an action flick or particularly fast paced, it is pure Trek. Thoughtful, contemplative and intelligent.
It must have been jarring for audiences at the time, this serious science fiction film felt nothing like the Original Series they’d come to love in re-runs.
I urge anyone with a low opinion to go back and watch it again. Because it might be the most visually beautiful Trek we ever see, the designs of V’ger and that 5 minute spectacular tour around the new Enterprise set to the amazing score. There won’t ever be a Trek film like this again. It is a worthy addition to the movie franchise and the franchise as a whole. TMP isn’t the film you remember, it’s gorgeous and clever.
Placing Generations this high was something I struggled with, on a lot of levels it doesnt work and feels like a slightly bigger budget tv movie. However, it has an ace up its sleeve, as TNG did for 7 years previous, Patrick Stewart’s fantastic performance. He anchors the film in a sadness and weakness we often don’t see, the tragic death of his only family sets Picard on a journey through this story that in turn sets him on a collision course with James T. Kirk himself. The meeeting between legends, Kirk and Picard, feels a little tacked on and forced, and of course it is, but there’s still a great pleasure as a fan seeing them together.
A very memorable opening sequence aboard the Enterprise B sets up a film that is clearly passing the torch, a nice gesture but the torch had been passed some time before.
We also get to see the Enterprise destroyed, a ship we have come to learn to love like a friend. But as Picard tells Riker in the closing moments, “I doubt this will be the last ship to bear the name ‘Enterprise'”.
9. Into Darkness
This film gets a lot of grief from fans. Some of it probably deserved. But…. Not all of it. ID is glorious looking film with a great cast and some fantastic action sequences. Fans and critics often say Trek should be allegoric, filled with real world current day issues, and they also say that ID is a film that has nothing important to say. They couldn’t be more wrong, because it has plenty to say, the subtext of a newly militarised Starfleet certainly plays into our reality, as does the notion of surveillance and drone strikes, the morality of modern warfare. However, I can see the complaints too, Benedict Cumberbatch makes for an imposing villain but he should not have been *Spoilers* Khan. And there were too many callbacks and ‘homages’ to the older film, and all too many plot conveniences. We will never forget the SUPER BLOOD.
10. The Search for Spock
There’s a simple problem with Search for Spock, it fails to be memorable. It features the death of Kirk’s son, the resurrection of Spock, the destruction of Genesis and the Enterprise itself for the first time on screen. And yet, none of it makes much of an impact to the viewer. It’s a strange film too, parts of it felt like it was trying to be Star Wars.
11. The Final Frontier
Unfortunately, we all remember this one for the wrong reasons. Directed by William Shatner, TFF is a film full of big ideas and questions, it should have been a grand adventure with its themes of faith. But it turned out to be a dreadful mess on almost every level. Certain scenes are filled with charm and the final confrontation between Kirk and ‘God’ is everything you’d hope it would be. Not the worst Trek but it does come extremely hard to recommend.
Insurrection is Trek on autopilot, with a plot that feels like it was lifted from the bin in TNG’s writers room. It adds nothing to the franchise, the action sequences are poorly done and lack excitiement, the plot twist easily identified from the get go, sub-par villains, goofy comedy and a tone that felt like you were watching a kids movie. Now, Trek should be for everyone of all ages, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a more child friendly film especially considering this follows the horror elements that made First Contact the classic it is, but it is done so badly here. Nothing about Insurrection works, the kindest thing I can think of to say is that it appears like the actors enjoyed making it.
The big stinker as far as I’m concerned. Again, it was a case of all the right elements being mixed into a complete mess of a film. This was to be The Next Generation crew’s swansong, their final film appearance. And the creators were clearly going for a Wrath of Khan vibe, failing miserably at every level. It’s genuinely sad to watch, everyone is going through the motions. A bizarre rape subplot felt horrendously out of place, and while the final space battle teeters on exciting once or twice, the product as a whole doesn’t work. The main plot involves a clone of Picard, played by now superstar Tom Hardy, and a duplicate of Data. There are themes running through the movie and it does have something to say, but the message is so lost in amongst the terrible plot and writing that it might as well not be there. A real shame that Picard and his crew ended on such a sour note.
Thanks to a delightfully helpful press release we already have a good idea of where the next Star Trek film is going, with Chris Hemsworth confirmed to be returning as George Kirk, we can guess there will be time travel involved.
Probably not whales this time though, but I really, really hope there is.