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To Go Boldly Where No Critic Has Gone Before: Ranking the ‘Star Trek’ Films

The release of Star Trek (2009) not only reinvigorated Gene Roddenberry’s successful science fiction franchise, it also helped deliver a one-two punch to what had been an unwritten cinematic law: even-numbered Trek movies tend to be blockbuster hits, but odd-numbered ones are unapologetic box office bombs. The first blow to what had always been a shaky maxim came when the tenth movie in the series, Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) stank up theaters more than a wet tribble on a hot day, so much so that it put the movie series in a coma for seven years. The finisher came four years ago in the form of J.J. Abrams’ reboot. Number eleven in the series, it earned almost universal praise and grossed $385 million worldwide — more than the highest gross for any other Trek movie. With Star Trek Into Darkness on the immediate horizon, we decided to take the opportunity to compose an unofficial and very unscientific ranking of the ten that came before Abrams’ reboot:

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). The sequel to an episode of the original series, the first Trek sequel provided the quintessential combination of character-based melodrama, humor, and action that had been missing from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. William Shatner’s over-acting is actually dwarfed by the massive pecs of Ricardo Montalban, whose performance still stands as the best Trek villain ever. Director Nicholas Meyer deftly handles a literate sci-fi adventure-thriller and caps it with the unthinkable: the death of a lead character.

2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). Meyer also wrote and directed this, the last outing of the original cast, and in the process managed to redeem the franchise after the fiasco of Star Trek V (see below). Nimbly touching on themes tied in to the then-recent end of the Cold War, it’s a tense political thriller full of references to Shakespeare wrapped in the guise of gaudy space opera; the result is a graceful swan song for the original crew and the last truly satisfying Trek for the better part of 20 years.

3. Star Trek: First Contact (1996). The Next Generation cast gets to stand on its own for the first time (with actor Jonathan Frakes doing double duty as director), with nary a cameo or bit part from other installments to be seen. Time travel is used for the umpteenth time, but in a more satisfying way as the crew is for to save the future as trekkers know it from fan favorite villains, the Borg. The shiny new Enterprise-E is sleek and sexy, as is Alice Krige as the Borg queen, a space babe hotter than a green-skinned Orion pole dancer.

4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Roddenberry and Co. opted to go more cerebral with the first big-screen Trek — perhaps an attempt to avoid comparison to Star Wars by veering closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wasn’t what fans wanted at the time, but that’s no reason for it to go underappreciated. It’s stately (read: slow) and the “villain” — a nigh-omnipotent being with a cryptic mission — leaves little room for narrative movement; but, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is a classic and Dalton Trumbull’s visual effects are eye-popping, including the gruesome transporter malfunction scene and Spock’s “It’s full of stars” spacewalk sequence. Still not convinced? Check out the touched-up DVD release of the expanded version.

5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). Tired of donning pointy ears and playing Spock, Leonard Nimoy stepped behind the camera for most of this one, and he does an admirable job, though the series’ most dynamic character is sorely missed. The numerous well-staged set pieces — the crew busting Bones out of the brig, committing grand theft starship, and an old-fashioned brawl on a disintegrating planet, and the “death” of the starship Enterprise herself — plus Christopher Lloyd’s scene-chewing turn as the main villain make this a much under-appreciated flick. The murder of Kirk’s son, though hammed-up by Shatner, is heart-wrenching.

6. Star Trek: Generations (1994). The plot is hokey but the thrills deliver, and this first big screening outing for the Next Gen crew proved to be an adequate torch-passer. It’s not exactly compelling, but the stakes (and characterizations) are kicked up a notch, and Malcolm McDowell makes for a scene-stealing greatness as the main villain as he goes about torturing, killing, quoting Delmore Schwartz, and committing the unthinkable as he effectively murders James T. Kirk.

7. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Considered the best in the “classic” series of movies for some unfathomable reason, as it is bland beyond belief. Nimoy directs again, returning to the overused time travel plot device (achieved by going really really fast and then flipping a U-turn around the sun). The bulk of the story is set in contemporary San Francisco, it what feels more like a cost-cutting measure than anything else, and the clash of heroes from the future with 20th-century urban America has been done death before and since. The eco-friendly save-the-whales plotline is intriguing, but the movie is just too precious as a whole.

8. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998). A decidedly mixed outing that attempted to inject a little more life into the now-creaky franchise with a very appropriate, light-hearted plot that has the middle-aged Next Gen crew protecting a Shangri-La planet and its ageless inhabitants from a renegade Starfleet admiral (Anthony Zerbe) and a devious madman (a scenery-chewing F. Murray Abraham). Only the humor keeps it from feeling like a routine episode of the original series puffed-up for the big screen.

9. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). The movie that brought forth the question “is this the end of Star Trek?”. By this point, there had been nine feature films and six TV series, and the cracks were beginning to show. Plodding, uninspired, predictable, and over-familiar to even passing fans, Nemesis brought nothing new to the table, despite the intriguing premise of a young clone of Picard leading a rebellious off-shoot alien race. “Hell is dark” intones Commander Riker at one point, and one wonders if he was referring to the auditoriums that screened this dog.

10. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). William Shatner writes for and directs himself in a feature for the first time. The result: Kirk, Spock, and Bones sing campfire songs, a 60ish Uhura does a very unkinky fan dance, and Spock’s unhinged Vulcan brother hijacks the Enterprise and goes looking for God. Any one of the above is enough to earn this one the bottom slot. Proof positive that in space no one can hear you yawn.

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About Gary Dowell

Professional film critic, journalist, Byronic hero.

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