The Star Trek Movies ranked from Worst to Best
This website doesn’t usually do lists. However we have been posting a lot of Dreaded Backlogs of late, so I thought I’d do something a bit unusual and different relative to this website, that is actually similar to all the other websites…
STAR TREK. The greatest television science fiction franchise and one of the most middling film franchises. There are a few good ones, some distinctly alright ones that are glorified TV movies and the bad and the absolutely terrible ones. ‘Are there any GREAT Star Trek movies?’ is a topic for another time. My list will comprise all of the original films, the Next Gen films and the ‘Kelvin-verse’ films (formerly known as ‘Abrams-verse’).
I will judge the films by decent reviewing standards: How well do they set out at what they intend to do? And what artistic/entertainment merits do they have beyond those initial parameters? However I will also pay lip service to what makes Star Trek good, most of the meat of ‘good Trek‘ is on TV. So before we begin, what made Star Trek good on TV? A sense of fun between friends and comrades, ethical dilemmas solved by duty bound Federation morals and action and adventure done intelligently when justified by the narrative. Let’s begin…after two disclaimers…
Disclaimer: My preference for the shows (to contextualise what kinda Trek fan I am) from worst to best is: Voyager, Animated, Enterprise, Original Series, Next Gen and my favourite is DS9.)
Disclaimer: Wrath of Khan is not in the number one spot. I am not being deliberately contrarian. Deal with it.
13. The Final Frontier
This isn’t just the worst Star Trek film, it’s the worst popular science fiction film ever made. It is worse than the Star Wars prequels.
The crew of the USS Enterprise are press ganged by criminals into their quest to find God. Spoiler: In the atheistic Star Trek franchise it turns out God(s) isn’t real. More than this Spock is also presented with a brother called Sybok who was never mentioned before. Now none of the above is bad in itself, however the execution is dreadful in almost every way.
William Shatner directed this. The film has pacing issues. The scenes are either blandly overlit or underlit. The acting is cringey and the action is worse. The visual effects were hampered by behind the scenes problems and look like they came from a pre-Star Wars cinema world. The cheese and dialogue came from a separate reality entirely.
This film does however have one gem. The scene when Kirk must reject Sybok’s brainwashing by refusing to let go of the pain that defines him. Shatner completely nails this one scene. Suspiciously the best scene in the film is the power house moment for the star who is directing.
The Star Trek TV shows tended to avoid fan service crossovers. Characters from one show only met characters from another show when it was justified by the logic of the world (for the most part). And that was when the shows were set at the same time, let alone a crossover with Captain James T. Kirk meeting Captain Jean-Luc Picard, characters whose lives are separated by multiple decades.
Generations has its legends meet very far into its run time, essentially at the beginning of the final act. They have two brief conversations before a climax where they mostly remain separate. This underwhelming approach is because Generations is supposed to also serve as a introduction of the Next Gen crew to a wider audience and to be their first cinematic adventure. Generations is a result of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
The concept of the magical ‘Nexus’ is distinctly not Trek and its rules (it can take you to any time period you want) create plot holes and nonsensical character decisions. Then there’s the fact that the Enterprise from Next Gen is destroyed and Picard’s family are all killed in a fire (off screen). Data’s character is also somewhat ruined by his gaining an ’emotion chip’ removing all depth to his ‘real but not, but kinda’ status as a sentient being. Next Gen asked us ‘can a being without emotions be considered sentient?’ and Generations told us ‘Nah mate, just give him an emotion chip.’
Also the film is boring as fuck and drops a dozen different plot threads. There’s a nice bit where Picard (the intellectual) and Kirk (the man of action) use their disparate approaches in tandem to save the day and that’s kinda cool.
11. Search for Spock
If you blink you will miss this film. It’s short, too short even. Often this sort of economical plotting can lead to a thrilling adventure film. However the adventure in this film is the crew steal a ship, turn up at a planet and then have an awkward punch up.
Spock is dead, but he might have been resurrected due to science fiction stuff. The crew aren’t allowed to go after him and so they rebel. Kirk’s son then dies and so does the Enterprise. It all happens so fast that none of it matters. The economical pacing creates a cold and rapid experience that even memories of past films cannot enhance. Spock has a painful resurrection, but he is played by child versions of himself so it is hard to connect. Kirk’s son was only introduced to us and Kirk in the previous film.
This film is most like the Next Gen film series in that it seems like a glorified television movie. Perhaps that’s why all the concepts in the film feel like a good Original Series episode with all the ideas simplified to the point of stupidity.
The best part of this film is its length and also the fact that it can be useful to explain to faux film nerds that practical special effects can be worse than computer generated visual effects. I am pretty sure Kirk’s sort of climactic fight with a Klingon happened on an ITV Jungle Run set.
I don’t actually mind Nemesis. It’s a fun watch. There’s better action than any Trek film had until 2009. It’s Star Trek turned into action dumb. The problem is that the film was supposed to serve as the end of the Next Gen, DS9 and Voyager era. It was also a goodbye to Picard and the Next Gen crew.
Essentially Romulus has a moon called Remus (ergh) that we’ve never been told about before. A clone of Picard (amusingly enough played by a pre-breakout Tom Hardy) leads the prisoners of Remus against the Romulans before wanting to kill Picard because of clone jealousy or something. It’s dumb.
Picard-Clone also has a psychic sidekick who telepathically rapes Counsellor Troi. That in itself isn’t damning until her well-being is dropped in favour of a revenge plot for her husband William Riker. Aside from the sexist tropey crap, this is also out of character for Riker. Then there’s the fact that Picard is guilty about his evil clone so he decides he needs to take responsibility for the situation himself. Which rather than being an interesting exploration of how leadership works, is in fact a weak justification to have Picard do the ‘this is something I have to do myself’ action film bollocks.
One has to wonder if Paramount just wanted to make an action science fiction film and used the Star Trek brand to try and sell it. So yeah, it’s shit, but fun.
This is the best two-part Next Gen action epic ever…wait…this was released in cinemas?
Yeah, this film is fine. Characters do alright and plot necessitates a surprisingly muscular Picard being cool. He even gets laid. It’s got a good hook in the form of Data going haywire and revealing the Federation to a planet’s indigenous population. There’s some fun action bits and it’s nice to be around the gang again. So why does it feel like a TV Movie?
It just does. The money has been spent and you can see it up on the screen. The problem is that it is just like a Next Gen two-parter. There is a corrupt Starfleet Admiral (again), a simplified ethical dilemma and visually simple action. As far as I can work out the film feels like TV because it simply isn’t very cinematic. Everything is done as simply as it could be done.
Oh well, at least the film gives us an insight into the fears of Starfleet in the aftermath of the destructive Dominion War from DS9.
8. The Motion Picture
Good Star Trek is about adventure, ideas, ethical situations and the mysteries of space. The Motion Picture has all of this in buckets. I actually love this film, even though it is incredibly slow.
The Motion Picture is famous (or infamous to some) for its gratuitous reveal sequence of the Enterprise and then the sequence when entering the V’Ger cloud. The latter goes on forever. But I love it. It’s like nothing else in cinema. It still holds up well today. The film manages to evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey without ripping it off. It also reminds me of the fears of the unknown that Alien would later serve up. There is something undoubtedly epic when Spock tries to connect with the immensity that is V’Ger. And ultimately the payoff to the adventure is a clever and cool twist.
My only real issues with The Motion Picture is the lack of character and the amount of grey on screen. The ship is grey inside and out and so are the uniforms.
7. Into Darkness
Here we fucking go…
Look. This film has massive issues and it is deeply frustrating how close to being good it is. The film is such a profound misunderstanding of Star Trek and even the same creative team’s previous Star Trek film.
The thing is I have already gone into great detail why it fails at doing almost everything it sets out to do. So I am not doing it again.
Instead I’ll list what I like about this film: Chris Pine is good. The film has visual flair. The pacing is solid and at least it has some ideas, even if they’re a bit wanky. The soundtrack is still great. I also really like the bit when they go undercover on Qo’noS and get deep into the shit.
And to all those people who recently voted this to be the worst Star Trek film…seriously? Look above…
Although I am angry at Into Darkness for killing wider enthusiasm for the reboot series resulting in the fantastic Star Trek Beyond not getting a great box office turnout.
6. The Voyage Home
This film is fun isn’t it? It’s also funny? “A double dumbass on you!” and so on. Star Trek is allowed to do comedy, it’s part of the franchise’s ability to tell a variety of stories.
The plot is simple: Mysterious aliens will destroy the Earth because a species of whale is extinct. Thus the crew of the late Enterprise take a Klingon Bird of Prey back in time to find some whales to bring to the future. (No one ever brings up that they might be aiding a bootstrap paradox.)
The ship that is threatening the Earth is able to swallow up the Earth, so it’s safe to say it’s dumb how big it is. It’s not Star Trek. But once you get past that (which the film rushes to do) you have a brisk and broad comedy film. The comedy is perhaps a little broad, but this film has great family appeal, something Trek has a grand history of dishing out. The environmental themes are very heavy handed, but who cares when their heart is in the right place? Ethics are very Star Trek.
It’s also funny when Scotty tries to use a mouse as a microphone.
5. First Contact
Another time travel story, but also a Borg invasion story.
The Borg are invading Earth! Picard and the Enterprise is denied to help in the defence of the planet due to his past of being one of them! The film opens on a nightmare proving Picard has some PTSD remaining from the Borg!
These are all good elements. Picard has a nice little arc in this film. I’ve heard the argument that Picard got over his Borg hate during the main Next Gen series, but all he ever did was learn to not want to execute a former Borg who became human, so fuck that argument. This scene is great.
Picard rebels against his orders and saves the Earth from the Borg. This is all just the first act. Then a mini-Borg ship escapes and goes back in time with the Enterprise managing to follow it back before they are wiped from history. The setting is the invention of the warp drive, not long after the Eugenics wars (which amusingly Voyage Home chooses to not bring up), but long before The Federation is founded. There the crew must save the Enterprise from Borg infestation whilst keeping the creators of the Warp Drive alive, amongst other time travel balancing acts.
The film is solid. It’s fun and it’s solid. It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s nice to have an adventure that has amusing bits with the characters. It also holds up well under its own time travel logic. It’s a little annoying that the Borg have a Queen (who is a seductive demon trope type) which removes the fear of the Borg as being a faceless mass, but it does allow the film to do some interesting stuff with the dreadful emotion chip from Generations.
This is the best of the Next Gen films…although that is a very low bar.
4. Star Trek (2009)
How do you reboot an iconic TV show with iconic characters? How do you do it in a way that changes the energy and tone of the franchise and makes the characters more action-orientated versions of themselves? You have a Romulan ship from the post-Next Gen film era go back in time and kill Captain Kirk’s father then later destroy Vulcan, thus creating an alternate timeline to the original universe. And it actually worked and as a summer tent pole action film without being confusing too.
J.J. Abrams is not always my cup of tea, but he is great at rebooting or starting things. Just look at how all his TV shows are addictive right off the bat, albeit it with poor follow through. Abrams had given new life to the Mission: Impossible film series and did the same for Star Trek and later Star Wars.
Now the Original Series crew is younger. Kirk isn’t a Captain, but a rebel who lacks a good father figure with Chris Pine’s charm and humour distracting from a slightly underwritten ‘angry young man’ role. Spock is more unhinged with the loss of his planet. Karl Urban as McCoy is probably the best casting in a reboot ever seen. Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin and Zoe Saldana are also there.
The film has a few science holes and logic holes, but it keeps things moving at a great pace. It also manages to have an ending, where the good guy’s plan to defeat the overwhelming power of a futuristic giant ship, pulls together every set up element in the film, without being dumb or having technobabble.
Star Trek (2oo9) looks and sounds great. It’s infectiously fun. It does ignore the ethics of Star Trek, but it leans right into the adventurous spirit. (It’s also the film that Nemesis was trying and failing to be.)
3. Star Trek Beyond
The most recent outing at the time of writing. It’s also the best Star Trek film in 25 years. If I was slightly younger it would be the best in my life time.
It’s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. The last outing has tanked the popularity of the series. The writer/director has just left the project at the last minute. Two new screenwriters are assigned with limited time and the director is most famous for the wackier Fast and Furious entries. The production not only had to make a third film in a reboot series, but also homage Star Trek‘s 50 year past in a film series that is tonally different. How could a good film come from these production circumstances?
The answer is by having two writers and a director that understand how Star Trek works and how action films work. Beyond‘s action scenes include Kirk distracting an alien stronghold by riding around a motorbike, Kirk sliding down a ship’s hull as it flips over, Kirk flying in antigrav, various laser shootouts and the crew flying a Federation ship off a cliff. Yet it is all narratively justified and done in a way that stays true to Trek. This film keeps it simple: set up and payoff. Action scenes to suit plot, not plot to suit action scenes and characters come first.
What was that plot? An emotionally exhausted Jim Kirk (who has matured into a Shatner-esque Kirk, but with the ability to act, be better written and have a cool new jacket) follows a distress call into a mysterious nebula. There they are besieged by an armada of advanced aliens and The Enterprise is swiftly destroyed. With no ship and most of the crew missing or captured, Kirk must find a way to win. How does he do this? The filmmakers have Kirk do this by taking the essential basis of Star Trek ethics and boiling it down to it’s most sublime form: People should work together to help each other, rather than being people who take advantage of others to gain power.
This is also the first film in the reboot series to take advantage properly of the genius of Karl Urban’s Doctor McCoy, and repeating the Original Series‘ classic comedy pairing of Spock and McCoy. Plus Kirk gets a cool new jacket.
Star Trek Beyond is a perfect blend of the ‘Kelvin-verse’ with the Original Series approach to ethics and character. It has a perfect balance of an ensemble cast and it has the decent use of The Enterprise being destroyed. I also cried at the ‘Old Spock bit’ and enjoyed the nods to the Enterprise TV show as well as wider stuff. It didn’t get porny or cheap like Into Darkness did. Character moments were given breathing room, intelligence was given a chance to speak up, action was coherent and there were no lens flares.
It’s a shame more people didn’t see it…
2. The Wrath of Khan
As much as I loved The Motion Picture, that was not the feeling back in the day. Wrath of Khan is both a course correction and a classic movie. ‘Hornblower in space’ was the remit and that is the result.
In one of the best Original Series’ episodes (Space Seed) James T. Kirk defeats the super-strong and super-intelligent ancient Earth villain Khan Noonien Singh. Through wit, physicality and experience Kirk wins. It is implied Kirk wins because Khan has yet to learn the tactics of modern Starfleet. Khan then asks Kirk to desert his people on a rough and harsh planet, rather than face imprisonment. Kirk respects this and grants the request. However it all goes wrong…
Years later Kirk is getting old. It’s his birthday and he needs glasses. His eyes are so bad even Sci-Fi bollocks cannot fix them. Meanwhile the planet Khan and his people were marooned on has been fucked by Sci-Fi bollocks. He manages to capture a Starfleet vessel and then goes after Kirk for vengeance. Eventually begins a cat-and-mouse game between the two Captains, their crews and their vessels.
The thing that everyone gets wrong about Wrath of Khan is that it is about Khan versus Kirk. It isn’t regardless of the title and the plot. It’s about Kirk getting old. It’s about accepting your limitations (especially age) despite the fact you’ve developed a personality and reputation as a heroic man with no limitations. Kirk is also terrified of death, from old age or being killed. Ultimately Kirk is saved by Spock, a man who is not scared of death. Khan is not really that important. He simply represents a threat from Kirk’s youth that has been spared from the rigours of ageing by his superpowers. In the end Kirk beats Khan simply by using more futuristic battle tactics that Khan was yet to be aware of. He never really ‘bested’ him, he just won as he always does and then the ship starts to malfunction from damage…
So Spock dies so Kirk doesn’t have to, or because it doesn’t even occur to Kirk that someone needs to die to survive. It’s a great scene that works without knowledge of the TV series because the film sets up their friendship well. I won’t repeat the iconic dialogue, this scene (and the film) has a lot. There’s no need to repeat it.
(Although I do feel the need to address the ‘Khhaaaaannnnn!!!’ moment. It’s a famous line, delivered in a hammy and dramatic fashion. It’s become more famous than the context it originated in. That context was Kirk laying it on thick pretending he was screwed, even though The Enterprise was actually fine and he had a plan. People forget the hammy and dramatic nature of the line is part of a deliberate bluff on Kirk’s part. Everyone has forgotten this. Which is why you end up with bad jokes about it and terrible ‘homage’ in Into Darkness.)
However, this film is not the best Star Trek film. It is just ‘Hornblower in Space’, just a solid script that was solidly directed. It isn’t the best cinematic realisation of a great TV franchise…that film is in fact…
1. The Undiscovered Country
What made Star Trek good on TV? A sense of fun between friends and comrades, ethical dilemmas solved by duty bound Federation morals and action and adventure done intelligently when justified by the narrative.
The Undiscovered Country is about the end of an era. It’s the final adventure of the original crew of the Enterprise (involving the original cast in its entirety) and it’s also about the end of the Cold War. We know that the Klingons and Federation find peace in this period from historical references in Next Gen. What we didn’t know was there was a conspiracy to ruin this piece…
ETHICS. The film has them. Kirk hates Klingons but decides to rise above his own admitted racism. Bitter Federation veterans of Klingon wars don’t want peace, but they’re in the Federation so they want to move on. This is all made more inspirational by the fact that Klingon’s moon has blown up, they are weak and defeating them would be easy. The heroes of The Federation rise up against their own morally weak comrades (the conspirators) to come to peace with their long term aggressors, even though they aren’t likely to change any time soon.
We also get to go on one last adventure with the original gang. We get to see their high points, their low points and their hilarious mutual put downs. There is action, but it’s necessitated by the plot. There is a prison escape, brief fistfights and several encounters with a Klingon Bird of Prey that can fire whilst cloaked. The latter of which evokes the ‘submarine combat in space’ battles that has been a staple of the franchise since the Original Series episode Balance of Terror.
The ending is also lovely. We see two ships, with two Captains, head into the sunset. Kirk then reads out the famous ‘Where no man has gone before’ speech, whilst making sure to correct it to ‘no one’ as a nod to progress and to handing the baton onto Next Gen.
The Undiscovered Country is undisputed Star Trek. It’s about forgiving past sins by others and correcting our own. It’s about working together with others for a better world, greed and anger and prejudice be damned. It’s about adventure, but also saving ourselves. But it is also often just about James Tiberius Kirk, Spock, Leonard McCoy, Uhura, Montgomery Scott, Hikaru Sulu, Pavel Chekov and the USS Enterprise.