It’s been a while since I’ve talked about Star Trek around here. Too long, probably. So I’ve decided to dive in with something big, something Trekkies (or Trekkers, your choice) like to fight about: my top 10 list of Star Trek movies. For reference, there are 13. I’ve seen every one of them on the big screen, although the first two were in review theatres as an adult rather than first run as a kid.
Working our way up from the bottom of the list:
Number 10, Nemesis
It’s not a bad movie and the ideas are here, but the whole thing feels like it’s just being phoned in. A big budget for what could have been done as a two-part episode on television. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, but cinematic Trek needs to go bigger than television Trek, and this really didn’t at the time. Could have worked great for an end-of-season cliff-hanger into the next season, but TNG made the move to movies too early. Another two or three seasons on TV would have gone well.
Number 9, The Final Frontier
This has a lot of wonderful character moments in it, but it tried a little to hard for the humour at the expense of a story that had been told before and better in other places, and the special effects felt rushed and sub-standard for the time. A lot like Nemesis, I think this could have done very well with some rewrites as a two-part television episode, but we were a couple of decades too late for that.
Generations was fun at times and I understand the idea was to pass the cinematic torch with a little fan service at seeing the two captains together, but this is a third movie in the franchise that would have done just fine as a two-part episode. If that sound like I’m harping, well… I kind of am. Yes, I want more of the thing that I love when I go to see a movie about it, but I want it to be bigger, to go bolder, and to knock my socks off. Generations gave me a reasonable story with characters I love, but my socks remained un-knocked. And I would make one significant change to the story: there was absolutely no valid story reason to kill René and Robert in the background.
Number 7, Insurrection
For my money, Insurrection is almost the best of the TNG movies. A little handwavium to gives us a Star Trek perspective on how far people might go when they want to live forever. It does what Star Trek is supposed to do, hold a mirror up to ourselves with a morale or a philosophical question and show us we can be better than we are. Throw in a little action here and there to raise the stakes and the tension, and you’ve got Insurrection.
Number 6, The Motion Picture
Really, Lance? The Motionless Picture is this high on your top 10. Yes. Yes, it is. TMP is a good story that suffered from significant production issues and an overabundance of drawn out special effects. Watch the Director’s Edition and a bunch of that gets fixed (I’m looking forward to the 4K edition of that to show me what the colour palette was really like). The big reason, though, without the character growth Spock gets in TMP, you don’t get to have the movies that come after because he would not have acted the same way in TWOK. And the new Enterprise is gorgeous.
Number 5, First Contact
Definitely the best of the TNG movies for me, though I think it starts a little too abruptly and there are a few too many plot holes (what happened to the rest of the Defiant’s crew, for example). And I feel like Picard is just a little too quick to ignore the possibility of rescuing any of his own assimilated his crew given his own experience. I understand how he’d move to action quickly, but he’s a bit cold. Overall though, this movie had a lot going on and it all came together nicely: the return of the big bad enemy (although I think the Borg Queen was the beginning of the weakening of the Borg for me), almost all the characters wrestling with major moral issues, and mucking about with time travel to make sure things come out all right.
Number 4, The Search For Spock
Crew mates and friends step up to do whatever it takes to save one of their number, whatever the cost to themselves might be. Along the way, we’re going to have Christopher Lloyd provide what will become the definition of the modern Klingon, bring some additional detail to the Vulcans, and push the bonds of friendship even closer while the audience cries about the (spoiler) loss of the Enterprise as much as we cried about the loss of Spock in the movie before.
Number 3, The Voyage Home
With only a brief mental flashback to TMP, we see an alien probe on its way to Earth and then basically boiling the oceans a little bit at a time trying to find a species we killed off several hundred years before. The Enterprise command crew, now piloting their captured Bird of Prey from TSFS, is the only crew capable of figuring out what the probe wants (thank you, Spock) and doing something about it. The stakes are high, the problem is there, and it’s a call back to one of the messages at the heart of Star Trek: figure out how to talk to the unknown threat and broaden your definition of what it means to be human to welcome new minds to the throng.
Number 2, The Undiscovered Country
This is a fantastic movie, giving depth to the Klingons, breadth to the Federation, a mystery to solve, a whole lot of character growth for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and a civilization to save by once again broadening our understanding to encompass the other. And it does it while accomplishing something that almost never happens in cinema or other video entertainment, even properties with a long lifespan, letting your characters grow up and grow older not just gracefully but successfully. While there are a couple of clunky moments (the scene where the universal translator doesn’t speak Klingon and neither does Uhura springs to mind), the film works very, very well.
Number 1, The Wrath of Khan
What’s not to love. The best bad guy in any Star Trek timeline or period, a huge decision that comes back to bite Kirk in the ass as he tries to deal with being middle aged, a big reveal or two about Kirk’s past, a chance for Chekov to stretch in a new direction, and one of the most heart-rending character deaths in genre cinema history. I know this one makes the top of most lists, often fighting with TVH, but there’s never been a doubt for me.
I don’t dislike any of the movies in the top 10. Some of them have very specific failings, some of them have things I’d like to change, but they all have some great character moments and a story that works (if a couple of times only barely). A couple of films also have some very large specific failings, and maybe deserve a director’s cut, but I love all of them in some way.
The Branch Timeline
Note the absence of any of the reboot films on the list. There are reasons, and many, but first the good stuff.
Casting, aesthetic, soundscape, visuals, effects, all excellent. Yes, there are too many lens flares, especially in the first one. Yes, I think Pine’s version of Kirk is a bit too much of a departure from the original character particularly when placed next to the rest of the rebooted principals. But it’s hard to argue from an overall production standpoint that these are anything other than gorgeous movies for the senses and tapping into nostalgia.
But the writing… sigh.
Number 12, Star Trek 2009
The first half of the 2009 movie was great, but then it fell apart sinking to a new low or driving for a new stupidity with every scene until it was time for the final action sequences to carry us to the credits. It’s like the script writing team spent six months crafting the first 40 or 50 pages of script before realizing it was due for presentation at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning and had no idea how to get to the ending they wanted.
Number 13, Star Trek: Into Darkness
Setting aside the casting of the palest white man on the planet as Khan Noonian Singh, regardless of how you might feel about Cumberbatch’s acting, was a travesty of Hollywood whitewashing, the story for Into Darkness has almost no redeeming story qualities. The dialogue peaked at mediocre and the plot doesn’t really hang together at all. My biggest issues include flipping of Spock and Kirk’s roles in saving the ship (this time from a secret Starfleet warship) being so obviously telegraphed and so obviously not going to work that Spock’s next temper tantrum was almost a relief, Bones injecting some of Khan’s blood into a dead tribble (what kind of zombie chop-shop sickbay are you running?), and the emotion the movie clearly wanted for Kirk’s death was completely unearned, forgetting that before Spock Prime sacrificing himself at the end of TWOK we had not just two movies but 79 episodes of the television show seeping into popular culture for a decade and a half. This crew doesn’t have the same level of connection. The only good part of the movie was the opening sequence in the crimson jungle.
Number 11, Star Trek Beyond
Beyond was better, but still had some ridiculous stuff going on. Let’s wreck the Enterprise again, after all we didn’t quite destroy it in the last movie. I probably could have lived with that slightly more subtle tie back to STIII, this being the third of the reboot movies, but the motorcycle for Kirk and the Beastie Boys mucking up the coordination for the alien ships were both at the “Spock’s Brain” level of stupid for me (although that’s not my least favourite TOS episode). And, really, who puts their newest and coolest space station with a couple of million people on it right next to a completely unknown and unexplored section of space with no real defenses and no starships actually assigned to it?
Ranking the Reboots
Well, I already did, really.
Overall, the first two of the reboot movies aren’t even really Star Trek in my mind. Oh, they’re part of canon and they’re Star Trek because they were produced to be Star Trek, but they’re missing the essence of Star Trek and are mostly just poorly written action movies with Star Trek wrapping paper. Beyond gets a little closer, but it can’t make up for all the short falls of the first two films so can’t ever have a fair shake.
I am honestly hoping that a fourth movie in that timeline never gets off the ground, but to be clear, from my perspective the bottom three spots of the list are, in order:
11. Star Trek Beyond
12. Star Trek (2009)
13. Star Trek: Into Darkness
And I wish there were more things to put above Into Darkness.
Discussion and disagreement are both welcome. You’ll have to be pretty persuasive near the top or the bottom of the list to change my mind, though.
Be well, everyone.by