"This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun." -- Captain James Tiberius Kirk in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
As of this writing, it looks like the new Star Trek movie, the eleventh in the film series, will be a big hit, opening with $76,500,000 during its first week in theaters.
I previously wrote about my favorite episodes from the Classic Star Trek series. Now I'd like to look back at the first ten big screen Trek films, ranking them according to my preference.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Fans of the television series were overjoyed to finally see the beloved characters back together on a flashy redesigned U.S.S. Enterprise with Star Wars era special effects. The plot was weak and wouldn't even be worthy of comparison to some of the lesser episodes from the series, but Gene Roddenberry's vision was now up there on the silver screen, no longer confined to repeats on the boob tube. The first film had many flaws, but it certainly wasn't the worst of the bunch. It introduced the new-look Klingons in their brief little scene, the fantastic musical score of the Trek movies, and it had little touches of inspriation -- the transporter malfunction and bald but sexy Lt. Ilia, one of a long line of Trek femme fatales. The villain of the story, V'Ger, an exploratory satellite that gains artificial intelligence and becomes a threat to life in the galaxy, is uninspired and repetitive of previous, better explorations of the theme. The pacing of the movie, by director Robert Wise (whose past credits included West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Andromeda Strain) was slow and tedious. Nevertheless, as the subtitle stated in blatant language, Trek was now no longer merely a campy TV show, but a major motion picture. The "franchise" was taking off to new heights. Rank: 6th out of 10.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) If you're ever looking for an example of a movie sequel that topped the original, this is it. New costumes and set designs weren't the only thing that got revamped. Director Nicholas Meyer and his team made a gem with this film, raising the stakes and creating an epic action drama whose story would continue in the next two films, which would become collectively known as "The Spock Trilogy." The filmmakers went back to their roots and followed up on the "Space Seed" episode, bringing back Ricardo Montalban as the genetically-engineered villain Khan Noonian Singh and adding a pitch-perfect allegory of revenge and obsession inspired by Moby Dick. The plot took bold chances resulting in emotional payoffs that would carry over into future sequels. Plus, this film had some of the best lines of dialogue in the entire franchise. Rank: 1st out of 10.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) There was a theory for a while that stated that even-numbered Trek movies were great and odd-numbered Trek movies were garbage. While some people lumped the third film in the crap category, I completely disagree and rank it as one of the better films. It certainly is the weakest of the "Spock Trilogy" flicks, but it still holds up as a fun action adventure movie, adding some wonderful moments to the Trek canon. Christopher Lloyd hams it up beautifully as the Klingon villain, and there are some genuinely powerful and touching scenes throughout the film. Directed by Leonard Nimoy, it has its flaws, including the replacement of Kirstie Alley as Saavik, but it's still a solid piece of entertainment. Rank: 3rd out of 10.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) A time travel plot made this film the most accessible Trek movie of them all for the general public. It had humor, adventure, romance, and it neatly wrapped up some plot points in the "Spock Trilogy." Viewed only as a mainstream film, it's probably over-rated, but viewed as part of the Trek mythology, it's one of the best, because it develops all of the characters of the classic series, building on their individual personalities, giving them all terrific moments to shine, and showing them working together in an idealistic adventure that exemplified exactly what creator Gene Roddenberry aimed for with the show. Helmed again by Leonard Nimoy who was obviously becoming more confident as a director, it had all the benchmarks that transformed Trek into a pop culture phenomenon. It's a shame that it had to bring the allegory back to the 20th Century and beat the message over the heads of the audience, but it was successful despite its overhandedness. Rank: 2nd out of 10.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) Another odd-numbered addition to the series that in hind-sight wasn't as bad as some of the "Next Generation" films, this movie was still somewhat of a mess story-wise. With the plot of the "Spock Trilogy" concluded, the filmmakers seemed lost for a plot idea and resorted to the mumbo-jumbo nonsense that hurt the first film. In this one, directed by William Shatner, we learn that Spock had a hippy brother searching for God, the crew finds God, and God isn't what he appears to be. There are some embarrassingly bad moments, and some forced humor in a failed attempt to mimic the success of the previous film, but also some moments of sincere character development (particularly with the triumverate of McCoy, Kirk, and Spock) that had potential if explored in a stronger script. Rank: 7th out of 10.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) Director Nicholas Meyer returned and brought the franchise back to its Wrath of Khan roots, feeling a lot (visually and emotionally) like a direct sequel to that film. The mystery that drives the plot isn't much, and the story sometimes feels bizarrely claustrophic despite its multi-world/multi-ship setting, it nevertheless was a fine farewell adventure for the original cast, the last time all of them would appear in a movie together. The Klingon villains, especially the Shakespeare-quoting General Chang played by the excellent Christopher Plummer, were top-notch, and the ending was a nice, touching way to conclude the film series for Classic Star Trek fans. Rank: 5th out of 10.
Star Trek Generations (1994) The first movie with the cast of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series was a general mess. The good news is that Next Gen arguably reached more of a mainstream audience during its syndicated run than the cult following of the Classic Trek series, and this film brought the fan-favorite characters all together for the big screen. The bad news is that the movie used all the plot weakenesses that had become cliches of the franchise, like holodeck silliness and technobabble plot devices, while avoiding any real thought-provoking storytelling that made the series so popular in the first place. The Classic Trek era and the Next Generation era were bridged with cameo appearances by a couple of the Classic characters, and most notably by the presence of Captain Kirk. But in the worst moment in the entire franchise, the character was killed off -- a sad, anticlimactic demise for one of the greatest heroes in science fiction history. Rating: 8th out of 10.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996) Finally able to just tell its own tale without worrying about bridging the generations, this became the best of the Next Gen films in the series. The Borg were excellent antagonists and the Borg Queen played by Alice Krige provided some nice dramatic layers to the otherwise emotionless villains. Despite some flaws, like an over-reaching attempt to recreate the Wrath of Khan's Moby Dick analogy, the film hits all the right notes, even with its reliance on the time travel plot device yet again. Rank: 4th out of 10.
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) It's all downhill from here. A weak and forgettable storyline, ugly cinematography, and the trivialization of some of the Next Generation's characters, made even fans like me start to question the producers' understanding of the Roddenberry vision and the future of the franchise. This was the first Star Trek story that I absolutely hated. Rank: 9th out of 10.
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) You know a franchise is in trouble when even some of its most diehard fanatics (like me) don't care anymore. This film was almost the nail in the coffin for the Trek franchise. Even the supposedly built-in audience didn't seem interested enough to go to the multiplex to see it. More ugly cinematography, more cheap special effects, more plot holes and technobabble mumbo-jumbo, led to a crapfest, almost unwatchable film. No matter the genre, this was a waste of celluloid. Rank: 10th out of 10.
Where does J.J. Abrams' new big screen adaptation of Star Trek rank in this list? It's too soon to say. Critics and fans seem to love it. We'll see if it stands the test of time and rejuvenates the series.