Friday, March 8, 2013

The Star Trek Films, Ranked, Because I'm a Geek

Since 1979, there have been eleven feature films bearing the name Star Trek. The first six chronicled the adventures of the original U.S.S Enterprise crew after their initial 5 year mission, which was the subject matter of Star Trek: The Original Series (1966 - 1969). Films 7 through 10 brought us closer to the Next Generation crew, whom we got to know during Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994). The eleventh film took us back to the origins of the original Enterprise crew, while at the same time introducing a new alternate reality in which we can follow the crew through all new adventures.

As a dedicated lifelong Star Trek fan, I have seen all of these movies, some more times than I care to admit, and would now like to take you through each of them in order of worst to best (level of 'worst' and 'best' based solely on my personal opinion of course). Hopefully through the geeky ravings to follow, you will find yourself, at the very least, more educated on the subject of Star Trek, and hopefully, more interested in seeing them all of the movies if you haven't already.

SPOILER ALERT: I reveal a lot of plot details in the following discussion.  If you haven't seen the movies, and don't want spoilers, then I recommend you skip this review until you have seen the movies.

And now, in the words of the great Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Engage!

#11 Star Trek IX: Insurrection

This movie is just plain disappointing. The third movie to feature the Next Generation crew, it is boring, unimaginative, and downright silly. While it is not the bumbling guffaw that was the fifth movie (we'll get to that later), it lands at the bottom of the list simply because it is so dis-interesting. Other than Riker and Troi rekindling their romance, none of the main characters are advanced or developed in any way.  None of the action has an impact on other aspects of the universe or cannon, and the story itself is forgettable.

In addition to being dull, the acting and direction are sub-par. The actors seem to be constantly 'hamming it up' and acting differently than they had in previous films or in the Next Generation series. Additionally, the movie has an overall fake look to it, likely due to the fact that this was the first Star Trek film to feature all digital special effects. Instead of being handled in a conservative way, it turns into a 'Oooo look what we can do with computer effects!' fest that is just annoying and foreign to those familiar with the rest of the films.  Particularly troubling is the fact that this film was directed by Jonathan Frakes, who also directed Star Trek: First Contact (again, we'll get to this later), which is a far superior film and doesn't suffer from the melodrama and tackiness of this film.

Oh, and Picard goes all Ma-Ti and uses the power of Heart to stop time. No Shit.

Even the soundtrack was falling asleep in this movie! Every Star Trek film has the trademark Star Trek theme, followed by a unique overture made specifically for that film. The overture for this film sounds like it belongs in an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. There are harps! HARPS. This is STAR TREK. You don't use harps in a Star Trek overture.

Also, what the hell kind of tagline is 'The battle for paradise has begun'? This sounds like the tagline for a My Little Ponies movie.

#10 Star Trek X: Nemesis

This movie suffers from a lot of the same pitfalls as Star Trek: Insurrection, though not to as great a degree. The big nail in the coffin for this movie is its ending. This was intended to be the last movie featuring the Next Generation crew, and in true dramatic style they wanted to 'go out with a bang'. So how do you do that in a Star Trek film? Destroy the Enterprise and kill off a main character of course! *cough* Star Trek II *cough* Star Trek III *cough*.

But wait, we can't destroy the Enterprise-E! She's practically brand new. We'll just rough her up a bit by ramming her into a ship. Oh and that main character we killed off? Just kidding! He uploaded his positronic memory banks *cough* katra *cough* into another version of his body, so he'll be back up and about in no time!

In case I have been too subtle, I believe this movie was trying very hard to be like some of its predecessors, all the way down to mimicking exact plot points, only to fail miserably and leave us going 'huh?' in the end.

Rule 1: if you are going to kill a main character, do it in a way that makes us care. Don't pull a Jack Dawson and fail to understand the basic concept of balancing weight evenly on a HUGE floating piece of wood, thus forcing you to sit in icy water like a jackass until you freeze to death. If you are going to die, make sure it was absolutely necessary, not convenient to the plot.


This movie was intended to be longer than what was released in theaters.  Several 'character driven' scenes were deleted from the final cut in order to allow more time for the action set pieces.  This is unfortunate since these scenes (included on the special edition DVD) went a long way in tying up lose ends for various characters.  They even bring back a series favorite, WESLEY CRUSHER.  Yeah, he came back to Starfleet and is going to be an engineer under Riker's command on the U.S.S. Titan.  But no, fans totally didn't want to see that.

#9 Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Most Star Trek fans are united in the opinion that this movie is terrible. I have never talked to a Trek fan who didn't name this as their least favorite film in the series. The first - and only - Star Trek film directed by James T. Kirk himself (William Shatner) has a disappointing plot, unfortunate dialog, and laughable visual effects, all of which leave Trek fans doing their best Picard facepalm.

Star Trek V takes many of the successful elements of its predecessors, turns them on their head, dials them up to 11, and, quite literally in some cases, dances them around in a feathered costume. Shatner's biggest directorial mistake was focusing too much on humor. He wanted to recreate the comedic successes achieved in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, but instead went over the top with too many out of place scenes - some borderline slapstick - that caused many of the crew to act completely out of character. Spock sings Row Row Row Your Boat; Uhura dances and sings in a ridiculous feather costume; and that makes up less than five minutes of the movie. This level of camp hadn't been seen since the days of the original series, and it was disturbing, to say the least, to Trek fans who had grown accustomed to a higher, more mature quality in the films.

Now you might be asking why this movie isn't at the bottom of my list. If it is so laughable and universally considered the worst, why is it not my least favorite? Well, that's just it. It is LAUGHABLE. It is so bad, it is actually entertaining to watch. It's bad in all the ways that make you keep watching to see what ridiculous shinanigans happen next. It's the movie you can love to hate. I can't say that about Star Trek IX or X. Those two movies are just...Boring. They are bad AND disinteresting AND annoying. Star Trek V at least leaves you laughing, even if it is hysterical laughter at a sad sad chapter in the Star Trek series that nearly killed the franchise.

#8 Star Trek: The Motion Picture
2001: The Motion Picture was the one that started it all.  It brought our favorite spaceship and her crew to the big screen in a big way.  A big, long, boring, and exhaustive way.  This film is a really good example of taking a good thing too far.  Trek fans wanted to see the Enterprise and all of her glory in theaters, accentuated by state of the art special effects and a sweeping musical score.  What they didn't want was 15 minute establishing shots of it with no dialogue.  And then more 15 minute long establishing shots of other things with no dialogue.  It worked for Stanley Kubrick, but not here.  Star Trek is not about showing off pretty special effects *cough* Insurrection *cough*.  It is about the characters, their interactions, how they go about interacting with other worlds and dealing with the situations they find themselves in.  Not about how convincingly they can stare at something on the view screen.

Not only is the plot of this movie too weak to support its length (which literally feels like 3 hours), but many of the characters we came to know and love in the original series are made to act in ways that don't  make sense.  Captain Kirk is an asshole, and not just that, but a STUPID asshole.  He almost gets the Enterprise destroyed in the first 10 minutes of his being in command.  He treats Decker like crap for no other reason than he is jealous.  Its infuriating!  And yes, I know that one of the 'conflicts' of this movie is that Kirk is not familiar with the new Enterprise because he got promoted and is out of the loop.  However, this could have been handled much more subtlety, and in a way that didn't make me want to punch Kirk in the face 5 minutes in.

#7 Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

This was the first Star Trek film directed by Leonard Nimoy (Spock), whose interest in playing Spock and in the Star Trek franchise was reinvigorated by the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Only one problem - his character kind of died at the end of the last movie.  But wait, Paramount Pictures said, this IS science fiction and all, just bring him back to life!  But, didn't Spock's body get blasted out of a torpedo tube onto the surface of a newly birthed and likely still volatile planet?  YES, but that is the precisely why we don't have a problem.


In a nutshell, science magic brings Spock back to life, the Enterprise crew disobeys Starfleet orders, Scotty gets to be snarky, McCoy does his best Spock impression, the Enterprise goes boom, and Christopher Lloyd gets thrown into a volcano.

So how does this movie rank among all the others?  In all honestly, this is not a bad movie.  It has a good pace and an original plot that picks up right where we left off in Star Trek II.  This movie stands out in my mind for all the real consequences the characters face, all for the sake of helping their friend.  Rather than a few brave souls putting themselves in danger for the sake of an entire planet/sector/universe, it is a group of people putting themselves and their ship at risk for one person, which is a great foil to the drive of Star Trek II, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one".  This movie gives several characters an opportunity to be bad asses in ways we haven't seen before (never, EVER call Sulu 'tiny'), as they break rule after rule to get back to Genesis and save Spock.  There is genuine tragedy, as Kirk's son is killed (leading to Kirk's long running hatred of Klingons) and the most beloved character of them all, the U.S.S. Enterprise herself, is destroyed.

So why have I ranked this movie number 7?  The best way I can explain it is a lack of individuality.  This movie is tied so closely to Star Trek II, and focuses so intently on undoing everything that happened in Star Trek II, that it sometimes doesn't feel like its own movie.  In a lot of ways it feels like it was rushed, its soul purpose to continue the story line so that more Star Trek films could be made.  For that reason, I rarely find myself seeking it out.  I appreciate it for it accomplishes, how it sets up the next film, and fully acknowledge it as good.  My ranking is solely based on an emotional response, which I'm sure Spock himself would say is highly illogical, as do I.

#6 Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The final movie to feature the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Star Trek VI is a fun, no strings attached final romp through the galaxy for Kirk and the gang.  It has a good balance of humor, drama, mystery, and that good ol' Star Trek adventure feel.  It also does a good job of tying things up nicely for the characters as a whole.  Kirk gets to make peace with his Klingon-hating demons, Sulu is captain of his own ship, Spock is finally back to normal, and Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov are all...Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov.  The ending montage of the cast's signatures is pretty classy too.

In the end, there isn't much to say about this film other than it is entertaining and doesn't leave us unsatisfied with where the original crew leaves off.  Probably most noteworthy was its ability to be good and keep Trek fans invested with the series after the abomination that was Star Trek V.  For that alone it should get an Oscar.

#5 Star Trek: Generations

A lot of Trek fans that I talk to disagree with me when I say this is a good film.  I loved this movie when I first saw it in 1995, and I still love it today.  Yes, it has serious flaws.  Yes it could have been better.  No I did not like how Kirk died.  Now that that's all out of the way, let's talk about why the movie is good.

Malcolm McDowell fighting James T. Kirk.  That is all.

Ok, so there is a bit more to it than that.  This movie is an infuriating tango of good premises executed poorly.  Allow me to demonstrate:

1. Giving Data the means to finally have real human emotions and seeing how he deals with them after a lifetime of being an emotionless android.  Good premise...
Executed poorly.

2.  Having Picard face his mortality, and that his life of dedicated service and sacrifice to Starfleet may have left him in a position to never have a family or live a normal life.  Good premise...
Executed poorly.

To be more specific, Picard crying isn't the issue.  Picard crying because his brother and nephew, HIS ONLY FAMILY, have died in a fire is the issue.  Arbitrarily killing what little family Picard has, off screen, for the sake of some emotional turmoil, is unacceptable.  You could have explored the whole 'I'm getting old and don't have a family' angle without burning his nephew alive in a fire.  Just saying.

And finally...
3.  Bring Captain James T. Kirk back to help Picard in a desperate fight to save an entire star system from destruction, ending in his unfortunate, glorious, and necessary death, which serves as a symbolic hand off from one 'generation' of Star Trek to the next.  GREAT premise...
Very, VERY poorly executed.

Captain Kirk has fought Gorn, beaten the Kobayashi Maru, swam with humpback whales, and traveled to the final frontier itself.  William Wallace's death at the end of Braveheart isn't badass enough in comparison to the death Captain James T. Kirk deserves.  But what did we get?  A bridge collapses, he falls, and while staring blankly at Picard simply says, "Oh my".  That's it.

What's worse is this could have been, AND WAS, better.  I recently found footage of an alternate ending in which Kirk jumps in front of a shot from Soran destined for Picard's chest.  Kirk takes the shot in the back, then crawls across a bridge, half paralyzed and in agonizing pain, to the remote control needed to shut the sun-killing missile down, successfully saving the day, AND Picard, AND getting a badass death speech before finally succumbing to his injuries.  Where did THAT ending go?

I also recently watched William Shatner's documentary The Captains, in which he discusses this death scene.  He said that what he was going for with the 'Oh my' comment was to convey that Kirk was finally seeing the final frontier.  That death had come, and that it was more beautiful and terrifying than anything Kirk had seen up to that point.  In the documentary, Shatner replays the line, and his tone, facial expression, everything completely sold it.  TOO BAD HE DIDN'T DO THAT IN THE MOVIE.  His performance in the movie was more like mild annoyance at having forgotten to wear his sun glasses.

So yeah, I really like this movie.

#4 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
When I was a kid, this was by far my favorite Star Trek movie.  The alien probe scared and fascinated me with its creepy sounds and its inexplicable crippling of starships, ocean boiling, and atmosphere ionizing.  I laughed out loud every time Chekov asked the San Francisco cop about 'nuclear wessels', or Scotty tried talking to the computer through its mouse.  This movie is light-hearted, funny, suspenseful, and just plain fun.

After all, how can you not love a Star Trek movie in which the Enterprise crew goes back to 1986 San Francisco to find humpback whales, then brings them to the 23rd century where they can communicate with an alien probe that is slowly destroying the Earth.

This premise probably sounds a bit silly, but it totally works.  Except for that weird sequence while they were going back in time...
I didn't know time travel looked like this.

Star Trek IV was the first movie in the series to incorporate lot of humor, something that usually hasn't ended  well in the Star Trek universe, or at least, in the final product being taken very seriously.  But the premise of this movie allows for humor to happen naturally, playing well off the personalities of the various characters.  None of the jokes are forced, and there is enough drama and suspense from the underlying conflict to make the humor even more acceptable, and even welcome.

In the end, the crew gets a pardon from their actions in Star Trek III for saving the Earth (Kirk gets demoted to Caption, but he doesn't really care so no worries), and they get a new Enterprise, the NCC-1701-A.  Good to know they keep a stash of those around just in case.

The biggest misfortune of this movie is that it didn't really leave an obvious path forward for the crew, other than 'seeing what's out there' in their shiny new Enterprise.  I think this is partially to blame for why Star Trek V was so bad.  Star Trek II, III, and IV were essentially one long story, and when that story was finally resolved at the end of IV, they didn't know where to go next, hence 'The Final Frontier' happened.  I don't blame Star Trek IV solely for Star Trek V, but it did play a small part.

Even so, it is still one of the best.

#3 Star Trek
And so we have come to it.  The great divider.  The elephant in the room.  That which leaves Trek fans either cheering in jubilation or gnashing their teeth in frustration.  JJ Abram's 2009 reboot of our beloved franchise, Star Trek.  I think it is clear by my ranking of this film which camp I fall into, but what is more important, I think, is why.

Let's take a quick look back at the state of the Star Trek franchise before this movie came out.  The last Star Trek series to air on television was Star Trek Enterprise, which ended in 2005 and is often considered the weakest of the Star Trek series.  The last movie to be released was Nemesis in 2002, a mixed bag at best that left most Trek fans disappointed.  While the community of fans for Star Trek had not waned, a proverbial dead zone of Star Trek media had developed, and a subset of culture that knew nothing, nor had any interest in, Star Trek was growing.  Then came Abrams' Star Trek, and that all changed.

Star Trek was thrust headlong back into the forefront of popular culture.  A generation that hadn't been heavily exposed to Star Trek suddenly had something new and exciting to grab onto.  People who had little to no knowledge of or interest in Star Trek were going back and watching the old series, the movies, everything.  New Trek fans were being born every day.  To someone who has known and love Trek her whole life, this was a magical thing.  I had new people with which to discuss Trek.  New people to show all my favorite episodes and movies.  For a Trek fan, or a fan of anything for that matter, that is a great gift.

As for the movie itself, I genuinely like it.  Yes, Abrams changed some things, but that was the point.  He created a new universe in which to do his own thing.  I appreciate that he fully acknowledged creating an alternate timeline.  He left what Trek fans know and love in tact, leaving us to enjoy his work freely and without guilt.

I am not without reservations.  The tone and style of Abrams' Star Trek is not what die hard Trek fans are used to.  There is an obvious focus on more action, rather than the intricate character interactions that have come to be the staple of Star Trek.  Oh, and the lens flare.
JJ, I can't see Zachary.  Can we please turn down the lens flare?

While the tonal shift can be scary to us Trek fans, I understand that it is a necessary evil.  Audiences today are not the same as audiences in the early 2000s, 90s, or 80s.  Things are going to change, but as long as the future always holds some form of Star Trek that doesn't have Uhura dancing around in a feather costume, I'm happy.

#2 Star Trek VIII: First Contact
Time travel, the Borg, and James Cromwell.  Who could ask for more?

I should elaborate.

Star Trek VIII is the second movie to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It is also the first film directed by Commander Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes, and boy does he knock it out of the park.  Much like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek VIII brings back one of the more compelling conflicts from the series: the Borg.  Not only that, but it very effectively ties in Picard's lingering turmoil from having been assimilated by the Borg in the past.  It has the perfect balance of humor, suspense, horror, action, and drama.  It is entertaining the first, second, third, and fourteenth time you see it (booyah U2 reference), which is an accomplishment in and of itself.

This movie takes us back to Earth in 2063, the year of First Contact.  This is when humans first discover warp speed, and gain the attention of some extra-terrestrial neighbors, thus leading Earth to it's galaxy hopping, poverty-free, idealistic working-to-better-ourselves Rodenberrian future.  Problem is the Borg decide to crash the party, putting Earth's future at risk and forcing Picard and crew to go back and put them in their place.

In terms of conflict, this movie succeeds in every way Star Trek VII failed.  We not only see Picard's hatred of the Borg over what they did to him, and what they've done to the Federation, we feel it.  We understand it.  We both pity and fear Picard for the strength of his emotions toward the Borg, and are genuinely invested in his struggle throughout the movie.  Data is once again faced with the temptation of humanity, as the Borg queen brings him closer to it than any emotion chip or other enhancement ever has.  We are led to believe that he has betrayed everyone to achieve it, and it is done so well that we would almost not blame him for it.
Oh Data, what would Tasha think?

In a nutshell, this movie is great.  Compelling character development, suspenseful action, and just the right balance of humor.  Despite all of this, there is only one movie who can rule them all...

#1 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
This is not only a great Star Trek movie.  This is a great movie.  You could watch this movie, having never seen anything else Star Trek related, and it would still be good.  Revenge, regret, friendship, loss; this movie has it all.  It was the first Star Trek movie to make me cry, and the only one that still can to this day.  Everyone brought their A-games to this movie, and it shows.  The acting is great.  The visuals are great.  The story is great.  The music is great.  I could spend all day repeating that everything about this movie is great, but here is why.

Star Trek II brings back one of the iconic villains from Star Trek: The Original Series. Khan Noonien Singh. A genetically engineered super human from the late 20th century, Khan was a prominent figure during the Eugenics Wars on Earth.  As a result of his tyrannical actions during this war, he and his followers were put in stasis on a prison ship called the Botany Bay, and shot off into outer space.  Fast forward to the 23rd century, where Kirk and the Enterprise find the Botany Bay and have some less than pleasant interactions with its inhabitants.  After thwarting Khan's attempts to kill Kirk and steal the Enterprise, Kirk leaves Khan and his followers on Ceti Alpha V, a deserted planet which Khan can 'develop' to his liking and stay out of everyone else's hair.  Surely this can't end poorly.

Which brings us to Star Trek II.  In an attempt to find a dead planet on which to test a new large scale teraforming device, the U.S.S. Reliant finds Khan and what is left of his followers on what is believed to be Ceta Alpha VI, but is actually a severely altered Ceti Alpha V (thanks to a planet exploding and generally messing things up).  Khan is consumed with hatred towards Kirk, and vows to kill him after making him suffer the way he has suffered, thus bringing us to the major conflict of the movie.

Another interesting conflict is that of Kirk facing the fact that he is getting older, and being relegated to a 'desk job' as admiral rather than manning the captain's chair of a starship.  We get a rare glimpse into Kirk's character throughout this movie, small doses at first, then more as we learn he has a son he never knew, and as he is slowly forced into a situation he doesn't know how to come out on top of.  We learn that he cheated to beat the Kobyashi Maru test, the no win situation, and realize that while Kirk's history is one of always winning, he has never had to face true loss.  Which is why the ending of this movie is, well, both tragic and necessary.

Once Kirk finally has Khan against the ropes, Khan sets the teraforming device, Genesis, to detonate on the Reliant, which will destroy the Enterprise as well because they are too close.  Unfortunately, the Enterprise can't go into warp due to damage sustained earlier, until Spock quietly slips away and brings the warp core back online.  The Enterprise flies away, Genesis goes boom and creates a new planet, everything is great!  Except for one thing...
Radiation is a bitch.

In one of the most heart wrenching deaths in movie history (as far as I'm concerned), Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, and we see a rare display of emotion from not only Spock, but Kirk, as Spock simply says 'I have been, and always shall be your friend' before slowly slipping away.

Not only are fans left reeling at Spock's death, but it hits home when we see how affected Kirk is, for as was established earlier, Kirk has never had to face real loss, and now that he has, he doesn't know how to deal with it.  We aren't used to seeing Kirk vulnerable and unsure.  This was shocking and groundbreaking, and is one of the many reasons why this is a great movie.  In the end, Kirk has evolved considerably as a character, as has the entire crew through their struggles and loss.

Beyond the character development, this movie is genuinely suspenseful.  The battles between the Reliant and the Enterprise are not stilted exchanges of phasor fire, but tense, cat and mouse struggles between a desperate Kirk and a vengeful Khan.  Everything from the visuals to the music make these exchanges compelling and entertaining, time and time again.

In the end, it is Star Trek II's ability to be entertaining not only as a Star Trek movie, but a science fiction movie, an action movie, a character driven movie, that make it stand out above the rest.  It saved the franchise from the damage done by Star Trek The Motion Picture, and set the stage for films like Star Trek III and IV.  No matter what came before, or what comes next, it will always hold a special place in Trek history, and for that, it has been, and always shall be my favorite.

1 comment:

  1. I have a few that I would move around, but for the most part, I'm right on board with your selections! Bravo!