We’ve arrived at the third and final entry in my Star Trek Movie Rankings! Will The Wrath of Khan take the top spot, or is an upset in the works…?
Before jumping in to the top four, catch up on Part 1 here and Part 2 here. A reminder of the scoring; I’m judging all 13 Star Trek films on 10 categories, and giving them a score out of 10; the higher the total score the higher the rank. The categories:
- Dialogue and memorable lines
- Main cast
- Guest stars
- Makeup and costumes
- Goosebump moment
Here are the rankings so far:
13. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
12. Star Trek: Insurrection
11. Star Trek: Nemesis
10: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
9. Star Trek Generations
8. Star Trek Into Darkness
7. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
6. Star Trek Beyond
5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Let’s get into the top four!
4: Star Trek (2009)
Plot: A time-travel accident reboots the Star Trek timeline, and we meet the young heroes of the Original Series as they board the Enterprise for the first time to confront a Romulan threat… from the future. That sounds kinda roundabout, doesn’t it? Paramount and JJ Abrams did their best to tie this rebooted franchise to the classic Star Trek, and while I’m not sure it was necessary, I appreciate the effort. I do have to dock points here for the very questionable science throughout the film, from the “supernova that was going to destroy the galaxy” to the “black hole in the centre of a planet” to “transwarp beaming.” This stuff strains credulity and kinda breaks a lot of the Star Trek science altogether.
Dialogue and memorable lines: The dialogue is super fast and snappy, and in some ways, that actually makes it hard for specific lines to stand out. There are plenty of great scenes, though, including Kirk needling Spock, McCoy complaining about space, Spock’s confusion over his upbringing, and of course older Spock telling young Kirk, “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.” Ultimately the best bit has to be the bar fight straight through to the cadets leaving for Starfleet, which includes Kirk’s flirting with Uhura, Pike giving Kirk the “I dare you to do better” speech, Kirk’s “I’ll do it in three” and McCoy’s rant about space travel. It’s pretty good stuff. (I can see why it doesn’t exactly appeal to older Trekkies, but, that in itself doesn’t mean it’s not good!)
Main cast: If you’d told teenage me they would recast the original seven, and go even younger, I’d tell you it was a mistake. If you’d told teenage me they not only did it, but they went 7-for-7? I’d think you were nuts. But my god, they really did. Everyone is just about perfect and I can’t even imagine anyone else in these roles in the 21st century. If there’s anyone that’s not quite right, surprisingly, it’s Simon Pegg as Scotty… something about him just seems a bit off. I think it’s the goofy grin he has on at all times; where Scotty, despite constantly complaining, always came across as completely competent and confident (well, except for Star Trek V) and this Scotty comes across as more of a goofball.
Guest stars: Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Tyler Perry, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, and Eric Bana as the villain. Pretty solid! Greenwood is a standout for sure, and I wish we got more of Ryder as Amanda. Bana, I think, plays Nero fairly one-note, but it sounds like a lot of scenes fleshing him out were cut.
Action: Well, it’s JJ Abrams! The action starts in the opening scene and basically never lets up, as the movie races from one scene to the next. It’s actually kind of dizzying, and doesn’t particularly feel like Star Trek; but, I guess that was kinda the point? The space jump and fight scene atop the Romulan drilling device is pretty sensational (and terrifying, if you’re afraid of heights).
Humour/tone: Like the best of Star Trek, most of the humour in this film comes straight from the characters egging each other on, and it works. However… there is some goofy stuff, like Kirk’s big hands, or Scotty being sucked into the Enterprise’s plumbing, that I could do without. The relentless pace does hinder the film’s tone, somewhat, as you never get a moment to consider the stakes or the personal investment the characters have.
Effects: There’s nothing “bad” or “shoddy” about the effects, as the production went all-out to make everything top notch. But stylistically? Well, you can’t talk about this film without talking about the lens flares, which are just non-stop, a constant distraction throughout. On top of that, shaky cam is used throughout and while it does do a good job of making you uncomfortable and moving you from one scene to the next, it too becomes distracting. Then there’s the ship designs: I don’t know what Nero’s ship is supposed to be, Spock’s flyer is totally goofy, and I loathe the new Enterprise design.
Makeup and costumes: You know what, they did a solid job reimagining the Original Series uniforms! I didn’t think that was possible! There are quite a few new aliens too, though I think some must be CGI (like the creepy big-eyed nurse). I’m not sure why all the Romulans are bald, or what the tattoos signify, though. That seems like an odd choice, and reminds me too much of Nemesis, with its not-quite-Romulan villains. What exactly is the holdup with making a Star Trek film featuring the Romulans?
Music: Fantastic score by Michael Giacchino, which feels 100% like Star Trek even though it doesn’t re-use any of the original score or previous film scores until the very end credits. It conveys high adventure, exploration, swashbuckling… it’s just a great fit.
Goosebump moment: There are a few, like original Spock meeting new Kirk and new Spock, or Kirk and McCoy seeing the Enterprise for the first time. And I do love the aforementioned “I dare you to do better” speech. But I’m gonna give this to the destruction of Vulcan, and the death of Spock’s mother, Amanda. This moment really tells you that this is a new Star Trek, we’re not just gonna follow the same beats as the Original Series, and the stakes are different.
Final Score: 71/100
Final thoughts: This ended up much higher than I thought it would. I guess I’m an Abrams stan? I don’t really think so, and I think this ranking reflects the casting more than anything. Abrams has his faults, but he batted a thousand in casting this one, and a thousand casting The Force Awakens too.
3. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Coinciding with the series’ 25th anniversary, Nicolas Meyer returns to give our heroes a worthy send-off in a timely Cold War parable.
Plot: The Klingon Empire is dying, and the final mission of Captain Kirk and the Enterprise is to carry the flag of peace to the Federation’s greatest enemy. This film isn’t super vast in scale but the story is so important, I don’t think it could have been told in the TV series.
Dialogue and memorable lines: Kirk admitting his hatred of Klingons is good, powerful stuff. As an obvious allegory for the end of the Cold War (in 1991 no less!), this film probably shouldn’t work, but it does. We also get Kirk’s nod to Peter Pan (“second star to the right, and straight on till morning”) and final captain’s log (“boldly going where no man… where no one, has gone before”) to close it out.
Main cast: Sulu finally gets his own command! That in itself is great to see, and he looks completely natural in the centre seat. I think the main cast does a great job here, everyone is taking the story seriously but are also having fun and are totally comfortable in their roles.
Guest stars: Christopher Plummer as the Shakespearian, moustache-twirling villain? Works for me! Kim Cattral is a traitorous Vulcan? Why not! Throw in Iman and David Warner, Mark Lenard as Sarek, Brock Peters, a pre-Odo Rene Auberjoinois, Michael Dorn as one of Worf’s ancestors, and a Christian Slater cameo, and this guest cast is a winner.
Action: Another Kirk fistfight! And a great space battle, too, a prison break, a race-against-time rescue, and of course, the zero-G assassination, one of the coolest Trek action scenes to date. It does seem everything is a little bit slow by today’s standards, but it fits the age of the cast and probably the age of the main audience by this point.
Humour/tone: After the silliness of The Final Frontier, this film returns to the perfect blend of taking the story itself seriously enough, but not being above the characters poking fun or needling each other. McCoy and Kirk’s exchange after Iman kisses Kirk is classic:
McCoy: What is it with you, anyway?
Kirk: Still think we’re finished?
McCoy: …more than ever.
McCoy’s joke at the trial (“What is your current medical status?” “Aside from a touch of arthritis, I’d say, ‘pretty good’”, followed by a single Klingon laughing) gets me every time.
Effects: This is, as far as I’m aware, the first film to feature a space explosion with an “energy wave” effect, which George Lucas loved so much he threw it into the Star Wars Special Editions… twice! We get a cool space battle, finally see the Excelsior in action, and we get some pre-Odo shapeshifting too! And the aforementioned zero-gravity sequence with the floating Klingon blood. Solid all-around.
Makeup and costumes: Nothing super-exciting here; loads of Klingons in this one, and a few aliens on the Klingon prison planet too, including the guy with his genitals in his knees. Chang’s bolted-on eye-patch is a nice touch, too.
Music: Cliff Eidelman’s score might be the most un-Trek like music of any of the films. It’s dark and somber and brooding, punctuated with light, soaring heroic touches (like when the Enterprise leaves Spacedock). I’m not really sure what to make of it.
Goosebump moment: It doesn’t get any better than the final voyage and sign-off. It’s perfect.
Final score: 76/100
Final thoughts: Is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country really the third-best Star Trek film? I don’t want to take anything away from it — it’s good! — but, I think its ranking here tells us A) that, um, the overall quality of the Star Trek movies maybe really isn’t that good? and B) the top two really are head-and-shoulders above the rest.
2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
After Star Trek: The Motion Picture barely made back its bloated budget, Paramount says they’ll only do more Trek if they can do it cheap. TV producer Harve Bennett knows how to do it, and he and Nicolas Meyer are credited with saving Star Trek.
Plot: As Captain (now Admiral) Kirk struggles with growing older, his old foe Khan returns, seeking revenge. Although Khan is a creation of the show, the scale here, including the ship-to-ship battles and the creation of the Genesis device and planet, make this one film-worthy.
Dialogue and memorable lines: This one comes with a great script, and probably too damn many memorable lines to count, including of course, William Shatner’s absolutely iconic “KHAAANNNN!” and Spock’s death scene (which we’ll get to shortly). The conversations Kirk has with McCoy and Carol about getting old are fantastic, and tying this film’s story to the aging of the cast was a brilliant idea. If I had to choose one memorable piece of dialogue, though, I’d give it to the conversation between Kirk and Spock about commanding the Enterprise (“Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material”).
Main cast: This film is where the actors start to settle in and get comfortable with their characters — with the exception of Shatner’s Kirk, who is supposed to be uncomfortable, and he plays it quite well — with, of course, occasional bouts of Shatnering. Nimoy’s Spock is just the right balance here of likeable friend and cooly logical alien.
Guest stars: You can’t really beat Ricardo Montalban and Kirstie Alley, can you? And Paul Winfield too! Bibi Besch is also fantastic as Carol Marcus. Gotta deduct one point for the late Merritt Butrick though… he’s low-key terrible.
Action: Real, actual ship-to-ship combat! In Star Trek! Using three dimensions! Plus, space ear worms! The only thing taking points away is that Kirk and Khan never actually meet in person — but even so, every conversation with them is laced with tension and suspense.
Humour/tone: There aren’t a lot of “jokes” in this one, but the characters, now intimately familiar with each other after 15 years working together, poke at and banter with each other perfectly. Everything in this film just feels “right.”
Effects: Gotta dock major points here for the number of re-used effects from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, including the Enterprise powering up and leaving dry dock. But the battle of the Mutara Nebula, including the damage the Reliant (I may be wrong about this, but other than shuttles and transports, I think Reliant is the first time we ever see another Federation starship) and the Enterprise inflict on one another, is pretty great and hey: this film features some of the first-ever CGI, as part of the Genesis demonstration!
Makeup and costumes: Few aliens to be found, but some nice work on Khan’s crew. Props to Ricardo Montalban’s chest, which apparently was real! (Was it, though?) As for costumes, we get the introduction of the now-iconic scarlet, military-style Starfleet uniforms.
Music: James Horner’s first Star Trek score isn’t as iconic as Jerry Goldsmith’s, but it’s still fantastic, sweeping, heroic, and dramatic at all the right times.
Goosebump moment: Spock’s death. “I have been, and always shall be… your friend.” ‘Nuff said.
Final score: 85/100
Final thoughts: Upset alert! Surely The Wrath of Khan is most people’s choice for number one, and it’s pretty damn close for me (shoutout to Nicolas Meyer, by the way). But I think it falls just a little bit short of perfection. Which leads us to the top spot…
1. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s greatest villains, the Borg, make their first appearance on the big screen, in a time travel adventure helmed by number one himself, Jonathan Frakes.
Plot: The Borg attempt to assimilate Earth in the past, and Captain Picard — a former Borg himself — and the brand-new Enterprise-E must travel back in time to stop them. Much like Star Trek II, this film is taking something that was great from the TV and ratcheting up the stakes, and the action, making it something that could only work on the big screen.
Dialogue and memorable lines: This is a great script, and there are tons of quotable bits in this film, from little moments (“It’s my first raygun”) to trailer-worthy (“Assimilate this…!”). The moments between Picard and Worf — their standoff on the bridge, and Picard’s eventual apology — are some of my favourite Trek moments of all time. If one thing stands out, though, I think it’s Picard’s “the line must be drawn here” speech.
I am docking an extra point for relegating Counselor Troi to the “see a future human get drunk in the past” bit.
Main cast: This is the main cast’s best outing; everyone seems comfortable and happy in the direction the film is going and Spiner and Stewart are again outstanding. If any Star Trek actor ever deserved an Oscar nod, it was Stewart for this film; the way he’s able to soften when engaging with Lily then go to his hard exterior when dealing with the Borg, then nearly becoming unhinged is fantastic.
Guest stars: This film is right up there with Star Trek II in terms of stars. Alfre Woodard is absolutely fantastic as Lily, and I love every scene with her and Patrick Stewart. Trek veteran James Cromwell also kicks ass as Zefram Cochrane, and Alice Krige is creepy as hell as the Borg queen. We also get Neal McDonough as Lieutenant Hawk, who was great and who I was actually hoping would become a regular (but ultimately is just a redshirt). And hey, how about that Adam Scott cameo!
Action: This one is pretty non-stop for a TNG outing. There’s a space fight in the first 10 minutes including a whole bunch of new ship designs, hand to hand combat with the Borg throughout, a holodeck shootout, the awesome spacewalk sequence, and the warp ship launch.
Humour/tone: Much like Star Trek II, III and VI, there isn’t a lot of humour in this film, but the tone doesn’t call for it, and when it does pop up, it’s perfectly timed and relies on the intimate shared history of the crew to make it work. Again, points docked for the sully drunken Troi trope.
Effects: This is the last Star Trek film with more model work than computer generated ships. The new Enterprise looks great, even though I still think it looks weird without a neck. The space battles are great, and the lifeboat launch, after Picard decides to abandon the Enterprise, is super cool (and the first time we ever see the Enterprise use its lifeboats!). Oh, and the spacewalk sequence is absolutely gorgeous. I have a vivid memory of saying “oh, wow” out loud in the theatre when the camera pulls back after Picard, Worf and Hawk exit the ship.
Makeup and costumes: The new Borg designs are creepy, and the Borg Queen the most creepy of all. These guys were cool-looking but kinda lifeless in their original TV incarnation, and here they look much more sinister. Huge thumbs-up also to the new Starfleet uniforms, which look great (and are light-years ahead of what we saw in Generations), and I dig the mid-21st century outfits as well. Still, I must ask: What is up with Zefram Cochrane’s headband/hat?
Music: Jerry Goldsmith didn’t impress me on Star Trek V, his previous Trek entry, but holy shit, does he redeem himself here. The opening credits sequence is just mind-blowingly gorgeous. It’s my favourite of any Trek film credit sequence. The music throughout is soaring and triumphant, broken only by classic battle themes and a slow, creepy Borg theme. And the way he works in the classic Trek intro… I could listen to this soundtrack all day.
Goosebump moment: There are so damn many in this film I have a hard time choosing. The aforementioned Picard-Worf scenes and Picard’s speech still make the hair on my neck stand up to this day; the warp flight is just classic Trek frontier-ism (“Ready to make a little history?” “Always am”); the spacewalk takes your breath away; and I simply love Picard’s sentiment to Lily when she realizes he’s staying behind and he admits he owes it to Data to try and save him. But you know what, I’m gonna give it to the moment the film takes its name from: The first contact between Vulcans and humans. The music is perfect, the cautious approach of the characters is perfect, the dialogue (“Live and prosper.” “… thanks.”) is perfect… even the way the scene is shot: we see the Vulcan greeting over Cochrane’s shoulder, then Cochrane’s initial response over the Vulcan’s shoulder… then the camera swings around so that human and Vulcan share the screen as they shake hands. It’s just great.
Final score: 89/100
Final thoughts: It’s “only” an 89 but honestly, I think this is a perfect Star Trek film. It’s certainly the perfect Star Trek: The Next Generation film, as it carries several themes/plot points forward from the show and blows them up for the big screen, which is what these films should do (and every other TNG film fails to do). If you still think Wrath of Khan is number one, I won’t argue, but I will disagree: I think Star Trek: First Contact is the best Star Trek feature film.
Well that was a heck of a journey! Thanks for reading along, and hit me up on Twitter if you agree or disagree with my choices.