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Every Star Trek movie has problems. There are nonsense villains, unconvincing pseudo-science, lead-actor ego-stroking, aimless plotting; there is the shockingly frequent feeling that Starfleet, that great galactic exploratory organization uniting all the cosmos in common cause, is a curiously underfunded goon squad whose security apparatus depends solely on the presence of one Enterprise or another. But only Generations is truly inessential – and only Generations squanders both Captain Kirk and Captain Picard, opting to stage the meeting of two pop culture icons as an opportunity for tragically literal horseplay. At least Generations coughs up the impressive Enterprise-D crash scene, one last cool model effect before the franchise (and Hollywood) went full CGI.
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12. The Search for Spock
Spock dies in Wrath of Khan, and that death scene gets replayed four different ways in the sequel – a recognition of just how powerful the scene was, but also an admission that nothing in Search for Spock comes halfway close to measuring up. This is by far the busiest original-cast Trek film, with several different story threads – The Enterprise heist, Spock-ified McCoy, the demise of the Genesis Planet, whatever Christopher Lloyd’s Klingon is supposed to be doing, the sidelong assertion that Starfleet has been entirely taken over by dumb-jock douchebags – and there’s a world-buildy attention to unnecessary detail, including an in-depth exploration of Vulcan mysticism at its most Fellini-esque (and least convincing.) It’s not a movie; it’s a bunch of Wikipedia articles, strung together with atrocious outfits and the worst hero-villain climactic fight scene in a franchise full of awful hero-villain climactic fight scenes.
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There was always a goofy generosity of spirit powering The Next Generation, a sensibility that fell by the wayside in the cast’s first two big-screen outings. Insurrection tries to transfer that lighthearted spirit to the big screen. Picard dances to mambo; Riker flirts Troi into a bathtub; Worf grows a zit; Data goes bad, but gets distracted into a Gilbert & Sullivan singalong with Picard. It’s a soft-touch comedy. But Insurrection is held back by its central conceit – a New Age-inflected “Fountain of Youth” planet populated by hippie-artisan white people – and its back half becomes an unconvincing guerilla-action romp.
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10. Star Trek Into Darkness
The fan outrage over JJ Abrams’ reboot-sequel has overshadowed what is, ultimately, a very expensive-looking not-terrible action movie, with a borderline-surreal plot full of unshocking “twists” and bizarre exposition. (If you can follow the thread about the Klingon Empire, you’ve probably given this film more attention then it deserves.) The reduction of Zoe Saldana’s Uhura to frustrated-girlfriend status is actually more disturbing than the film’s shameless trailer-baiting “Carol Marcus Strips For No Reason” moment, and the whole Starfleet-Conspiracy angle was much better covered in The Undiscovered Country. But at least this most expensive Star Trek movie is pretty to look at.
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9. The Final Frontier
Barely finished and tonally schizophrenic, the only film directed by William Shatner is a fascinating curio, by turns a goofball Marx Brothers-ish farce and a freshman-year theological inquisition. The dissonance is outrageous – in a typical chunk of time, the film forces McCoy to face the death of his father, recreates the birth of Spock, and then sends them both rocketing through the Enterprise with help from some jetboots. The cosmography feels like it was sketched on a whiteboard – The Great Barrier at the Center of the Universe! – but Final Frontier is some kind of magnum opus for Shatner. I challenge you to find a better Captain Kirk line than this: “I’ve always known I’ll die alone.” Wait, here it is: “What does God need with a starship?”
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8. First Contact
The best villain in the whole franchise is Alice Krige’s Borg Queen, a seductive tyrant who swans through the best scenes in First Contact, tempting Data to the dark side. She’s a blast of fresh air in a movie that tries hard to add ‘90s thrills into the franchise, with decidedly mixed results. This is the first true action movie in the series, and the Borg invasion of the Enterprise-E produces some nifty setpieces. But no matter how cool the Borg look, they’re monotone villains from a technophobic era, and they haven’t aged well – and neither have the comedic stylings of James Cromwell, Irascible Rockstar Explorer Scientist.
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7. Trek ’09
The first scene of J.J. Abrams’ Trek reboot is a colorful blast of in media res action, inventing Chris Hemsworth out of thin air in a burst of funny-sad self-sacrifice. Then the film begins…and a l-o-o-o-o-o-ong origin-story first act brings everything to a screeching halt. The new cast is game for anything, and Abrams pushes them into everything, with Chris Pine giving what amounts to an Olympic-level athletic performance as a manic Kirk and Zachary Quinto practically Hulk-ing out as an unrepressed and romanticized Spock. Like First Contact, Trek ’09 has some eye-popping setpieces – that space jump! – but the film dead-ends into an oddly plotty final act. Bless Eric Bana, who seems to be having lots of fun to playing a different villain every time he shows up.
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Here’s a big idea for a Star Trek movie: Make it feel like a midseason episode of a Star Trek TV show. That’s the thinking behind the first act of Beyond, which finds Kirk and co. in year three of a five-year mission. For the first time in the film franchise, the rhythms of life onboard don’t feel unnecessarily magnified; the crew has an easy rapport, their missions have an intriguing regularity, and things are beginning to feel a bit, well, episodic. They visit the Yorktown space colony, one of the niftiest future-locations in any space movie this decade. Director Justin Lin has better action chops than any previous Trek director, and it shows in the first Enterprise assault, a clever hive-mind attack that cuts the Enterprise off at the head. Then the crew crash-lands – and the film crashes with it, descending into a muddled second act. New baddie Krall is all-but-ruined by a curious plot decision that forces Idris Elba to play “vaguely-defined evil” until nearly the end of the film. Beyond wants to ask tough questions about the franchise – but it settles for all the easy answers, descending into precisely the kind of referentiality that everyone loathed in Star Trek Into Darkness.
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Cut to the bone by a filmmaker who barely seemed to know what Star Trek was, the final film to feature the Next Generation cast is a frustratingly non-final final act for for a crew that deserved (and still deserves) a true send-off. (And that Troi brain-rape scene is the lowest point in the franchise.) But there are ghoulish delights in this vampiric B-minus B-movie. A very young Tom Hardy gnashes on scenery as Shinzon, the Picard clone with a whisper-scream. This is Patrick Stewart’s finest performance in any of the Star Trek movies, shaded with wonder and sadness – and it’s a heartbreaking showcase for Brent Spiner, who double-roles as Data and the loopy android B-4. It all ends with the finest ship-to-ship showdown in the series, an outer-space brawl-smash between the Enterprise-E and Shinzon’s flagship.
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4. The Motion Picture
Slow as hell, beige as dad-khakis, the first Star Trek film is also an intermittently eyepopping gonzo cosmic ride. Special effects maestro Douglas Trumbull worked on the movie practically out of spite – he wanted out of his Paramount contract – but his team oversaw some of the wooziest visuals to ever appear in the Star Trek franchise, with the interior of megaship V’ger rendered as a Freudian techno-organic trip to the cosmic beyond. Characters, psh; everyone looks bored (besides DeForest Kelley, rocking a memorable beard and then the kind of deep V-neck that got outlawed after 1979.) What The Motion Picture very much lacks in character and story, it makes up for with pure sound and image: Jerry Goldsmith’s glorious score, the trippy special effects, the pajama uniforms, the sheer volume of extras this runaway production could afford. If you think Star Trek needs to be a fast-paced action movie, this is probably your least favorite film. But – the risk of sounding like the kind of goofball hippie The Motion Picture seems built for – there are some very groovy chill vibes in this very silly movie.
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3. The Undiscovered Country
Okay, but now let’s start talking about awesome movies. Nicholas Meyer steered right into the skid of flagrant topicality with his second Trek directorial effort, rendering the end of the Cold War via onscreen diplomatic negotiations between Starfleet and the Klingon Empire. Meyer always had a cockeyed perspective on Kirk – his films flavor Kirk’s heroism with melancholy and rage – and the film springs off the idea of William Shatner playing an old soldier, watching the times pass him by. Shatner and the whole original Enterprise crew are all giving career-best work here – the dinner scene is a showcase for everyone involved. What’s even more impressive – coming from the man who made Wrath of Khan – is that this is still the only Trek film that doesn’t try to cough up one single super-bad-guy villain. Undiscovered Country’s Klingons are clever, witty Shakespeare scholars – some good, some nefarious – and even the bad Klingons are only as bad as their Starfleet co-conspirators. The film gets less ambitious as it goes along, but it wraps up with a heartwarming epilogue, sending off the original Star Trek cast on a humane high note.
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2. The Wrath of Khan
KHAAAAAANNNN! Nicholas Meyer’s hotblooded debut as a Star Trek filmmaker ignores The Motion Picture and reconceives the utopian series with a naval inflection. It also gives Kirk an identity crisis: Middle-aged and shipless, the Admiral looks a little lost. The film reactivates Kirk by bringing back an old nemesis: Khan, Moby Dick-quoting barbarian maniac genius played with muscular relish by Ricardo Montalban. Montalban gives an ecstatic performance, and his spirit pervades the filmmaking: Meyer stages the ship-to-ship combats with shadowy space-submarine tension, and clever shoots his tiny sets with a depth of field that makes Khan feel like an epic in miniature. “I feel old,” Kirk says at the beginning. “I feel young,” he says at the end. You know how he feels.
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1. The Voyage Home
A delightfully unserious film about deeply serious things, Leonard Nimoy’s masterpiece is a lightfooted character comedy. There’s a mysterious alien intelligence destroying the Earth; saving the future means saving the whales. The crew travels back in time, and then something quite lovely happens: They go exploring. Shot partially on location in San Francisco, Voyage Home reimagines its space heroes as a comedy team, with Kirk as a hilariously out-of-his-depth “expert” (“Double dumbass on you!”) and Spock as a holy-fool Harpo who’s not above going for a swim with a humpback whale. The peculiar magic of The Voyage Home is difficult to graph – co-writer Nicholas Meyer crafted some of the funniest dialogue in the series, and one-off guest-star Catherine Hicks is an energetic addition to the main cast.
And the supporting cast! McCoy gives an old lady a new kidney; Scotty talks to a computer; Uhura begs onlookers to point her towards Alameda; Chekov pronounces “vessels” funny. Lighthearted, leisurely-paced, with nary a gun fired or a photon torpedo exploded: There may never be another franchise movie like this – hell, there may never be another movie like this – which makes the blithe miracle of The Voyage Home all the more impressive.