Friday, 29 July 2016

Gratuitous Lists: All 13 STAR TREK movies...ranked!

The point of Gratuitous Lists is that the things on it are not listed in order of excellence, but are just on there so people can talk about the shows/games in question rather than argue about the order, which is often arbitrary. But sometimes arguing about the order is just too much fun. After Entertainment Weekly issued a list of Star Trek movies ranked by quality that is simply objectively wrong (how high up is Nemesis?), here's my riposte:

13. Star Trek Into Darkness

Directed by J.J Abrams • Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof • Released 23 April 2013

Woah! Shots fired! Into Darkness isn't a good Star Trek movie, I think most people agree, but the worst? Worse than The Final Frontier or Nemesis? That seems harsh.

But on reflection, I think not. Each of the previous eleven Star Trek movies, even the deliberately nostalgia-evoking 2009 reboot, at least had at their heart a core idea, or something they wanted to say. Not necessarily anything that was particularly original or good, but at least something that gave them a reason to exist. Into Darkness doesn't do that. Having laid down a fresh new direction in the 2009 movie, J.J. Abrams abruptly reverses course and gives us a poor remake of The Wrath of Khan whilst completely missing everything that made that earlier movie work (like the fact that it was based on us having known the characters for fifteen years, 79 episodes and another movie previously; this cast and crew hadn't earned that story yet), whilst also dialling back on screen time for everyone bar Kirk and Spock. There's a nasty, dark undercurrent to the film, a lack of respect for innocent life that just isn't very Star Trek and a horrendous casting decision in using Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. Add to that the lacklustre final battle against a poorly-designed enemy ship and a near-total absence of plot logic, and Into Darkness becomes a sprawling, incoherent mess which aims to be gritty and morally murky and ends up just being comically inept.

12. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Directed by William Shatner • Written by David Loughrey, Harve Bennett & William Shatner • Released 9 June 1989

The Final Frontier is, in many respects a badly-directed, indifferently-written movie which is saved by some absolutely killer lines ("I've always known that I'll die alone" could be a Wrath of Khan line; "What does God want with a starship?" could...not) and the emotional bond between the characters. It also acts as some kind of trans-dimensional portal, through which you can gaze into the inner workings of William Shatner's mind. If you emerge with your sanity intact, congratulations, but spend too long gazing into the abyss and The Final Frontier starts looking like something approaching a good film, an offbeat and bizarre character piece with an occasional decent action beat and an ending that was so far beyond the budget's ability to deliver that someone should really have stopped Shatner from attempting it. But of course no mere mortal could stop Shatner once he had been given this kind of power.

I can see why EW put The Final Frontier further up their list. There's something compulsively watchable about the movie, if only because you're not entirely sure what the hell Shatner is going to do next (either directing, acting or writing-wise) and you have to admire the fact that a movie starring actors in their fifties and sixties went up against the Tim Burton Batman film and the Ghostbusters sequel and somehow held its own. But it does only work once. On rewatches, the film's many flaws including its howl-inducing dialogue, weak effects, uncertain tone and poor villain become almost overwhelming.

11. Star Trek: Nemesis

Directed by Stuart Laird • Written by John Logan, Rick Berman & Brent Spiner • Released 13 December 2002

Nemesis almost killed Star Trek. The only film to bomb at the box office (although thanks to DVD it did eventually turn a modest profit), it was responsible for ending Rick Berman's stewardship of the franchise and causing Paramount to completely rethink their plans for how the property would be handled going forwards. For all of that, Nemesis is not entirely without merit: in a young Tom Hardy as a Reman general (and clone of Picard) it has a reasonably good villain, the concluding space battle is one of the better in the series and both Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart deliver killer performances, both rich in tragedy, introspection and pathos. It's also good to see some major changes to the Next Generation paradigm, with characters being promoted, getting married and moving on with their lives.

But it's also a bitty and underwritten film. The scenes focused on character development were almost entirely cut from the final movie, leaving a string of half-thought-out and underwhelming set pieces (the buggy racing scene is a bit pointless). The film also makes the mistake of killing off a major character and then bringing him back five minutes later. You can only do that once in a franchise (and Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock earned it a lot more), and doing it for the second time here (and a third time in Into Darkness) is a big mistake in terms of building suspense and tone.

Nemesis isn't the worst movie ever made or even the worst Star Trek movie. At its core it has a really strong premise, which is more than you can say about The Final Frontier, but it's certainly the most undercooked and indifferently-directed movie in the history of the series.

10. Star Trek: Insurrection

Directed by Jonathan Frakes • Written by Michael Piller • Released 11 December 1998

Insurrection is the Star Trek movie that everyone kind of forget exists. It's just kind of there. A lighthearted film, even marketed as the "Star Trek date movie" (because that is a thing that anyone ever asked for or wanted), it's completely inoffensive. The villain (played by F. Murray Abraham in fine, scenery-destroying form) is okay, the effects are okay, the story is okay and everything about it is kind of okay without ever being outstanding. It's worst sin is being boring, like a late-Season 5 episode of TNG that you completely forget ever existed until you hit it on a complete rewatch and then you've forgotten about again ten minutes after it ends. However, the film does have one outstanding moment: Data going haywire and Picard defeating him using Gilbert and Sullivan. For that gloriously demented scene, we'll forgive Insurrection its overwhelming beigeness.

9. Star Trek: Generations
Directed by David Carson • Written by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga • Released 18 November 1994
Picard and Kirk meet and team up! To ride horses! And punch Michael McDowell! In the last twenty minutes of the film!

In terms of marketing, Generations oversold the idea of Kirk and Picard joining forces to take down an enemy threat. The budget wouldn't allow for the entire crews of both past and present Enterprises to meet and writers Ron Moore and Brannon Braga were distracted by also having to the write the (far superior) Next Generation series finale, All Good Things, which even Patrick Stewart admitted would have made for a better film.

As it stands, Generations isn't too bad. The saucer separation and crash-landing sequence is splendidly realised, McDowell is a reasonably charismatic bad guy and director David Carson brings a dark, subdued tone to the film which doesn't make any sense (apparently it was encouraged by the studio who loved his work on the classic TNG episode Yesterday's Enterprise) but is extremely atmospheric. Patrick Stewart also gets a meaty emotional storyline when confronting his own mortality and that of his family. But the plot is clunky and filleted with holes (why doesn't Soran just fly into the Nexus in a ship instead of blowing up entire star systems and killing billions of people?), Whoopi Goldberg doesn't get enough to do and the feeling is that they destroyed the wonderfully-designed Enterprise-D (its successor is a much less interesting design) just for shock value.

8. Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams • Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof • Released 7 April 2009
J.J. Abrams's reboot of Star Trek is filled with problems which sound rather damning: the comedy moments are awful, there is zero respect given for science or plot logic and Chris Pine is woefully miscast and unconvincing as the young Captain Kirk. But at the same time, the film is energetic and kind of fun, the rest of the new cast (especially Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Zoe Saldana) is excellent and the film makes a decent fist of tying in to the existing mythology and continuity whilst also doing its own thing. You also have to give massive respect to Leonard Nimoy who delivers a well-measured performance filled with gravitas. It's also surprising and welcome that Abrams gives us a whole new villain (played with deranged intensity by Eric Bana) rather than trying to bring back any of the big Star Trek monsters or aliens. There's many wince-inducing moments and a tonal mismatch with what came before, but the 2009 Star Trek reboot hits a lot more than it misses.

7. Star Trek Beyond

Directed by Justin Lin • Written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung • Released 7 July 2016

The newest Star Trek movie is, fortunately, one of the better ones in the series. Problematic elements in the new canon (beaming between star systems, magic blood) are simply ignored, the plot is refreshingly straightforward and mostly bereft of major lapses in logic, the cast is much-better served by the script and Starbase Yorktown is the first outright stunning piece of new Star Trek design in decades. The film moves fast, Idris Elba is a good villain and overall this feels like a fresh, breezy and massively-budgeted episode of the TV show.

6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Directed by Robert Wise • Written by Harold Livingston, Alan Dean Foster & Gene Roddenberry (uncredited) • Released 7 December 1979

In Gene Roddenberry's head, all of Star Trek would have looked like The Motion Picture and the first season of The Next Generation: slow, talky and only occasionally letting off a phaser for the fun of it. If the Roddenberry who made the original Star Trek series was a fast-working administrator who understood the beats and needs of action-adventure television, a decade of constant praise and being hailed as a visionary ("The Great Bird of the Galaxy") at Star Trek conventions had not so much gone to his head as triggered an explosion of vanity that could have sunk the franchise. The Motion Picture, in particular, is held up as an example of film-maker overindulgence at its flabbiest.

It's hard to argue with that. But it's also hard to argue against the idea that The Motion Picture is a good film. Whether it's a good Star Trek film is another matter, but The Motion Picture makes some quite bold decisions that, in an absolute million years, no director or writer on Earth would get away with today. It's a slow-paced movie with tons of expensive visual effects. There's lots of scenes where characters sit around and make philosophical scoring points. Spock doesn't get involved in the plot until almost halfway through the film. The Enterprise only fires its weapons once, to destroy an asteroid. There's more lip-service paid to science and the dangers of the everyday technology the characters use (the death-by-malfunctioning transporter scene is still grimly disturbing). There isn't even a bad guy. The Motion Picture is much more Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars, which for an effects SF movie released in 1979 was a very bold and counter intuitive decision.

But there's a sense of gravitas, of vision and of scale to this film that Star Trek never achieved before or since. V'Ger is a stunning creation, the best-realised Big Dumb Object in the history of SF cinema, and Kirk and crew's first reaction being to study and negotiate with it is welcome. The film is also a love letter to the starship Enterprise, which arguably has never been depicted with more aplomb than in this movie, and of course its design in this film is now the gold standard for all other attempts to depict the ship. And it easily has the best soundtrack of any Star Trek film (which given how good some of the others are, is saying something). It's not for everyone, and if Roddenberry had been allowed to continue with the franchise he probably would have wrecked it, but The Motion Picture is the oddest, weirdest and - arguably - most interesting Star Trek movie of them all. But, obviously, not the best.

5. Star Trek: First Contact

Directed by Jonathan Frakes • Written by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga • Released 22 November 1996

When The Next Generation created the Borg, it always felt like they were trying to unleash an enemy they didn't quite have the money to realise fully. This, combined with the fear of over-using them and losing their implacable menace, saw them deployed on TNG in only six out of 178 episodes, and arguably only in three of those episodes were they the "proper" Borg.

Using the second TNG movie to fully realise the Borg as a horrific, invasive force of assimilation and destruction was a wise move and First Contact is full of well-directed moments showing this unstoppable enemy in full swing (all handled with aplomb by TNG actor Jonathan Frakes). It also features some rather howl-inducingly terrible moments which are best forgotten (most of the Earth subplot involving James Cromwell's spectacularly grating mad scientist), not to mention how the ridiculous ease with which the Borg cube is defeated in the opening minutes of the film reduces the threat level of the Borg quite a lot. But overlooking that, Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart deliver killer performances, as does Alice Krige, whose Borg Queen may be the most sinister and disturbing Star Trek movie villain of them all. One ends up wishing for an adult-rated version of this movie where they really go to town with the body horror and action sequences.

We never quite get that and ultimately First Contact pulls a few too many punches. But it's a watchable, enjoyable action film featuring one of Stewart's best performances in the role of Picard, and certainly is the only TNG movie which can withstand comparisons with the best films in the franchise.

4. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Directed by Leonard Nimoy • Written by Harve Bennett • Released 1 June 1984

The Search for Spock is the Star Trek movie franchise's most underrated entry, and one that seems to be gaining more in popularity as time goes by. It's the film that introduces more iconic ships and ideas into the Star Trek universe than almost any other: the Klingon Bird-of-Prey, Spacedock, the Excelsior and transwarp technology go on to star in many future Trek movies and episodes. It also uses a fairly narrow plot directive - resurrect Spock - in an enjoyable and rather smart way throughout. Like The Wrath of Khan the script is built on a series of thematic elements which resonate throughout the movie. Kirk's growing age, his frustration with his desk-bound career and his mixed feelings on family: in The Wrath of Khan he gained a son but lost his best friend. The Search for Spock's absolute masterstroke is giving Kirk back his best friend, but taking away his son and his ship and his career: his very reasons for living. For a film that gets a lot of flak (some, like Christopher Lloyd's well-played but ill-defined Klingon villain and the dodgy planet sets, justifiably) The Search for Spock delivers two of the franchise's most brilliantly-staged and tensest moments: stealing the Enterprise from Spacedock and later blowing it up over the Genesis Planet. I mean, how many movies can make reversing the car out of the garage into one of the most iconic set-pieces in the franchise's history?

The Search for Spock's best moment is when Kirk nails that being human is to be irrational and illogical: "The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many" doesn't make sense, especially when the many includes Kirk's son, his ship, his career and those of his crew. But then in the final scene Spock lives again, and more adventures are promised, and then it makes sense.

3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Directed by Leonard Nimoy • Written by Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer, Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes • Released 26 November 1986

A plot summary for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home sounds like a bad acid trip. Millions of years ago, an alien probe surveying the galaxy visited Earth and made contact with the most intelligent species on the planet at that time: whales. Figuring that the whales would eventually evolve into a more impressive lifeform, the probe leaves with a promise to swing back by. It does, only to discover that the whales have been killed off by the ape-descendants who have evolved in the meantime. The probe is a bit annoyed by this and prepares to destroy the planet and everyone on it. Kirk and co., heading home to face the music after the events of The Search for Spock, realise they have no choice but to travel back in time to rescue two humpback whales and bring them back to tell the probe to bugger off.

But it works. The Voyage Home is a barmy film which starts off as a relentless, doom-laded SF thriller before turning into an 1980s-tastic comedy in the second act, complete with "nuclear wessels" and right-on ecological messages. It's also genuinely funny, with some great culture-clash moments. It's unusual because there is also no sense of tension: because Kirk and co. can return to their own time at the exact moment they left, they could spend several years in the 20th Century if they really wanted to. This results in some breezy pacing and great character interplay. The finale, where they return home and try to see if their plan worked, is predictable but effective.

The result is the most light-hearted Star Trek movie and the most atypical. It's fun and slightly cheesy but is rooted in these characters and the easy chemistry they've developed over twenty years.

2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Directed by Nicholas Meyer • Written by Nicholas Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn • Released 6 December 1991

After The Final Frontier's ghastly critical reception, both the original series actors and Paramount wanted to to send them out on a stronger note. Leonard Nimoy was brought in to produce and he decided to re-recruit Nicholas Meyer to direct and co-write, developing the idea of glasnost and the notion of the Federation and the Klingon Empire making peace whilst generals and spies on both sides desperately want to prolong the cold war.

The result is a film that takes the metaphor and pushes it forwards a little too obviously, but is really watchable and clever for that. The movie also tackles racism (Kirk invoking the death of his son by Klingons in The Search for Spock as a reason for hating them) and the notions of age and moving on, with Sulu and his Excelsior, a ship bigger, more powerful and faster than the Enterprise, making the Enterprise crew realise that their adventures are over. Thrown in some fun battle sequences and a great villainous turn from Christopher Plummer as a Shakespeare-quoting Klingon general and you have a perfect send-off to the original crew.

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Directed by Nicholas Meyer • Written by Harve Bennett, Jack B. Sowards & Nicholas Meyer (uncredited) • Released 4 June 1982

This is the film that saved Star Trek, by bringing on board a writer and director who had no knowledge about the franchise at all and letting them deliver a faster-paced and better-written movie than the ponderous Motion Picture. Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer hit paydirt by bringing back the powerfully charismatic Ricardo Montalban as Khan, a villain from the TV series, and turning their limited budget into a boon. More than half the film is shot on the same set standing in for the bridge of both the Enterprise and the Reliant, and a large chunk of it is a taut, expertly-directed game of cat and mouse in a nebula. The film also has one of the cleverest doomsday weapons of all time with the Genesis Device, a terraforming aid which can be perverted into a force for destruction, and it also competes with The Motion Picture for the title of "best soundtrack in the franchise", promoting James Horner to the big leagues of Hollywood composing.

But where the film works best is its exploration of age, which sees Kirk plunged into a depression as he struggles with the demands of responsibility and his desire to command a starship once again, and it is only as the film unfolds and Kirk gains a family, defeats an enemy and loses a friend that he realises how well off he really is. The film usually sees William Shatner praised - this is by a light-year his finest moment as Kirk - as well as Leonard Nimoy, but DeForest Kelley also does sterling and under-appreciated work as McCoy acting as Kirk's conscience.

Great music, fine performances, brilliantly-developed themes and a superlative soundtrack all make The Wrath of Khan the best Star Trek movie...and we haven't even mentioned the fact that its groundbreaking CG sequence resulted in the creation of Pixar Studios. Not just the best Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan is one of the finest SF movies of all time.


JD Woodman said...

Excellent ranking! Probably what I would do myself, or very very close at the least.

Anonymous said...

Without question Star Trek the Motion Picture was easily the most unwatchable film in the series.

Michael Laird said...

Your mileage may vary.

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Of course.

2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Classic Trek.

3. Star Trek Beyond
Honestly, I have been watching it for fifty years and I never expect to see cutting edge science fiction or great social commentary. I expect character-driven space opera and this movie delivered big-time. Also, Chris Pine has really nailed the Kirk thing, proving he wasn't woefully miscast in the first movie where he was almost ten years younger than we ever saw Shatnir's Kirk.

4. Star Trek (Reboot)
Character driven space opera and the first trek movie in a long time that made me want to watch it more than once. And yes, you really question Pine's "kirkiness" up until that last scene when he sits in the chair and totally channels Shatnir. Amazing.

6. Star Trek Into Darkness
Yes, it had some problems but then, all the remaining movies had worse problems. Got to love the dreadnaught class finally making its appearance from the non-canon StarFleet Battles game.

7. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Fun but a little too melancholy with everything winding down.

8. Star Trek: First Contact
A really great movie up until they beamed down to old-time Earth, after that the only good parts were onboard the ship (but they were pretty good). What about wimpifying the Borg? They beat ONE Borg ship on a suicide run because it was distracted, up against the entire fleet, and that fleet was commanded by Picard who still retained intimate knowledge of Borg design.

9. Star Trek: Generations
Should have broken the budget and gotten the whole crew, shouldn't have spent the last half hour of the movie climbing over rocks in the desert, and, worst, if Kirk is going to die it ought to be by crashing a supernova into an invading Borg fleet or something, not falling off a portable walking bridge in the desert.

10. Star Trek: Insurrection
I seem to recall Picard singing Pirates of Penzance to Data and long walks with refugees in the wilderness? Damns itself by being too meh. The rest of this list turn actively bad.

11. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Cheap sets, dubious science even for space opera, killing off the blue lagoon kid for no real reason except that they seem to have decided he was a liability, and way, way too much time watching young Spock sweat as people are running around rocks and volcanoes. Extreme boredom.

12. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Really, really, extreme boredom. They didn't even start with a fresh idea but just recycled a 60's television show.

13. Star Trek: Nemesis
Zero rewatchability. In fact, I wish I had the time back for watching it once. Caters way too much to Picard's desire to do 'serious' drama.

14. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Kirk versus God. The franchise had jumped the shark and there was nothing else there to even mitigate that.

Michael Laird said...

Oh, and I have 14, not 13, because everyone forgets about that one that ought to be number 5. Apparently even me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, not understanding the hate on the new Star Trek movies. I know there are some silly deviations from science in these movies, but at the end of the day movies are meant to be entertaining, and on that front they work for me. Also, every Star Trek fan should respect the fact that the actors really didn't take liberties to their characters. They are pretty faithful to the original cast members vision of them.

Bronk said...

I like this list, but I usually rank 'The Motion Picture' much further down.

It's slow and boring: It came out in 1979, and instead of emulating a more exiting Star Wars (1977), 2001: A Space Odyssey with it's crazy ten minute long random light shows.

It introduced a character that tried to be more Spocky than Spock, a human computer that couldn't shake sexual harassment from the ship's captain slash ex.

And finally, the main plot was a bad remake of a previous Star Trek story, 'The Changeling', with V'ger replacing Nomad.

Part of the reason that Wrath of Khan is tops (for me) is that it was a direct continuation of the TOS episode 'Space Seed', and I appreciate the continuity. I always liked 'The Changeling', and didn't like that it was basically overwritten.

David Liss said...

These lists are entirely subjective, so I wouldn't normally quibble, except.... You can't seriously believe that Insurrection is better than Nemesis -- can you?

Tom Miller said...

Been reading your blog for years, and always enjoy reading your lists. Many magazines/blogs/etc have lists like this, and many times Start Trek is the topic. But as a true lover of Trek, those lists are so easily dismissed because I always feel they are tossed off to an intern or an idea pulled out of mothballs to increase page views. So it's refreshing to read the thoughts on Trek by someone who has a depth of knowledge about SF/F.

Thus, I almost completely agree with your list. An exception is Undiscovered Country, a movie that should tick all of my boxes but ends up leaving me cold. I'd still only move it back to 4th because it does have real quality.

I'm also happy that you placed TMP so high- I understand why people dislike it, and it is surely flawed, but it is filled with Moments that stand out (The whole Kholinar concept and Spock's subsequent shift to embrace his humanity- which changed Nimoy's performance going forward!), and I'll always prefer my Star Trek focusing on some Big Idea- even if it is ultimately a failure, it's a noble one. Which is why the Reboot films have left me indifferent. What's the Big Idea there?