The Movies Ranked - Worst to Best
13. Star Trek: Generations
A grand send-off for Captain James T Kirk, and a stunning translation to the big screen for The Next Generation crew, just that year finishing up their TV voyages. What could possibly go wrong? It was Rick Berman’s idea to pass the baton, which might have seemed like it was soundly underpinning an untested new arena for Picard’s crew but ends up looking eggy for all involved. The only ones who emerge from this disaster with any credit are Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly, who passed (Nimoy’s put-down concisely had it that no one would notice the difference if the dozen or so Spock lines were given to someone else).
Shatner, no doubt hubristically persuaded by the temptation of a Spock-like death, ends up being served the most underwhelming end imaginable. He does, nevertheless, show up Patrick Stewart’s performance for the starchy, stagy stodge it is. Hence, no doubt, the decision that would dog the next three movies: turning Picard uncharacteristically into a t-shirt-wearing action hero for the climax. And Data. Oh dear lord, Data. He’s better used subsequently, but every scene with his activated emotion chip is excruciatingly unfunny. As for the rest of the crew, they’re unsurprisingly inessential.
There’s also the problem of director David Carson, veteran of the TV show who, (in)appropriately enough, turns in a movie that looks entirely like an extended series outing, complete with uninspired woods and desert locations and a starship crash sequence which, despite ILM’s involvement, is disappointingly Gerry Anderson-like (not to slight the Anderson). Malcolm McDowell is one of the few bright spots, but deserved a meatier part to fit his scenery chewing. This is a movie wasting five minutes (it seems like ten) on an introductory holodeck scene that’s entirely smug, mirthless and misconceived, completely missing that this is just the sort of fan-sating nonsense you ditch as soon as you attempt to reach a broader audience. No wonder they thought they needed the Shat.
12. Star Trek: Nemesis
Four movies in, and it’s already TNG crew’s final curtain. A bit like Brosnan’s Bond. Instead of the two-year gap between previous missions, there were four before the series limped along to Nemesis; it went down like a lead balloon at the box office, making even The Final Frontier look like a respectable performer in comparison.
The intentions were sound, however. Stewart may have been onto something nixing the Romulans in Insurrection, as casting them as the main villains here proves a dud. That’s not to say they mightn’t have worked though, even without retconning a twin race of Remans into existence to give them a more monstrous application. Someone at Paramount certainly recognised that if the movie incarnation of TNG was going to sustain itself, it need a more than serviceable directorial style, which meant a third for Frakes wasn’t going to happen.
But drafting in editor-turned-helmer Stuart Baird, off the back of his strong work on Executive Decision, probably wasn’t the most inspired choice. It needed someone hungry to make an impression, with a strong grip on story, rather than a solid journeyman. Someone who could bring the certain something Nicolas Meyer brought to The Original Series movies – particularly since this was going all out to replicate that vibe in the most blatant and ineffective manner, with Picard faced by a truly cunning adversary (a clone of himself, rather than Khan – that would come two movies later – but personified by a poorly written and motivated role for ingénue Tom Hardy) and the self-sacrifice of his first officer.
Those in the cast seem to lay the blame at Baird’s door and the hacking out of a significant chunk of character work in order to make the movie tighter. I’m doubtful that’s really the issue, as one needs look no further than John Logan’s derivative and poorly thought-out screenplay (from an idea by Brent Spiner, a pal of Logan’s) to get to the heart of the matter. There’s no compelling hook to Shinzon (Hardy), and everything else suffers as a result. On top of which are some truly dubious plot decisions (his mind rape of Troi, leading to a horrendously blithe response from Picard) and a trite paralleling of Picard’s double with Data’s. Spiner’s performance as B4 is one of the more effective elements of Nemesis, mainly because so much of the proceedings feel like a slog where you care nothing about anyone or what they’re doing. There’s little here that is actively bad, but correspondingly nothing to get your teeth into.
11. Star Trek: Insurrection
You’d have thought, having stuck the landing on his first attempt, Jonathan Frakes would be confident of what was needed for a convincing big screen Trek. Not so, as Insurrection is resolutely small screen in scope. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the direction worked that to its advantage. Not so. Generations feels like a TV episode that wants to be a movie. Insurrection just feels like a TV episode.
Part of the problem is the undramatic plot motivator; a fountain of youth that leads to a dull romance for Picard and a long stay at a model village in (yet again) unremarkable backlot countryside. In fairness, Insurrection has a few plus points. It starts off rather well, for starters, mid-adventure, with Data apparently running amok and deliberately exposing the Federation’s presence on the Ba’ku’s planet. The twist in the identities of the Brazil-nightmare Son’a is a decent one, as is the means by which their leader, F Murray Abraham (again, like McDowell before him, not used to best effect), is finally beaten.
But there’s an awful lot of uninvolving material in between. Following The Voyage Home (or is it The Final Frontier?) example of trying to give the crew more exposure, there’s comedy material as Troi and Beverly Crusher’s boobs firm up and Worf re-experiences puberty, all of which seems faintly desperate (although, I have to admit, some of Michael Dorn’s deadpan deliveries had me chuckling). Data, once he has righted himself, makes pals with a small Ba’ku boy, which only makes his subplot marginally less toe curling than the one in Generations.
A sequence sees the villagers led to safety from the Federation into the mountains – in theory Picard being at loggerheads with his, if not bread and butter then vocation, should be formidable material – but it’s rather underwhelming. You don’t have to have a Star Trek movie with enormous planetary stakes, but you have to make the stakes you have count for something, and Insurrection never gets there. The result is the most forgettable Trek movie.
10. Star Trek Beyond
Star Trek Beyond will do. There are those who claim it’s closer to the Prime universe’s ethos and characterisation, but really what it is is filler born out of the parting of ways of JJ (off to direct Star Wars) and Orci/Kurtzman (just off). They were responsible for the continuity quagmire of Into Darkness, generally regarded as a creative failure, despite being easily the highest grossing movie in the franchise (Paramount expected more for their dough). Orci was attached to direct the third movie, despite never having handled a feature, let alone one pushing a $200m price tag; even his writing partner Alex Kurtzman had made a small film when he secured his own mega-bucks The Mummy, and look how that turned out.
So, in that sense, Beyond dodged a bullet, as it’s highly unlikely Orci would have provided the polish JJ brought to Into Darkness, ensuring it skipped relatively lightly through its frequent bumpy patches. What it doesn’t have, what desperate-measures writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung fail to provide (this remains a Bad Robot production, the latter’s God Particle script being the forthcoming third instalment in the Cloverfield anthology), is a good reason to be, a need to be told, a germ of inspiration. There’s something very serviceable but no more than that about Beyond, right down to Justin Lin’s edit-happy – he isn’t as slick as JJ, and his action isn’t as “clean” – functionally flashy journeyman direction (I’ll say this for him, though; if he’d had the screenplay with the potential of the following one in this ranking, he’d likely have knocked it out of the park).
What we get are tired tropes and familiar attempts at arcs – Kirk moves from having barely got off the ground to being in the third year of a five-year mission and clearly not enjoying it; everything’s the same every day, and there’s no fun in it. So we’ve basically entirely skipped the part where he plain dug being a captain and getting out there exploring (and yet again, the extent of the exploring here turns out to be entirely Federation-centric, complete with Earth-substitute Yorktown).
There are attempts to address what it means to be part of the Federation that allude to exclusionary attitudes from Brexit and Trump, but they feel arbitrary and one-note – Doctor Who’s pro-EU membership The Curse of Peladon was positively nuanced in comparison, and that was 45 years ago. Like gay Sulu, one senses Pegg and Jung were motivated by what they thought would gain them kudos for being progressive, rather than what would tell a good story. Worse, it comes by way of another renegade Star Fleet Captain, one who has wholesale lifted the twist of Insurrection under the (correct) assumption no one would remember it, having fallen asleep somewhere around the point Picard doesn’t quite kindle a romance with his leading lady.
And Idris Elba yet again comes a cropper in his big screen roles. TV rightly made his name (The Wire), but aside from some voice work, none of his Hollywood movies have done him proud. Krall/Edison fails to make a mark, encumbered by forgettable makeup and motivation. And, proving this trilogy – will there be a fourth? – can’t get out from under the shadow of the Prime universe, nor does it want to, there’s an unnecessarily shoehorned subplot about Spock – like Kirk – coming to terms with his place in things on learning of the death of Leonard Nimoy. I mean, Spock Prime (it’s this kind of wretched, needless fan pandering that gave us the Cyber Brigadier). Pegg also writes himself an entirely unengaging subplot of Scotty getting to know alien girl Sofia Boutella.
There are positives here, though. Lin offers some decent set pieces, including the destruction and crash of the Enterprise (and subsequent run around in its wreck – it’s only later we’re reduced to Kirk riding a motorbike around a quarry), and a cheap but effective re-use of Sabotage from the ’09 movie as a means of jamming the drone swarm’s frequency (a bit nonsensical it would be that easy, mind). The pairing of Urban and Quinto pays huge dividends (“Doctor, I fail to see how excrement of any kind bears relevance in our current situation”) and it’s nice that Anton Yelchin has some solid screen time in what would be his final appearance as Chekov (“Do you know that Scotch was actually invented by a little old lady in Wussia?”)
9. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
On paper, The Search for Spock looks fine. Harve Bennett pulls together the hanging threads left by The Wrath of Khan remarkably seamlessly, building a story you could easily be mistaken for thinking had been planned out all along (Spock’s rebirth, Genesis’ demise, the fate of Kirk’s son), and climaxes with the kind of never-seen-before shock (the destruction of the Enterprise!) that in its own way ought to be as momentous as the loss of the first officer (albeit, it also smacks of, “How can we repeat that kind of impact?”)
But, alas, The Search for Spock does not have a Nicholas Meyer on board to steer the ship, and Leonard Nimoy’s feature debut entirely fails to live up to the franchise-salvaging miracle that was its predecessor. This isn’t a case of choppy waters being evident on screen the way it is with the Shat’s entry as director. Rather, it’s that Nimoy entirely underwhelms cinematically. For the first time, and certainly not the last, a cinematic Trek more resembles a TV movie in texture and tone. The sets really feel like sets (just check out the Genesis scenes, the climax in particular), and the director fails to imbue the proceedings with stakes, threat or consistent drama.
There are some nice moments in The Search for Spock for sure, and Nimoy knows how to handle his actors, as you’d expect; DeForest Kelly, in particular, makes a strong showing, McCoy unknowingly having taken on the consciousness of his old sparring partner. But where The Wrath of Khan presented a believable, immersive naval-by-way-of-space-age scenario and reintroduced an old villain with accompanying weight and gravitas, The Search for Spock is unable to come to grips with any of its elements in a wholly satisfying way.
Nimoy fails at the basics, be it 25th century casual wear (what is Chekov wearing, exactly?) or a sub-Star Wars bar scene. Kirk’s loss of his son has none of the impact it should (and David, and Saavik, so well sketched out previously, are at best perfunctory presences). And his adversaries are only so-so, Christopher Lloyd offering character but zero menace in our first proper encounter with nu-Klingons (in retrospect entirely better serviced in their The Motion Picture cameo). You wouldn’t call The Search for Spock a bad Trek movie by any stretch, but it’s an unfortunately limp one.
8. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
For many, this is the Star Trek movie to remorselessly give a good kicking, even – scarcely credible I know – reserving it precedence over some of the lesser TNG outings (which is about three out of the four). And for sure, the Shat’s singular try at big screen directing is by some distance the most uneven entry in the series. For me, though, its very individuality, warts and all, make it a frequently highly likeable – laudable even – standalone picture.
There may have been a degree of hubris involved in The Final Frontier’s making – Shatner wanted the acclaim and say-so Nimoy had reserved – that fed the film’s failure, both critically and financially. On the other hand, matters weren’t helped by a writer’s strike, Paramount cutting costs and the unavailability of ILM. As a director, Shatner’s contribution is much more impressive and stylistically astute than his co-star’s earlier work. The problem is that the picture really doesn’t hang together very well, and while it’s creditable that the story opts for a more philosophical engine than the material villainy of II and III, the concept itself isn’t entirely dissimilar to The Motion Picture’s (the Enterprise hijacked for a quest, a god being revealed as nothing of the sort).
The Shat needs to cop the blame for that rather unimaginative premise, nursing his own story idea as well as calling the shots (deciding to have the Enterprise crew embark on a mission to meet God). He also plumped for Laurence Lukenbill as the main antagonist, unable to secure Sean Connery. The former is okay as Sybok, but he lacks that certain something necessary to establish an equal presence with Nimoy. Which might be for the best in fans’ eyes, as it makes it easier to ignore retconning Spock’s childhood by giving him a half-brother (his family is teeming with hitherto unknown semi-siblings, it seems).
But there’s lots to savour here, and I’m not talking about Uhura’s fan dance (poor Nichelle Nichols finally gets a memorable moment, and it’s for all the wrong reasons). The central trio are marvellously serviced, with a vital and quick rapport (I really like the bookend camp fire scenes, indulgent as they are), and Sybok’s trick of revealing pain leads to some strong scenes and interactions (most notably for DeForest Kelly). James Doohan, never Shat’s greatest cheerleader, is given a purpose-built corridor for a really good sight gag,
and as one of the uneven numbered Treks (traditionally the weaker ones, at least until Nemesis and ’09 Trek bucked the broad consensus), it does its level best to cancel the hex. There’s a sense of brio and fun here that enables the picture to ride through its frequent rough spots (the Klingon presence is a non-event, the grand climax a damp squib, Kirk’s pointed question to God aside). Definitely the prime contender for the most underrated Trek movie.
7. Star Trek: First Contact
Despite being a lousy movie, Generations made money for Paramount, marginally more than its predecessor to boot, and was duly seen as mission accomplished. If Generations quickly got bogged down in TNG’s weaknesses (empty moralising, torturous-Data-centricity, dramatically-inert storylines), First Contact contrastingly played to all its strengths, and then some.
No one would call Jonathan Frakes an auteur, but his big screen debut, having handled a number of TV episodes, is modestly solid, much more so than Nimoy’s was with The Search for Spock. Indeed, a few poor choices aside (the Borg POV work, anything involving the fashions of 21st century Earth, the TV staging of the Vulcan landing at the end), he fully gets to grips with an Enterprise invaded by TNG’s most iconic enemy. That’s clearly the ace in First Contact’s deck, one that, through sheer dint of design and dynamism, overcomes a multitude of plot deficiencies.
The decision to retcon a Borg Queen into existence (Alice Krige) may have infuriated some fans, but it absolutely works in giving the movie a dramatic core (for once, the exec who suggested it wasn’t talking through his arse). Where Data was a tool in Generations, here he’s used effectively as the philosophical counterpoint to Borg plans; this is by far the character’s best big screen showing. There are also some effective set pieces, most notably a Zero-G struggle by Worf and Picard to detach a deflector dish vital to the Borg mission.
Indeed, so rousing are the Enterprise scenes, it’s possible to forgive, or give a pass to at any rate, the more suspect inclusions. Picard’s PTSD is clumsily handled, and Alfre Woodard, with whom he is paired for a significant period, is given a similarly ineptly-written part (providing his moral balance, but ever so crudely). The Earth scenes are intended to provide contrasting light-heartedness, but aside from Mr Smug, Riker, you just want to boo them off stage. James Cromwell is quite dreadful as Zefram Cochrane (luckily, he was quite superb as Dudley Smith the following year in LA Confidential, and had been entirely endearing as Farmer Hoggett in Babe the previous year) and the attempts at culture-clash laughs, riffing on The Voyage Home, are doomed to fail because there’s no recognisable 21st century culture to clash against. Added to which, naturally, it all comes down to Picard climbing up a rope in a vest, but all in all, as TNG things go, First Contact can be deemed a success.
6. Star Trek Into Darkness
I know, I know. It’s a travesty. It’s written by a “Truther” laying out his mission statement in the narrative. It whitewashes Khan and is tediously indebted to Nicholas Meyer’s movie. It puts Kirk right back where he was in the first movie. And it features magic blood.
I do understand the faithful’s myriad complaints about the picture (the list goes on; Marcus’ cheesecake strip-down, Kirk’s switcheroo sacrifice and resurrection lacks any of the fifteen years’ worth of resonance of Spock’s in The Wrath of Khan; it’s there just because that’s what Star Trek II did and copying it is bound to work because Star Trek II is so popular), but – and this could be the same unconvincing defence made of the likes of TRON Legacy or Prometheus – it’s a hell of a ride despite all that. Simply put, JJ directs the stuffing out of it. And for all its faults, it still gets a lot right.
You can complain about the 9/11 allegory in respect of Admiral Marcus’ machinations (although, honestly, the reading only goes so far), but if you weren’t conscious of it, you’d just see it as a considered dramatic device (one that undermines the Rodenberry’s vision of a harmonious Federation, but who wants boring harmony in a movie?) For all that it’s manufactured, the Kirk-Spock tension is well delivered (“What would Spock do?”: “He’d let you die”; “What’s the lesson here?”: “Never trust a Vulcan”), I like Kirk’s pragmatic intuition (his adding up the scenario just as Khan attacks HQ in a jumpship), his impotent beating on Khan, and the non-stoic demise of the Captain (“I’m scared, Spock. Help me not to be”) plays with feeling.
The opening teaser sequence is marvellously breathless too, Noel Clarke’s triggering of disaster porn is appropriately apocalyptic, and Peter Weller provides a far more impacting villain than Cumberbatch. Ah yes. Clearly cast because he was flavour of the month rather than for any valid reasons (I recall Lost’s Nestor Carbonell being rumoured), you’d be hard-pressed to discern what he supposedly brings to the part. Almost as bad is the slavishness to the core precepts of The Wrath of Khan (to the extent of featuring an entirely superfluous, and rather annoying because of it, Leonard Nimoy cameo); about the only way this villain robbing might have been justified would have been turning expectations on their head and having Khan revealed as a good guy. Then there’s Chekov’s Tribble (albeit, in the second rather than first act, and not that Chekov), the crappily redesigned Klingons (not as crappy as in Discovery, mind) and the general sense that this should have been pushing forward rather than embroiling itself in alt-timeline-muddled continuity.
But rewatching the picture for the first time in a couple of years, I’m instantly caught up in it; the score is great, the visuals terrific (the Enterprise rising from the cloud bank is a keeper), the regulars great (in particular, the sadly-departed Yelchin; even the entirely miscast Pegg scores on the comic-relief front). It doesn’t make good on the promise of ’09 Star Trek, and indeed undoes a lot of its good work, but it succeeds as grand, thrilling spectacle.
5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Talking of grand spectacle, you can’t get much grander than this. Robert Wise’s bloated sci-fi epic was much-maligned at the time (“The Motionless Picture”) and often still is, but I find its sheer ambition, even if it is essentially a mashup of a couple of TOS ideas and an adaption of the Star Trek II pilot script, gets me every time.
In a way, it’s a shame The Wrath of Khan became the template design- and scope-wise for future instalments, as it would have been more attractive simply not to know what you were getting from one film to the next. It’s a definite boon to have non-Trekkies servicing key aspects of this re-envisioning, just as it was bringing on board Meyer’s sure narrative eye for the sequel. It’s generally made out that the crew received short shrift in flavour of Douglas Trumbull’s (still awe-inspiring) special effects (and credit also to John Dykstra and Syd Mead), but if they do occasionally take up a little too much time, The Motion Picture does just as good a job as its sequel in re-establishing the central trio, and in introducing the newbies. Indeed, the uneasy vying for authority between Kirk and Decker unfolds expertly, as does Spock’s reintegration into the crew (less so the suspicion of his motives). And Ilia, in normal guise, may come on as a cliché (a sex-addled alien in a no-skirt) but in possessed form Persis Khambatta contributed one of the series’ great aliens.
Most of all, The Motion Picture allows for the foregrounding of the much-vaunted philosophical underpinnings of the series, in a manner that Paramount, taking fright at the expense-returns ratio, quickly foreswore. The Motion Picture is not an action movie, but action would be the prime directive going forward. It’s in the discussions and debates that The Motion Picture triumphs. I wouldn’t argue the picture’s a neglected classic – it doesn’t quite have the originality or sureness of pace to be – but it dares to be different and distinct from the movie it owes its existence to – Star Wars – frequently overcoming those limitations to make a picture that, at its best, is cherishable. It allows itself to indulge spectacle and a sense of the majesty of space, not so common post-2001, and that – costume department aside – should be celebrated. Paramount really ought to stump up the readies to redo the effects on Robert Wise Director’s Cut, though. Bunch of cheapskates.
4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
After the disastrous, Razzie-winning The Final Frontier, a Starfleet Academy movie had been mooted, following junior versions of the Enterprise crew (that would never work! Well, certainly not with Ethan Hawke as Kirk). The idea was ultimately nixed in favour of this, which would be the send-off for the original crew (Generations simply doesn’t count in any meaningful way on that score, or any score for that matter). And a send-off in the best sense, Nicholas Meyer ensuring there’s minimum navel-gazing and self-congratulation and instead getting on with telling a really strong story (one, like The Voyage Home, sprung from topical concerns, once again courtesy of Leonard Nimoy).
I should be clear that The Undiscovered Country isn’t up there with The Wrath of Khan, but then, it wisely doesn’t try to be the same beast. Indeed, it’s only the slight déjà vu of Christopher Plummer’s quotation-fixated Klingon that comes up short, not through any fault of the actor, but because there simply isn’t sufficient meat to him to make Chang one of the great Trek antagonists (his propensity for dropping Shakespeare lines at every turn does provide McCoy with one of the movie’s best lines, however – “I wish he would shut up”).
So too, Valeris, originally intended by Meyer to be a returning Saavik, can’t quite equal her predecessor in the protégé stakes. Part of the issue is that Kim Cattrall has too much personality for a buttoned-down Vulcan. The betrayal plotline makes for a decent, if insufficiently-motivated twist, while Spock’s willingness to mind-rape her is seemingly accepted as a fait accompli (there would be more of this kind of uncompassionate attitude in Nemesis), without the necessary balance of discussing this “justified” torture to gain information.
The final space battle is merely adequate too, but of course we were spoilt with The Wrath of Khan’s. On all other fronts, though, The Undiscovered Country is dramatically robust. Structurally, it has just the right degrees of escalation and variation, from Kirk instantly standing down and surrendering when the Enterprise is accused of assassinating David Warner’s Gorkon, to his and McCoy’s trial and imprisonment on Rura Penthe, to the Spock-playing-Sherlock Holmes plot on the Enterprise (even if the answers come a little easily). The thematic elements are superbly impressed on the storyline, every bit as much as they were in The Wrath of Khan. Kirk’s lack of forgiveness of the Klingons lends him a depth that had been rather undermined by the implementation of The Search for Spock, while Spock’s weariness at humans’ inability to rise above their kneejerk emotions (the old hands are a bunch of racists, basically) makes for an apposite reminder of his often-superior thinking.
The Undiscovered Country’s only real black mark is that it isn’t a classic, but it’s a very satisfying entry nevertheless, a fitting farewell to the original crew made with care and thoughtfulness.
3. Star Trek
If The Force Awakens had been as good a re-introduction to Star Wars as ’09 Trek is to Paramount’s frequently beleaguered SF franchise, you’d have no complaints from me. Well, relatively few, anyway. Yes, this is Trek with action first and rumination and moral and ethical conundrums a distant last, and it’s rather bogged down in elements TOS tended to avoid (parent complexes), but which are very much the norm with today’s all-about-me writers, but JJ directs the less than perfect screenplay like a man with something to prove (such as being the guy to helm a new episode of Star Wars, should it ever return) and has an unerring eye for casting (well, apart from his blind spot, that is). Star Trek is maybe a great movie rather than a great Star Trek movie, but you can’t necessarily have everything.
It’s achievement enough that he recast the irreplaceable and (mostly) got away with it, something I was incredibly dubious about. Additionally so that he weighs in with such sterling emotional beats, laudably supported by composer Michael Giacchino (this might be his best movie score, and it says something that you entirely don’t miss any of the original cues, so gorgeous and immersive is it), from the opening death of Kirk’s dad to the destruction of Vulcan.
Pine and Quinto haven’t a hope of filling the shoes of the Shat and Nimoy (Quinto being particularly unfortunate to have to deal with the reminder of this, dentures and all, in the film itself), but what they come up with are strong, appealing variations in their own right, one more of a jock and the other more given to petulance, but nevertheless sufficiently in the same ball park. Saladana, Urban, Cho and Yelchin all acquit themselves with honours. Only Pegg strikes a bum note, expressly brought on by Abrams for some M:I 3 style-comic relief and thus failing to service an actual character (and the less said about his diminutive sidekick, the better).
As is common with every Trek movie that isn’t The Wrath of Khan, the villain doesn’t really match up to expectations, although Eric Bana is absolutely fine. So too, the final act’s action confrontation/set piece climax is merely adequate after all the preceding dramatics (incidents including the sparring between Kirk and Spock and the superlative centrepiece space jump sequence), but what Orci and Kurtzman totally get is the need to present a cocky captain-in-waiting who has to prove himself against the odds, and they completely deliver on that count. It isn’t necessarily the best accolade, but its undoubtedly a revealing one to admit that this is probably the most watchable Star Trek movie. It’s undoubtedly the biggest crowd-pleaser. At least, this side of…
2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Nimoy may have squandered the potential of The Search for Spock, but his (charitably) non-intrusive style is much better served by the sitcom antics of its follow-up. This is the Trek movie that broke the series out to a wider audience, particularly after The Search for Spock had gone so niche and continuity-based. There are still vestigial arc aspects in the conclusion of this mini-trilogy (the crew don’t have the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock are continuing to rekinde their relationship), but by going the fish-out-of-water route, in order to catch a big fish (okay then, mammal), the series offered crossover appeal not dissimilar to another of the year’s big hits, Crocodile Dundee.
The Voyage Home’s greatest claim to fame might be how deceptively simple it appears to be. The crew land on late 20th century Earth and are packed off on various missions in order to secure a whale to save the future Earth. But Nimoy (who gets an environmentally-friendly story credit), Bennett and Meyer (returning now the bad taste of having his character decisions reversed in The Search for Spock no longer lingers) come up with a plot that allows all the crew to have interesting, amusing and entertaining moments (except Uhura, natch). The real teller in this regard is that no one has been able to repeat the magic since; like the number one on this list, it seems as difficult to deliver Trek as high comedy as high drama, and whenever there are attempts (First Contact arguably tries both), it at least partially falters.
So we have Kirk teamed with Spock to enormously enjoyable effect, the former frequently reduced to straight man to the latter’s very alien behaviour and not engaging in romance with his leading lady (who very nearly was Eddie Murphy). Spock also delivers the best ever Vulcan nerve pinch gag. Chekov and Uhura are off looking for “nu-clear wessels” (Koenig is a hoot throughout), Scotty and McCoy get to administer some futuristic learning (there are some great time paradox gags in there – Kirk selling his watch, knowing he will get it back, Scotty’s “How do we know he didn’t invent the stuff?” – appropriate, given how disarmingly batty the movie’s method of time travel is) and Sulu… Sulu flies a helicopter.
Admittedly, Dr Gillian Taylor is the weak link (the character isn’t all that, but the casting certainly doesn’t help) and the picture is far better at showing rather than speechifying its environmental message, but on balance it avoids being heavy handed in favour of a light, breezy touch. It’s an object lesson in how versatile the show (or this line up of cast and characters) can be, and because it’s all about the culture clash, it stands up remarkably well (the Leonard Rosenman score was always a bit of a stinker), despite having been released in the same popular landscape as superficial Police Academys and Top Guns.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
What can you say about The Wrath of Khan? So good, even Pauline Kael loved it. If that isn’t testament enough to its unbeatable status, its legacy has malignly influenced the makers of at least three or four sequels in the franchise, so in thrall to its majesty were they, and so wanting some of that for themselves (most disreputably Into Darkness and Nemesis, but also First Contact and the ’09 Star Trek).
Nicholas Meyer famously accentuated the naval aspect of the show, Hornblower in space, turned down the lights and gave the costuming a more militarised look (one that lingered for the more than a decade; the one-piece spandex of TNG was never going to work after this). He allowed himself to be influence by other genres just as The Motion Picture had been by 2001 (the “Khan bloodsuckers” are Trek’s nod to Alien, and about as grisly as the show gets this side of Discovery) and by the show’s own continuity, but in the best way – not slavishly (such that Chekov meets and greets Khan first, but wasn’t even on board at the time of TOS’ Space Seed).
The show’s past history shouldn’t be underappreciated in that regard. How many series sustain themselves long enough to get to stage a revisit this way, in a manner that re-interprets and mythologises the original satisfyingly (Doctor Who, arguably, but nine times out of ten it has failed to deliver on the potential)? Ricardo Montalban’s Khan is at the centre of this, a magnificently heightened performance that forms the perfect oppositional complement to Shatner’s. If you have no concept of what precisely goes into making The Wrath of Khan work so well, you’re probably the sort of person who would bring him back without the underpinning sense of history and change his ethnicity, yet still expect him to carry cachet, just because.
Everything in The Wrath of Khan delivers, though. Shatner gives an all-time-great performance – the Spock death scene is heartbreakingly sad, and carries so much on how palpably grief-stricken Kirk is in the face of the loss of his best friend. Thematically, the concepts of age, birth, family and loyalty are woven elegantly and with emotional substance. And so punchy is Spock’s utilitarian-principled demise that it has lingered over the series ever since as a motivating force (to be upheld or ignored).
Additionally, particularly notable given this came in cheap (shot by a TV crew), the cat-and-mouse space battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant remains the benchmark most movies never even come close to in terms of crafting an action sequence, one that relies as much on calculation, wits and ingenuity as it does explosions. The third plane is expertly used to distinguish the Nebula from standard seafaring, thus becoming more submarine-like in tone, and the ILM effects work is still of a standard that will never be equalled by pure CGI. With any franchise, the question inevitably comes back to how well a sequel compares to the original. It’s the rarefied few that get to be pronounced great movies in their own right, and The Wrath of Khan rightfully rubs shoulders with The Empire Strikes Back in that regard.
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