With the Star Trek universe firmly back exploring the streaming and televised final frontier (Discovery, Picard and Lower Decks), and only the ol’ “untitled Star Trek project” slated by Paramount for the summer of 2023, it’s an unavoidable fact—the current batch of 13 films, 3 casts and so many Enterprises is all we’ve got to hold us cinema-minded Trekkies over for awhile. For the completionists out there, that likely means even a dabble will become a full rewatch, but for anyone who wants to just dip a toe into the franchise’s film offerings based on “best bets” and solid entries, we ranked them.
Roughly 32 years ago, the William Shatner-directed fifth installment of the movie franchise staked its claim as the worst Star Trek film, and of the eight films that followed, only Nemesis has even come close to vying for the distinction. (It also added credence to the “odd numbered films bad” theory on the franchise.) Whether it was Shatner’s direction, the muddled mess of a plot, or lackluster special effects that seemed to take a step back exactly when they one would expect them to leap forward, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was immediately forgettable—and has remained so. —Michael Burgin
Nemesis is much like plenty of individual episodes of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series: It sports an interesting premise, poorly executed but nonetheless bolstered by Patrick Stewart’s gravitas and acting chops, and relies on Data to save the day. But it’s also measurably darker in spirit than other entries in the franchise. Any optimistic vision of individuals or humanity that becomes popular enough inevitably draws—it’s tempting to call them “hack” because so often they are—efforts to make things more “realistic” in event and tone. (The Millars and Snyders of the world have made a career off it.) But outside of Elseworlds and mirror universes, such efforts are usually misguided, missing the point of the source material. If you need to kill his family members to create stakes for Picard, you’re probably doing it wrong. Ultimately, as with The Final Frontier, Star Trek: Nemesis is immediately forgettable, though it does feature a young Tom Hardy as the antagonist, a Picard clone. (Ah, clones—the sci-fi equivalent of a twin sibling.) —Michael Burgin
Envisioned as the “baton exchange” between the TOS and TNG casts, Star Trek Generations is technically just that—if said exchange involved the first runner kinda stumbling and stopping, forcing the next leg of the race to run back, sorta take the baton, and then, at the end, the first runner hobbles toward and then keels over before the finish line. Yet, since actors are not immortal and even decades later CGI still has some miles to go across the uncanny valley, Generations is recognized as necessary, if nothing else. Still, the film mostly wastes Malcolm McDowell as a villain, and the screen time shared by Patrick Stewart and William Shatner mostly serves to just highlight the divide between the classically trained Brit and … Shatner. —Michael Burgin
Sometimes it doesn’t matter if a film is, technically, a near-miss. Viewed decades later and in the context of all the special-effects-reliant properties that followed, this initial salvo of the Star Trek cinematic universe is ponderous in pace and hit-and-miss in spectacle, sure, but it also captures a moment in which the potential of technology to revolutionize the way sci-fi stories could be told and shown was revealing itself, and a reminder that while thousands and thousands of viewers were falling in love with Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, there was another community out there similarly invested in the world Gene Roddenberry had built. Even as, for fans especially, it was an amazing moment to see the return of Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Enterprise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture falls short of capturing the thrill of their adventures. But as Wrath of Khan would demonstrate just three years later, it wouldn’t require much of a course correction to do so. —Michael Burgin
Any time a beloved TV property gets a big screen treatment—especially if that treatment comes with aims of creating a cinematic franchise—there are plenty of discussions (and angst) on all sides of the equation on how best to capture the existing magic while navigating the constraints and harnessing the potential of the original. But even while the particulars vary depending on the source material, these days there are plenty of settled questions, practical processes and pieces of conventional wisdom to apply. Often lost in any discussion of the Star Trek cinematic universe is how, especially with the initial films, this was its own “undiscovered country” of sorts. Appreciation and criticism of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock are often caught in that still unresolved divide. Do the sometimes cheesy effects and high (melo)drama in the film ring as a positive because they evoke the original series? Or is that a failure, a squandering of cinematic potential? Does it really matter how sensible the plot specifics are behind Spock’s return? It was likely going to be difficult to match the “high” of Wrath of Khan, regardless, but in his directorial debut, Leonard Nimoy shows an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of his fellow castmates, and Christopher Lloyd’s turn as Klingon antagonist Kruge provides a fair number of memorable moments, even if he lacks the riveting screen presence—and glossy, muscled chest—of Montalbán’s Khan. —Michael Burgin
After a well-received re-whatever the Kelvin universe is, Star Trek Into Darkness might seem a ready-made blockbuster and classic, but though it did count as the former, it’s tough to ascribe to it the latter. Too often, director J. J. Abrams relies on awkward dialogue that doubles as director subtitles for character arcs and plot developments. (A second insertion/reminder of what will be the deus ex machina for one of those developments is particularly ill-executed.) And, though laden with enough plot points to serve as a potent meditation on the dangers of losing one’s way in the name of countering the threat posed by an Other, Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t so much wrestle with such issues as give them a swat on the butt in passing. Granted, that’s not necessarily inconsistent with Roddenberry’s universe, where humanity’s better angels rule in the end (alternate timeline or no). For all the photon torpedoes, warp drives and matter transmitters, that optimism regarding human nature may be the most fantastical element of all. —Michael Burgin
It’s not uncommon to hear movies based on TV series described—sometimes as compliment, sometimes as critique—as efforts that could have just been a two-part episode of the series. This is particularly true of Star Trek and especially the case with Star Trek: Insurrection, though in this instance the movie’s resemblance yields a result that’s firmly wedged midway between the positive and negative poles. Much as with Nimoy in the earlier films, the direction of Jonathan Frakes feels, overall, like a plus—what is it with Number 1s directing?—but ultimately, Insurrection’s position squarely in the center of the Star Trek cinematic universe seems as secure as Final Frontier and Nemesis at the back. —Michael Burgin
Sometimes real-life events inform the zeitgeist in a way that resonates with make-believe, and the fall of the Berlin wall and collapse of the Soviet Union provided the writers of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country a bevy of plot points and character notes that seem tailor-made for an aging cast and a politically static setting. Balancing intrigue, action, humor and plenty of quality time with the Big Three of TOS, The Undiscovered Country may be the most under-appreciated entry in the franchise. Add Christopher Plummer as a Klingon and you’ve…got Christopher Plummer in your movie, man! Directed by Wrath of Khan’s Nicholas Meyer, this sixth and final film featuring the full TOS cast represents a nice palate cleanser from Final Frontier. —Michael Burgin
Regardless of where and with what cast one’s allegiance lies, one has to appreciate J.J. Abrams’ savvy sidestep into an alternate timeline as a way to reinvigorate a franchise. Buoyed by deft casting—for proof, look no further than how well-accepted it was by a fandom that would have savaged any missteps—the redirected timeline allowed for scenarios that were familiar yet new, and for character dynamics that were recognizable yet ultimately unconstrained beyond the most basic character traits. (Kirk is passionate and action-oriented; Spock, logical, etc.) Even the most diehard Trekkie could recognize that the TOS crew had aged out and the TNG crew were getting there, and the Kelvin universe introduced much needed onscreen vigor to the cinematic universe (and furthered Karl Urban’s gradual saturation into virtually every important franchise!). —Michael Burgin
If Wrath of Khan excels at capturing the space opera excitement of Star Trek, The Voyage Home settles in to appreciate the characters and humor that undergird TOS. This second Nimoy-directed installment is also a reminder that you don’t need a flurry of phasers and photons or mustache-twirling villainy (or a villain at all) to create a memorable sci-fi story. For fans of TOS, The Voyage Home is likely the preferred cinematic send-off for the original crew. —Michael Burgin
Star Trek Beyond proves admirably willing to push the neo-film-series’ frontiers, at least in its eagerness to envision brand new, alien environments with incredibly imagined designs. Less compelling are the emotional stakes director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung provide for the crew of the starship Enterprise. Lin’s fleet direction and the charismatic cast give dedicated fans their fix and the casual moviegoers a fun enough time, but Beyond offers a less memorable outing than its more ambitious predecessors, providing more for the eyes of its audience than for their hearts.
The story doesn’t particularly challenge any of the actors, although some of the supporting players get better fleshed out (such as the much-debated revelation that John Cho’s Sulu is in a same-sex relationship). Beyond plays for lower than usual stakes and works best in pleasant, little moments. For a film so focused on acceleration, it’s ironic that Star Trek Beyond spends much of its time coasting on charm. —Curt Holman
First Contact wasn’t the first Star Trek film incorporating time-travel, though the plot device was used only sparingly on the show—it’s not really kosher with the Prime Directive. But we’ll take the Next Generation crew and the Borg over the whale watching in A Voyage Home. While the first film from this iteration of space explorers—the crossover Generations—got a little mired in the novelty of having two Enterprise crews together, First Contact lets Patrick Stewart and company tackle their most iconic villain on their own. When the Borg create a temporal vortex to conquer Earth before humanity discovers they’re not alone in the galaxy, the Enterprise rides its wake and must preserve the timeline or face extinction. It’s a tight story carrying the weight of Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s personal abduction and assimilation by the Borg, driving him with an Ahab-like determination. It also conveys a hope for humanity in the wake of world war that would have made Gene Roddenberry proud. —Josh Jackson
Come for the “KhaaAAHHHHHN!” and stay for the surprisingly emotional treatise on aging without wisdom—as well as one hell of a potent, humbling gut punch of an ending. Anyone arguing for any other film in the Trek franchise will find themselves speaking into a black hole chewed in the matte canvas by the film’s exquisitely potent villain, played by Ricardo Montalbán. That director/co-writer Nicholas Meyer also somehow coaxes a performance from William Shatner that’s only barely unkosher makes this movie a space opera with broad, lasting appeal—and the clear crème of the Trek. —Scott Wold