The first thing that needs to be said is this: None of the — Holy shit, Wolverine grossed $87 million this weekend?
It did? That’s just . . . holy shit. Still, not much competition, I guess. Take that, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past! I wonder what the second week will be like, considering it’ll be up against the inescapable pop culture juggernaut to which I now return my attention.
Anyway, first things first: None of the Star Trek movies have been what I would call great films. At its best, Star Trek is outstanding popular entertainment — fun, engaging, occasionally thought-provoking, but not to be taken all that seriously. Like the Bible.
Of the previous ten Trek films, a few belong in the “outstanding pop entertainment” category, a few are sorts of likable failures, and one is among the worst movies I have ever fucking seen. This being Star Trek Week, and the eleventh film, the provocatively titled Star Trek, opening on Friday, and since I know no one has ever thought of doing this before, I thought it’d be fun to put together a list of
The Ten Best Star Trek Films
(Before This One)
#1: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
“What’s the best Star Trek movie?” might be the least-argued-over question in all the wide geek world. It’s Star Trek II, everybody knows it, it’s unanimous. And why is that? Because it demonstrates a familiarity with and affection for the characters without feeling like a retread, because it touches on very resonant and serious themes without taking itself too seriously, because it has scenes of genuine pathos and scenes of screaming camp — and sometimes they’re the same fucking scene! Because it’s one of only two Trek movies to meaningfully acknowledge the advancing age of its cast. And because it has a close-up of William Shatner, jowls trembling in rage, bellowing “KHAAAAAAAAAANNNN!” loud enough to be heard from orbit. Sure, the special effects and “futuristic” set design seem dated to us now, and Spock’s death scene is muted somewhat when you consider that he barely stayed dead long enough for his crewmates to roll him into a torpedo and shoot him into space, but come on — Ricardo Montalbán’s genetically engineered super-mullet alone is more than enough to overlook those trifling flaws. This is the best Star Trek movie, and I understand it’s also the favorite of J.J. Abrams and company. Could anything bode better for the new Star Trek than that?
#2: Star Trek: First Contact
Judging the eighth installment in the Star Trek film series, and the second to feature the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is trickier than it ought to be. Judged on its own merit, as all films should be, it’s damn near as good as Wrath of Khan, an exciting time-travel adventure that lets our heroes mix it up in the lore of their fictional universe, confidently directed by Jonathan Frakes and led by Patrick Stewart in a smashing, energetic performance. Considered in the larger context of the franchise, this is the movie almost killed Star Trek. It’s not First Contact’s fault. It’s a terrific movie and it made a pile of money as one of the few Trek movies to catch on somewhat with an audience beyond the fanbase. But it also introduced the Borg Queen, an awesome villain in First Contact who the producers of the abominable Star Trek: Voyager television series brought back again and again and again in increasingly horrible episodes, thus ruining the Borg, previously the franchise’s most effective antagonists. And it laid the foundation for Enterprise, the last Trek TV series, which could have been new and exciting but wound up feeling like a stale knock-off of itself and a four-year waste of time. To misuse Scott Bakula in such a way should be a prosecutable crime. But like I said, none of that can really be blamed on First Contact itself — just on the dim, uncreative types who recycled the best parts of it and ran the franchise into the ground. Don’t turn away from me, Rick Berman. You know I’m talking to you.
#3: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
One of the reasons I consider myself just a fan of Star Trek and not a full-fledged Trekkie is that I am wholly unimpressed by Gene Roddenberry. Gush all you want about his vision, his great humanitarian dream of a united future — the fact is, as a writer the guy was dogshit. When Star Trek succeeded, whether it was on the big screen or on TV, it was due to the work of better, more talented people. People, for instance, like Nicholas Meyer, who co-wrote and directed Star Trek II and Star Trek VI. With Meyer calling the shots, Captain Kirk and company were allowed to behave like human beings instead of the super-evolved perfect people of the future Roddenberry always insisted they were. Roddenberry was near death during the production of Star Trek VI, which is probably how Meyer was able to get away with a story that included members of the Federation conspiring with Klingons and Romulans to assassinate political leaders in order to sabotage peace talks. Surely humanity has left its warmongering ways behind by the 23rd century! Fuck you, Gene. Like Star Trek II, Star Trek VI works so well largely because it acknowledges the passage of time. The gallant crew of the Starship Enterprise is finally retiring, but lucky for us they have time for one last adventure. Sulu gets his own ship, Spock saves Kirk and McCoy’s asses, and Christopher Plummer devours whole sections of scenery as General Chang. Ah, Christ, how I love General Chang.
#4: Star Trek: Insurrection
This one is the red-headed step-child of the film series. Nobody seems to like it all that much, even the people who made it. On one of the DVD special features, Marina Sirtis slams it by revealing that she fell asleep during the premiere. Here’s the thing: the movie ain’t that bad! Not bad enough that fucking Marina Sirtis should be scoring points off of it, for Christ’s sake. It’s not as exciting as First Contact, the story is built around a moral question rather than a high stakes showdown between good and evil to decide the fate of the universe, and it has more overt humor than any Trek movie besides Star Trek IV. Maybe it rubbed people wrong because it wasn’t the movie they wanted. Maybe they wanted more scenes of Captain Picard forcefully quoting Melville, and fewer of him leading Gilbert and Sullivan sing-alongs. Whatever reasons people have for not liking it, I think it’s a good movie. Witty and fun — and forgettable, sure. It’s lightweight, it’s inconsequential — but, again, it’s Star Trek. Seeing it shouldn’t be a life-changing experience. Watching fucking Wrath of Khan shouldn’t be a life-changing experience. If watching Star Trek II has changed your life, get a new one.
#5: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
The Enterprise crew travels back in time to contemporary San Francisco on a mission to save the whales, and hijinx ensue. Don’t watch this one if you’re acrophobic, ‘cause it doesn’t get more high concept than this. Star Trek IV is not a bad movie, but boy I used to hate it. I’m still a little ambivalent toward it. I admire its environmentalist message, but not the clumsy way it has of delivering it. It feels like the producers couldn’t be bothered to create a suitable allegory for saving the whales, and figured “You know what? Fuck it. Send ‘em back in time and just have ‘em actually save the whales. Oh, and put Chekov in the hospital. It’ll be hysterical.” The movie is funny, it’s harmless. Even compared to the other Trek films it’s fluff, but likable fluff, so what the fuck? Why don’t I give it a break? If for no other reason, it’s worth watching to see the supporting cast get their brief moments in the spotlight: McCoy, Scotty and a computer play some comedy, Uhura and Chekov harass pedestrians, and Sulu flirts his way into a free helicopter. Nothing wrong with that.
#6: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
So Star Trek II ended on a slightly melancholy note, what with the most beloved character of the series dying an agonizing death from radiation poisoning and then being blasted out of a torpedo tube onto the nearest planet. At the time it was assumed that Star Trek II would be the last of the series, so really, why the fuck not kill Spock? Then something unexpected happened: the movie, produced for a relatively low budget, made a shitload of money and became one of the most popular films of the decade. Well, what were they supposed to do — keep Spock dead? Bring him back as a corpse, Weekend at Bernie’s-style? Producer Harve Bennett (another guy to whom Trekkies owe much more than Roddenberry) came up with a decent scheme for resurrecting Spock, and even let him direct it himself, because he’s just good like that. Considering it’s mostly a housekeeping project, with its most important mission to write the series out of a corner, Star Trek III is a decent movie. Like Insurrection, it’s amiable if not particularly accomplished. It has its moments, particularly from Christopher Lloyd as the least-intimidating Klingon ever, and the indispensable Shatner, who takes a serious run at following up “KHAAAAAAAAAANNNN!” with “Klingon bastards, you’ve— . . . killed my son!” I know we’re supposed to be devastated by the death of David Kirk, but I can’t help it. I love it. His brutal murder is grade A quality cheese.
#7: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
It’s 1977 and Star Wars has taken the world by storm. It grosses about twenty trillion dollars worldwide and even gets an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, for Christ’s sake, and as a result Paramount Pictures rings up Gene Roddenberry and says “Hey, make us one of those.” So Gene, genius that he is, dusts off his old goofy sci-fi adventure show, the one with the guy wearing the rubber ears as the second lead, and goes to work. And he makes a turgid, torpid pile of shit that almost wrecks the whole franchise before it’s even off the ground. The problem with Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it is indisputably Gene Roddenberry’s baby. And Gene made it operating from the ludicrous hypothesis that it was some seriously heavy shit. Technically, the thing is superb. The special effects still hold up today, and it’s directed by the legendary Robert Wise. Unfortunately, over half the film consists of lingering beauty shots of the exterior of the fucking spaceship. And most of the other half is a lengthy rip-off of 2001: a Space Odyssey’s stargate sequence, as the Enterprise slowly — sloooooooowly — makes its way toward the center of the massive alien vessel V’Ger. That’s what’s really wrong with this first Star Trek film — it wants to be 2001. It’s not. It’s just barely Star Trek. Following its underwhelming box office performance, Paramount wisely moved Roddenberry to a hands-off consulting role and turned the remainder of the film series over to smarter people who knew what to do with it.
#8: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
What’s that I was just saying? Okay, so Star Trek V, the final film of the series to be produced by Harve Bennett, is bad. Real, real fucking bad. It fails on every front — writing, acting, special effects. It’s stupid, it’s technically inept, it’s feebly plotted and packed with lame, leaden attempts at comic relief. That being said, how the hell do you not love this movie? Yes, it’s awful — awful — but so mighty in its awfulness! And it’s not bad in the cynical, calculated way of, say, Batman & Robin; it’s just incompetent. In his debut as a feature film director, William Shatner really tries his best. He just has no idea what the hell he’s doing. A happy Vulcan looking for God? Who told him that was a good idea? Flying to the center of the galaxy in like ten minutes? What the fuck’s up with that? Spock in rocket boots? Good God in Heaven. And — dare I say it? — not all of it is that terrible. The sense of brotherhood among the crew, especially the trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, is stronger here than almost anywhere else in the series. And they almost manage a genuine sense of wonder when the ship arrives at the center of the galaxy and the crew thinks they might actually be about to meet God. Nothing to worry about, guys — God loves an earnest failure. Why else does he keep Ben Folds around?
#9: Star Trek: Generations
Who did the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation piss off to deserve a big-screen debut as goddamn dreadful as Generations? Sure, aside from Patrick Stewart they aren’t the best group of actors. But they’re at least as good as the original crew, who weren’t exactly the Royal Shakespeare Company, for fuck’s sake. Except for Marina Sirtis — Walter Koenig can act no-hands cartwheels in a circle around her, she’s such a sack of shit. Jesus, Marina Sirtis sucks. . . . What was I saying? Right — Generations. That’s one bad movie. The idea was to give the classic crew one last nudge over the horizon, while simultaneously relaunching the film side of the franchise with the Next Generation crew. It totally fucked up the first part, and didn’t do a whole hell of a lot of good for the second. Captain Kirk and the rest of the original Star Trek cast had already gotten to go out on top with Star Trek VI, and bringing them back for an encore never felt like anything other than a stunt. And the Next Generation-era majority of Generations is not the stuff of which long-running film series are made. The entire plot is just a contrivance to get Kirk and Picard onscreen together, Malcolm McDowell’s evil Dr. Soran wouldn’t cut it as a MacGyver villain, and I’ve been moved more profoundly by the many deaths of Kenny than I was by Kirk’s big death scene. This is just a bad, bad, super-bad movie. I suspect Marina Sirtis must have taken an uncredited pass at the screenplay.
#10: Star Trek: Nemesis
But as bad as Generations is, it must bend its knee along with the rest of the series in sheer awe of the massive, Sun-obscuring mountain of shit that is Star Trek: Nemesis. I’ve already written about this one at length, so let me not take too long to repeat myself. It’s not just the worst Star Trek movie yet made, it’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, period. It’s staggeringly bad, one colossal miscalculation to follow another. The plot is derivative and dull, the action scenes are clumsily staged and sluggishly edited (surprising, since the director is Stuart Baird, a legendary and much sought-after editor), and well-established characters like Captain Picard and Worf are suddenly behaving like completely different people. It plays like a big, expensive piece of fan fiction — but no, I shouldn’t say that. I’ve seen episodes of Star Trek: New Voyages that are much, much better than this. Shit, the too-nerdy-to-live green-screen saga Star Trek: Hidden Frontier isn’t this bad. That’s why I don’t worry about the J.J. Abrams reboot. I look forward to it. Even if it’s a total misfire, it won’t be the worst Star Trek film ever made. To make another one as bad as Nemesis, someone will really have to work at it.