Star Trek is a cultural phenomenon, with five, soon to be six, TV series, more than a hundred books, plus an uncountable number of collectables. Considering that, and the quality of many of the Original Series episodes, the films often fail to raise to the level of their history. But there are some gems in the sand.
Now with the third J.J. Abrams-verse film out, it is time to rank the Star Trek movies, and give them all a quick critique in the process.
There are three groupings: The 6 Original Series films that use the cast from the first TV show, the 3 (or 4 depending on how you count Generations), Next Generation films, and the 3 Abrams reboot films.
Generally I find the Original Series movies work better than what followed. Partly that is due to the greater intent. When Star Trek The Motion Picture was produced, it was meant to be an epic film, taking the TV show as a starting place and expanding it to something much more. That didn’t work out as hoped, so the films that followed contracted, being less and less, but sometimes being the better for it. Still, there was generally the attempt to do something special in those first films. While little changed in the long run for the crew of the Enterprise, it felt like things could. And hidden in it all was meaning. The heart of Star Trek, the message, was there.
As the Original Series films seemed less and less like movies and more like television episodes with a larger budget as they went along, the Next Generation movies never had even the pretext of being anything more than big TV episodes, where “big” means “loud.” Watch them at a theater? Sure, but home viewing is just as good, right after rewatching a few seasons of the show. We know from the start that nothing will change, nothing will progress. Things will happen, but nothing that really matters. But since there is a larger budget, that nothing will happen with a lot more action. Shooting phasers will be more important than plot—a step toward what Abrams would later do. As Data was a fan favorite, the films become the Data and Picard show, leaving almost nothing for other characters to do. This is most noticeable with Worf, who not only is irrelevant to the movies, but is brought onto the Enterprise in awkward and unbelievable ways because the character was on the Deep Space 9 TV show.
The J.J. Abrams reboots are barely Star Trek, and not even science fiction. The heart is gone. The thoughtful (and sometimes not so thoughtful) political and social messages—the dream of a future better than now and the hope that humanity can rise above its current squabbles—are all gone. And he continued the move into action films. It’s all about the phasers, the running, and the explosions. His films are just big, loud, colorful adventure movies, with a sci-fi overlay for color. They are empty. But, a lot of movies are empty, and he can make a pretty exciting and attractive popcorn film. The failure in his films is in imagination, not in presentation. Star Trek has been mishandled—in different ways—far worse.
For the most part, my ranking won’t be a surprise. I’ve seen many other rankings by critics and fans and there is vague agreement. Three of the original series films are always toward the top (with one almost always taking the top spot). The first Abrams film fits somewhere closely after those, and then the Next Gen ones slot in, with Nemesis, Generations, and Star Trek V filling in the lower slots. The only big movers are Into Darkness (which some people hate while others merely don’t think much of it), Insurrection (which is pretty much in the same boat, but with less hatred directed at it), and Star Trek I (which everyone agrees is too slow, but for some, that is mitigated by its greater theme and scope). I suspect I’ll only get flack over my placement of First Contact.
#13 Star Trek: Generations
Captain Kirk is pulled into a giant space-time ribbon so that he can later meet Captain Picard. There’s also some things about a mad scientist and grumpy Klingons, but they don’t matter.
Call it, Fan Service, The Motion Picture. The plot, what there is of it, is based on who signed a contract (Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and George Takei did not or in the first case, was not allowed to) and getting Kirk and Picard to meet. This isn’t story telling. It’s an hour and a half of goofing around with pop characters and trusting that fans will think it is cool.
It is not cool.
After an opening that lets us know that Kirk is old, again (haven’t we done this—and then redone it—enough?), we get a second opening, set in the holodeck, to introduce us to the Next Gen cast, which is supposed to be funny, but isn’t. Data asks why watching someone fall into freezing water is amusing. I ask why watching people watch someone falling into freezing water is supposed to be amusing.
This film’s version of character development is Data doing a bad comedy routine as his emotion chip is activated, and Picard throwing a fit because the writers had no idea how grief works.
OK, that’s more analysis than Generations requires. This film is a mess. It is mainly remembered for the drab, pointless death of Captain Kirk. He’d had a better sendoff in Star Trek VI.
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