There have been 13 Star Trek movies to date. So, which ones boldly go where very few have gone before: onto AGP's top 5 list?
Star Trek: First Contact
I remember years ago watching Red Letter Media’s “Mr. Plinkett” tear apart First Contact for its portrayal of Captain Picard as an angry, vengeful, unstable contrast to his more steady-handed character on The Next Generation. And as much as I respect old man Plinkett’s off-color opinions, his criticism is actually what makes First Contact an exceptional film. Think about it—on the TV series, the Borg notoriously kidnapped Picard, implanted their tech into his body and added him to their sinister “collective.” No matter how stable and disciplined a captain you are, you’re going to have some serious PTSD from such an experience—which is exactly what gives First Contact such immense personal stakes, manifested by the shrapnel still trapped in Picard’s face. The Borg are the one Enterprise foe that manage to get (quite literally) under Picard’s skin. In fact, the very first scene gives us a haunting glimpse into that monster still lurking inside of Picard, ready to pop out at any moment!
Nowhere is this notion of the enemy within more deeply felt than in the assimilation of the Enterprise itself. Without the crew’s knowledge, the Borg begin to hijack deck after deck like a spreading infection, adapting the environment to suit their cybernetic needs. The very vessel that Picard helms and holds dear becomes a surrogate for his own previously invaded body, a haunted house in space of sorts, pushing him towards another personal sacrifice: the potential destruction of the Enterprise. The entire Picard-Borg dichotomy in First Contact is one of personal boundaries vs. invasion and assimilation. Nothing could be more Star Trek than a mind-expletive of this scope—not to mention the attempted seduction of Data by the crafty Borg queen, who walks the wonderful line of sensual and freakish as she lays out her Faustian bargain.
What’s more—every other character finds something meaningful to do too. While Riker, Troi and Geordi struggle to guide a drunk, self-doubting Dr. Cochrane towards his legacy of piloting the first warp-capable Earth craft, an aggressive Worf gets the action hero treatment in the corridors (and even on the hull itself!) of the ship, kicking Borg ass and taking names, until enjoying a fierce standoff with Picard that pushes their relationship like never before.
Sure, the way time travel is wielded as a readily available last resort, as opposed to the dangerous experiment it was in The Voyage Home, is a generous conceit. But so are countless plotlines in this universe. I always find that if the rules are laid out early on, you can pretty much get away with anything in a sci-fi movie, and First Contact is no exception.
Of course, purists will argue that First Contact cannot be classified as “true Star Trek” because of its blended genres—sci-fi and drama suddenly meet horror of the space zombies kind. Notwithstanding the merits of taking the franchise to new tonal depths, the entire premise of First Contact is as bread and butter as Star Trek gets—a plot that surrounds the historic meeting of the human race and their first alien visitors, the Vulcans. The 2063 rendezvous of these two civilizations, arguably the two most endemic to Star Trek (humans and Vulcans), is essentially the big bang of the Trek universe. We learn that this one event unites humanity, ends all Earth wars and propels the human race into what will become The Federation of Planets. Again, I challenge any Trekkie to explain how anything could be more in keeping with the themes and mythology of the franchise. Oh, and Jerry Goldsmith’s original orchestra is not only one of the best of the series, but arguably one of the greatest film compositions of all time.
Star Trek (2009)
J. J. Abrams’ first foray into the Trek universe is a movie looking for a larger tent, and for the most part, it gets it, even while leaving the most loyal fans out in the cold. Missing are the grander cosmic questions and sense of awe, mystery and wonder familiar to the earlier chapters. Instead, it’s a film ripe with coming-of-age character conflicts and meatier action scenes packaged in a “softly” rebooted timeline. And while all that tinkering with the tone, direction and mythology might enrage the more diehard Trekkies out there, it was a necessary change following the disappointing box office returns and critical response from Nemesis years prior. What Abrams and his team managed to do was take something tired and played out and infused it with energy, excitement and (probably a few too many) shiny lens flares—and the result was awesome!
Star Trek 2009 is just a fun ride from beginning to end. And not just because of the amazing action set pieces—though Kirk and a sword-wielding Sulu nearly plummeting to their deaths before beaming to a rough floor-shattering landing is certainly reason enough—but because it poses a compelling question: how did it all start? How did the Enterprise and its motley crew come to be? And like all great origin stories (e.g. Batman Begins or more recently Joker), it’s often handled by its curators with the same gravitas as a non-fiction biopic, taking us on a journey through new untapped truths about characters we’ve known and cherished for years—namely its two key players, Kirk and Spock. Sure, the Captain and his Vulcan foil have always been the flip sides of the same coin: gut feeling vs. logic. But their dichotomous approaches have never come to blows quite as literally as in this film. “What's it like not to feel anger or heartbreak?” Kirk taunts the newly christened Captain Spock, ironically borrowing advice from the Vulcan’s older time-traveling self on how to push his younger version’s buttons. And then comes the ultimate dig: a challenge to Spock’s love for his mother, perfectly planted early on when bullies mock her as a “human whore.” It’s the one trigger that can launch Spock from protocol-minded stoicism into a blind bloodthirsty rage, a symptom of a false life lesson that the young Vulcan still needs to purge: the notion that he should never feel, and should never allow himself to become “emotionally compromised,” when in fact it’s the most necessary step in overcoming a great loss. As his father Sarek confesses, “I married [Spock’s mother] because I loved her.”
And even while Kirk’s plot to overthrow his pointy-eared adversary comes to a satisfying result, we get the sense that it’s Kirk too who needs some room to grow. Living in the shadow of his heroic late father, he is constantly haunted by the possibility of not being ready. Not ready to lead. Certainly not ready to helm a ship. Is his “leap before looking” approach destined to draw him and his newly-inherited crew towards destruction? These are the questions that are born out of a true “bildungsroman,” a coming-to-be-story. In the case of Star Trek 2009, it’s almost a dual journey of polar opposites eventually meeting in the middle, and both becoming better for it.
That we get to see how the other cast members drift into their orbit is only icing on the cake, from the neurotic, dry-witted Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy to the tough-as-nails Uhura, whose rebuffing of Kirk and romance with Spock offers a scintillating side conflict. We’re even treated to the original Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, whose rousing performance Roger Ebert saw as the “most human” of all.
Sure, stumbling upon Montgomery Scott as a result of future Spock’s intervention is a bit fortuitous, as well as the highly criticized “transwarp beaming” conceit that almost belies dozens of future conflicts by its mere existence, but you’re too busy gripping your seat to notice. This is a popcorn movie in the very best sense of that term. And if you’re willing to look for them, the franchise Easter eggs are plentiful!
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
The Voyage Home has all the ingredients of a great Star Trek movie: high stakes, a moralizing message (environmental, in this case) and a chance to boldly go where no one’s gone before—back in time! As the third and final chapter in the “Genesis” storyline that began with The Wrath of Khan, the film begins with instant conflict. Having risked everything to restore their first officer Spock to the world of the living, the Enterprise crew are on the run in a stolen Klingon Bird of Prey. But Starfleet has its own problems: an alien probe not unlike the monolith from 2001 in its impersonality has moved into Earth’s orbit, disabling the planet’s power grid and creating devastating electrical storms that block out the sun. The table is set for some life or death theatrics from our timeworn heroes!
And yet, the film takes a hard turn for the more joyous and comical. Realizing that the alien’s attack is out of frustration for a lack of response to its squealing signal, Spock determines that humpback whales, long since extinct in 2286, are in fact the species that the probe is hoping to hear from. Naturally, Kirk and his team decide that their best course of action is to go back in time, capture some humpbacks and bring them back to the present! A slingshot maneuver around the sun later, and we’re neck-deep in a movie relying less on the typical space odyssey premise and more on a quirky fish-out-of-water adventure in 1980’s San Francisco, as the ill-suited Enterprise crew attempt to divide and conquer on their separate tasks. Indeed, there is something instantly charming and hilarious about watching Kirk and his right-hand officer, Spock, stumble around the bay area, mistaking societal norms and sticking out like cosplayers at a convention. That Spock publically refers to Kirk as “Admiral” and takes unsolicited dives into whale tanks only heightens the conflict of emotions in Dr. Gillian Taylor, a 20th century cetologist and caretaker to the two whales Kirk hopes to bring back to the future. Though Taylor’s growing trust in Kirk stops just shy of romance, there is an unmistakable chemistry between them.
When I was an undergrad at Georgetown University, I took a class that made national headlines (unfairly I would say, for all the wrong reasons) called “The Philosophy of Star Trek.” To this day, it stands out in my mind as one of the best courses I’ve ever had. Providing a narrative context like Star Trek for lessons about Nietzsche, Descartes and Socrates proved to be one of the best ways of understanding their theories. In the case of The Voyage Home, a fun philosophical paradox that we were asked to ponder came from Scotty and Bones, who wrestle with the ethics of sharing the formula for transparent aluminum with a 1986 businessman in exchange for materials to build a whale tank. McCoy fears that they may alter history in doing so, but Scotty reasons, “How do we know he didn't invent the thing!” To this, my professor posed the question, “Who invented it?” If time travelers from the future gave the formula to a man in the past, who actually thought up the formula? It’s a wonderful logic puzzle, and a reminder of why The Voyage Home remains one of my favorites of the series.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The Undiscovered Country is like the Empire Strikes Back of the Star Trek series tonally speaking. No other sequel offers such a perfect blend of sci-fi adventure, drama and humor. It was also the first Star Trek movie I ever saw in a theater as a child, which admittedly colors my opinion. Even still, there’s something undeniably proportional about it, like the way every character has a purpose that both draws from and challenges their classic traits, a beautiful sendoff for a self-aware final adventure (at least for this crew). Take Spock—with the Captain and Doctor McCoy trapped on the dreaded Rura Penthe penal colony asteroid, Kirk’s right-hand man is suddenly thrust into the commanding position and tasked with solving a highly illogical puzzle. He also faces a crisis of conscience, having volunteered the Enterprise crew for a diplomatic mission that Kirk derides as “arrogant presumption,” firmly placing the finger of blame on Spock for the fallout that follows. His affinity for the up-and-coming Vulcan helmswoman Valeris also blinds him to her sinister motives. In many ways, it’s a movie in which the seasoned Spock faces his most human reckonings yet.
Mirroring those personal prejudices are those of Captain Kirk himself, still stung by the death of his son David at the hands of the Klingon Kruge in The Search for Spock. When assigned to rendezvous and accompany the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon for peace talks, Kirk reluctantly hosts a dinner aboard the Enterprise for his Klingon guests that quickly devolves into fearmongering and distrust. In many ways, the film is about the old guard coming to terms with its outdated views—a sentiment that Spock even acknowledges in a private aside with Kirk. The betrayal by Federation and Klingon members to frame Kirk as the monster he almost is pits him against an enemy even more deadly than General Chang or the newly enhanced Klingon Bird of Prey warship: himself. Kirk has to take a hard look in the mirror, and it isn’t pretty. Overcoming this adversary will take more than his usual gut-level instincts; it will take the willingness to face the “undiscovered country” that is the future. It will take the courage to change.
Meanwhile, we get to enjoy the classic and often comical pairing of Dr. McCoy and Kirk, faced with the daunting task of escaping their horrific ice prison. That old man Kirk is still a magnet for dangerous space women (e.g. the bedazzling shapeshifter Iman) makes Bones’ plight even more delicious. “Still think we’re finished?” Kirk asks with a gleeful grin after a kiss from Iman. “More than ever,” Bones dryly responds. The movie gives us just enough of Kirk/Bones and Kirk/Spock to satisfy our need for a final douse of each “odd couple” pairing.
Much of the rest of the film is devoted to uncovering the mystery by the motley sleuth team of Scotty, Uhura and Chekov, under the guidance of Spock and misdirection of Valeris. It’s an engrossing whodunit filled with twists, turns and double-crosses. Even Sulu gets a piece of the action (as well as a unique upgrade) as the newly-appointed Captain of the USS Excelsior who, in a show of classic loyalty, is quick to align his ship with Kirk’s against Federation protocol.
What we are left with upon the final “Captain’s Log” voice-over cruise is a feeling of deep gratitude, nostalgia and—yes—even wanting more. Tired and timeworn as they might be, the original cast delivered a final adventure worthy of their legacies. What better note could you possibly end a franchise on than that?
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
There are Star Trek movies, and then there’s The wrath of Khan, which by any measure of compelling sci-fi cinema meets at least the “for your consideration” benchmark for greatest of all time. Yes, even non-Trekkies have to admit that Khan is one hell of an adrenaline-pumping, nebula-jumping space adventure that will leave you both white-knuckling your chair and drying your tears. It’s also the first film to pit Captain Kirk against the consequences of an arguably poor prior decision: to leave Khan and his people, who had attacked the Enterprise in an episode from the original series, behind on a planet (Ceti Alpha V) without ever checking in on them. In the time since, a neighboring planet exploded, decimating much of Ceti Alpha V and Khan’s followers, including his late wife. The eponymous “wrath” is what happens when a wound is allowed to fester without aid.
In many ways, the film is a course correction from its preachy, slower-paced predecessor, giving audiences the one crucial ingredient they had been missing: a worth adversary for Kirk. But Khan is no ordinary power-hungry villain—no, no. This is a man who has been wronged, and who (like all great villains) believes himself to be in the right, endowed with superhuman strength and a cold sober cunning that seems to outwit Kirk’s natural gut instincts at every turn. Like Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes, the pair are often neck and neck. In their first battle, Khan, now helming a captured Federation ship called the Reliant, nearly incapacitates the Enterprise. Only through some quick-witted stalling does Kirk manage to remotely lower Reliant’s shields and return fire.
The next showdown will see Kirk aboard the research space station Regula I, home to the top secret Genesis Device, this movie’s MacGuffin (like Thanos’ Infinity Stones), designed to create life on lifeless planets, which he hopes to weaponize. When the surviving Regula I team (Carol and David) lead Kirk to the hidden site of Genesis, former crew member Checkov and Captain Terrell of the Reliant surprise Kirk as spies of Khan, caught under the mind control of hideous space eels in their skulls (yes, you heard that correctly!), leading to yet another tense standoff from which Kirk barely escapes.
But in Khan’s psychological warfare comes an obvious weakness: the very wrath that drives him can also goad him into making poor choices. With Genesis in his possession, Khan resists his own crew’s urging to flee the area and accepts Kirk’s challenge for a final epic battle in the nearby Mutara Nebula. It would be enough that the movie ends on this terrifying tug of war in the blind, but Khan is not your run-of-the-mill villain. No, it will take a personal sacrifice the likes of which will shake up the Star Trek franchise for years to come to defeat him. With Enterprise limping off due to its inoperable warp drive, a dying Khan sets the Reliant to self-destruct, and we are treated to one of the greatest movie quotes of all time (originally from Moby-Dick): “From hell's heart, I stab at thee. For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”
A devastated Kirk literally falls to his knees as he watches his first officer and dear friend Spock gradually die of radiation poisoning after repairing the warp core, which allows Enterprise to fly off just in the nick of time. Beyond the obvious plucks to one’s heartstrings (I mean, who isn’t going to tear up at a line like “You have been, and always shall be, my friend”?), there is a wonderful completion to Kirk’s arc. Earlier in the film, Kirk oversees Lieutenant Saavik failing at the Starfleet Kobayashi Maru test, which Kirk later confesses to having cheated on, never a fan of no-win scenarios. In Spock’s death, however, he is finally pushed down that ugly abyss, forced to face a puzzle that has no happy resolution other than “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In accepting these terms, he finally grows into the role of Captain and all the heavy burdens that come with it. Indeed, in a movie all about rebirth and a very literal machine capable of creating life where none exists, Kirk’s final line seems to resonate perfectly: “I feel young.”
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
The Search for Spock is often unfairly written off as a ret-Khan-ning (pun intended) of The Wrath of Khan. In the simplest of senses, sure, it does resurrect possibly the most beloved cast member of all time, Spock. However, whereas its predecessor deals with reckoning with past mistakes, this follow-up is all about personal sacrifice. What could be bigger than Spock’s sacrifice from Khan, you say? Why, more sacrifice of course!—beginning with Kirk and his renegade crew hijacking the decommissioned Enterprise at the expense of their own Starfleet careers. This is a story of friendship and loyalty, a poetic reversal of Spock’s parting wisdom from Khan, proving that sometimes “the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.” Sometimes, logic just isn’t enough.
That Khan himself would be a tough act to follow for the fearsome Klingon Kruge is obvious. But the franchise had enough meat on the bone from the previous installment to give us great stakes—particularly when a helpless Kirk must listen in as Kruge murders his only son, David, on the planet below. Their relationship had been short and bittersweet, Kirk having missed much of David’s upbringing, which makes the jarring death all the more tragic. There is lost potential there, the tragedy of what could have been and never was, and the necessary emotional fuel to fire up Kirk in his conquest of Kruge.
In the battle of wits to follow, Kirk beams a team of Kruge’s men aboard the Enterprise while secretly setting the vessel to autodestruct, and the result is unsurprisingly jaw-dropping. To this day, I still get chills as a crestfallen Kirk, Bones and Scotty watch the historic ship crash land on the planet below. For Kirk, it represents a personal sacrifice of another kind, replicated time and time again in subsequent movies and TV programs, but nothing feels as weighty and consequential as this moment. This is a loss felt not only by the characters on screen, but by the audience as well that has come to know and love this ship since she first warped onto the scene back in 1966.
And when Kirk and company finally restore their fallen friend Spock, rapidly maturing from adolescence into adulthood from the Genesis effect and Bones’ mind meld, the payoff is complete. The Enterprise crew have risked much and lost even more. And yet, the collective sentiment is, yes, as illogical, painful and nearly futile as it all was, it was worth it. The heroic goal of saving a dear friend in and of itself, not unlike the paradox of a later film to come called Saving Private Ryan, is what gives the mission merit. In the end, the message of The Search for Spock is one of hope, triumph and resilience against impossible odds. What more could you ask for from a Star Trek flick?
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