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Top 5 Best & Worst Star Trek Movies

It is Star Trek month here at emagill.com, leading up to the release of the new J.J. Abrams movie. For the next few weeks, I will embrace my Trekkiness (and yes, I consider myself a "trekkie" rather than a "trekker") and espouse my opinions about which are the best episodes, which are the best movies, which are the best villains, and then how I feel about the new film.

Star Trek is a remarkable phenomenon--one that is not likely to die--and it can be attributed to any number of things; the uplifting vision of a better future, the prescient social commentary, the exciting space opera, etc. I feel no shame in talking about Gene Roddenberry's brainchild on the Internet, for without Star Trek (and porn), the Internet might not have ever caught on.

If you missed last week's installment, click here to check out the Top 10 Star Trek Villains.

This week, we're going to list the five best and five worst movies in the Star Trek canon (not counting the new one, of course). As there are only ten Star Trek movies, all of them will find a place on one of these two lists. There is much debate throughout the Internet about which movies are the best--though there is considerable consensus on which are the worst--so keep in mind that this is my personal list and does not represent the views of all Trekkies. Also know that, as a Trekkie, I can honestly say I like all ten of these movies, even the ones at the bottom. Even the worst Star Trek movie has its merits, so don't think I'm being cruel to the thing I love. After all, I'd hate to be accused of fan hatred.


THE WORST
5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
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Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is a fun movie, at least, but it renders moot many of the critical plot elements from the previous movie. The most obvious problem is that Spock's sacrifice is lessened by his resurrection, and that one of the central themes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan--that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one)"--is turned on its head. However, there is also the problem of David, Kirk's son, who was introduced in Star Trek II to give Kirk a human legacy. In Star Trek III, David is killed as swiftly as he was introduced, effectively ending one of the things that had renewed Kirk's soul. Granted, this eventually pays off a few movies later, but it still seems as though the writers were trying to undo the previous movie. Beyond that, Star Trek III is a fairly average Trek film. It doesn't have the strong thematic elements or intense space battles of the better films, but it also doesn't have the lazy writing or awkward goofiness of some of the worst.


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THE BEST
5. Star Trek: Nemesis

When I first saw Star Trek: Nemesis, I left the theater believing I had seen the best Trek movie ever made. The theme of the story--which may be a little anvilicious from time to time--is the central theme of Star Trek itself, that mankind can improve itself by believing in a better future. Additionally, the battle at the end between the Scimitar and the Enterprise is easily the most intense and exciting space battle in all ten Trek movies. After seeing the flick more than once, however, the flaws became more apparent. For one thing, the main villain, a clone of Captain Picard, is never given a strong motivation for his suicidal rage against humanity, nor is it made clear how this petty and childish boy came to power. Additionally, there are simply too many nitpicks. Nitpicks are, of course, a common problem that is pervasive in all of Star Trek, but Star Trek: Nemesis takes it to a whole new level of overly convenient plot devices, continuity problems, and leaps of narrative illogic (for a rather brutal but amusing list of many of these, see this pictorial plot synopsis). But probably the most obvious problem with the movie is that it is trying too hard to be Star Trek II. So, while I can still watch and enjoy Star Trek: Nemesis, I consider it the worst of the best.


THE WORST
4. Star Trek: Insurrection
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The problem with Star Trek: Insurrection is that it feels like nothing more than an extended episode of the television series. The plot is fairly standard for a Star Trek episode, in that it involves the prime directive, the forced removal of an alien society, a corrupt Starfleet official, and a planet with strange powers. The main thrust of the story follows Captain Picard's search for love and Data's search for a soul--two storylines that have been explored a little too much already--and, in the end, neither character comes to any sort of change or resolution. Also, the climax is far too reminiscent of the two previous movies: Captain Picard has to duke it out, mano a mano, with the main villain while a timer ticks down to destruction. Been there, done that. Still, I think the biggest problem with Star Trek: Insurrection is the boob joke.


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THE BEST
4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek IV is the highest grossing Trek movie to date (though I'd wager it won't keep that title for much longer), and for good reason. It is the most accessible film in the entire canon, perfectly digestable for those who've never even seen a single episode of the original show. Also, it is the most fun of all the movies, with gags that are entertaining without feeling forced or groan-worthy. From a thematic point of view, the movie is nonsensical environmentalist propaganda (so we should save the whales, only because we never know when intergalactic beings who've been in contact with them for centuries might come back and destroy our planet looking for them), but hey, it keeps the preachiness to a minimum. Besides, who can really argue with saving the whales? There are a few convenient plot devices, and whenever you include time travel, you're bound to run into narrative trouble, but there's no transgression severe enough to warrant disliking the movie. Heck, I love it.


THE WORST
3. Star Trek: Generations
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The biggest dilemma facing the last four Trek movies is that there was no downtime between the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the start of filming. The original characters of Star Trek had ten years between the end of the show and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and that gave the characters time to change and grow in unexpected ways. Additionally, the visual difference between the big screen and the small was far more dramatic for the original series. Sure, Star Trek: Generations had an extra sheen to it, some darker lighting, and a bigger budget, but the differences between it and the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation aren't that immense. We still see the same characters in the same environment, and there isn't much in the way of relationship tension between any members of the Enterprise crew. The death of his brother and nephew definitely affects Picard in an interesting way, and the reintroduction of Data's emotion chip gives his character some room to be dynamic, but neither of these examples gives the story the same weight as, for example, the original Enterprise crew getting old and facing mortality (Star Trek II) or dealing with prejudices when the universe is turned up-side-down (Star Trek VI). In the end, Kirk's death seems to lack any real gravity, not to mention the fact that he doesn't actually die alone. Also, Malcolm McDowell's character, Soren, is a fairly weak villain with the cliche motivation of wanting to live forever. But the main reason Star Trek: Generations pisses me off is that it contains the single most obnoxious plot hole in all of Star Trek (and that's saying a lot). How do we know that Captain Picard and Captain Kirk actually got out of the Nexus? If they did, how did they travel through time? And if Captain Picard somehow came out of the Nexus in the past, what happened to his previous self? How come Picard and Kirk had ten minutes to stop Soren when, the first time around, Picard had maybe two? Ah, such lazy writing!


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THE BEST
3. Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact is the best of the films with the Next Generation cast, and is probably the darkest of all ten Star Trek movies. It is the only movie to feature the Borg (my top pick for best Star Trek villain last week), and it isn't afraid to use a few horror movie techniques to set the mood. It also doesn't waste much time; there is a ridiculously large space battle within the first five minutes of the picture. James Cromwell steals half the show as Starfleet icon Zephram Cochran, and Alice Krige steals the other half as the deliciously evil and disturbingly sensual Borg queen. I also love the development of Data's character, how he is tempted by the flesh, and how he overcomes those temptations in a predictable but very well-timed plot twist (Data delivering the line "Resistance is futile" is one of the most awesome moments in Trekdom). Of course, I do take issue with the end of the movie, where killing the Borg queen effectively kills all the Borg on the Enterprise and thus erases everything that makes the Borg so frightening. And while I love his "this far, no further" speech, they lay the Captain Ahab thing on Picard way too thick, almost turning one of the most serious characters in the series into a campy parody (Quark delivering a variation of Picard's climactic speech in the Deep Space Nine episode "The Dogs of War" is that parody, and it's effing great). Despite this, Star Trek: First Contact is one of the few movies in this list that stands out as something uniquely special.


THE WORST
2. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
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Star Trek: The Motion Picture is best enjoyed if you can forget that it has anything to do with Star Trek. It's a neat science-fiction story that is turned into a tiresome imitation of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running and that just happens to have Star Trek characters in it. It's not a terrible movie, but it's not a very good one either. There are some interesting moments and the plot is strong, but on the whole, it feels like it is trying to be something that it isn't, and in it's day, it definitely didn't give Trekkies what they had been craving since Star Trek was taken off the air.


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THE BEST
2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

The most epic, prescient, and dramatic movie in this list would have to be Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. This movie lives up to one of the better aspects of the original television show by relating a deep mythology to current events and human sentiment. As the U.S.S.R. fell, it was tough for America to truly accept a new world where the Russians were no longer the enemy. Star Trek VI came out a few years later, and didn't try to hide the obvious parallel. The klingons face a terrible calamity and an inevitable loss of galactic power, and there is debate in the Federation--indeed between Captain Kirk and Captain Spock--as to whether they should let the klingons die or negotiate a cooperative peace. There is even concern among the klingons, and the political instability leads to a grand conspiracy--one which ironically unites the most militant members of both the Federation and the Klingon Empire--that only the Enterprise crew can uncover. Star Trek VI is equal parts sci-fi, political thriller, action movie, and murder mystery. There are a few nitpicks (pink Klingon blood, for example), but if there are any major flaws to the movie, I don't know what they are.


THE WORST
1. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
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There is a definite progression from the overly serious Star Trek: The Motion Picture to the utterly silly Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. With each movie in the progression, the writers insert more and more jokes, gags, and goofy character interactions. In some cases, like in Star Trek IV, these work. However, Star Trek V tips the scale and becomes painfully absurd. The writing and tongue-in-cheek acting are almost so bad that the movie could be a satire of itself, and this is made all the more disappointing by the fact that the idea of the film isn't so awful. Sybock, Spock's half-brother who is fully vulcan but has embraced emotion and religion, is actually a neat villain, even if his brainwashing technique is a little hokey. The idea of a planet in the neutral zone where klingons, humans, and romulans can meet in peace but which has devolved into a seedy and semi-lawless wasteland is interesting. Alas, these good ideas are squandered by Sybock's senseless quest to hijack the Enterprise and peer into the center of the galaxy, not to mention an opening that includes everything from fart jokes to Kirk and McCoy teaching Spock to sing campfire songs. Even the most hardcore Trekkies among us have a hard time defending this embarrasment.


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THE BEST
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

What can I say about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that I haven't already said? Answer: not much. It's just awesome. It's so awesome, in fact, that most of the Star Trek films that follow it try, and fail, to recapture its magic. Khan is a perfect antagonist; the characters and theme are perfectly married without being blatant; and the plot, which acknowledges the age and evolution of the characters, is the most human story in this list. Knowing that this and Star Trek VI were directed by Nicholas Meyer (who also wrote Star Trek IV), the inevitable question one asks is: why didn't Meyer direct more Star Trek movies?



-e. magill 04/20/2009








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