Presented here in the order of film production.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

1979, Paramount

After years of anticipation for the return of Trek, the first motion picture (which, evidently, was Plan B after a scrapped TV reboot) was neither a huge hit nor a huge flop; it was simply inert. Robert Wise's goal, it would seem, was to awe the audience by showing the cast in awe. Seemingly for hours on end. Worse, those of us who've grown up with the franchise's beloved main characters couldn't escape the feeling Wise had no clue what to do with them. Consequently, they came off as unauthentic in awkward, uncomfortable ways.

Decades later, the studio released a director's cut that wasn't half bad. One surprising thing Wise did—in contrast to the norm for such projects—was make the film shorter. In truth, he could have gone much further; there were still far too many lingering shots of actors with their mouths agape, and much too much attention paid to enormous model space ships. Indeed, I honestly think the film could be compressed into a nice tight 60-80 minutes, without losing anything vital.

   

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Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan

1982, Paramount

Brilliantly and single-handedly, Nicholas Meyer re-launched the Trek film series to broad acclaim. He accomplished this by totally ignoring the wet fart known as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and restoring the main characters' authenticity. That he had a far more limited budget actually worked in his favor, as it forced him to focus more on character than visual spectacle, resulting in a more intimate, appropriately "TV-sized" film.

Perhaps his greatest stroke of genius, though, was resurrecting an antagonist from a fan-favorite episode: Khan Noonien Singh from "Space Seed." Of course, this wouldn't have worked without the endearingly over-the-top charisma of Ricardo Montalbán; with Montalbán perfectly willing to reprise the role, the film's success was virtually assured.

The result is a genuine delight. The characters are lovingly brought back to life as if they'd stepped right out of the TV series without missing a beat. The story is very much in keeping with the Trek universe, particularly as it's a sequel. And the visuals are vastly superior to those of the first film, despite costing a fraction as much to produce—which is even more impressive given these were still pre-CGI times. In every way, The Wrath of Khan is wholly satisfying on every level.

       

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Star Trek: The Search for Spock

1984, Paramount

Without question, The Wrath of Khan, restored fans' hopes for authentic, satisfying Trek. But far more difficult than satisfying fans is doing it again. In television, we only need to wait a week or so to recover from the occasional, inevitable flop. But in the motion picture industry, with years between releases, audiences will not be so forgiving. Thus, there was an awful lot riding on whatever followed Khan.

One big thing that worked in their favor was tapping Leonard Nimoy to direct, because (IMO) he's a better director than actor. Plus, of course, he's intimate with the Trek universe. Casting also helped immensely: Christopher Lloyd was a deliciously over-the-top replacement for Ricardo Montalbán as the chief baddie.

The result was very nearly as popular as its predecessor, which is a rare feat indeed. What keeps it from earning my top score, however, is quite difficult to articulate; it is perhaps a vague sense it was created to exploit our fondness of Trek more than satisfy it. The Search for Spock is nevertheless immensely enjoyable. Incidentally, I felt Robin Curtis was vastly superior to Kirsty Alley as the Vulcan Saavik, although this runs counter to popular opinion. I also offer Kudos to Shatner for his performance when his son is killed—he remained just shy of overkill, and succeeded in choking me up.

     

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Star Trek: The Voyage Home

1986, Paramount

Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett team up once again to see if the magic could be repeated. This time, they decided to mine a heretofore untapped potential for the franchise: comedy. It would require a deft touch to keep the humor from turning Trek into a parody of itself, and Nimoy proved to be up to the task.

The film's reception speaks for itself: it was a certifiable hit. Once again, however, I found it somewhat less satisfying than Khan. On the plus side, the humor worked perfectly. However, the whole whale-space-probe thingie just didn't gel; plus, the save-the-whales message was a tad too in-your-face. None of this prevented me from grinning almost continuously for nearly two hours.

     

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Star Trek: The Final Frontier

1989, Paramount

Oh well, all good things must come to an end. And when William Shatner said, "Hey, it's my turn to direct," he nearly killed the franchise. Although perhaps not quite as bad as some claim, it's still pretty bad, invoking in the viewer a strange, crapped-my-pants feeling. And that's all I have to say about it.

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Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country

1991, Paramount

Sadly, the Trek film franchise would never fully recover from the nearly-fatal blow dealt by Shatner's Turd, a.k.a. The Final Frontier. Still, The Undiscovered Country had much to recommend it: an intelligent, literate script, as well as some of the regular casts' best performances; plus, some of the best supporting actors Trek had ever seen, including Christopher Plummer and David Warner at their scenery-chewing best, and Kim Cattrall in a truly spine-tingling mental battle with Spock. Nicholas Meyer returned to the director's chair to put a bow on this valentine to the fans.

Despite solidly positive critical reception, it still lagged well behind the Khan-Spock-Voyage trilogy in popularity. The actors were old, and some weren't aging well, particularly DeForest Kelly, so it's just as well this was their final voyage. Coincidentally, Gene Roddenberry died days before its premier; it would seem Trek died with him. At least it went out on a high note.

     

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Star Trek: Generations

1994, Paramount

The whole reason for the first Next Generation feature film to exist, obviously, was to pass the torch from original to next gen cast, and not surprisingly William Shatner was on hand to do the honors. About the only thing going for it was the opportunity to see how the mash-up worked, and while it was genuinely fun to see the two biggest egos in the Trek universe trade quips (at times on horseback, no less), we were forced to endure one of the most supremely bewildering plots known to the franchise. Honestly, the lengths to which the writers went in order to justify getting Kirk and Picard together for me nearly pushed the score to CRAP—I really want to know what they were smoking. Thankfully (if somewhat mystifyingly) it wasn't bad enough to kill any future film projects, although I wonder if they pressed on if only to avoid the embarrassment of a stillborn series.

 

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Star Trek: First Contact

1996, Paramount

The second of four Next Gen feature films sort of followed Wrath of Khan's lead by tapping the TV series' Borg—IMO one of Trek's least-interesting antagonists. Although James Cromwell was enjoyable as an oddly alcoholic Zefram Cochrane, inventor of warp drive, it was Alfre Woodard who delivered the most memorable performance, igniting some fiery drama as her character clashed with Picard. With Jonathan Frakes (a.k.a first officer William Riker) at the helm, First Contact was neither an embarrassment nor a roaring success.

     

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Star Trek: Insurrection

1998, Paramount

The lackluster performance of the third Next Gen feature film did not bode well for Jonathan Frakes' second time as director. Coming off as little more than an overly-long TV episode, Insurrection simply failed to deliver on what it promised, although it's hardly a flop.

   

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Star Trek: Nemesis

2002, Paramount

With Nemesis, things went from bad to worse for the crew of Enterprise-E (my goodness, they're burning through starships like old Chevy Impalas). Much of the blame for its failure has been pinned on director Stuart Baird, who evidently never bothered to watch any Next Gen episodes; indeed, Marina Sirtis called him an idiot. About the only thing that saved Nemesis from being CRAP was some pleasantly enjoyable banter between crewmembers, particularly Riker and Troi, who got married in this episode film. In the end, though, one couldn't escape the sense that Next Gen had simply run its course; there was nowhere left for them to go.

   

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Star Trek (reboot)

2009, Spyglass Entertainment/Bad Robot

J.J. Abrams is here to save the day! Based on box office performance and critical reception, Abrams' take on Trek is undeniably a bona fide hit, although it's not without its detractors. Its harshest critics are hardcore Trekkies who practically turn apoplectic over its flagrant disregard for canon. I'm sorry, these people really do need to get a life. I watch films to be entertained. Period. And to that end, it succeeded admirably.

Aside from relentless action and awesome effects, what really knocks it out of the park is the letter-perfect casting (well, except maybe for Simon Pegg as Scottie, but only because he's too short). Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto absolutely nail Kirk and Spock, not because they did good impressions, but because they didn't; they created their own characters that carried the spirit of the originals. Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk, Captain Kirk's father, was not around long enough to fully appreciate. And Bruce Greenwood as Christopher Pike was a double-stroke of genius—which I'm sure put some canon freaks in the hospital with seizures.

The most amazing thing about this film, though, is how successfully it breathed new life into a franchise that had been written off as dead. Indeed, even as a Trek aficionado, I was convinced there was no hope of reviving the corpse; I'm delighted that I was wrong. Worth two big tubs of popcorn—with extra butter.

       

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Star Trek Into Darkness

2013, Bad Robot/Skydance Productions

My high hopes that J.J. Abrams would maintain the momentum he'd begun with his wildly successful reboot film were sadly dented with Into Darkness. While it was an enjoyable effects spectacle with plenty of humor shared among the new crew, it suffered from some fatal flaws.

For starters, resurrecting Khan Noonien Singh yet again was one trip too many to that well, particularly since Khan doesn't seem to fit comfortably into Abrams' alternate Trek reality. Making matters worse, Benedict Cumberbatch was woefully, almost laughably miscast as Khan, and was so over the top that Ricardo Montalbán would wince. Then there's that groan-inducing, eye-rolling "KHAN!!!" As delivered by Zachary Quinto, it was a lame knock-off of Shatner's memorable scream. And don't get me started about Kirk kicking part of the starship's engine to get it started again. Oh, and then there's Alice Eve's awkward underwear scene—attractive, yes, but totally out of place.

   

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Star Trek Beyond

2016, Skydance Media/Bad Robot et al

With J.J. Abrams off doing Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, it was up to Justin Lin to turn things around from the previous near-misfire, Into Darkness. And while Beyond fell short of the first reboot film, it was nevertheless a hit. Once again, its success was arguably due to the chemistry of the cast, and the top-drawer effects didn't hurt.

That said, it falls short of a top score due to an unremarkable story and no stand-out supporting roles. Idris Elba was not particularly well utilized, although Sofia Boutella was perhaps the most memorable as a sharp-tongued scavenger. Sadly, the film's release came right on the heels of two significant deaths: Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin (the new Checkov), both of whom received dedications in the credits.

On the bright side, Pine and Quinto have both signed on for a fourth film, and in a delightful and welcome surprise, Chris Hemsworth will return as Kirk's father, George.

     

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