Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
This first in the series was exactly a decade in the making. The three seasons of the original TV series concluded in 1969 (there was a short-lived animated series a few years later, plus an attempted live-action revival that led directly to The Motion Picture). You have to keep in mind that, other than the massive success of Star Wars, which was what prompted The Motion Picture into existence, the defining mark of science fiction on the big screen was 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the elegiac hard science statement about man's origins and destiny that remains a cultural touchstone to this day (both due to its director, Stanley Kubrick, and the reputation of the author of the original book, Arthur C. Clarke).
This resulted in a clash of expectations. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry didn't envision a sci-fi landscape like Star Wars. His was the more cerebral approach. He was always more interested in the human condition, what motivates us, how we react to adversity, and reacting to the state of the world as he found it (the TV show heavily commented on things like race relations and the Vietnam War). So the first Star Trek movie was always going to be more 2001 than Star Wars. In fact, The Motion Picture might best be understood as Star Trek's answer to 2001, rather than to Star Wars.
Its reputation, in the nearly forty years since its release, has been a response to the plodding nature of the quest to solve the riddle of what's been plowing through space. You can consider two additional Star Trek films (The Voyage Home and The Final Frontier) as direct creative responses to how to tell this same story differently, with more of a lively atmosphere to the proceedings. Here, though, they're dominated by the moody James Kirk, who's having a hard time dealing with the fact that history has passed him by. Decker has replaced him as captain of the Enterprise. The story is really about whether or not he unfairly steps over Decker to resume command of the ship, regardless of the circumstances. It's about whether there really are things bigger than us, not as a species but as individuals. That's why it becomes Decker's story as much as Kirk's, as he becomes intertwined in the fate of the woman he once loved, Ilia, who becomes an avatar of the phenomenon they're investigating. There's also Spock, who wonders if there's still something for him in the world of emotions.
Echoes of echoes of the major theme, which crystalizes in the realization that the enemy is really an old Earth probe, which is looking for its creator, and has no idea that mankind is what it's been looking for. It's lost touch with reality, and in its desperate attempt to reconnect, it's created all kinds of havoc along the way.
The Motion Picture is a creative statement that stands in stark contrast to the movie ethos Star Wars represented, and so fans have had a difficult time accepting it, even though it may be the definitive franchise statement in film. In their rush to embrace Kirk again, fans kind of ignored that The Motion Picture perfectly captures Kirk's character, ten years later...
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The result of this fundamental disconnect was the second movie being the exact opposite of the first one, despite sharing many of the same themes. Once again, Kirk is aging and not sure what to do with himself, and the villain is driven by motivations he doesn't clearly understand, except as direct reaction to a situation that is beyond him. (Yeah! Bet you never heard Khan described that way before!) We meet Kirk's son, David Marcus, who is exactly like him, but doesn't see it because their lives are pointed in opposite directions. And, Spock dies.
This is the fan-friendly film that's been enthusiastically embraced since its release. It revived popular interest in the franchise, and was acceptable to anyone whose previous touchstone was Star Wars, and like the original Star Trek series but wanted the original cast to have more life to it. It's filled with iconic moments, none of which are more iconic than Spock's death. Khan was the villain a story could really sink its teeth into, and again, fans could appreciate without thinking too much about.
Needless to say, I've never been a part of the Wrath of Khan bandwagon. As depicted, genetic superman Khan is a moron. The submarine warfare he engages in with Kirk may not be anything he was familiar with in his heyday (the Eugenics Wars of Star Trek's 1990s), but he's so consistently outsmarted that it really boils down to the surprise of his return, and nothing more, that motivates the whole story. The Genesis Device, which serves as a handy metaphor (and deus ex machine if you don't want your friendly neighborhood Vulcan to stay dead).
Because Wrath of Khan was so important to making Star Trek cool again (at least, among fans), it's always held a special place in the franchise, as the movie by which all others are compared. But, objectively, it really doesn't age well (Khan's minions look hopelessly dated, like the residents of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome ten years early, and eternally '80s), and its plotting is about as thin as you can get. It's certainly memorable, but it's not the creative gold standard you've been led to believe it is.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Its follow-up actually comes closer. This is one of the first direct sequels in film, from the modern, post-Star Wars era. As the title suggests, it's all about bringing Spock back to life. By its own logic, it's completely logical, and even lyrical. This is what it looks like when the franchise tries to tell a franchise story, which remained unique until Star Trek: The Next Generation on TV started looking into Klingon affairs more closely, which led directly to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Enterprise, which were all about telling stories directly from the franchise bible.
But because it's so directly related to Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock never gets near the same kind of love. It appears so much more inevitable, less spontaneous, and therefor less vital an experience. But you really can't have one without the other. The first two Superman films are kind of like this, except Superman II remains popular because of its memorable focus on General Zod, whereas the villain of Search for Spock, a Klingon played by Christopher Lloyd (a year before his most memorable role, in Back to the Future), can't compare to Khan, even though the movie does what its predecessor, amazingly never did: have Kirk physically confront his enemy. (Although, in brief, the choreography doesn't really do the encounter justice, which actually keeps it in-line with the lousy stunts of the original series.)
If Spock returns, then a price must be paid. Actually, a pair of sacrifices, one of them being David Marcus, and the other the Enterprise. These are dramatic moments that rival Spock's death, as does the varied tone of the movie itself, rather than the heaviness everywhere on display in Wrath of Khan (in its own way, extending the legacy of The Motion Picture in that regard). Clearly this is still Star Trek in the Star Wars vein, but Search for Spock injects so much character unique to the franchise (any scene involving McCoy), it's hard to argue that it's trying to do so, so much as carrying on the ethic of the movie (Wrath of Khan) that did.
Subsequently, I've always considered Search for Spock better.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
"The one with the whales" is actually the first time the movies directly reflected Roddenberry's idea that Star Trek is really all about the message. Ostensibly the conclusion of a franchise trilogy (Kirk and crew must answer for the theft of the Enterprise in the last one), Voyage Home is ultimately Star Trek's answer to the strong environmentalist push that began in the '80s.
It's also the one where everyone learns that the levity Search for Spock served up could be expanded. It's the one where the goofiness of the classic episode "The Trouble with Tribbes" erupts on the big screen, as the crew finds itself strangers in a strange land, future humans forced to contend with the world of the 1980s, in all its glory. (Chekov inquiring after the location of "nuclear wessels" remains one of the best memories anyone has of these films.)
Fans tend to be embarrassed by this one, even though of the first ten movies it was the biggest hit at the box office (which meant a lot of people who weren't necessarily fans quite enjoyed it). This notion is absurd, that Voyage Home can't be enjoyable just because it's not drenched in heavy plotting. This is probably the first movie anyone could watch in the franchise, and totally get its appeal, no explanation needed.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Long maligned as the worst of the movies featuring the original cast, Final Frontier is about as true to the experience of the original series as the movies ever get, and now that's twenty years removed from the TV experience. And it shows. Fans no longer have any need to reference the series when thinking about the films. That's the Wrath of Khan effect for you.
Taking cues from Search for Spock, Final Frontier tries to be a grand action-filled adventure, featuring a villain who isn't as memorable as Khan (again), and the greatest peril anyone really faces being at the very beginning of the film, when Kirk goes mountain-climbing. It also smacks in the face of expectations by playing around with franchise mythology, introducing Spock's half-brother (the villain), who isn't particularly Vulcan even though, unlike Spock (whose mother was human), he is full Vulcan.
For all that, and for all its limitations, Final Frontier isn't that bad. As a bonding experience between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy (something denied and/or delayed by Spock's death previously), it's a fun experience, and you can probably leave it at that.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
This allegory for the end of the Cold War is arguably the best of the original cast films meant to evoke the Star Wars aesthetic. It's an adventure, but it also has a message, and talks very frankly about the perils of racism (not for nothing does Chekov evoke the movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, where a white girl brings home her black boyfriend to astonished parents; here the strange bedfellows are the Klingons).
It's both a story where franchise mythology counts, significantly (without needing a specific tether, as with the villainous Khan), but it's also a story that can stand on its own, and be viewed from a number of standpoints. And as the last of the movies featuring a mature cast, it doesn't demand any awkward action beats from the actors. Instead, they're finally allowed the dignity of positions they would have assumed years ago, if only those pesky movies with all their Star Wars demands hadn't gotten in the way.
Star Trek Generations (1994)
Living up to the billing of finally uniting Kirk with his Next Generation counterpart, Picard, was always going to be difficult, especially when fans were bound to be upset that only one of them would come out of it alive (hint: not Kirk). For a series of movies that had been awkwardly juggling their place in the greater film lore since The Motion Picture, this was always going to be an impossible order.
So Generations subverts all expectations, and does the sci-fi equivalent of the classic Western showdown. This was always fitting, because Roddenberry envisioned Star Trek as a sci-fi Western. Next Generation fans got a huge bonus from the proceedings when Data, the android who spent seven seasons desperately yearning to become more human, got emotions, even if they end up playing havoc. Picard's emotions are running high, too, when he learns that his brother and as a result the last of the continuing Picard lineage has died, a metaphor for anyone wondering whether Star Trek dies with Kirk. (Notably, no one ever got that metaphor.)
Patrick Stewart, who portrayed Picard, was always noted as the most capable thespian Star Trek ever saw, and Generations was the first attempt to give him something worthy of his talents. And yet, by the end of the movie, the emotional journey he takes ends with him simply mourning Kirk's death, along with everyone else. Fans tend to feel cheated by Generations, and that's probably the metaphor to keep in mind. But it's a truly magical experience, everything Final Frontier hoped to be. Fitting, in a way.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
For a different generation (heh), First Contact is the new Wrath of Khan. It's thrilling adventure you thought Star Trek could never produce, infused with series-specific foes (this time, the Borg). And it's a story so focused on getting the best out of Picard, it pushes him to the breaking point (something other stories tried, but here finally happens, in the "ready room sequence" where he tries to explain his complex attitude toward his enemies, which is a story point the film builds toward from the very first scene, and absolutely delivers on).
It's hard for me to even pretend to be objective about this one, because it's been an unabashed favorite for twenty years. So let's just move along.
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
The "long episode" one, although I think its biggest problem is that Insurrection introduces a classic Star Trek message that's still difficult to accept, despite the fact that literally the whole history of the United States, where these movies are made, is built on the legacy of what it seeks to address: the plight of Native Americans.
There's a certain amount of Final Frontier clunkiness built into Insurrection, which like its predecessor was envisioned as the opposite of the film that came before it. Fans really liked First Contact. So anything that tried something different (because, as with Wrath of Khan, part of First Contact's charm is that it adequately fills Star Wars-inspired expectations for action-heavy sci-fi films). The studio tried to sell Picard's moral stance as a rebellion against the Federation itself (it wasn't). And any attempt to sell fans on completely new aliens (by this point, dedicated ones had built up an idea that it had to be mythology-specific, and even on that score, Insurrection failed to directly address then Dominion War arc playing out concurrently in Deep Space Nine).
Bottom line, this was the ninth Star Trek films. Mainstream audiences didn't care. And fans generally didn't, either. Not that it was the film's fault.
Star Trek Nemesis (2002)
Because Wrath of Khan was such a touchstone for fans, anytime another film even slightly evoked it, they tended to shrink back in defensive postures. Nemesis, which casts Picard against the specter of his youth (that's a story that goes all the way back to The Motion Picture, thank you very much) in the Romulan-engineered clone Shinzon (Tom Hardy's headlining debut), is filled with too many action beats (as opposed to how this was embraced with First Contact) for fans increasingly confused as to what they want.
Wider audiences, meanwhile, had Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings leading the charge for Hollywood, which was about to finally crack the Star Wars code (about thirty years later). Star Trek, which had been the leading contender during that timeframe, was now an also-ran, and its contribution all but completely ignored, and outright derided by fans.
Yet the film itself is the most mature statement from the Picard era, like Undiscovered Country before it speaking to the fate of empires, but also directly to the soul of Picard himself, who had gotten this kind of treatment for three films already, but never to an extent where he couldn't cope, never so that defeat was actually possible. The death of Data was considered the most egregious lift from Wrath of Khan, but it's serves as a perfect metaphor (Spock's death was one, too) for Picard's success, or failure, in the preceding events. Star Trek was always about making you think about why things happened. Look at the fallen face of Picard, as Shinzon impales himself, as Data sacrifices himself. Words, for once, cannot express the depth of what has happened. Nemesis concludes the cinematic adventures of Picard by deciding he's best left speechless. It's as bold a creative statement as The Motion Picture's leisurely pace.
Star Trek (2009)
The J.J. Abrams reboot has drawn considerable ire from fans for having embraced the Star Wars conceit. Ironic, isn't it? These are also the most successful films in the series at the box office. These are big adventures, but also the ones that ask the most of its characters, whose individual journeys are more important than the action around them.
Here, we explore the journeys of Kirk and Spock as never before, and find out what made them such good friends to begin with (hint: they started out despising each other). If Roddenberry always envisioned a future where we finally put our differences behind us, Star Trek is finally where we see it happen with the characters themselves. Tellingly, it's a message that's gone on deaf ears. I mean, just look at the news today...
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
This delicate rephrasing of Wrath of Khan predictably enraged fans (they list this as the worst Star Trek movie!), even as it resonates deeply with everything that came before it, in the best possible way. In the age of terrorism (which Star Trek has always explored, from Bajorans to Maquis to Xindi) and secret police in the post-Cold War world, what would using Khan look like? As fans thought of the film itself (again, ironically), it turns out to be a bad idea, and also a good one. I mean, without Khan, the bad guys would have gotten away with it.
This is complex storytelling, and it's the very finest tradition of observing the mythology, and building on it. Into Darkness proves that the new Star Trek movies aren't just the franchise version of Star Wars (but, that's been going on anyway, since Wrath of Khan) (again, ironically!), but about seeing how well these things can really be made, with all the stops finally let out. There's a marked difference between Nemesis and Star Trek, even though they were both made in the same era. That's not just filmmaking at work, but budget. Now, every blockbuster is given an outrageous budget. But the results are usually far less ambitious than Star Trek as it was always conceived.
So, let's see how they stack up:
- Star Trek: First Contact (big on emotion, action, resonance)
- Star Trek (the movies as fans always wanted them, and general audiences, too)
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (the original cast at its most dynamic)
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the original cast at its most profound)
- Star Trek Into Darkness (the perfect follow-up)
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (the perfect sequel)
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the big vision at its most viewer-friendly)
- Star Trek Nemesis (wrestling the deepest depths of the franchise)
- Star Trek Generations (the epic encounter)
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the fan benchmark)
- Star Trek: Insurrection (the big vision at its most challenging)
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (the biggest question, the original vision)