Today marks the 30th anniversary of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The Nicolas Meyer-directed political mystery thriller was intended to both rejuvenate the franchise after the underwhelming Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and give the original cast an honorable send-off before what everyone (correctly) assumed would be new movies starring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Since then, we got four Next Generation-specific movies from 1994 to 2002, and then the Bad Robot-produced “reboot” trilogy in 2009, 2013 and 2016.
This past September marked the 55th anniversary of the first televised episode of Star Trek. That means it’s been five years since we all argued that Paramount should have held off on releasing Star Trek Beyond until September 2016 (instead of late-July 2016) to capitalize on that anniversary. It’s been five years since the last theatrical Star Trek movie and five years of false starts and bluffs concerning a theoretical Star Trek 4 (or Star Trek 14 if you count them as one continuity). Anyway, to mark the occasion, I’ll eventually use the usual science, math and dark magic to rank the movies (again, because I’ve never done so before).
As always, these rankings will not be your rankings because what fun would that be?
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Budget: $70 million
Domestic Box Office: $70.2 million
Worldwide Box Office: $117.8 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $135.3 million
The core dilemma of this glorified two-part Next Generation episode is an intriguing one, essentially “prime directive” versus “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” However, the circumstances of the specific plot, 600 members of a small community essentially hording science that could eradicate illness and premature death for everyone, don’t work as a parable for colonialism. The film holds up Picard’s righteous absolutism as unquestionably heroic, even while a measured compromise would be ideal. Beyond that, there’s a kind of lackadaisical attitude and what feels like the cast getting a wish list (Geordi gets to see with his own eyes, Riker and Troi get horny again, Picard gets a love interest, etc.). Insurrection plays like late-2000’s Adam Sandler where everyone gets to vacation on the studio’s dime.
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Budget: $60 million
Domestic Box Office: $43.25 million
Worldwide Box Office: $67.3 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $67.9 million
Stuart Baird’s late 2002 release was a Star Trek movie for folks who think Star Trek isn’t cool. Alas, the generically action-packed and occasionally patronizing (Troi gets “mind-raped” just so Riker can righteously kill Ron Perlman’s secondary bad guy) Nemesis turned off Trekkers and didn’t work for general audiences who were saving their money for The Two Towers opening just five days later. That it’s not the “worst” Star Trek movie is mostly because it wears its $60 million budget on its sleeve and it’s never boring. The nature-versus-nurture stuff (concerning a young clone of Picard played by a very skinny Tom Hardy) is intriguing, but it’s oft-charted territory for this franchise, and the film pulls a “Disney death” with Data. All in all, the Next Generation crew deserved a much grander farewell.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)
Budget: $18 million
Domestic Box Office: $76.4 million
Worldwide Box Office: $87 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $208.5 million
It’s not boring and it’s not “bad,” but the entire film exists just to walk back the shocking finale of its immediate predecessor. Oh, and it also walks back one of the more interesting developments of The Wrath of Khan, arbitrarily killing off Kirk’s just-discovered son and negating that bit of character development. That said, the first third has a certain creepy mind-horror vibe, but once Kirk and friends steal the Enterprise and head off to the (dying) Genesis-created planet to fetch Spock’s body it becomes a two-fisted action flick, closer to the whole Stagecoach in space pitch that was probably intended. Christopher Lloyd makes a fine Klingon baddie, and the production values are beyond reproach, but The Search For Spock is one of the more generic Star Trek adventures.
Star Trek (2009)
Budget: $140 million
Domestic Box Office: $257.7 million
Worldwide Box Office: $386.8 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $314.8 million
There’s a lot to appreciate in this unapologetic “Star Trek as Star Wars” time-rewriting reboot, and it’s no secret as to why it became a monster domestic smash in summer 2009. J.J. Abrams directs the hell out of this movie, the camera almost never stops, and the new cast is instantly iconic despite playing characters previously defined by an established cast. Alas, the film never slows down, while the whole “things must play out as we know they must” mentality turns this Star Trek origin story into a kind of manifest destiny propaganda. Cheer as Chris Pine’s unqualified, hotheaded cowboy Kirk usurps the command in a glorified coup from Zachary Quinto’s experienced, cautious egghead Spock just because the franchise as we know it demands it. Intentional or not, this admittedly rip-snorting and crowd-pleasing action-adventure played like a skewed endorsement of the 2000 presidential election.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Budget: $30 million
Domestic Box Office: $52.2 million
Worldwide Box Office: $70.2 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $119.9 million
I’m not pretend that William Shatner’s infamous box office bomb is “good, actually.” But, especially after almost 35 years of “Kirk stops a bad guy and saves the Earth” plots, there’s a lot to admire in this unapologetic head trip of a sequel. This intimate odyssey, with Kirk, Spock and McCoy kidnapped by Spock’s half-brother who wants to pilot a starship to essentially meet God, revels in the interior pain and personal pathos of its three leading men. The ensuing conflict, a rebel Klingon ship attempting to take out Kirk for glory notwithstanding, is more about a battle for the souls of our Star Trek heroes, one that counteracts the myth of Kirk as a glorified he-man cowboy. Final Frontier is not good (unfinished effects don’t help), but it’s an interesting bad movie.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Budget: $185 million
Domestic Box Office: $158.8 million
Worldwide Box Office: $335.6 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $168.2 million
The first half-hour of Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond are so damn good, so concerned with the shared humanity of our newly established cast (including Kirk burning out as he turns the same age his father died at), that it’s heartbreaking when the action takes over and the picture goes on autopilot. The Enterprise goes down in flames, and the crew is split up in a forest planet, but only the begrudging friendship between Spock and McCoy registers. Still, the action is beyond reproach, and the final 20 minutes snap back into gear as the core bad guy (a mostly disguised-in-makeup Idris Elba) shows his humanity and Kirk realizes the error of his thinking. The warm-hearted epilogue works as what could be a fond farewell to this newer iteration of the original crew.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Budget: $35 million
Domestic Box Office: $82.2 million
Worldwide Box Office: $139 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $300.2 million
Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains an oddity. Its existence, 10.5 years after the show ended, was clearly inspired by the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, yet its narrative and visual template is obviously fashioned more from Stanley Kubrick’s slow-burn mind-melter 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film was among the most expensive ever, and you can see that in every widescreen moment of this long (especially if you watch the superior 143-minute director’s cut) sci-fi epic. My fondness for it lies with its heady and grandiose ambition, in terms of raw cinema and in terms of big sci-fi ideas before the film franchise became (mostly) about killing the bad guy and saving the day. It puts the Trek in Star Trek.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Budget: $190 million
Domestic Box Office: $228.7 million
Worldwide Box Office: $467.4 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $257.7 million
No, it’s not the worst Star Trek movie ever made and it’s actually pretty great for most of its runtime. J.J. Abrams’ second Star Trek delivers Benedict Cumberbatch as a new-universe Khan and overdoses on nostalgia in the final reel, but the film still does the work to make the climactic events make sense to the characters as they exist in this story. Kirk keeps his ego in check, or at least he uses it mostly to help others this time out, and he refreshingly realizes the grief-driven error of his “vengeance > due process” thinking well before the finale. Big, pulpy and generally exciting, the film works as both an obvious post-9/11 “drones and militarized governments are bad” parable and a “why old exploratory Trek is better than new blockbuster Trek” metaphor.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Budget: $24 million
Domestic Box Office: $109.7 million
Worldwide Box Office: $133 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $267.7 million
Maybe director Leonard Nimoy and friends agreed with my above-noted thoughts on Star Trek III, because they did a 180 next time out.
Leonard Nimoy’s deliciously goofy fish-out-of-water comedy, a 180-degree turn from Nimoy’s Search For Spock, blends the tropes of movie-Star Trek (the Earth is in peril and only the Enterprise can save the day) and Gene Roddenberry’s aspirational notions (the world can only be saved by a creative and non-violent scientific solution). The crew goes back in time to 1987 San Francisco to literally save the whales, and the result is a quirky, funny and just plain delightful. It also works as a “20 years of Star Trek” memorium. It was sold (and embraced) as a Star Trek movie for novices, but the action-lite and violence-free adventure only works because it’s such fun seeing these specific actors (especially co-stars James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nicols and George Takei) playing these specific characters in this ridiculous situation.
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Budget: $38 million
Domestic Box Office: $75.7 million
Worldwide Box Office: $20 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $169.3 million
David Carson’s frankly underrated effort is a successful blend of “stop the bad guy” (Malcom McDowell’s going to blow up a planet!) and “explore existential sci-fi/fantasy concepts” (Could you willingly escape a Nexus whereby you lived out the best moments of your life?). The prologue is a terrifying and tragic event whereby Captain Kirk dies saving lives (rather than having to live with taking them), and that he “comes back” in the Nexus doing battle alongside Captain Jean-Luc Picard before dying again doesn’t negate the impact of the initial in-universe demise. The rest of the film is a warmly humanist adventure with the Next Generation crew dealing with the fallout of said Nexus and working as a grand adventure for die-hard fans and merely periodic viewers. It’s my favorite “odd-numbered Trek.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Budget: $12 million
Domestic Box Office: $78.9 million
Worldwide Box Office: $95.8 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $245.9 million
Nicholas Meyer’s metaphorical U-boat actioner, using old sets from The Motion Picture and coming it at 1/3 the cost, set the template (in terms of tone, production design, costumes and action-centric plots) for the cinematic franchise. I do find irony in many of the folks decrying the blockbuster-ization of the Bad Robot reboots holding up this clear “action spectacular” course correction from The Motion Picture as the definitive Star Trek. That said, this is still a spectacularly entertaining grudge match, with Ricardo Montalbán reprising from a first-season episode and turning Khan into the most iconic pre-Die Hard action movie villain this side of Darth Vader or Goldfinger. The Moby Dick parables aren’t subtle, but they make a surprisingly small-scale and intimate outer-space chess match feel like the biggest adventure ever told.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Budget: $46 million
Domestic Box Office: $92 million
Worldwide Box Office: $150 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $190.5 million
Jonathan Frakes’ kick-ass actioner opened 25 years ago when the Star Trek brand was at its peak mainstream popularity. Picard gets his own Ahab-like quest to destroy the Borg at all costs. That gives way to terrific action scenes and “acting with a capital A” moments for Stewart (and co-star Alfre Woodard) while Data (Brent Spiner) finds himself captured by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige). Meanwhile, much of the cast is on Earth in the days before first contact, trying to convince a now-skeptical pioneer (James Cromwell) to take his recorded place in history. This plot offers both comic relief and plenty of time on concepts more aspirational than vengeance and the ends not justifying the means. First Contact is probably the biggest Star Trek movie that still feels like a Star Trek movie.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Budget: $27 million
Domestic Box Office: $74.9 million
Worldwide Box Office: $96.9 million
Inflation-Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $163.1 million
The Undiscovered Country ended the original franchise arguing that victory lay not in total destruction of a given side but in a brokered peace and mutually-assured survival. It offered the seemingly easy-to-digest (and all-too-logical) notion that the biggest obstacles to peace weren’t one side or another but elements in both sides benefiting from continual conflict no matter the collateral cost. It ended the initial adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the crew on the idea that Kirk’s most heroic act wasn’t discovering uncharted worlds or stopping an evil plot but forgiving those whose “kind” had murdered his own son and shaking hands with the enemy. The undiscovered country is technically (so says Shakespeare) death, but this optimistic adventure posits that it’s merely genuine, authentic peace and between worlds and the salvation it would bring.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country remains my favorite Star Trek film. It’s a jolting of-the-moment political drama, using the war between Klingons and humans as a metaphor for the end of the Cold War and the consequences of institutional racism without relying on a yellow highlighter. Heck, it was the first of many big blockbusters (GoldenEye and Mission: Impossible come to mind) dealing with the legacy of career “action heroes” when the lifelong enemy turned overnight into a reluctant ally. This Nicolas Meyer-directed installment is also a crackling closed-room murder mystery with several dynamite action sequences (including the initial homicides, shockingly bloody for a PG movie, and the climactic showdown against Christopher Plummer’s cloaked Bird of Prey). And the epilogue, including Kirk’s final course heading, still brings a tear to my eye.