The Star Trek Movies are often overshadowed by the shows themselves (all 12 of them), but despite having arguably some of the franchise's most notorious outings (as well as some of its absolute best), there's no doubt that the series as a whole has left a massive impact both on the fandom and movie history! With rampant fan speculation about a fourth Kelvin-verse outing, bizarre rumors of a Quentin Tarantino-led film, and the recent announcement of Section 31 – a straight-to-streaming spin-off “special movie event” starring Michelle Yeoh (of Everything Everywhere All At Once and Discovery fame) – we thought it might be time to take a look back at the previous 13(!) films in this multi-decades-long sci-fi blockbuster series!
The TOS Movies (1979-1991)
The original six Star Trek movies will always hold a special place in my heart… Some more than others. Just to carbon date myself for a second: my dad and I used to rent them all on VHS from Blockbuster and do a marathon over the weekend. What's really great about these movies is that there's actually a through line between them (especially II through VI), with character arcs and even a subplot involving the Klingon/Federation Cold War (which gives us some great commentary on the real-life politics of the era).
Unfortunately, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) isn't exactly the best entry point for new fans to the franchise (and some would even argue it's the worst one in the series). This film is held back by slow pacing, stilted characters, and cheesy costume designs. That said, the first Trek movie was an important milestone because it brought the franchise back to life 10 years after the show first went off the air. It also gave us some pretty incredible effects for the time, an amazing score by Jerry Goldsmith (that was later repurposed as the TNG theme), an awesome redesign of the Klingons, and one of the strangest plot twists since the original “Planet of the Apes”, with a genuinely thought-provoking concept wrapping the whole thing up.
In stark contrast to the first film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) is often considered not only the best Star Trek movie but one of the best sci-fi films ever made! If you haven't yet, watch the director's cut, it's even better!
Directed by Nicholas Meyer, The Wrath of Khan pits Admiral Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise against an old foe (from a classic TOS episode, “Space Seed”) in an epic battle of wills! Khan (Ricardo Montalbán) hijacks a Federation ship (The USS Reliant) and attempts to get ahold of a potential weapon known as the Genesis device. We're also introduced to Vulcan/Romulan, Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley, later played by Robin Curtis). The movie ends with (*spoilers*) the death of Spock in one of the best and most dramatic send-offs of a character, but (*spoilers*) he gets better, because…
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is literally all about retconning that tragic ending! It's a cheesy, fun, romp that brings back a beloved character in a way that actually feels very cathartic and meaningful. Plus, we also get a really great performance from Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown himself) as a Klingon commander! Oh and even though we get Spock back, the original USS Enterprise NC-1701 bites the dust in a pretty epic self-destruct sequence (…spoilers?). Star Trek II, III, and IV are often called ‘The Genesis Trilogy' because they each flow into one another as one complete story, even though they're all tonally different.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is another one of the highlights of the franchise even though it's basically a self-referential comedy. Star Trek IV is often referred to as ‘the one with the whales' because it's legit about Kirk and crew using a Klingon Bird of Prey to go back in time to 1986 to save a couple of endangered humpback whales in order to prevent a future apocalypse because of a random space probe, or something. It's a fun time, I promise. Star Trek IV ended with Kirk being demoted back to Captain for stealing and blowing up the Enterprise (long story, see Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), but the good news is they gave him a new ship: the Enterprise-A, setting the stage for the next film…
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is… not great, but if you're a fan of cheesy/bad sci-fi B-movies, you'll probably enjoy it for what it is. Star Trek V is kind of a stand-alone story that feels like a big-budget TOS episode about a god-like entity. There are some weird moments in it, like a three-boobed cat lady, Uhura doing a strip tease to distract some guys, and the introduction of Spock's emo brother we've never heard of who goes full religious extremist and takes over the ship. But hey, the movie also gives us one of William Shatner's best line deliveries ever: “Excuse me, but what does God need with a starship?”
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) is another solid movie (directed once again by Nicholas Meyer of Wrath of Khan fame). This one was a really great send-off for the TOS crew. It's about a peace treaty between the Federation and the Klingon Empire that's being threatened by an intricate conspiracy that includes assassinating a Klingon Chancellor and framing Kirk and Bones for the murder! We get to see Sulu become the Captain of the Excelsior, Michael Dorn (Worf from TNG) gets a cameo as his own grandfather, Kirk fights a shape-shifter on a frozen Klingon prison planet, and Christopher Plummer steals the whole damn movie with his Shakespeare-quoting Klingon villain!
The TNG Movies (1994-2002)
In 1994, after the original crew got a send-off in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and The Next Generation wrapped up with “All Good Things”, Star Trek passed its TV torch to Deep Space Nine and Voyager while the big screen was inherited by the TNG crew with the seventh movie, Star Trek: Generations. While it's not considered by most to be a great entry in the series, I do think this one had some pretty awesome character moments (especially for Brent Spiner's Data, who gets an emotion chip, and Whoopi Goldberg's Guinan, who talks about how her planet was destroyed by the Borg).
Some of the things I love about Generations are that the movie starts with a cold open showing us Kirk's “final” mission, the Enterprise-D tragically crashes into a planet, and it ends with the team-up we never thought we'd ever see: Kirk and Picard against a random villain (Malcolm McDowell) fighting on an alien planet that vaguely looks like Red Rock Canyon in Nevada. It just felt right.
Then Star Trek: First Contact (1996) swooped in and gave Wrath of Khan a run for its hard-earned Latinum! First Contact isn't just a great Star Trek movie: it's a great movie, period. It's both one of the scariest Trek entries and one of the most important cannon-wise. And it happens to be directed by Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes! First Contact is another time-travel adventure, but this time, after destroying a Borg Cube headed for Earth, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E have to follow the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) back in time to stop her from altering history – specifically 2063: Earth's First Contact with an alien species!
In a weird way, we finally get an origin story for the whole Star Trek timeline: in the wake of WWIII, Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) invents warp drive, which attracts the attention of the Vulcans. All in all, it's actually a pretty intense movie, especially when the Borg start taking over the Enterprise and Picard has to deal with his PTSD over being assimilated (see TNG‘s: “The Best of Both Worlds”). Data is seduced by the Borg Queen, Troi gets drunk on ‘something called whiskey', Picard explains how there's no money in the future, we get a cameo from the holographic doctor from Voyager, and Worf gets to be a badass. It's just pure fan service at its finest.
Unfortunately, the last two TNG movies were meh to subpar at best. Star Trek: Insurrections was a by-the-numbers TNG episode with a movie budget that deals with Starfleet being on the wrong side of a conflict regarding a paradise planet and its native inhabitants. It's not exactly bad, but it really felt like they should've taken the opportunity to do a cross-over with DS9 at least. And while Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) had some interesting story points (that have some startling effects on cannon going forward into Picard), overall it was a bit of a mess. Instead of a heart-felt Voyager tie-in like we wanted, we instead got a convoluted plot that's all action and no substance.
Long story short: Shinzon (Tom Hardy) was a secret Romulan clone of Captain Picard who uses the Remans to take control of the Romulan Empire and then threatens to blow up the Federation with a bio-weapon if they don't hand Picard over so he can use his DNA to cure himself of some weird disease. Oh, and we also get a Data prototype with B-4, which is basically used as a throwaway MacGuffin. Riker and Troi finally get married, we get a cameo from Admiral Janeway, Data sacrifices himself to save Picard and crew, and Riker gets to become Captain of the USS Titan. Nemesis has its moments, but it's not exactly the best ending for the TNG family. Thankfully, Picard Season 3 seems to be getting us some much-needed closure after all these years…
The Kelvin-verse Movies (2009-2016)
Despite some criticisms from the fan base, I honestly think that Star Trek (2009) (directed by J.J. Abrams) was a perfect way to reinvigorate the franchise for a modern audience, in a way that still felt very true and respectful to the original concept. The entire cast does a great job as younger versions of their original TOS counterparts: Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Zoë Saldana as Uhura, Karl Urban as Bones, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin (RIP) as Chekov, Ben Cross as Sarek (Spock's dad), Winona Ryder as Amanda Grayson (Spock's mom), and Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike. We even get a young Chris Hemsworth as Kirk's dad, and the late, great, Leonard Nimoy reprises his role as an older Ambassador Spock from the future!
In this soft reboot, a renegade Romulan from the 24th Century called Nero (Eric Bana) travels back in time to try and stop the destruction of Romulus and get revenge on Spock by destroying Vulcan. His arrival in the past creates a divergent timeline known to fans as “the Kelvin universe”. The opening 10 minutes of this movie is one of the most dramatic and emotional scenes in the whole series, as the USS Kelvin is attacked by Nero's ship, the Narrada, and Kirk's dad sacrifices himself to save his wife and his newborn child.
The whole movie is a non-stop rollercoaster ride as we meet Kirk, Spock, and Uhura during their Academy days (we actually get to see Kirk's infamous Kobayashi Maru test first mentioned in Wrath of Khan), Spock gets emotional, Kirk learns humility, Uhura gets a character arc (and a first name), Scotty is hilarious, and Karl Urban practically steals the show as McCoy. It's a fun, action-packed romp about finding one's destiny.
The 2013 sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness was a continuation of the classic Enterprise crew before they set off on their iconic 5-year mission. Because of some temporal shenanigans, certain events play out a little differently in this timeline, as Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) infiltrates Starfleet's Section 31, and manipulates events behind the scenes, leading to an epic showdown that will decide the fate of the Kelvin Universe. While it's a solid action movie in its own right, and we get Peter Weller (Robo-Cop) as a “Badmiral”, this one was divisive among the fanbase, to say the least.
The third and final (… so far) movie in the Kelvin timeline was Star Trek: Beyond (2016) which picked up with the TOS crew in the middle of their 5 Year Mission in uncharted space, where things take a drastic turn when the Enterprise encounters a mysterious enemy on an alien world with connections to the early days of the Federation. Idris Elba plays “Krall” (aka Captain Edison of the lost USS Franklin), and we're introduced to the resourceful Jaylah played by Sofia Boutella! There are some pretty great action sequences, funny character moments, and more than a few Easter Eggs. While the story could have been a bit deeper thematically, this one really captures the adventurous spirit of early Trek, and delivers it in a big-budget blockbuster!
Following Star Trek: Beyond, there have been a number of extremely successful Star Trek series debuting on Paramount Plus, including “Strange New Worlds”, “Picard”, “Lower Decks”, and “Discovery”. In fact, the next Trek movie, Section 31 is dropping directly on the platform in late 2024! As for beyond that, we'll have to wait and see what the future holds…
So there you have it! Be sure to read my breakdown of Every STAR TREK *Series* Ever… So Far, or listen to my friends and I talk about Star Trek on “Too Young For This Trek: A Star Trek Podcast”. You can also help support me by buying my latest book, “2299” – a sci-fi / noir novella (on Amazon or Audible), and catch up with ALL the latest Trek shows and more, now streaming on Paramount Plus!