It’s not every franchise that gets a feature film adaptation ten years after its TV series was cancelled. It’s even more rare that that film spawns 12 sequels spanning 37 years. So as we celebrate Star Trek at 50, we must remember that while syndication kept the franchise alive, the films launched it into the 21st Century. Today, we look at the films that helped Star Trek reach 50.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Release Date: December 7, 1979
Production Budget: $35 million
Worldwide Grosses: $139 million
Plot: The cast of the TV show is reunited in order combat a sentient cloud that could mean the Earth’s destruction.
RT Tomatometer Score: 39% Fresh
RT Critical Consensus: “Featuring a patchwork script and a dialogue-heavy storyline whose biggest villain is a cloud, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a less-than-auspicious debut for the franchise.”
Place in history: While talk of a Star Trek began back when the original series was on the air, it took the success of Star Wars and Close Encounter of the Third Kind to bring the then-cult favorite to the big screen. They tried to update the concept with new character, but other additions–for example, uniforms that would feel right at home in a disco, having a fictional entry into the then new Voyager program as a character in the film–made it almost immediately dated. The quote about the patchwork script is right, as the script was being rewritten all through filming. But that didn’t stop it from earning a boatload of money, allowing us to get the best film in the series.
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
Release Date: June 4, 1982
Production Budget: $12 Million
Worldwide Grosses: $95.8 million.
Plot: Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalbán), a genetically altered villain from TOS, returns to exact his vengeance on Kirk and crew. And his vengeance comes at a great cost.
RT Tomatometer Score: 88% Fresh
RT Critical Concensus: “Considered by many fans to be the best of the Star Trek movies, Khan features a strong plot, increased tension, and a sharp supporting performance from Ricardo Montalbán.
Place in History: With a slashed budget, franchise creator Gene Roddenberry removed to an honorary position in the production, and another patchwork quilt-like script polished off by someone with no knowledge of the franchise, this film should have been a disaster. However, it ranks up with the best that Star Trek has to offer. Why? Well, Khan makes a great villain, bringing out the best and worst in Kirk. Khan also has a legitimate reason to be angry, which makes him a more layered and powerful bad guy. And the death of Spock ranks, with me, as one of the best death scenes in the history of cinema. Also, this film introduced the Kobayashi Maru Starfleet test into Star Trek canon. And we got new costumes–naval inspired garment that hid a lot of what the aging cast wanted to keep hidden.
Star Trek: The Search For Spock
Release Date: June 1, 1984
Production Budget: $18 million
Worldwide Grosses: $87 million.
Plot: The crew finds out that Spock has been reborn as a small child and must reunited his consciousness, which was implanted in McCoy’s brain, to make him whole. The Klingons have other ideas.
RT Tomatometer Score: 79% Fresh
RT Critical Concensus: “Though it may be short on dazzling special effects, The Search for Spock is still a strong Star Trek installment, thanks to affecting performances by its iconic cast.”
Place in history: Of course you knew that they weren’t going to let Spock stay dead. The film featured Leonard Nimoy in the director chair, making his feature film directorial debut. He would direct the sequel, then go on to have a short, yet productive, career as a director. Christopher Lloyd portrays the villain, Klingon warlord Kruge and John Larroquette play a member of the Klingon bridge crew.
Star Trek: The Voyage Home
Release Date: November 26, 1986
Production Budget: $24 million
Worldwide Grosses: $133 million
Plot: When an alien probe comes to Earth and wreaks destruction, the crew finds only one thing can stop it–the song of the humpback whale. Unfortunately, there is only one place they can find these creatures–in present day San Francisco.
RT Tomatometer Score: 85% Fresh
RT Critical Consensus: “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is perhaps the lightest and most purely enjoyable entry of the long-running series, emphasizing the eccentricities of the Enterprise’s crew.”
Place in history: This would be the film that would start the “every even number film will be good” theory about the franchise. Watching the crew cavort on the streets of 198o’s San Francisco is a hoot, and I still find myself referring to vessels as “wessels.” This film remembered that TOS had its humorous moments, and they all played very well.
Star Trek: The Final Frontier
Release Date: June 9, 1989
Production Budget: $30 million
Worldwide Grosses: $70.2 million
Plot: Spock’s half-brother Sybok believes he has found God, literally, and coerces the crew to get him past the last threshold. What they all find is something far more dangerous than what they were expecting.
RT Tomatometer Score: 23% Fresh
RT Critical Consensus: “Filled with dull action sequences and an underdeveloped storyline, this fifth Trek movie is probably the worst of the series.”
Place in history: Dating back to TOS, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had a clause in their contracts that whatever one got, the other got as well. When Shatner renegotiated his contract to continue making the films, he pressed for a chance to direct one of the films, just like Nimoy did. This is the result, one of the franchise’s worst and lowest grossing films.
By this point, Star Trek: The Next Generation was just about to wrap up its second season. The writing was on the wall, and the clock was ticking on the original crew.
Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country
Release Date: December 6, 1991
Production Budget: $27 million
Worldwide Grosses: $96.9 million
Plot: As tensions between the Klingon Empire and the Federation warm up, cold warrior Kirk finds it hard to accept the new reality. Other cold warriors have developed a conspiracy to keep the cold war going, one that snares the Enterprise in its web.
RT Tomatometer Score: 84% Fresh
RT Critical Consensus: “The Undiscovered Country is a strong cinematic send-off for the original Trek crew, featuring some remarkable visuals and an intriguing, character-driven mystery plot.”
Place in history: This was the big send off for the original cast (well, most of them) and a pretty good one at that. With a plot ripped from the then-headlines, it allowed the characters to shine. You can check for a cameo from Christian Slater in the film (his mom was casting director on the film.) This also marked the first of what would be five Star Trek films released in the fall season rather than the summer blockbuster season. Surely the success the franchise had doing this encourage other studios to release big budget blockbusters during this time of year.
Star Trek: Generations
Release Date: November 18,1994
Budget: $38 million
Worldwide Grosses: $120 million
Plot: A giant space ribbon that claimed the life of James T. Kirk is being pursued by the evil Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell) for some unknown purpose. The Next Generation crew becomes involved and discovers what the ribbon really is and that Kirk is still alive.
RT Tomatometer Score: 49% Fresh.
RT Critical Consensus: “Generations stands as a mediocre changing of the guard for crews of the Enterprise, with a dull plot that sometimes seems like an expanded episode of the television series.”
Place in history: This is the passing of the torch film, and it seems like more effort was put into getting Kirk and Pickard in the same scene than coming up with a good story. The film was released after the last original episode of The Next Generation, and at the time I was excited at the prospect that Deep Space Nine and Voyager would also make the leap to film in due time. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Star Trek: First Contact
Release Date: November 22, 1996
Production Budget: $45 million
Worldwide Grosses: $150 million
Plot: The Borg decided to destroy the Federation by travelling back through time and sabotaging the first contact between humans and Vulcans. Pickard and company travel back as well to keep history intact.
RT Tomatometer Score: 93% Fresh
RT Critical Consensus: “While fans of the series will surely appreciate it, First Contact is exciting, engaging, and visually appealing enough to entertain Star Trek novices.”
Place in history: If there is a trend in these films, it’s that the best ones are when the Captains show cracks in their armor and show us slightly unheroic sides of their personality. Pickard’s obsession with the Borg, one of the franchise’s most fascinating villains, ads a bit of depth and pathos to the film. And, following in a tradition started by Nimoy and Shatner, this film is directed by actor Jonathan Frakes. He would also direct the next installment and go on to become a prolific television director.
Star Trek: Insurrection
Release Date: December 11, 1998
Production Budget: $70 million
Worldwide Grosses: $117.8 million
Plot: Pickard and the Enterprise crew get caught between a fight between an alien race who stay healthy and beautiful forever and a race that would do anything to steal the radiation that gives them that gift.
RT Tomatometer Score: 55% Fresh.
RT Critical Consensus: Although not terrible, the sluggishly paced Insurrection plays like an extended episode of the TV series.
Place in history: Critics like to use “it’s like an extend episode of the TV series” whenever they damn an installment of this franchise. I never really bought into that, because if it resembled a good episode of the TV show, more of it would be a good thing. However, not every episode can be a winner, and this film feels pretty forgettable in the grand scheme of things because of it. The numbers seem to bear this out, as the film becomes in hindsight the first nail in the cinematic coffin of the TNG cast.
Star Trek: Nemesis
Release Date: December 13, 2002
Production Budget: $60 million
Worldwide Grosses: $67, 312, 826 million.
Plot: A coup in the Romulan Empire occurs, and the new leader requests Pickard and the Enterprise to visit to open diplomatic relations. However, the Romulan has other reason for wanting Pickard to come to him.
RT Tomatometer Score: 37% Fresh
RT Critical Consensus: “Nemesis has an interesting premise and some good action scenes, but the whole affair feels a bit tired.”
FilmBuffOnline Review: “If one gets the overwhelming feeling of déjà vu while watching Star Trek Nemesis it’s understandable, as the 10th installment in the long running television series-cum-film franchise liberally steals story elements from previous entries but then doesn’t replicate them as well as the first time they were done.”
Place in history: And the Next Generation era goes out with a whimper, and not a bang, and breaking the “every even numbered film is a good one” streak. This was a first for the franchise: a critical and commercial failure. Even a young Tom Hardy playing the villain can’t save it. The franchise was in need of a reboot. And a reboot it got.
Release Date: May 8, 2009
Production Budget: $140 million
Worldwide Grosses: $385,680,446 million
Plot: A man with a vendetta against Spock goes back in time to enact his revenge. He inadvertently jump starts the Kirk/Spock friendship in the process.
RT Tomatometer Score: 95% Fresh
RT Critical Consensus: “Star Trek reignites a classic franchise with action, humor, a strong story, and brilliant visuals, and will please traditional Trekkies and new fans alike.”
FilmBuffOnline Review: “Abrams manages to the most delicate of balancing acts- finding a way to tell a new version of the voyages of Captain Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise without alienating old fans and being welcoming to those new to the franchise. And surprisingly, he uses one the series’ hoariest of clichés, time travel, to do it.”
Place in history: This isn’t your father’s Star Trek. But a throwaway line about it being set in an alternate universe makes that alright. That makes this new set of films an exploration of the characters without being entirely beholden to the original. The result is a fun, action packed fresh look at the characters we know and love.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Release Date: May 16, 2013
Production Budget: $190 million
Worldwide Grosses: $466,978,661 million
Plot: A renegade ex-Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins attacks on Starfleet installations. The Enterprise is sent to capture him, but things are not what they seem. Not with the mission, and definitely not with Harrison.
RT Tomatometer Score: 86% Fresh
RT Critical Consensus: “Visually spectacular and suitably action packed, Star Trek Into Darkness is a rock-solid installment in the venerable sci-fi franchise, even if it’s not as fresh as its predecessor.”
FilmBuffOnline Review: “The film is entertaining enough if viewed in a bubble, but in context with the entirety of the Star Trek franchise it is a disappointment.”
Place in history: If you get a bunch of Trekkers together and ask them about this film, the hatred that develops would raise the temperature of the room about 20 degrees. The main cause of their anger was that Harrison turned out to be Khan. If he was just a disgruntled ex-Starfleet officer, people would love the film. But because it was a call back to a much better film, the faithful want to have nothing to do with it.
Star Trek Beyond
Release Date: July 22, 2016
Production Budget: $185 million
Worldwide Grosses (to date): $285,393,322 million
Plot: A rescue mission turns into an ambush when an ex-Federation captain with a grudge against his former employers attacks the Enterprise and kidnaps their crew. It’s up to Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Chekov to rescue their shipmates while saving the Federation at the same time.
RT Tomatometer Score: 83% Fresh
RT Critical Consensus: “Star Trek Beyond continues the franchise’s post-reboot hot streak with an epic sci-fi adventure that honors the series’ sci-fi roots without skimping on the blockbuster action.”
FilmBuffOnline Review: “Just in time for the franchise’s 50th anniversary this year, incoming director Justin Lin has course corrected things somewhat with Star Trek Beyond, giving us a rousing space adventure that feels like a throwback to the original 1960s television series that started it all.”
Place in history: The box office results are slightly disappointing, which has nothing to do with the quality of the film (I overheard someone say that the odd numbered films are the good ones this time around). But since there is a sequel in the works, the grosses aren’t all that important this time around.