Movie Marathon: Star Trek vs. Star Wars
After a long hiatus of doing these film retrospectives, I wanted to try again this Summer with another blockbuster theme. [Last summer, I watched all of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s films, which you can read about in an earlier retrospective post.] This time, I was in the mood for science-fiction, but I couldn’t decide between the two tent-pole sci-fi franchises: Star Trek and Star Wars. So…I decided to do them BOTH — to pit these two influential film franchises against one another to see who would come out looking better. All told, I watched 26 films total (13 Star Trek films and 13 Star Wars films), and I’ve ranked them in my opinion from worst-to-best below…
The Rankings: Worst to First
#26: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) – There is no amount of mental, emotional, or physical training that can prepare one for The Holiday Special. It should not exist, yet it lives as a nightmarish fever-dream of 1970s variety show humor and the mistaken allure of celebrity cameos. The long-standing rumor is that George Lucas himself has made it his personal mission to see every copy destroyed; and, if true, the man should be canonized as a saint for his efforts. One would need a page for every star in the sky to capture the terrible banality of this…thing. It is too much and not enough. I regret my life.
#25: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – The first of many films on this list to be directed by J.J. Abrams, and, as we’ll see, most of his efforts fall pretty low in the rankings. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration, therefore, to say that one man has made great strides to ruin not one but two once-proud sci-fi franchises — an impressive “achievement” to be certain. Yet even among those other films, The Rise of Skywalker stands out for being especially bad in pretty much every way that a film can be bad. Perhaps the worst sin is its craven pandering to complaints about its predecessor (a film that, despite being not-great, at least tried to be…different). Here, we go through another trilogy to discover that we’ve gone nowhere at all, and not in the way that one might find “interesting” (I guess…as a commentary on human nature) but, instead, out of some ungodly mixture of laziness, nostalgia, fear, and, above all, greed. The Rise of Skywalker is late-stage capitalism.
#24: Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) – Disappointing precisely because it didn’t have to be, Attack of the Clones ignores all potentially interesting characters (e.g. Obi Wan, Dooku, Jango Fett, etc.) in favor of perhaps the most hilariously awful romance ever put to screen — i.e. the Anakin and Padme melodrama — that features two actors with absolutely zero chemistry together lifelessly recite some of the worst writing in any film ever made. One can imagine, however, a universe where different actors, different story-focus, and (much…much) better writing may have resulted in a more enjoyable experience. After all, there are parts of this that aren’t so bad, but when at least half of your run-time is unwatchable, there’s not much you can do to salvage the movie.
#23: Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) – The worst Star Trek film by a country mile (or parsecs or whatever). One cannot ignore the fact that, like its worst Star Wars cousin, everything is about CLONES here. [Hint: Avoid cloning in your Star Wars or Star Trek fanfiction.] Assuming that one can overlook the fact that we’re meant to believe Tom Hardy is a young Patrick Stewart (hahaha), the story and direction somehow suck both these talented actors completely of their charisma. In a just world, whoever designed Tom Hardy’s outfit for this film would have been tarred and feathered — his shiny suit defies both color and shape. Oh, and they kill Data for cheap emotional weight. Really, fuck this film.
#22: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) – According to some, The Clone Wars television show is one of the very best Star Wars canonical texts. (I wouldn’t know, nerds.) What I do know: The Clone Wars film is definitely not in the conversation for best Star Wars media. Was this before Disney’s acquisition of all things Star Wars? While there are all sorts of problems with Disney’s “vision” for the Star Wars universe, this may have been one instance where the company’s extensive experience would’ve helped with better animation and characterization within the form. Here, everything feels clunky, shallow, and grating — the characters lack animated weight and the voice performances feel disembodied. But the show is better?
#21: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) – Why leave a much-loved character dead when you can just bring them back and make that MONEY? That’s the real existential question at the core of Star Trek III. An ancillary question might be: How little can a film feature a character that is clearly marketed around said character? Spock is what the folks want to see — the real Leonard Nimoy Spock, not the younger versions — and, yet, most of the film features a feral, Pon Farr version of Spock where another actor scowls, howls, and acts very un-Spock like. As the Klingon villain, Christopher Lloyd tries to out-Khan Ricardo Montalban, but the actor just lacks the mixture of whimsy and gravitas necessary for such a ridiculous character. Kirk’s son, David, dies here, but the film can’t even manage to do that scene right — as he practically dies off-screen. Disappointing and only necessary to set-up a better film (The Undiscovered Country) that would later follow.
#20: Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) – The much-maligned Insurrection is regularly the “worst” Star Trek film on many lists. And while it’s not really “good” or even necessary, it’s totally passable for a Sunday afternoon, just-want-to-zone-out type movie. Insurrection is a strange film in that the big macro-story actually has some interesting, potentially moving ideas about lineage, family, etc. [Maybe this film should’ve been called Generations?] However, the micro-story moments frequently don’t make much sense and seem like filler. While F. Murray Abraham’s acting style lends itself well to being a Star Trek villain, the makeup department did everything it could to make him unwatchable. Really…Insurrection would’ve made a fine two-part episode on The Next Generation, but as a feature-length film, it’s flimsy.
#19: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – This film gets a lot of (deserved?) shit because J.J. Abrams and company did the last interesting thing — i.e. they brought back KHAAAAAN!!! as the villain. Everyone knew they were going to do it, and the filmmakers lied their asses off about it in the run-up to the movie’s release. Unfortunately, Khan has way too much weight and history from Ricardo Montalban’s earlier performance for the character to feel anything but a cheap knockoff here. (No offense to Cumberbatch.) And the choices involving both Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) are honestly pretty insulting to those characters. Into Darkness is really a mishmash of earlier Star Trek movies with the most minor tweaks — e.g. Kirk dies this time instead of Spock! — presented falsely as brave choices, but they don’t even have the courage to accept the consequences. At least, the earlier Star Trek franchise waited until the next film to resurrect their hero…this film performs resurrection in a matter of minutes. A competent but easily hateable movie.
#18: Star Trek Beyond (2016) – Junk food film, even by Star Trek standards, Star Trek Beyond isn’t totally without its charm — particularly the welcome addition of Sofia Boutella (as Jaylah), who lights up each scene that she’s in only for the writers to do nothing much with her. Familiar tropes from the previous Star Trek movies are back — e.g. the Enterprise gets destroyed… again! — but these recurrences lack any emotional weight because we’ve not spent enough time with this (Kelvin timeline) version of the crew. And Idris Elba is completely wasted here as the villain Krall, who you would be forgiven to forget is even in the movie — which raises the question: Does this film even need a villain? Not really no. [Take a note from Star Trek IV.]
#17: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – Another middling J.J. Abrams addition to the Star Trek / Star Wars mythos. (See a pattern here?) While I’d not go so far as to say that The Force Awakens is a beat-for-beat remake of A New Hope, it’s undoubtedly cribbing from that earlier (better) work…hard. It’s a shame because the new characters — Rey, Finn, Poe, Kyle, etc. — are genuinely interesting characters, although they’re prone to memeification. Unfortunately, as much as I love Han Solo, Chewbacca, and all the old gang, this new series suffers greatly from their inclusion simply because the film cannot move past the past while so glaringly embracing it (while making its bank off “nostalgia porn”). Leave the past behind; embrace new adventures with new characters, dammit! Still…it’s worth watching…once.
#16: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) – Oh boy! The film that everyone has THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about, The Last Jedi has all the same character- and plot-related problems as its trilogy counterparts. But I do give the film some credit for at least trying to expand beyond the limits of predecessors. After all, you can tell that Rian Johnson and company are interested in, um, you know, exploring a literal galaxy of stories and possible characters that exist beyond just one or two families. The pacing of the movie is admittedly a hot mess, and there are whole storylines that feel poorly conceived. But it does have some memorable images, which is something. A very flawed film but at least one that shows a little chutzpah.
#15: Solo (2018) – An ultimately frustrating film because it feels so close to being actually pretty great. Solo gets bogged down in an unremarkable and forgettable hetero love angle, when all we want to see is a sweet bromance between Han and Lando (with a little Chewie and a little Woody Harrelson thrown into the mix…just to keep things interesting). This movie ought to have been The Magnificent Seven meets Ocean’s Eleven — i.e. a Western-style bankheist…in space! All of these things are there but also not there. Ron Howard, a very fine director, is probably not the right choice to make that kind of movie that purposefully leans hard into style over substance. One more round of tough revisions in the writers’ room — without studio interference — and there’s a REAL fun movie buried in here somewhere.
#14: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) – Almost always near the very bottom of Star Trek film rankings, I like The Final Frontier more than most, as I feel that it suffers a bit unfairly from being sandwiched between two superior films. While admittedly clumsy and clunky at times, Star Trek V also boasts a couple of the most emotionally resonant scenes in the entire Star Trek series — i.e. the campfire singalong between three old friends and, later, Bones’s mournful remembrance of his father’s death. Laurence Luckinbill is also underrated as the “villain” of the film, Sybok, who is one of the best villains in these films because he’s not really a bad guy. [In fact, his sense of searching isn’t all that different from the Enterprise crew, and he repeatedly attempts to avoid harming others.] And although the movie clearly lacked the budget or the effects to pull off the climactic moment, I admire its attempts to explore faith within Star Trek. Underrated flick.
#13: Star Trek: Generations (1994) – The entry that most will remember for its meme-worthy killing of an iconic character, Generations is a pretty entertaining film overall. We thankfully get to learn a little more about Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), who is one of the more interesting and most underutilized characters from the The Next Generation show — probably due to Goldberg’s busy schedule. Malcolm McDowell is a formidable Star Trek villain in the vein of Montalban’s Khan. My biggest critique is that, while it’s interesting to watch two very different captains (Kirk & Picard) work together, the rest of the Enterprise crew isn’t given much to do here. But it’s a solid, pretty entertaining film for what it is.
#12: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) – You’d be hard pressed to find a Star Wars fan who wouldn’t consider Return of the Jedi to be the weakest of the original trilogy. But it’s certainly not “bad” by any stretch. Yes…the first scenes involving Han’s convoluted rescue don’t make much sense. Yes…it’s responsible for creating lore around the most overrated minor character of all time (Boba Fett). Yes…pretty much everything that happens on Endor just slows the movie’s pacing to a crawl. But there are some legitimately fun and enjoyable action scenes here, including the phenomenally tense encounter near the end between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. Part of me thinks that most of the film’s shortcomings are due to time-and-space pressures — i.e. the need to wrap-up various narrative threads from previous installments in a tight window and to everyone’s satisfaction. As a result, Return of the Jedi can feel like it’s just going through the motions with a predetermined ending the audience can predict. Both Vader and Luke probably needed to die in order for the conclusion to really pack its punch.
#11: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) – As a teenager, I distinctly remember how excited I was about The Phantom Menace. We were finally getting our own Star Wars trilogy to see on the big screen! And then…well, you know how that went. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually grown to appreciate The Phantom Menace on its own terms, and now I actually like the film more than Return of the Jedi. There are all sorts of problems here that mostly boil down to the writing — e.g. midichlorians, an over-reliance on CGI, writing Anakin as a boy rather than as a teen, um…Jar Jar Binks. [If you want to be horrified, listen to George Lucas’s recording where he puts Jar Jar as the “comedic” fulcrum of the entire film. Yeah…someone needed to man/woman up and give Lucas some hard truth there.] But with some relatively small writing tweaks, this film could’ve been much better — e.g. writing Anakin as a teen would’ve likely allowed a more experience actor to take the role, reducing Jar Jar’s screentime and comedic attempts, imbuing Padme with more energy and personality, etc. etc. The film has some strong performers in Liam Neeson, Evan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid, and Ray Park, so there’s potential present. There’s a better film in there somewhere.
#10: Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005) – After the disaster that was Attack of the Clones, no one would think you unreasonable to expect that Revenge of the Sith would be similarly terrible. But, thankfully, this film — while overlong and in need of some editorial cuts — actually entertains for the most part. There’s one of the better fight scenes in the entire Star Wars triple-trilogy between Obi-Wan and Anakin that feels like it has emotional weight behind it, a dual where you can certainly see the time that both of these actors put into rehearsal. Samuel L. Jackson gets to scowl and wield his unique purple lightsaber, which is fun. But the film’s greatest success is Ian McDiarmid’s absolutely bonkers and over-the-top campy performance in full-blown Sith Lord mode. McDiarmid CHEWS up his scenes with equal parts menace and glee — so much so that you can actually sense that this character wants to be discovered so that he can let his freak flag fly against the uptight Jedis. Feels like a space soap-opera but in a good way.
#9: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – It’s become almost rote at this point to praise The Wrath of Khan as the greatest Star Trek film ever but not so fast! (At least…not so fast for this list.) I like The Wrath of Khan overall — it’s enjoyable and features some memorable performances, particularly the surprising return of Khan Noonien Singh from the original series. However, my issue with the film is that it’s not as fun nor as ambitious nor as smart nor as heartfelt as some of the other Star Trek films on this list; instead, the film sorta splits the difference between each of these, resulting in a classic “low-ceiling / high-floor” scenario where everything’s good but nothing is truly great. Slightly (slightly) overrated but still worth watching.
#8: Star Trek (2009) – For as much shit as I’ve given J.J. Abrams with earlier entries on this list (see #17, #19, & #25), I think he nailed it with his original take on Star Trek. This is a FUN movie with lots of spectacle, basically what you imagine for a “summer popcorn flick” (and that’s not a bad thing!). Yes, there are lens flares everywhere. Yes, the alternative timelines are sloppy and sure to anger the enthusiasts. But I don’t care! The look is bright and colorful, and the cast more than holds its own despite filling some pretty iconic shoes. The original Star Trek always lived and died with chemistry between its bromantic triangle of Kirk, Spock, & Bones; and the new trio (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, & Karl Urban) work very well together here. Sorta weirdly underrated at this point in my opinion.
#7: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) – Star Trek: The Motion Picture is simply not a movie that everyone will enjoy (and, even among those fans of the film, I don’t think “enjoy” is the right word here). It’s slow slow slow and downright tedious at times. Robert Wise — a great director — was probably not the best stylistic choice for a Star Trek film, but he brings a CINEMATIC gravitas to a movie that you can tell is made to be seen (maybe only seen?) on a fucking gigantic screen with theater-quality sound. Often thought of as Star Trek does 2001, the first shot of the Enterprise is jaw-dropping, though the drab new uniforms are hideous to look at for 2+ hours. (Seriously…you change those uniforms back to the classic yellow / blue / red setup, and the film improves immediately.) I actually like the plot of this film — even the great Arthur C. Clarke himself approved. Oh, and the film’s score by Jerry Goldsmith is amazing, and the movie’s poster is one of the all-time bests. I can’t help but admire Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s commitment to being big and ambitious.
#6: Rogue One (2016) – Gareth Edwards would not have been my first pick to direct a Star Wars film based on his two previous feature-length efforts (Monster and Godzilla), but I think he nails the visuals, while also mapping some of the better Star Wars characters that we’ve seen since the originals. The cast is very strong overall — with notable standouts being Alan Tudyk (as reformed Imperial droid K-2SO), Donnie Yen (as force-sensitive kick-ass expert), and especially Ben Mendelsohn (as the villain bureaucrat Krennic). The action scenes are well structured, and you want to see these characters succeed and survive. [And…spoiler alert: Only one of those things happens.] Yes…the CGI of young Carrie Fisher at the end is superfluous and probably unnecessary; however, that final scene of Darth Vader just CRUSHING folks as he chases the Death Star plans…woo boy! This is the film that thankfully makes Darth Vader into a terrifying, unstoppable bringer of what scientists refer to as “that pain.”
#5: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) – The sixth and final film to feature all the original Star Trek cast, The Undiscovered Country is a fitting end to the ongoing Federation vs. Klingon tensions that have carried over throughout much of this series. Really…an underrated aspect of these Star Trek movies is the character journey that Kirk undergoes and the sort of process of trauma and slow healing that happens regarding his feelings about (and racism towards) the Klingons, which stem from a personal loss. The Undiscovered Country also weaves in several genres of storytelling here — it’s part mystery, part political thriller, part prison-break, and of course is all set against a science-fiction backdrop. Personally, this was the first of the original Star Trek films that I ever saw, as it would sometimes come on TV when I was a kid, so it holds some nostalgic value to me, too. It’s probably the most re-watchable of the originals and a fitting end to a longer story.
#4: Star Trek: First Contact (1996) – Though The Undiscovered Country was the first Star Trek film that I ever saw (on TV), First Contact was the first Star Trek film that I saw in theaters. As a result, there’s nostalgia at work here for sure; however, re-watching it again many years later, the film still holds up well. It’s the most action-packed of the non-J.J. Abrams installments. Yes…viewers familiar with The Next Generation and Picard’s history with the Borg will have added enjoyment, but it’s not necessary in order to enjoy. The cast is strong with expected good performances from Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner in their most iconic roles; however, the new faces (e.g. Alice Krige, James Cromwell, and notably Alfre Woodard) are also excellent additions and demonstrate fantastic chemistry with the old familiars. The Next Generation is my favorite Star Trek series by a mile, and First Contact is easily the best film within that particular universe.
#3: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – A mysterious alien probe just shows up on Earth and won’t stop causing problems until it can talk again to whales (yes…you read that right). Unfortunately, whales are now extinct on earth, so everyone is DOOMED. Time-travel hijinks follow with the crew of the Enterprise going to the 1980s to commune with the whales so that the future earth can be saved. Ha ha! And yet…AND YET…The Voyage Home just works really well — resulting in the most enjoyable Star Trek film that both pays honor to the original series (in tone) while also proving a meaningful dose of social criticism. [Lots of environmentalist messaging here.] It really is a weird film — there’s no true “villain” here, there’s a noticeable lack of space for a creative property all about space-trekking, and the Enterprise itself is noticeably absent throughout — but the characters are given some good moments to shine. (A subplot involving Chekhov as a possible Russian spy during the Cold War is particularly enjoyable.) Fun Fact: Eddie Murphy was originally supposed to be in this movie, which would’ve helped it reach peak 1980s aura. There be whales here! Save the whales!
#2: Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) – It’s pretty easy to forget with his later works and the smarmy “genius” image he would cultivate over subsequent years, but the first trio of films by George Lucas — i.e. THX 1138, American Graffiti, and A New Hope — are legitimately strong efforts that demonstrate Lucas’s early promise as a director. Aside from some awkward scene wipes that I still don’t like, A New Hope contains some truly beautiful, emotional moments, and the special-effects obviously revolutionized the game. Lucas perhaps cribs too hard from his predecessors in the Western and Samurai genres for his narrative beats and themes, but there’s no doubt that Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2-D2, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are all iconic characters. I can’t really image what watching this for the first time upon its initial release in theaters must’ve really been like, but it’s a classic well-deserving of its love and reputation.
#1: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Along with The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back is the go-to answer for sequels that manage to out-do their excellent predecessors (not an easy feat). Everything here is just a bit more refined and a bit more memorable — in no small part due to the decision to (thankfully) let the bad guys win at the end. I remember the first time I saw The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, and the Vader-Luke reveal was truly stunning, as was the (seeming) fate of Han Solo. I was sad, angry, confused, frustrated, excited, impressed, etc. — all in a way that still seems very intentional on the part of the filmmakers. [This movie makes you feel ALL the feels.] We get introductions to both Yoda and Lando Calrissian, and Boba Fett (although the latter is more bark than bite), and TESB’s climactic lightsaber battle is still one of the best in the series. In the battle between Star Wars and Star Trek films, The Empire Strikes Back earns the top spot.
Rewatching Star Trek and Star Wars films all Summer long was a welcome nostalgia trip and a much-needed respite from the myriad of real problems facing everyone during 2020. Nothing quite like “escaping” to some far-off future Earth (or…was it a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?) to help take your mind off things. In the end, the results in our battle for the ultimate cinematic supremacy among the two most influential sci-fi series of all time is…well, a little anti-climactic. In truth, both have their highs and lows. Overall, I would argue that Star Wars is the higher (AND lower) of the two, while Star Trek has a much more consistent pedigree.
From my list, I’d say that #1-3 (i.e. The Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, & The Voyage Home) are deserving of “classic” status. #4-10 (i.e. First Contact, The Undiscovered Country, Rogue One, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek, The Wrath of Khan, & Revenge of the Sith) are all very good. #11-15 (i.e. The Phantom Menace, Return of the Jedi, Generations, The Final Frontier, & Solo) are flawed but interesting films. #16-21 (i.e. The Last Jedi, The Force Awakens, Star Trek: Beyond, Into Darkness, Insurrection, & The Search for Spock) are worth watching once. #22-26 (i.e. The Clone Wars, Nemesis, Attack of the Clones, The Rise of Skywalker, and…oof…The Holiday Special) should be avoided, if possible. Still…that’s a bunch of films spread across just two series that most folks would enjoy watching — not bad at all!