How do you pick the worst Star Trek movie? There are so many criteria to judge by. Do you go with the one you feel is the most boring? What about the one with the dumbest plot? Perhaps you should pick the one that effectively killed the film franchise for over half a decade?
These are all valid scales to judge the worst Star Trek movie by, but we have to look at this decision through both a wider and deeper lens. There are lots of surface reasons to call a Star Trek film the worst of the bunch. While some have been misunderstood, there are others that have earned some scorn. Is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier a laughable vanity project with a climax that deserves ridicule? Probably. Is Star Trek: Nemesis a weak and uncharacteristic sendoff for The Next Generation crew? Assuredly.
But these critiques alone don’t earn them the title of worst Star Trek movie. To achieve such status would require a story that cuts at the very heart of Star Trek’s optimism and hope. It would have to be aggressively stupid in the plot department, lazy and slightly sacrilegious in conception, and secretly an affront to everything Star Trek is supposed to stand for.
That leaves only one choice for the worst Star Trek movie: Star Trek Into Darkness.
The Surface of the Worst Star Trek Movie
There are a number of deeper reasons why Star Trek Into Darkness qualifies as the worst Star Trek movie, but before we really cut this movie open, let’s examine the more in-your-face problems and faults with the film.
The most immediate issue is that Star Trek Into Darkness wants to crib from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, arguably the fan-favorite entry in the entire series. It’s not inherently bad when a movie remakes or reconfigures elements of a previous popular entry, but the way Star Trek Into Darkness handles its The Wrath of Khan parts is embarrassing.
Benedict Cumberbatch‘s performance is somehow both grandiose and muted in the same breath, never reaching the melodramatic joys of Ricardo Montalban’s iconic take on the character. Most horrendous is a tone-deaf remix of the memorable “Khan!” scream in which Zachary Quinto delivers his riff on the moment and it’s just… *sigh*.
It should be noted that the cast of Star Trek Into Darkness are doing their best with a truly heinous script. J.J. Abrams struck gold when he cast his series reboot back in 2009, but a good cast can’t save a story filled with poor motivations for characters, leaps in storytelling logic that don’t hold up if you think about them for a second, and an overall tone that is constantly at war with itself.
The title Star Trek Into Darkness certainly evokes a feeling of, “Oh, this Star Trek movie is going to be Serious Business!” That’s definitely what the film wants you to believe, but its wild shifts from po-faced grimness to goofball character bits clash so hard and break upon impact with each other. The movie never finds its tonal rhythm.
A part of that reason is because Star Trek Into Darkness is a mess when it comes to filmmaking.
Chaos Behind the Camera
When J.J. Abrams took over the feature film franchise with 2009’s Star Trek, he interjected a particular sense of manic action energy into the series. To be fair, the Next Generation films had certainly established that in tone but their filmmaking styles had remained relatively grounded. A big part of that was the fact that purely digital camerawork hadn’t evolved to a point where it could render believable landscapes and fluid camera moves.
However, that ability existed by the time ’09 Star Trek rolled around, and Abrams used it to his full advantage. Empowered by this aesthetic and energetic choice, he ramps it up to eleven in Star Trek Into Darkness and it’s unbearable. It’s an onslaught of noise and visual pandemonium that ceases to function as storytelling.
But, that filmmaking choice wasn’t so grating in the ’09 movie because it felt in sync with that film’s swashbuckling tone. Star Trek Into Darkness‘ decision to try and be bleak while maintaining the visual language of a more thrilling adventure story adds to this dissonance.
Still, all these issues and others – poor villain handling, bad characterization, problematic portrayals of women characters – all pale in comparison to the element that truly makes Star Trek Into Darkness the worst Star Trek movie.
The Insidiousness of Star Trek Into Darkness
When we talk about the worst Star Trek movie of all time, we have to consider more than just how that movie acts on its own terms. Star Trek Into Darkness fails as a piece of sci-fi action cinema, but where it becomes outright disgusting is in how it relates to the history of Star Trek as a vision and ideal.
Screenwriter Roberto Orci was able to use Star Trek Into Darkness as an allegorical vehicle for his own repulsive conspiracy theories concerning the 9/11 attacks. This might sound ludicrous but the inclusion of a dedication at the end of the film to “post-9/11 veterans” recolors the entire movie.
The specifics of this read on the movie are well-documented elsewhere, so I’m not going to parrot all those observations. Instead, I want to emphasize why this particular facet is what truly makes Star Trek Into Darkness the worst Star Trek movie.
As a fictional concept, Star Trek is meant to represent the most optimistic possibilities for humans. Yes, there have been critical episodes throughout the franchise that have tested the integrity of Star Trek’s ideals – including the best episode of Deep Space Nine – but it always came from a place of sincerity and heart for the world Star Trek wanted to build.
Star Trek Into Darkness removes that hopefulness and replaces it with brazen cynicism. It vilifies Starfleet and the Federation by casting them as an intrinsically corrupt organization headed by a leader that wants to instigate war at any cost. It rips out the heart of Star Trek and replaces it with something so rotted that it’s impossible to even look at the movie without feeling sick.
It’s not that the world of Star Trek can’t handle self-critical and darker stories. Deep Space Nine is my favorite Star Trek series, and a big reason for that is its willingness to hold a candle to the ideals and practices of the Federation and Starfleet. But, the creators behind Deep Space Nine clearly have a deep, understanding love of Star Trek that the main creatives behind Star Trek Into Darkness don’t share. Instead, they exploited Star Trek so they could peddle a misanthropic worldview that is ugly in its own right, but becomes even uglier when channeled through the world of Star Trek.
And it’s apparent that these creative forces were what led to this awfulness. The sequel, Star Trek Beyond, replaced the director and writers, which resulted in the best of the reboot movies. And that movie was even able to lob some critical feelings towards the Federation without having to resort to an insidious political agenda.
This is the big reason why Star Trek Into Darkness has to be the worst Star Trek movie. You can debate the fictional and technical merits of all the other films, but none come close to actively representing something so toxic at its core. If you love Star Trek, you likely love its attitude towards humanity and its belief that we can work together for the greater good. If you love Star Trek, you love hope. Star Trek Into Darkness is a hopeless, vindictive, immoral blight on the name Star Trek.
If that doesn’t make it the worst Star Trek movie, I don’t know what does. I’ll take God needing a starship over this any day.