While it has dominated on the small screen, the Star Trek franchise has never been quite as commercially successful on the silver screen as its major competitor, the Star Wars Saga. While Star Wars has always been heavy on spectacle and romance, in the classic sense, the Trek movies’ plots have always been on the technical side (semi-frequently utilizing time travel) and have been intended to appeal more to fans of the various television series. But the Star Trek film series—or at least most of its entries—has been far from a financial disaster. The following eight movies are the highest grossing in Star Trek’s history. As the movie franchise now spans over 35 years, earlier figures will understandably be adjusted for inflation. For simplicity’s sake, the grosses listed will be limited to domestic numbers.
8 Star Trek Generations, 1994 - $150,678,700
Generations served as a bridge between the stories of the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had come to an end earlier that year after a seven season run. The film sees Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D, teaming up with a time-displaced James T. Kirk to fight Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell), an unhinged scientist who is willing to wipe out an entire system in order to merge with a mystical source of energy. The film was quite successful, earning back its budget a few times over, and was one of the first to have its own website. Reactions were mixed, however: Roger Ebert criticized the movie for being narcissistic, and ReelViews’ James Berardinelli calling it a “double-length episode of the Next Generation.” Fans also reacted negatively to what they thought was a—spoiler alert for a nearly two-decade-old movie—lousy death for Kirk.
7 Star Trek: First Contact, 1996 - $173,190,500
Arguably the most action-packed of the Trek films at the time of its release, First Contact pitted Picard and the crew of the newly-commissioned Enterprise-E against the collective cybernetic race the Borg, who travel back in time to prevent humanity’s first warp flight and consequently first contact with an extraterrestrial race. First Contact was essentially a zombie movie in space that featured numerous combat sequences and depicted Picard’s psychological trauma from being assimilated by the Borg years earlier. And like its predecessor The Wrath of Khan, First Contact also included numerous references to Moby Dick. To date, it remains one of the most positively received films in the Star Trek canon, with Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times calling it cheerful and stylish and Roger Ebert praising its special effects. First Contact reached the top of the box office in its first week and was the highest-grossing Trek movie internationally until J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot.
6 Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, 1984 - $190,039,700
Though the third film overall in the Star Trek franchise, The Search for Spock was the middle chapter in an informal trilogy that spanned the second, third and fourth entries in the saga. Picking up shortly after the events of The Wrath of Khan, Kirk discovers that the recently deceased Mr. Spock transferred his memories and essence into the mind of the Enterprise’s doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Effectively hijacking the Enterprise, Kirk and his crew venture out to the stars on an unsanctioned mission to reunite Spock’s mind with his old body, all the while having to contend with Klingon Commander Kruge (played by a pre-Back to the Future Christopher Lloyd). The Search for Spock was fairly successful in theatres, and a 1984 article in The Washington Post said that its grosses along with those of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom gave Paramount Pictures temporary control of the summer box office. However the movie wasn’t as well received as The Wrath of Khan, with Rita Kempley saying it felt made-for-TV. Critics were also ambivalent toward its special effects, though Roger Ebert praised the design of the Klingon Bird-of-Prey ship.
5 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982 - $224,123,600
Perhaps the most culturally relevant Star Trek movie until the 2009 reboot, The Wrath of Khan brought back superhuman villain Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán), who had first appeared in an acclaimed episode from the original television series. It was a significant departure in both tone and pacing from The Motion Picture, trading in the previous film’s long establishing shots for ship-to-ship combat sequences that resembled not so much the dogfighting of Star Wars as the submarine warfare in Das Boot. Made for less than The Motion Picture, The Wrath of Khan ended up grossing more at the box office, with Box Office Mojo listing it as the sixth highest-earning movie of 1982. As well, it earned far greater critical acclaim, with reviewers singling out its pacing, character development and Leonard Nimoy’s performance during Spock’s death scene. In 2002, Entertainment Weekly credited Khan with “sav[ing] Star Trek as we know it.”
4 Star Trek Into Darkness, 2013 - $227,959,600
The most recent entry in the Star Trek franchise, as well the second in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted film series, has the distinction of being as action-packed as any given Star Wars movie. Into Darkness follows the crew of the Enterprise as they attempt to hunt down and apprehend a mysterious member of Starfleet (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has had a hand in several acts of terrorism. While Abrams and the film’s writers claimed Cumberbatch’s character was entirely original leading up to the film’s release, it’s revealed that the terrorist is an alternate timeline version of Khan of The Wrath of Khan fame. Fight scenes, ship-to-ship combat and name-yelling ensue. While critical reaction to the film was generally positive—it holds 87% on Rotten Tomatoes and 72% on Metacritic—Star Trek alumni such as George Takei (Hikaru Sulu) and Garrett Wang (Harry Kim) took issue with the casting of a white actor in the role of Khan, with Takei saying the move went against the diversity Gene Roddenberry had intended with his original idea for Star Trek.
3 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986 - $241,064,200
The final entry in the informal trilogy that began with The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home sees Kirk, a recently-resurrected Spock and the former crew of the Enterprise travelling back in time to the late 20th century in order to bring back a mating pair of humpback whales that could communicate with and dissuade a mysterious and dangerous alien probe that converses exclusively in whale song… yeah. It was also the second Star Trek film directed by Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and marked a significant departure in terms of tone. While the three previous Trek films had been dramatic action-adventure romps, The Voyage Home emphasized humour, namely the Enterprise crew’s interactions with 1980s San Francisco. Its comedic aspects were the greatest source of the film’s critical acclaim, with David Ansen of Newsweek saying it felt much like the original television series. In the box office, The Voyage Home ousted Crocodile Dundee from its eight-week top spot position and was one of several successful movies for Paramount that year, according to a 1987 piece in The New York Times.
2 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979 - $273,648,700
Star Trek’s first foray into cinema was also one of the franchise’s most successful domestically to date. Released in 1979 and directed by Robert Wise—who also helmed West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sound of Music, among many others—it centred on the crew of the original Enterprise reuniting for the first time in years in order to investigate and possibly fight back a mysterious approaching space cloud. While visually dazzling, The Motion Picture was criticized for featuring multiple prolonged, unbroken shots of the Enterprise travelling through space, and Harold Livingston of Time said it lacked drama and “human interest.” While it was quite successful both for its time and by modern standards, Paramount considered the film a commercial disappointment.
1 Star Trek, 2009 - $288,475,900
J.J. Abrams’ attempt to revive Star Trek remains the most successful outing in the film franchise to date—domestically, at least. Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman utilized time travel and multiple timelines as means of creating new adventures for the recast crew of the original Enterprise so as to not alienate die-hard fans of the series. Apart from doing very well at the box office—it was the seventh-highest earning film of 2009—it enjoyed widespread praise from critics, who highlighted the new cast’s chemistry and especially the performance of Zachary Quinto as Spock. Roger Ebert was one of the film’s few detractors, criticizing it for being “loud and colorful” compared to the more intellectually-minded movies and TV series. Nevertheless, the reboot helped to bring Star Trek back into the public consciousness and helped make a good case for Abrams to direct the next Star Wars movie, which is due out in 2015.