Sunday, April 26, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Twenty years ago, for the first time, I got to see a Star Trek movie in the theater. Unfortunately for me that movie turned out to be Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

After saving the whales, the planet, etc. last time around, the Enterprise crew is enjoying some much-needed shore leave, with Kirk, Spock, and Bones camping it up in Yosemite. When a Vulcan named Sybok (Lawrence Luckinbill), free with his emotions and driven by religious zeal, takes hostages at a planet in the Neutral Zone, ship and crew are called back into action, despite the Enterprise herself being less-than-ready for active duty. Soon enough, a deeper connection between Spock and Sybok is revealed, and what started out as a "simple" hostage rescue turns into a mad quest to the center of the galaxy, with the Enterprise's crew allying with Sybok against Kirk as the ship warps toward an eventual meeting with God himself.

By summer of 1989, Star Trek had returned to television in a big way, with syndicated sequel The Next Generation having just wrapped its second successful season (ratings-wise, even if it was still a little wobbly creatively). Thus movie five, envisioned and helmed by William Shatner himself, abetted by producer Harve Bennett and writer David Loughery, had the unenviable task of having to prove itself, and demonstrate to both general and Trek auds that the original show still had something to say. Sadly, this wasn't the one to do it.

All the usual jokes about "Captain Kirk vs. God" being something only Shatner could have come up with aside, Trek V is just a mess, the figurative "Spock's Brain" of the movie series (that's the third season episode generally acknowledged as the low point of the original seventy-nine episodes). Of all the sequels that composer Jerry Goldsmith, still taking his victory lap from The Motion Picture, had to come back for it's a pity this was the one (and again he turns in a terrific score for a mediocre movie).

Going down the list of problems various and sundry, let's start with the central conceit that Sybok has the ability to look deep into people's souls and make them confront their pain. As a result of this gift, he is able to amass a huge army of followers (and when I say "huge army of followers," I actually mean a handful of emaciated desert bums). How does this power work? Is it an actual power? Not only that, but what does it say about Starfleet's best and brightest that all it takes is some goopy New Age nonsense about sharing their pain to turn them against their captain. The same captain who, two movies ago, they placed their careers at risk to help.

And then there's the matter of the Enterprise's search for God. Although there's the initial "You're mad," from Kirk when he learns of Sybok's goal, everyone clams up once the ship makes it through the energy barrier at the center of the galaxy (really, don't ask) and arrives at the planet Sha Ka Ree, where (we're told) God lives, and which (we're told) is the Vulcan equivalent of Eden. In what should probably have been the first clue that something was amiss, "Eden" looks just like the Earth-after-a-nuclear-holocaust desert that Charlton Heston and his buddies traipse through in Planet of the Apes. Hmm.

Anyway, from there it's off to meet God, who turns out be a fat, bearded white guy made of shimmery blue energy. In case you're wondering why a Vulcan god would look like Santa, or why God lives on a planet at all, don't ask, because they'll never tell. The only one who exhibits any suspicions is (naturally) Kirk, who soon reveals "God" as a vengeful alien intent on escaping this rock where he's been imprisoned. Wow, you mean this horrible, desolate, turd of a planet isn't Paradise? I'd never have known. And as far as who imprisoned him? What did I just say about asking question.

All this is without even addressing the out-of-character moments of "humor" that are sprinkled liberally throughout, marking the uneasy marriage that usually occurs with Hollywood screenwriting-by-committee. While the jokey stuff in The Voyage Home grew organically from the characters and their situation, The Final Frontier squeezes cheap laughs at the expense of the characters. Look, here's Chekov and Sulu lost in the woods. And there's Scotty, walking into a bulkhead one second after he says he knows the ship like the back of his hand. Get it? They're idiots! Hilarious!

Then there's the bit where, in order to distract Sybok's followers on the planet where the hostages are held, Kirk has Uhura strip naked and do a fan dance while singing about the moon being a window to heaven. No, that's not some Trekkie fanfic. Someone in the creative process (whether Shatner, Bennett, or Loughery) came up with that kernel of a thought, which was then nursed into a full-blown idea, conveyed to paper, consigned to film, edited into the movie, and sent to theaters. And at no point in this entire elongated process did it occur to anyone that maybe this wasn't such a great idea. I'd love to have seen the dialogue that led up to that scene (Uhura: "What's our course of action, sir?" Kirk: "Don't worry, Commander, I've got it all figured out. Take off your clothes." Uhura: "Uh...")

Says Kirk defiantly to Sybok at one point, "I don't want my pain taken away. I need my pain!" Oh Bill, spare a thought for the rest of us.

The real tragedy of Trek V is that there are faint glimmers throughout, poking through the wreckage, of the deeper meaning the filmmakers were striving for. Clearly Shatner had ambitions to make Trek "mean" something, but he failed to remember that way lies V'Ger. And while The Motion Picture had some stunning visuals to make up for its not-stunning story, The Final Frontier doesn't even have that after the last minute budget cuts (and ILM's already-full dance card) resulted in the chintziest, most shoestring special effects in the franchise's entire history.

Just to give credit where it's due, the direction itself is fine, and Shatner gets good performances from his cast. As a point of interest, this is the only film in the entire series that really dwells on Trek's original troika as a unit, and gives them some genuine character beats. The early camping scenes where they dwell on their lives and connections with one another remain a highlight, and even an awkward "song around the campfire" scene is elevated by the easy chemistry of Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley.

Even pacing-wise, Shatner keeps things moving at a pretty steady clip so that it never feels unnecessarily long. Unnecessarily incomprehensible, on the other hand, is where things start, and it goes steadily downhill from there. That incomprehensibility becomes a little bit clearer in hindsight when one realizes that the development history of the film was crippled early on by a compressed pre-production window (due to a WGA strike in '88). Certainly the parts are all there, but they they feel about two drafts away from coalescing into anything.

Given the distance of twenty years, with the voyages of Star Trek's first crew long since over, it's easier, perhaps, to view The Final Frontier with the appropriate degree of nostalgic detachment and appreciate it for giving us another opportunity to spend time with some old friends. Back then, however, even though Trek's TV side was continuing on its merry way, the future of the original crew was in doubt for the first time since 1979. Luckily they'd get one more chance at the helm. C


Ian Sokoliwski said...

Right off the bat, let me say that I would have much preferred a TMP-styled remake of Spock's Brain over this movie.

Having said that, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of Captain's Log: William Shatner's Personal Account of the Making of Star Trek V The Final Frontier as told by Lisabeth Shartner.
Wow. I didn't realize just how long that title was...

Anyway, it's a very cool book about the making of the film, including telling you about the movie they wanted to make versus what went on the screen. Short form: The Enterprise meets God who turns out to be Satan.

Now, many people have problems with directors or writers complaining about how what wound up being made wasn't what they wanted. I do not fall into that category, however. Really, I love the DVD commentary on the original cut of Daredevil simply because Mark Steven Johnson's story about what the movie should have been was so entertaining. Plus the bit about the painting that they got their money back on.

Okay, back to the book. It's a cool look into the movie-making process, the original concept, what may or may not have happened to thwart that idea (was Nimoy really at fault as much as the two Shatner's claim here? Beats me, but it makes for a fun read).

Way better than the movie.

Way, way better than the movie.

Really, get a copy of that book instead of watching that movie again. the by, how does Spock manage to catch Kirk when he falls? From the way that Spock is hanging in the air, shouldn't his rocket boots be pushing him straight down, driving them both directly into the ground like Starfleet-issue tent pegs?

Zaki said...

I remember reading that book awhile ago. Don't remember much about it, but I'd imagine it's similar to the section in Shatner's MEMORIES book about V. I agree that it's a fascinating "coulda been," but I wonder if even the original "God vs. The Devil" idea was simply too big and too antithetical with the parameters of the TREK universe...