God help me, but I enjoy Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. It is, no question, a not very good movie. The story is clumsy, the script is packed full of corny jokes which have to violate basic precepts of common sense to exist, and one of the major themes is so childishly simplistic that it wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers. This is the only Star Tek film that William Shatner directed, and it has the thick, hammy stink of Shatning throughout. The nicest thing you can say about it, apart from a handful of good lines and a couple decent ideas, is that it's relatively short, coming in at 103 minutes. This is the one even Trek fans have a hard time defending. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a self-serious, tedious mess, but at least it didn't play like outtakes from Gilligan's Island In Space.
But again, I still kind of enjoy it. Re-watching Star Trek V for the umpteenth time for this review, I had the usual problem distancing myself from nostalgia. I saw Final Frontier in theaters with my dad and my sister, and I adored it. (I was ten, so I adored just about anything, ie, Hook. Plus, we did a double feature that day of V and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade which, whatever you think of the quality of either movie, that is kind of the most awesome day ever.) I owned the novelization, read it half a dozen times. (I also had the novelization of Indiana Jones And The Last okay you probably don't give a damn about that.) I thought it was hilarious and creepy and moving, and it was in space, which was so freakin' sweet. I thought, "What does God need with a star-ship?" was up there as one of the greatest movie lines ever. Because it's true, dammit. What does God need with a star-ship?
And you know what? That is a good line. There aren't many moments in V that really work, but there are a few. And, while I'm open to discussion on the actual artistic merits of both, I'd definitely rather sit through the Adventures of Sybok the Magic Vulcan than have to endure all six years of The Motion Picture again. I'm not a huge fan of camp, and there's a lot of that here, but if it's awful, than at least it's energetically so. The best way to watch Final Frontier is to imagine the whole thing was written by a ten year-old, high on glue-sniffing, and just so damn excited after seeing "Where No Man Has Gone Before." "Oh man, so there's a Vulcan—only he's got feelings and stuff! And he's Spock's brother, only, like, a half-brother! And he steals the Enterprise! And Kirk falls off a mountain, but Spock catches him! And they go through this GIANT SPACE BARRIER THING. And there are KLINGONS, and one of them is a hot chick, and then everybody meets God, only God is a total dick, so it's not actually God, and Sybok makes everybody happy but then he has to die to save Kirk, and Kirk is like, 'The hell?' The hell. And there's a cat chick with, like, three boobs. WOOOOO."
V's actual script is very third-season, with all kinds of potentially rewarding ideas introduced at the start, only to bog down in stupidity until an ending that doesn't so much resolve everything as find the path to least resistance towards the end credits. The passage through the Great Barrier, the search for God and Eden, Sybok's weird "I feel your pain" powers—all of these could've worked. Sure, it's a grab-bag of original series concepts, but that's not automatically a bad thing. Movies based on popular television shows don't have to be about concluding an on-going story-line. They can also serve as a greatest-hits package, ala The Fugitive, giving concepts that the show introduced a chance to play out on a larger, better-funded backdrop. Most importantly, there's enough here to make a good story out of, without having to resort to padding or redudancy.
Obviously, that's not what we get. The Great Barrier voyage doesn't make sense—ships can't get through it, except when one really wants to? (In the novelization, there's a subplot about Sybok having access to a special kind of shield design that lets them pass through unscathed; the Klingons are able to copy it. It also would've worked if the Barrier, which presumably was put in place to keep Anti-God from escaping, was weakening on its own, thus allowing Anti-God to send Sybok a vision. But instead we're supposed to assume it's a triumph of hope.) And Sybok's powers are hilariously ill-defined. At first it seems like he's using the Vulcan mind meld to break down his victims/followers' psychic barriers and give them happy thoughts, but later we find out all that "secret pain" talk is actually not bullshit. In the universe of V, everyone has one horrible secret in their past that's making them sad, and as as soon as Sybok forgives them, they're peachy. Again, this is a ten year-old's concept of psychological damage: "Mommy drinks because she wasn't nice to her sister and then her sister got hit by a bus! Daddy doesn't love me because his dog died." Kirk has a big "I need my pain!" speech, and that, apparently, closes the issue, in a way that means absolutely nothing.
The Klingon threat is, a few dramatic moments aside, pointless, and Anti-God is distressingly easy to defeat. (Do the guns kill him at the end?) There's a bizarre moment after Kirk gets beamed aboard the Klingon ship where Spock's presence is introduced with all the drama of a Big Reveal, like we were supposed to think he was dead or something—I can't decide if there was a dropped sub-plot, or if Shatner was trying to milk the relationship for some empty drama. But what really kills this movie is the horrible, horrible humor. If you thought the jokes in Star Trek IV were too broad (and some of them were), there are gags in V that will send you 'round the bend. Like Spock "surprising" Kirk in the middle of mountain climbing for no damn good reason. (Check out Shatner's body double!) Or Spock's "marsh-melons." Or Uhura's naked fan dance. Or Scotty's "I know this ship like the back of my hand, but apparently I'm blind for some reason because I'm going to walk directly into the ceiling. Seriously, somebody should check me for cataracts, this isn't funny, it's terrifying."
It's just… I can't bear to hate this. I understand why all these jokes are terrible (the Uhura thing makes no sense, because they have to take a shuttlecraft back to the Enterprise to get her), but for all its myriad of faults, this is not a cookie cutter movie, and it's not as blandly cheerless as many of the later Trek films. (I know many people love First Contact, and it has its moments, but the Next Generation cast, apart from Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner, just suck on toast on the big screen.) It's terrible, but it's the kind of terrible I can be endlessly fascinated with because it's so personal, and passionately meant. I can deal with awful sincerity. I wouldn't recommend it to others, but I can't bring myself to despise it.
Sincerity is also one of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country's strengths, which is a relief; I can't imagine what it would be like if the last Trek movie with the original cast was a tedious, muddled waste of time. (Well, okay, let's try it. I think it would focus mostly on Shatner, and it would work as some kind of bridge to the Next Gen cast, and there would be a lot of drama in showing the death of Kirk, but the actual death would be embarrassingly mundane, like him falling off a bridge or tripping or something, thus betraying the expectations of hundreds of thousands of fans who wanted to see their hero get the ending he deserved. Sounds hideous, doesn't it? Thank god no such movie exists.) With Nicolas Meyer, the director of what remains the franchise's single best installment, back in the hot-seat, and telling a fun, solidly plotted story with some real-world significance, Country doesn't have Wrath of Khan's emotional scope, but it's entertaining, non-insulting, and respectful.
So you've got the Cold War coming to an end in the early nineties, and you've got a race in the Star Trek universe who's antagonism has largely been a riff on American/Soviet relations. Plus, given the events of Next Gen, you know that the Federation and the Klingon Empire made friends eventually. Why not take the last official outing of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest to show the first clumsy steps of peace? For a show that strove so hard for social significance in its original run, it's surprising how few of the Trek's big screen outings tried to get topical. Obviously a movie has different time concerns than a TV show, but apart from Star Trek IV's "save the whales" message, this is a franchise that's been denying itself one of its source material's most striking and honorable goals. VI does a good job of making up for lost time. The symbolism might occasionally verge on heavy-handed, but that's in keeping with the original show as well. VI's concerns with the failing Klingon Empire (which collapses not through war but poor resource management, nudge nudge) are dated in the best kind of way, a fitting send off for a group of characters and actors and their time in history.
The plot is, much like V, a collection of familiar tropes: the Enterprise is sent to meet the Klingon Chancellor (David Warner!), things go horribly, Kirk and McCoy end up falsely accused, Spock has to work to save them, and so on. The details change, but that old-school conspiracy vibe is nothing new, and the message that not everyone in government is terribly fond of peace shouldn't blow anyone's minds. (It's also interesting how some of these things mirror Meyer's other big Trek movie. There's even a main bad guy who likes quoting the classics!) What makes Undiscovered Country a success is that it's tightly constructed and polished, professionals working in roles they've spent much of their lives perfecting, given one last chance to do everything right. Watching it now, even know the various mechanisms of the plot, it's still very easy to get caught up in the clockwork.
A confession: for a long time I wasn't a huge fan of VI, and while I enjoy seeing it, I'm disappointed by its scope. As I've mentioned before, I'm more a fan of the Trek episodes that dealt with weird aliens and mind-bending sci-fi. Political significance notwithstanding, this is a murder mystery, and not a particularly difficult one at that. Christopher Plummer is so obviously a villain that you almost expect him to turn out a red herring, and while having Spock's protege (who, according to trivia, would've been Saavik if Kirstie Alley would've agreed to return; I'm kind of glad she didn't) turn out to be a traitor is a twist, her reveal that just about every single character who was pushing for war was involved in setting Kirk up isn't. I'm going to go back to praising VI in the next paragraph, because it deserves praise, but I feel I'd be remiss here if I didn't at least mention my reservations. The operatic impact of Khan is lacking here, and what you essentially have is a really excellent two-parter that got a theatrical release. It may be nit-picky to begrudge something that works far better than it had any right to for not being brilliant, but I begrudge it all the same.
There is some emotion to all the intrigue, thankfully. Meyer once again refuses to downplay the age of his leads, and while Khan focused on Kirk's impending sense of mortality, Undiscovered Country focuses on the question of relevance. More than once, a character wonders if they've reached the age where they can no longer adapt to the changing times, and while it's no surprise that the answer is, "Of course not," there's still a bittersweet tinge to the discussion. Kirk has a hard time trusting Klingons because of his dead son (hey, remember him?), but his co-workers are just as suspicious, and the screenplay does an expert job of showing that prejudice without becoming overly didactic. The dinner scene between Klingons and humans (and one half-human, half-Vulcan) is a great example, and one of the movie's highlights, although the Shakespeare quotes get old fast.
VI manages to give everybody something to do: Chekov gets good lines (sure, the Cinderella joke is terrible, but I thought "Guess who's coming to dinner" was actually kind of funny), Uhura comes up with the tail-pipe idea (with an assist from Spock), Scotty gets to take out the assassin at the end, and Sulu even has his own ship, the Excelsior (which comes with a cameoing Christian Slater). Everyone is part of the team, and, unlike V, everyone gets to maintain their dignity. VI also pulls off the trick of being moderately self-aware without falling into self-parody, from McCoy's "What is it with you, anyway?" after Kirk gets a kiss from Iman, to Kirk's frustration at being rescued just before the bad guy could reveal his plans. It's the kind of audience winking that rewards viewers for having a history with the show without undercutting the integrity of the fictional universe.
For me, VI will always be good, but not quite great, for the reasons I outlined above. I was dismissive of it for a long time, which was unfair; I have a hard time denying this isn't the second best of the Trek films, and the more I watch it, the more I respect it. I would've liked something more heart-wrenching, especially seeing as this was the last time out. We could've had a death that lasted longer than the next entry. But I can understand playing things conservatively, especially after the cock-up of V. We're not quite done with Shatner, Nimoy, Kelly, Nichols, Doohan, and Takei just yet (see Stray Observations)(also, screw you, Koenig!), but this is the last we'll see their faces on screen, and while the movie fan in me would've liked more, the Trek fan is just happy that the Enterprise went sailing into the sunset, crew intact. And yes, I got a chill from all those signatures at the end.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: D+
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: A-
- I didn't really talk about Final Frontier pulling the "oh hey, a major character has a family member we've never heard of before" trick, but it's silly, and it only really serves to stop Spock from shooting Sybok. (Although half-brother or not, I believe he would've fired. At the very least, he could've winged him.)
- It is surprisingly easy to steal a star-ship, isn't it.
- Speaking of the triple-breasted cat chick (somebody clearly saw Total Recall, and felt that Furries were under represented), she fights with Kirk, Kirk throws her off his back in a tank of water, and she—dies instantly? How the hell does that work?
- Weird how everybody can see McCoy and Spock's "secret pain" when Sybok goes to work.
- I could spend all day pointing out Star Trek V's flaws. Gah, that bit where Scotty walks into the ceiling is so dumb.
- I know Meyer loves Hamlet and all, but he does realize "the undiscovered country" is death, right?
- I've got good news and bad news. Bad news is, I'll be taking next week off. Good news is, I'm doing that so I'll have enough time to watch all of Star Trek: The Animated Series, for a write-up that'll hit the site on Friday, March 26th.