Movie Review: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

This movie’s name was almost prophetic.

Premiere: June 9th, 1989

Synopsis: A Vulcan by the name of Sybok promises the desperate eternal knowledge, with just one requirement – they need a spaceship to get to the source. Thus, they decide to storm the capital city of “The Planet for Galactic Peace” and hijack the ship that responds. Hilariously enough, the ship is the still broken-down Enterprise A. Sybok lures the crew of the Enterprise in, and through the power of reading “hidden pain”, directs it to Sha Ka Ree.

Review (SPOILERS):

Wow. Two hundred posts. Not a major milestone, but still a bit cool. If I celebrated my 100th with the best Star Trek movie, I may as well “celebrate” by looking at what many fans consider to… not be the best movie.

But first, being that this is something of a minor landmark for this blog, I figured I’d start with a mention of the show that really started it all.

I’ve mentioned time and again that Red Dwarf is, if not my all-time favorite show, one of my top five favorites. If I might give a brief elaboration on my favorite episodes, some of them, in hindsight, are quite theological. “The Last Day” questions whether people should constrain themselves strictly to their religion’s set of values, if they subscribe to said values. “Lemons” gave something of an analysis of Jesus – to many, he is the great prophet, and to many others, the greatest teacher ever. Most importantly, “The Inquisitor” wonders whether or not we should actively strive to live life to the fullest, and whether we get another shot.

What made these all stand out is that they all did so while being downright hysterical. Whether the comedy connected to the theology, or divulged from it, I was rolling.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier also tried to mix theology with comedy. The results? Let’s just say, it almost killed the franchise stone dead.

Let’s get this out of the way – I don’t blame William Shatner completely for this… debacle of a movie. There were a lot of factors – budgetary constraints, rewrites mandated by the studio, a writer’s strike, and all that. However, those problems have affected movies before and after, and they still wound up great, so those factors are not necessarily justifications for this movie’s weaknesses.

For which, there are many.

What I liked about The Voyage Home is that it kept the idealistic spirit of Star Trek and it’s characters without sacrificing tension or comedy. It is a fantastic example of the strengths of the franchise – that humans can and will improve, that we could learn from our mistakes, and that the characters we love are more complex than they appear.

Also, while The Voyage Home had a very simple plot – Kirk and Co. save the whales – there was a deep sense of complexity in it. Spock deals with human idioms, Scotty and Bones interfere with the past, and Chekov causes a security scandal. These jokes work on more than one level, and none of them degrade the characters – the comedy comes out of the situations they’re in.

This movie seems like the exact opposite.

The Final Frontier is deeply cynical. Now, cynicism in Star Trek isn’t a bad thing – see Deep Space Nine’s “In The Pale Moonlight” for a damn good example – but this movie has it all wrong. For one, every character, bar Kirk and maybe Bones, is laughed at in the worst ways. Heh, Scotty banged his head and is dating Uhura. Heh, Uhura is dancing to distract the antagonists! Heh, Spock said marshmelon! Flaws for characters are good, but the execution here is far, far more simplistic. While Trek IV had Spock mis-get Earth phrases, they were phrases that are very uncommon in the 23rd century. Here, Spock doesn’t know what the hell a marshmallow is! This is comedy meant for the lowest common denominator, which, in a franchise as highbrow as Trek, is just sad.

In fact, this entire movie, at first glance, seems like Shatner explaining what makes Kirk so awesome – he doesn’t succumb to the ideas of Sybok. He free-climbs a mountain (although he does fall off, the fact that he got so high quickly raises more than a few eyebrows). Starfleet creates a plot hole by declaring him the only captain available, even though there are likely other captains closer to the problem, even if they aren’t as prestigious as Kirk. (By the way, even if Kirk was a god-like captain that was the only available option, why didn’t they just transfer Kirk to another ship? The Enterprise was busted! Starfleet might have made some questionable decisions, but I doubt they were ever this stupid. Nice writing, guys!)

I will give credit where credit is due in terms of character. When the movie doesn’t focus on comedy, there actually are scenes of good character development. The analysis of Bones’s pain – a battle between his medical oaths and his status as a son – helps shed light on and analyze his worldview, why he chooses to do what he feels is most compassionate rather than what is most logical. What was in that case – keeping his father in pain to find a cure, or releasing him? His guilt overtook him. Same with Spock – we get a look at his guilt over his half-human status, and how he seems to disappoint his father.

Even in Kirk’s case, his refusal to analyze his pain might be a refusal to acknowledge some of the darkest moments in his life – for example, the demise of his son in a battle with the Klingons – and it might be a hintoft his arrogance, even if the movie plays it as a virtue instead of the vice it was seen as in Wrath of Khan.) In fact, if the movie focused more on Kirk’s desire to “keep his pain”, I think we could’ve seen a movie that, while not the best, might not have been as critically derided as it is nowadays.

However, outside of those scenes of character development, for the most part, every character is the broadest caricature of themselves. Bones is caustic, Spock knows nothing about humanity, Scotty is a bit of comic relief, etc.

As for Sybok, the movie disappoints a bit again. While the idea of Spock, the face of logic, having an overtly emotional half-brother could’ve been interesting, we don’t get much development on that front. Rather, we focus on how he tries to read pain – another place that isn’t developed well enough. These are legitimate questions?

There’s also a subplot involving the Klingons, which I think was an attempt to call back to the prior two movies (with Kirk getting away with perceived attacks against the Klingon Empire). Given the parallels between the Klingons and USSR, I think it was supposed to be a way to acknowledge the thaw of relations between the US and USSR, and wrap it up. Instead, they did it again in The Undiscovered Country. Here, it’s just a bit unnecessary.

Now, what about taking the next step up… trying to meet God? That is very tricky, as many sci-fi shows – such as Red Dwarf and Star Trek – are very humanistic. To try and reach God is something very ambitious, and would require skill to work. It would require an ungodly amount of skill to make it work with comedy. The most successful attempt is, at least in my opinion, Red Dwarf’s “The Inquisitor” – which focused on an android who, coming to the conclusion that there was no god, effectively became God himself.

The Final Frontier, in this regard, takes on the concept of heaven itself, and what causes people to believe in an afterlife. Is it the quest for eternal peace? To escape the pains of humanity? Unceasing knowledge? Do we use the concepts of heaven and God in an attempt to fulfill our own selfish pleasures? While it is a bit strange to see this in a franchise as humanistic as Star Trek was, we also have to remind ourselves of the aforementioned episodes of Red Dwarf, a show that is still pretty humanistic (via Dave Lister). In the hands of more talented scriptwriters, this would’ve really been a thought-provoking plot, with a brilliant analysis of religious cults.

Instead, the payoff comes off as more of an homage to The Wizard of Oz… and not a particularly great homage. Maybe the point was to disappoint us, but still, I think it worked a bit too well in that regard. The scenes with God are overdone, and the climax is as cheesy as it gets. As far as seeing the unknown, The Motion Picture already took care of that with V’Ger. In fact, I think that I’d rather watch TMP, mainly because the writing contains a few less holes.

That, and the plot doesn’t work too well when you have scenes elsewhere in the movie showing Uhura luring in Sybok’s followers with a fan dance – a scene that ranks up there with Quark’s brief sex change, Spock losing his brain, the racist tribal planet (in an episode directed by a man that wound up fired midway through production), the Pillarian Slips, and Janeway and Paris turning into Lizards (which, depending on how you take a throwaway line later on, was thrown out of canon) as among the most embarrassing moments in franchise history.

In the end, that’s the big problem with the movie – as ambitious as it was, it tried to be too many things at once. It tried to be both a comedy romp and a serious analysis of religion. It ended up being a half-baked movie that, despite its good ideas, winds up falling on its face.

If you want a humanist view of religion in science fiction, there are other ways. I highly recommend watching “The Inquisitor” – which took what The Final Frontier tried to do, and did it so well, it wound up becoming one of my favorite episodes of Red Dwarf. Or “The Last Day”, which actually analyzes religion and the practices that many believe will hinder us from meeting God. Let’s just remind ourselves that Red Dwarf was constructed as a show about three idiots living together. And those two episodes were deeper and smarter than this movie.

Personally, I can’t really enjoy the movie as a whole. If you want to watch it, fantastic. If you enjoy it, whether you genuinely feel it is a defensible flick, or a really fun movie in the way of Plan Nine From Outer Space, great. More power to you.

I just think it is the weakest of the TOS films, bar none.

Oh, it also gets an honorary note under the “Twin Dilemma Award” because, had it not been for Trek’s 25th anniversary coming up in 1991, the TOS cast might not have gotten another movie. Hell, if it wasn’t for TNG improving in it’s third season, the franchise might not have made it through the 90s.

Tidbits:

  • This movie’s production was a nightmare, and most of the blame honestly falls to Paramount. Fearing that the momentum from The Voyage Home was disappearing, they rushed this movie out as quickly as possible.
    • First, the movie’s budget was $33M. While it was $10M more than IV (adjusted for inflation), keep in mind that IV was a far more grounded movie, and didn’t really need too many special effects. You’re dealing with an ambitious movie here, guys!
    • Compounding everything here is that Paramount couldn’t get Industrial Lights and Magic to do the Special Effects. Therefore, they found another company (Associates and Ferren) to do the effects. The results are effects that are, honestly, on par with those from The Original Series.
    • Oh, and the writers strike cut into production time. (That’s also why TNG’s second season ended with a clip show of the first two seasons.)
  • As far as writing goes, it could’ve been worse – Spock and McCoy were supposed to betray Kirk, leaving him to be the undisputed hero of the day. Thankfully, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley didn’t like it, and it was written out.
    • Also, Gene Roddenberry didn’t really like the original script. Whether this was a good decision or not will likely never be known.
    • And finally, the ending had to be re-worked because the film tested poorly. If this is an improvement… oh, my.
  • The worst part is that, as I mentioned above, none of these are justifications for the relative weakness of the movie.
  • During a scene where Spock, Kirk, and McCoy have to rocket up an elevator shaft to get to Kirk’s office, they passed floor 52 not once, but twice. I kid you not. Did anybody in the editing department notice that, or did they just believe that no one would care? Obviously, the editors didn’t.
  • They reused the TMP theme for this movie. Said theme was already in use for TNG by this point. Like the theme, but that was likely a harbinger for those watching the movie that this was gonna be done on the cheap.
Favorite Scene: The analysis of McCoy’s and Spock’s “pain” by Sybok. Plothole on how Sybok knows how to do this aside, this is actually a fantastic scene. DeForest Kelly absolutely nails his acting.
Least Favorite Scene: The fan dance. Nothing more needs to be said.
Score: 3. Almost gave this a 4, but remembered the “Floor 53” gaffe, and my sympathy toward the movie went out the door. Even here, the reason why it didn’t get a lower score is because of the character development.
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