Friday, July 15, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' (1989)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

By a pretty wide margin, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has a reputation as the worst Star Trek movie of all time, and I went into it expecting something so terrible that I was a bit pleasantly surprised. Not that the movie is good -- it's certainly not, and letting William Shatner direct an installment in the series (which was apparently a contractual obligation) was a very bad idea. But there are aspects of the movie that could have been successful in a different context, and if nothing else it's clearly an eccentric, personal passion project for Shatner (who also developed the story). It's a disaster, but it's not an anonymous one.

The previous three movies balanced the warm relationship among the main three characters (Shatner's Kirk, Leonard Nimoy's Spock and DeForest Kelley's McCoy) with mostly well-crafted adventure stories, but Shatner relies too heavily on the idea of the crew members as a surrogate family, treating them like a bunch of kvetching old men rather than intergalactic adventurers. One of the movie's most infamous scenes features Kirk, Spock and McCoy sitting around a campfire singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," which is just as ridiculous as it sounds. It's meant to emphasize their camaraderie, but it just makes them look silly, and the movie is full of similarly dopey moments.

The crew members get called away from their shore leave camping trip and ordered to rescue a trio of hostages on a desert planet in a city that looks ripped off from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome's Bartertown and Star Wars' Mos Eisley. From there, they're taken hostage by crazed religious zealot Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), a Vulcan who believes he's discovered the literal galactic location of God. Sybok turns out to be Spock's half-brother (a development basically ignored by all future franchise installments) and also has vaguely defined mind-control powers that allow him to win over followers to his cause. Shatner clearly takes all the religion stuff very seriously, and Luckinbill gives a committed performance as Sybok, but it's all far too mushy and sentimental to fit with Star Trek's grand tradition of philosophical inquiry.

God (or, actually, some shitty alien pretending to be God) also ends up looking completely unimpressive (he's basically a giant Wizard of Oz-style projection), in keeping with the generally poor special effects throughout the entire movie. Although Sybok's single-minded obsession has some gravity to it, everything else is impossible to take seriously. Shatner lets himself give a massively over-the-top performance that verges of self-parody, and in general the cast members all seem too old for the heroics they're called upon to perform. Perhaps the most cringe-worthy moment involves Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) performing a naked fan dance to distract a bunch of outlaws as the crew attempts to storm the compound where Sybok is holding his hostages. Uhura also has a few icky moments where she seems to be clumsily trying to seduce Scotty (James Doohan).

There's plenty of other misguided stuff in this movie, including a superfluous Klingon adversary whose only motivation is that he wants to see if he can out-shoot Kirk, but the worst thing is how it cheapens the elegance of the relationships and the world-building in the three previous movies. Those movies might have been uneven at times, but they had a real sense of scope and emotional depth. The Final Frontier is all cheap comedy and cheaper sentiment, dressed up as a search for the meaning of life. That grand search essentially amounts to nothing, and the same could be said for the movie that depicts it.

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