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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Movie Review: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Hey there Chaos fans. I'm back with my semi-regular review of the Star Trek movies. This time, we're going to look at the infamous Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, directed by William Shatner. So, is this the legendarily bad movie that nearly killed the franchise, or is it a fun, albeit cheesy movie that gets knocked way too much? Let's dive on in and find out...

Personal Background: I saw this movie when it came out in 1989. I was like, 10 or 11 years old when I saw it over the summer. I remember liking the movie then. I can't say if I loved it, but I do recall it fondly from my youth. As I got older, I came to appreciate ST II (as a kid it was scary!) and the like, and came to see the flaws of STV very strongly. Nevertheless, I have always maintained  a spot in my heart for this one, warts and all.

Basic Plot: Well, the crew of the USS Enterprise are on shore leave on Earth, waiting for the new Enterprise to be repaired (yes- the 'new' ship has lots of bugs to be worked out- leading to some funny and some not so funny moments). Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are out mountain climbing and camping (as odd as that sounds). Kirk is then ordered to cancel shore leave and head to the planet of Nimbus III- a planet co-operated by Humans, Klingons, and Romulans, There has been a revolt on the planet, and the 3 races' ambassadors have been taken hostage. Kirk and crew must go and rescue them quickly, as a Klingon ship has also been sent to the scene, and the Federation fears it might spiral violently out of control.

The architect of the "revolt" is a vulcan renegade called Sybock. This man may be one of the most complicated antagonists in Trek. Sybock has rejected logic, and instead has embraced emotion. Sybock's embrace of emotion has also given him broader psychic powers than regular Vulcans; Sybock is able to read people's minds, seek out their pains, secrets, and vulnerabilities, and thereby manipulate them. All of this has led him on a journey to find God. Not "find" him metaphorically, but literally. Sybock believes that, based on the religions found in all sentient life, that God really is on this plane, in the center of the galaxy. But the center of the galaxy (like the edge of it) has a great barrier, which can destroy almost any ship. To that end, Sybock plans to start a riot on the "Planet of Galactic Peace" and force a starship to come to him.

Kirk and crew arrive, and they are overpowered by Sybock and his army of people that his powers have "brainwashed". At one point, Spock gets the drop on Sybock, and Kirk orders Spock to shoot him. Spock refuses, and we learn that Sybock is Spock's half-brother. With Sybock on-board, he begins to brainwash the rest of the crew, and he makes his plans to head to the center of the galaxy and breach the barrier.

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy try to stop Sybock, but he foils their attempt. Finally, Sybock lays all his cards on the table, explaining that his quest to find God will change everything; galactic peace will be obtained, and all life will learn the true glory of God. At this point, Sybock attempts to brainwash the three, by exposing their dark sides. We learn that McCoy euthanized his dying father, and that even at birth, Sarek felt disdain at Spock's  half- humanity. When it's time for Kirk, he resists the attempt, telling Sybock that his pain can never be taken away. Before Sybock can go further, they have arrived at the barrier.

The ship gets through, and they find a planet at the center. Kirk decides to then aid Sybock, by going down with him to investigate. Sybock heartily agrees, as he simply wants to show everyone the truth. The three and Sybock go to the planet, which is oddly rocky and barren, with no signs of life. As they walk, the sky grows dark violently, and suddenly, and a being of light appears, claiming to be God. However, when questioned, the being attacks Kirk and Spock. Sybock quickly realizes that this entity is a liar, it is simply an evil creature seeking to escape it's planetary prison. Sybock then decides to sacrifice himself so that his brother and the others can escape.

Of course, the crew escapes certain death, as usual, and the entity is destroyed. The crew is left to reflect on this adventure, with Spock mourning the death of his brother, and Kirk explaining that God exists in every heart. The movie ends with the crew going back to Earth to complete their shore leave.

The above is the plot, which sounds interesting and entertaining, and it is. The problem is, the movie also tries to inject a ton of humor into the proceedings. Sometimes the jokes are funny, but often they fall totally flat, and embarrass the actors involved. There are also goofy things here, like Spock's rocket boots, which, if they existed like that in the 23rd century, people would be flying around the world like Superman, not needing transporters or shuttle craft or anything. Further, Shatner can't seem to figure out how to strike a balance between humor and seriousness, and he sometimes forgets that this isn't the 1960s- all the actors are older, and some of the things they do is just ridiculous. There are so many bad jokes and goofs that they detract from the overall movie. In fact, they pile up and nearly overwhelm the movie.

STV does try to rise above that.

STV, with all of its faults, tries to explore big questions. First and foremost, does God exist in this futuristic galaxy? There have been some rather vague references in the series about religion as it is practiced by humanity in the 23rd century. It seems that Earth of the 23rd century is all about secular humanism (Roddenberry's intent), though there have been references to things like Christmas, marriage, etc. In this movie, Shatner tries to tackle that head on, stating that all sentient life has "myths" about the origins of creation and God. Intelligently, Shatner offers no clear answer. The thing at the center of the galaxy was not God, but that doesn't mean he does not exist... As Kirk says "Perhaps he's right here- the human heart". He offers the statement without any easy answers.

But there is more to it than just "we go looking for God" (which, interestingly, is an inverse of ST TMP, in which WE are god to V'Ger). This movie also plays with the themes of good and evil that exists in all of us. This movie questions the role of this eternal struggle in each and every person. Each of the main players has this internal conflict within them- not all have evil feelings, but they do have dark sides. Anger. Pain. Jealousy. Contempt. Ego. Each of the main characters demonstrate this theme. Kirk orders Spock to kill Sybock- and Spock can't just kill his brother, no matter the cost. McCoy confronts the decisions of his past and how they have "poisoned" him ever since. Even Kirk, who is supposed to be the strong man, has moral difficulty in resisting Sybock (indeed, he allows them to go through the barrier and escorts Sybock down).

Then there is Sybock himself, as the formalization of this question. Is Sybock good or evil? Some people say he's another "poor man's Khan", but this simply isn't true. He is not a "villain" in that sense at all. He is an extremist, but he's not a murderer. He has broken laws, but in his mind he is striving to prove a higher law- that God exists. He emotionally/mentally manipulates people, but he thinks he is doing it for the greater good. There is a duality in Sybock- he is not a cookie-cutter villain, and his goals are not based on revenge, or greed, or the like. He does bad things to achieve what he thinks will be the highest good. At the climax, this dichotomy becomes literal, when 'god' takes Sybock's image/form. There, his faults are laid bare- "my arrogance, my vanity", Sybock says. This 'god' symbolizes Sybock's self-righteousness gone out of control. When Sybock says enough and attacks this false 'god', you see he is fighting himself- good versus evil within himself.

STV has many, many, faults. The truth is though, that this movie has great themes and ideas, and they do come across well enough. I think the problem is that these 'big ideas' are surrounded by stupid jokes and bad director choices, which blunt these otherwise strong and compelling themes.

Characters/Acting: Well, here is a mixed bag. The regular crew members do what they can, but frankly, they have to do silly or embarrassing things. Kirk mountain climbing, Spock with rocket boots, Uhura dancing in the desert to distract the rebels, Scotty walking into an engineering pipe and being knocked out, etc. are occasionally painful to watch, especially since we like these actors so much.

What were they thinking?!

I do want to point out two performances that are noteworthy. First up is De Kelley as McCoy. This guy has always been the secret weapon of Trek, obscured by the flash of Kirk and the other-worldliness of Spock. The fact is, McCoy is the stand in for us- a regular guy in this crazy 23rd century world. In this movie, though, McCoy becomes our surrogate when confronting Sybock. The renegade Vulcan makes McCoy face his pain: the doctor committed Euthanasia on his terminally ill father. How many of us have lost a loved one to disease? How many of us wanted to see the suffering of a family member ended? De Kelley handles it brilliantly- his pain is our pain, and it's amazing to see him pull it off. The way he responds to the question of why he did it: "To preserve... his dignity" is delivered so well, so convincingly, that it gives me chills still. Of course, Kelley also knows when to hit the sarcastic humor button, such as "You don't ask the almighty for his ID" (a priceless line).

The other performance of note is that of Lawrence Luckinbill as Sybock. It was rumored that Sean Connery was asked to play the role. And while Connery is great, he would have been the wrong fit here. As it is, Luckinbill has a tough role here. He is the antagonist, but he can't be villainous. He is an extremist, but he can't turn people off. He breaks laws and uses people, but he must remain sympathetic. This is a hard balance to maintain, but Luckinbill pulls it off. His Sybock combines just the right amounts of charisma, menace, righteousness, compassion, ambition, and hopefulness. Luckinbill is helped by his strong voice and height. He plays the role with earnest, and yet he has a twinkle in his eye. His disappointment in the evil entity (and his own failings) is memorable, even though the director does not give him a stronger and more proper coda. Again, any attempt to say he's "Khan-lite" is not doing the role or the actor justice, as it is a very different role.

Special Effects: According to Shatner, he was denied the money to do the special effects that he wanted, that he had envisioned more, but just couldn't get it on the screen. Some fans have even hoped to see a special edition with the effects improved/restored. Be that as it may, the truth is the effects on this movie as it is are very rough. At times, the special effects scenes are almost too well lit- that Klingon ship looks way too bright. As does the shuttle craft. Same goes for some of those matte paintings- I love matte work, but they look jarring in the way this film's lighting is composed.

Rather sub-par effects

On the other hand, though, there is some nice camerawork here in other areas. Kirk scaling the mountain in Yosemite is well shot. Further, the scenes on Nimbus III look really cool- its obviously a desert planet, and it looks quite barren. The city of Paradise itself is rough and tumble looking, not as good as say Mos Eisley, but it is evocative of some of the older Trek sets (but with more money, obviously). Its a grimy part of the galaxy, and certainly not as squeaky clean as Roddenberry had come to espouse. That makes it interesting, if not great. As for the planet beyond the barrier, it is just as bland and dry as Nimbus (on purpose or not, I can't be sure). It has a strange purple filter, but that's about it. Speaking of, the center barrier of the galaxy is not particularly interesting or threatening. As for the final showdown, the 'god' effect is actually pretty good, if not spectacular or intriguing. It simply gets the job done of conveying this entity.

Simple but effective

Ultimately, STV has rather poor special effects, and may be the weakest of the series on that front. However, STIV was mostly on contemporary Earth and had fewer effects overall, so make of that what you will. STV's effects are at best serviceable, which is too bad, as it could have been better with just a few changes during production.

Musical Score: Jerry Goldsmith has scored Trek before, and is solid here too. His music conveys a sense of excitement, even when the movie itself fails to do so adequately. Particularly the music when the shuttle craft is trying to get to the Enterprise and evade the Klingon ship gives the scene an extra jolt. The cue for the planet at the center of the galaxy is also a great mix of hope and foreboding, adding to those scenes, particularly when 'god' arrives. However, the score needs not be loud or action packed-  soft music also makes things interesting when Sybock explores McCoy's pain- the scene speaks for itself, with the music not getting in the way. Overall, a solid score, if not the best in the series at any rate.

Lasting Legacy: Oh boy! This is a good one! Hehe! STV failed to do big business at the box office (it made money, but was not as strong as ST IV), and was regarded by many as a failure. With Next Gen on the TV at this point, it seemed that the Original Crew are a bunch of has-beens. Unfortunately, the movie seemed to prove that, with these old people doing ridiculous things that should make them break their pelvis or something.That sounds harsh, but its true... Uhura dancing, Scotty slamming his head so embarrassingly, Kirk mountain climbing, etc.

As for the story itself, it contributed nearly nothing to the series that would endure. Indeed, Roddenberry himself came out against it- in fact, he denied that Sybock existed, thus throwing the whole thing OUT OF CANNON. Holy cow! That never happened before so blatantly in Trek, even when the series tweaked things episode to episode.

As an aside, IF Sybock is cannon, it makes Spock's drive to not feel emotion and suppress his human side all the more important, as he doesn't want to be like Sybock. Also, it makes Sarek's rejection of Spock's enlistment in Starfleet "logical", as Sarek doesn't want BOTH of his children to be outcasts from the Vulcan way. Interestingly, Spock comes to the same conclusion as Sybock in TMP (!) "Is this all that I am- nothing more... V'Ger is barren, cold- no meaning, no hope. Logic is not enough". Again- great ideas, but they are garbled in the presentation of STV. They are just not handled the way it should have been.

However, despite that aside, the movie's legacy is that of failure. Shatner himself said it best: he had his chance at the brass ring, and he blew it. Sure, he had not gotten the money to do the special effects as he wanted, and there was a writers strike issue, but the final product is the final product. This is considered the weakest entry in the Classic Trek series for all of those reasons.

Wait... I thought... I... was...God....

This movie ultimately is a missed opportunity. It had all the elements of being a solid entry into the Trek series- the themes of the duality of good and evil, the quest to find God, and living with one's 'pain' are great ideas, as is the notion of a renegade Vulcan. The problem is twofold- one, Shatner just didn't have the direction skill to put it together, and two- they kept going for humor like they did in ST IV, but the humor mostly falls flat. Can you imagine? An older crew, facing the end/retirement, literally going out to find God? That could have been amazing. Instead, we have rocket boots, beans, geriatric Uhura dancing, and an Enterprise that should have failed ALL safety tests (just for humor). I like this one better than ST IV believe it or not though- because it DOES try. It DOES play with bigger ideas, without giving clear or simple answers. If only the stupidity had been culled, this could have been a great one. Instead, I view it as a noble failure- big ideas that didn't get a proper set up. Unlike ST IV, which seemed to be designed to put butts in seats, at the expense of larger themes, continuity, or maturity. ST V had bigger ambitions, but it just didn't work. As a result, I give it 2 1/2 Marks of Chaos out of 4.

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