Friday, June 25, 2010

"Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1989)

"Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1989)
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley
Written by William Shatner and David Loughery
Directed by William Shatner

Poor William Shatner... After two successful directorial outings with "Search for Spock" and "Voyage Home" for co-star Leonard Nimoy, Shatner got his turn at the helm with "The Final Frontier."  The results are an intriguing, well-intentioned mess.  Though often reviled amongst the fandom as the worst "Star Trek" feature, I have quite a different feeling about it... and sort of a weird obsession.

"The Final Frontier" opens with the franchise's only pre-credits sequence (at that point), on the planet Nimbus III, where a revolutionary named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) is raising an army.  He quickly gains enough power to lay siege to the capital city, Paradise, and take hostages - representatives of the Federation, Klingon and Romulan governments.  Meanwhile, on Earth, the crew of the Starship Enterprise is enjoying shore leave while their ship is refitted and repaired.  Despite the unfinished work, the Enterprise is ordered to Nimbus III to deal with the hostage situation.  A Klingon vessel captained by an ambitious man named Klaa, wishing to engage the legendary Captain Kirk in battle, makes his way there as well.

After infiltrating Paradise to rescue the hostages, the truth becomes known: Sybok only took hostages as a ruse to gain control of a powerful starship.  His men capture Kirk, Spock and the rest of the away team and board the Enterprise.  Sybok, it seems, has a strange power, something like mind control that he uses to hold sway over the Enterprise crew.  He orders the ship to head to the center of the galaxy, where they will encounter the Great Barrier, and beyond it... Eden.  Kirk, Spock and McCoy must escape the ship's brig and signal for help before Sybok takes the Enterprise on a suicide mission.

The problems with "The Final Frontier" aren't conceptual, for the most part.  They lie firmly in the execution.  The concept is pure "Star Trek" - the crew goes on an adventure into the unknown; throw in a few action sequences, some Klingons and a bit of philosophy and you've got yourself some classic Trek.  Where it fails is when the behind-the-scenes shenanigans began to tear it apart, and Shatner isn't a powerful enough director to hold everything together.  He certainly has lofty goals; his directorial style for this movie is ahead of its time, and yet still unappreciated.  He shoots most of it with long takes on hand-held cameras, which is admirable and comes across nicely.  He also sought to bring back the more militaristic feel of "Wrath of Khan," so some of the dialogue is a bit more technical, and in the production design, you'll see Starfleet security men slapping ammo cartridges into their phasers and the like. 

The great failings of the movie, however, are in its forced humor and pacing troubles.  The movie spends too much time in its first half not doing much of anything.  A number of scenes could be cut from the first half of the movie, to its benefit, notably a ridiculous scene in which Sulu and Chekov are lost in the woods.  What was funny and irreverent in "The Voyage Home" here seems tired and stupid.  There was a lot of pressure from the studio on Shatner to "make it funny," but the problem is that there isn't a lot of room for humor in the story Shatner is trying to tell.  Beyond that, much of what makes it into the movie is flatout silliness and even some slapstick which stands out from the rest of the movie, which is entirely serious, like a giant sore thumb.  One of the worst examples comes later in the film, when Scotty, immediately after saying that he "knows this ship like the back of my hand," knocks himself out by walking into a pole.  Frankly, the joke would be funnier if he didn't hit the pole, given James Doohan's delivery of the line.

Other problems with the humor come down to lines that are more cheesy than funny, like Spock telling Kirk (who is riding a horse) to "hold your horse" and, believe it or not, a fart joke at Spock's expense.  The thing is that these bits stand out so wildly from the rest of the film, they could actually be easily removed to improve the pacing and tone of the picture by leaps and bounds.  A half-hearted romantic subplot between Scotty and Uhura could be ditched as well, with absolutely no detriment to the final product whatsoever.

Another problem: visual effects.  With the usual effects house, George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, occupied with work on "Ghostbusters II" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" for 1989, Shatner was forced to contract the work elsewhere.  Unfortunately, his choice doesn't work out at all.  The effects work by Farren Associates is just plain awful, not only looking cheap, but absolutely amateurish.  For a movie in 1989, shot on this budget, to have effects this bad is almost unforgivable.  It would certainly be an easy fix, now, to go back into this picture with modern CG effects and spruce it up a bit.  Pretty much the only satisfactory effects in the movie as it exists are stock footage shots from "The Voyage Home" at the beginning.

The effects problem comes to a head in the climax of the movie, where pretty much everything falls apart.  Shatner's original idea to have Kirk and Spock actually descend into Hell to rescue McCoy from the Devil is, of course, silly.  A much more "Star Trek" idea that he finally settled upon, that the thing claiming to be "God" is actually a trapped energy creature, is far more satisfying.  Still, the idea there was that the creature would suddenly give rise to several rock gargoyles which would give chase to Kirk.  The effects here proved unworkable, and Shatner was forced to edit around this footage and settle on a floating blue head that chases Kirk around the planet.  It's kind of lame, and not particularly threatening.  It also doesn't make much sense that it would be destroyed by the guns of the Klingon ship.

So what does "The Final Frontier" get right?  Well, this is some of the best character work ever done for Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  The depth of their relationship with each other is rarely displayed in better form.  In fact, that depth is central to the film, thematically.  At the outset of the film, Kirk tells Spock and McCoy that when they're around, he knows he's not going to die.  "I've always known," he says, "I'll die alone."   Ultimately, Kirk comes to believe he'll die down on that planet, but Spock informs him that even though they were separated, he was never alone. 

When Sybok attempts to sway Spock and McCoy's allegiances away from Kirk, he's unable to do so. The scene in which he forces Spock and McCoy to confront their pain and guilt is one of the best in the entire movie, or even the series.

And though it may seem silly at first, the question "What does God need with a starship?" is simple genius.  When confronted with a being claiming to be the Almighty, it's only Kirk who demands proof.  This is what leads to the revelation that this creature isn't God at all.  It's Kirk who realizes that blind faith isn't the answer, that you should question what you're told and make decisions for yourself... and that brotherhood with others is as close to finding God as you'll probably ever get.

Jerry Goldsmith returns to the franchise, having previously scored "The Motion Picture" and delivers a knockout.  The music in "The Final Frontier" is definitely one of its best qualities, and I've been clamoring for a complete score release for this one for years.  Goldsmith's sweeping, majestic arrangements are beautiful and his action material is first-rate and exciting.  His Klingon theme returns, and a five-note motif that dominates this score would return in "First Contact," and to a lesser degree in "Insurrection" and "Nemesis."

So "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" is a problematic, messy movie... but it has the makings of a great one.  20 years after its release is too late to make it any more than a solid one.  To truly fix it, parts of the climax need to be radically altered, something which just isn't possible anymore.  Still, with some editing and new visual effects, it could be punched up considerably.  As it stands, the film is really just a collection of awkward humor and bad special effects littered with some really great scenes.