Friday, May 8, 2009
Gain Strength From The Sharing
Amidst all the hoopla of the STAR TREK prequel/reboot, it seems to have been forgotten that this summer marks the 20th anniversary of the release of STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER. Or, more likely, everyone just chose to forget about it. The directorial debut of the one and only William Shatner, the film had a decent opening then quickly got lost in the shuffle amidst poor word of mouth and the onslaught of other, bigger summer blockbusters. People were disappointed at the time and the reputation hasn’t gotten much better over the years. Buried within a mediocre premise, sub-par special effects and misguided execution is an attempt to tell a TREK story that is more about the characters than you would usually get from such a summer blockbuster. But it all seems wrongheaded as if there was never a firm consensus as to what this movie should be and that, combined with a novice director whose eyes were clearly bigger than his stomach, makes the whole thing feel like maybe they should have just started over. The film came out during a particularly good time in my life, so I have fond memories of going to see it and that combined with a few successful things it does contain makes me almost want to defend it. Almost.
Sometime after the events of THE VOYAGE HOME, the crew of the Starship Enterprise in on shore leave, as Scotty tries to repair the new Enterprise which has turned out to be filled with bugs. They are soon called back to duty when word comes in of a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) with a knack for psychically getting people to “share their pain” and get them to follow him who has taken several ambassadors hostage on Nimbus III, “The Planet of Galactic Peace.” Spock seems to know this Vulcan, but doesn’t reveal the entire story until it is too late and soon after they arrive, Sybok and his followers are able to commandeer the Enterprise with Kirk, Spock and McCoy as their captives. Sybok claims that he has found the fabled “Sha Ka Ree” (Eden, as we would know it) and, with the Klingons in hot pursuit, is intent on penetrating the barrier at the center of the galaxy to find it.
Well, that wasn’t so hard. Considering how little sense the story ultimately makes I thought that was going to be more diffucult. There’s so much wrong with STAR TREK V, either for a fan or just a normal moviegoer, that to start listing them all almost feels like it’s teasing a defenseless child. Conceived from an idea that Shatner came up with himself which was probably coming from a very personal place, the basic story is such a hodgepodge of ideas and plot threads from old episodes that you begin to wonder just how much attention he ever paid to the scripts he was acting in. His passion for wanting to make this film comes through in every shot, but that turns out to be part of the problem, with everything about it coming off as reminiscent of his legendary ego. When Leonard Nimoy directed his first film with THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK he just shot the thing, focusing on the actors and what he thought was best to tell the story. Shatner’s approach is to make EVERY. SINGLE. SHOT. AN. AMAZING. SHOT. As a result, there’s very little regard for how each of these shots are supposed to flow into each other and frankly there are times when it just doesn’t work on a basic filmmaking level. He also seems to have gotten way too attached to his Steadicam while shooting the film. All these years later, certain things stick out to me, like that goofy “Go climb a rock” shirt that Kirk wears and is just way too distracting. What is up with those shots of the Kirk & Co’s feet comically stumbling down the mountain on Sha Ka Ree as the glorious score plays? Didn’t occur to anyone that it would play odd in how the two alien planets seen in the film are both deserts? And would somebody please tell me why Sybok seems to have gotten a haircut and full wardrobe change before heading down to Sha Ka Ree? And, for the last time, why are they putting seatbelts in theaters this summer? Little bits and pieces are enjoyably reminiscent of the old show, like the beehive hairdo on Shatner’s daughter Melanie playing a Yeoman on the bridge, but it’s never enough and somehow the film manages to have a relatively impressive feel of scope and still feel cheaply made at the same time.
The concept of a renegade Vulcan is a good one, but the ret-con nature of his relationship to Spock is too gimmicky to ever really work and though the basic notion of these characters having to face truths about themselves has potential the whole thing is hurt by an uncertain tone. It’s particularly problematic in how this ultra-serious concept is forced into playing like an enjoyable romp with lots of laughs, of course because the more comical THE VOYAGE HOME was such a big hit. There’s nothing wrong with a lighthearted STAR TREK entry, but the ideas it wants to explore are so weighty that most of the attempts at jokes don’t really fit. Not to mention that most of them aren’t funny anyway, whether they’re character-based or the broader stuff like Scotty knocking himself out or Uhura’s legendary (ahem) fan dance. I’m also just going to avoid discussing the campfire scene entirely, I just don’t have the heart right now. The chief culprit in this aspect is probably screenwriter David Loughery who is hampered with a storyline that takes way to long to get going, is unclear on too many of the specifics (why does Sybok getting the Enterprise crew to “share” their pain cause them to join him? Is this power a form of the Vulcan mind meld? How do Sybok and what seems like a dozen followers take over the Enterprise, even one with a “skeleton crew”? The center of the galaxy is only six hours away? I could go on and I’m sure I’m forgetting something) and too much of the dialogue is flat-out bad (“What does God need with a Starship?” is pretty great, though). Even if the fact that the Enterprise being in such bad shape affects the plot of the movie in numerous ways (small crew, no transporter, running gag for Scotty) it still feels like a contrivance without which there would be no movie, making Sybok’s plan seem even more flimsy.
The special effects, not done by ILM this time around, are as bad as legend has it, which damages the film about as much as any effects extravaganza has ever been damaged by such things. This is particularly true in the climax when we finally meet “God” and a number of elaborate plans Shatner had for his finale never came to fruition due to planning and budgeting beyond the production’s means. In that sense, it was his bad luck that he happened to be making his film just a few years before CGI changed everything. Supposedly he tried to get Paramount to let him place new digital effects in the film a few years ago when the DVD was happening, but they declined to put up the cash. It was probably for the best since no matter what was achieved, a version of this film with better effects would still be a bad film. There are simply too many other problems in here that could ever be fully dealt with. Some effective touches do turn up throughout like a few shots here that do offer the right kind of Scope, the scene depicting DeForest Kelley’s own secret pain, not the sort of thing you ever expect to see in a summer action movie, is undeniably effective and the score by Jerry Goldsmith lends the film most of the epic feel it winds up possessing, bringing a huge amount of clarity to the murky story. The recurring music of Sybok using his power over people (found in “Free Minds” on the soundtrack album) is particularly haunting to me and the music used to represent Kirk’s free-climb of El Capitan (“The Mountain”) is probably more beautiful than the film deserves.
As an actor, Shatner proves how much he needs a director to sit on him at times with even his small bits of business seeming too big. Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok certainly has presence but he also at times seems like he needed a director to at times tone down what he was doing. Except for Kelley’s aforementioned scene, the regulars don’t get to do very much worth mentioning. Nimoy doesn’t seem to have any particular ideas on how to approach Spock this time out and his voice seems to have really begun to change around this time with some notable hoarseness evident on occasion, as if he had been smoking way too many cigarettes. David Warner, who went on to several other appearances in the TREK universe, mostly stands around the entire time as the Federation representative St. John Talbot on Nimbus III but he still manages to use his voice to make the few lines he has count (I always liked the way he says “worthless lump of rock”). Cynthia Gouw is extremely beautiful as Romulan Ambassador Caithlin Dar, but most of her role seems to have been cut (she made only a few other acting appearances before moving on to another career) and much of her dialogue is apparently dubbed—her voice is clearly different during the hostage tape the crew watches from when her character is seen in the flesh. Todd Bryant and Spice Williams as the Klingons Klaa and Vixis are easily the most enjoyable people to watch in the movie, fully into their roles and it’s during these sections when Shatner’s film regains some of the old Nicholas Meyer funkiness.
Ultimately I don’t have much animosity towards STAR TREK V—for me, there are too many fond memories I associate with this period in my life when it was released and the Goldsmith score in particular seems to represent some sort of swan song to my filmgoing memories of adolescence. I also will freely state that I don’t think this is in any way the worst TREK film of all time—seeing the original characters once again certainly helps and the film series had not yet been put in the stranglehold of the Rick Berman era and which led to an extremely bland feel which ran through multiple films and hours of television. All that technobabble dialogue substituting for actual drama in particular made them almost intolerably dull by a certain point. I’ve never been able to get through the entirety of INSURRECTION without zoning out around the 70-minute mark and last week I tried watching NEMESIS, the final film with the NEXT GENERATION crew, only to find it so unforgivably plodding that I couldn’t get through the first hour. That doesn’t happen for me with THE FINAL FRONTIER which can never quite be called good but I still freely watch it even at its most shabbiness. It may be a misfire in many ways, but it at least was well-intentioned. Maybe I’m being too easy on it, but that’s what sentimental attachment can do to you. In that sense, life really is a dream.