Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 5, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek Film Series (1989-1991)

5. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
“Star Trek V,” your reputation proceeds you. It is one of the most derided films in geek history and sits among “Highlander II” and the “Star Wars” prequels as one of the most disliked sequels of all time. Sitting down to watch it for this review, pulling my VHS copy off the shelf (I’m old), I saw it was still wrapped in plastic. I obviously hadn’t seen the movie in years and was unsure if I had ever seen it in its entirety. I was more then willing to give it a try, despite its reputation.

Is it really that bad? Yeah, pretty much. There were just a lot of bad decisions made in the writing process and the thing is plagued by glaring plot holes. Things start off shaky but okay. The chemistry between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is still pretty strong, even if the rocket boot effects are lousy and kind of out of character for Spock. After that, things take a bad turn. Most of the humor here is coy and totally out of place. Chekov’s blizzard impersonation and Scotty hitting his head on stuff isn’t the worse of it, Uhura’s fan dance is the worse of it. (Seriously, Nichelle, we all love you, but by 1989, you weren’t in burlesque performer shape.) When those fucking rocket boots show up again out of the blue, it’s bad.

The special effects throughout are unforgivably shoddy, especially those displayed during the climax. And, what the hell was with Uhura and Scotty’s romance? Over the course of three television seasons and four movies, they never showed any interest in each other and now suddenly they’re flirting it up like an old couple?
Let’s talk about that plot, shall we? Spock’s brother showing up out of nowhere is stupid but begrudgingly acceptable. However, that he could just do his pop-psychology mind-melding heal job and people who have been Kirk’s friend and faithful coworker for years are turning their back on him? Sulu is suddenly shooting at him? What the shit, movie? Dr. Phil might help with your psychological pain but that doesn’t mean you’ll immediately join his cult. Also, he’s literally searching for God? Not the worst of story ideas but its horribly underdeveloped. The lead bad guy Klingon looks like the lead singer for an eighties hair band and is cartoonish-ly villainous. The entire motivation of that plot doesn’t make any sense, since its been established over the last two films that the Klingons and the Federation have a shaky relationship and to imagine that a Klingon leader would just go off and try and kill Kirk like that smacks of lazy writing. That subplot is basically a set-up for a deus ex machina in the last act, making the whole thing even cheaper.

So, our characters get to the center of the universe and navigate through the supposedly impenetrable barrier pretty easily. They’re on the planet and then they meet God. Wait, what? Yep, God. But, oh, wait, no, he isn’t. It’s some evil entity that has been trapped there and has pulled Sybok to the planet to help him escape. Want to know who this not-God person is, how he got there, what he is, and what he wants to do? Sorry, not in this movie. Just make up your own origin. For a supposedly God-like super-being, he’s dealt with pretty easily and the Spock’s brother plot is brushed off in a similar fashion. Then the movie ends with Spock singing “Row Row Row Your Boat,” an inglorious ending if there ever was one.

Some minor positive notes: Jerry Goldsmith’s score is quite nice, with his theme of the God-planet being notable. The cast has played these characters for so long that’s its really hard for them to hit any off-notes by now. Even if the character is weak, Laurence Luckinbill gives a good performance. The raid on the Galactic Peace planet is mildly exciting. Shatner’s totally confident if slightly flat direction is often mocked but it’s actually the least of the film’s worries. No, “The Final Frontier” has its crappy script to thank for its status. Beam me out of this thing.
[Grade: D]
After the all-around failure of part five, the “Trek” movie franchise was mothballed for several years. But by 1991, with the commercial and critical success of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the 25th anniversary of the original fast approaching, it was decided to bring back the old crew for one more adventure. Nicholas Meyer, who directed part two and help write part four, both generally accepted as the best of the series, was brought back to write and direct.

The result is, in my opinion, the best film of the original series. First off, the look and feel of the movie is much classier, darker, and cinematically richer then any of the previous entries. The majority of the story takes place right on the Enterprise and the sets were designed and shot to be much moodier then before. The story is concise and exciting, filled with plenty of action and, perhaps for the first time in the series, a palatable sense of suspense. The mystery solving aspect, though having the potential to be tedious, turns out to expertly written, leading to a fun and involving discovery of clues. The “What if the wall came down in space?” concept is used really brilliantly, bringing a great deal of subtext about the Cold War and racism.

There are a number of excellent set pieces sewn throughout the film. The assassination of the Klingons, taking place in zero-gravity and performed by faceless killers, is a standout sequence. The brutality of the killings make the act more grave and serious and the floating blobs of blood makes for unforgettable imagery. The middle act, where Kirk and McCoy are stranded on the icy work camp, introduces a colorful group of aliens, many of which expand beyond the series’ usual template of a normal person with some stuff glued to their head. It’s a universe expanding moment, one that really should’ve happened sooner.

The climax of the film is cut in two: In space, we get a daring ship battle while on the surface, other crew members have to rush to prevent another assassination. Luckily, neither sequence interrupts the other. It might be one of the best conclusions out of all the films. The stakes are really raised during the ship battle, as we see the Enterprise take more collateral damage then ever before. Suspense is wretched up and the result of the battle proves to be extremely satisfying. Meanwhile, the on the ground sequence is equably well done because the movie has all ready proven by then it isn’t pulling any punches.

Don’t think the movie is solely intensity and seriousness though. While the humor over the last two films was arguably distracting, it evolves naturally out of the characters and their interaction this time, becoming a character building tool instead of just misbegotten “comic relief.” The special effects are also really great overall, showing the same ageless quality we saw in part four.
The film introduces a number of new characters and does a very good job of juggling the old and new cast. Each of the established cast is given plenty to chew on. Kirk has to come to grips with his own prejudice, Sulu gets his own ship, while Scotty and Chekov are no longer buffoons. Most of the strength of Spock’s storyline comes from his relationship with Valeris. There is a definite sexual tension between Leonard Nimoy and Kim Catrell which makes their interaction worth watching, especially the mind melding scene. Iman’s shape shifter makes for a bewitching presence and helps the middle act navigate a few potential bumps. The movie also has the first great villain since Khan in the form of Christopher Plummer’s General Chang. Though slightly over the top at times, the Shakespeare quoting Klingon makes for a formidable opponent to any of the good guys. The atmospheric score is also a high point.

As everything ends up on a comforting, bittersweet note, I actually found myself wishing this was the final legacy of Star Trek. “The Undiscovered Country” was a truly fitting swan song for Kirk and crew.
[Grade: A]

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