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Jammer's Review: "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1989)

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: Spoilers follow for 1989 s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. ... Star Trek V: The Final Frontier 1989, PG, 107 minutes Film release: 6/9/1989 (USA)
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 27, 2004
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      Warning: Spoilers follow for 1989's "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier."

      Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

      1989, PG, 107 minutes
      Film release: 6/9/1989 (USA)

      Screenplay by David Loughery
      Story by William Shatner & Harve Bennett & David Loughery
      Produced by Harve Bennett
      Directed by William Shatner

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: *1/2

      I was tempted to buy the two-disc special-edition DVD of "Star Trek V: The
      Final Frontier" because I was interested in hearing the commentary track by
      William Shatner. I'd imagine a commentary track on this failed film would be
      illuminating, or at the very least interesting.

      Ultimately, though, I decided against the DVD purchase (I already have a
      copy on VHS). In a capitalist society, we vote for consumer products by
      using our wallets, and "Star Trek V" is a movie that I must strongly vote
      against. Instead, I recently pulled out my VHS copy to revisit this film for
      the first time in many years. I can say with renewed confidence that this
      will indeed be the only Trek film that won't be making its way on to my DVD
      shelf. (After having just watched it, I won't need to watch it again for
      many more years, if ever. Besides, how can you face the clerk at the
      checkout line at Best Buy when you're buying "Star Trek V: The Final
      Frontier"? Kidding, kidding.)

      Let me begin by saying that I like William Shatner. As an actor, I think he
      sometimes gets a bad rap. Yes, his acting choices are occasionally odd or
      campy or overshooting the mark, and you can point to it in places in the
      original series' run. But that's why we love the guy. Even when he's doing
      camp, he's doing camp entertainingly. Everybody remembers "KHAAAAAAAN!" from
      "Star Trek II." It's a laughable moment, yes, but great. It seems, however,
      that many people are slower to recall that otherwise in "Trek II" Shatner
      delivered possibly his best performance, with grace and nuance. He is not a
      bad actor. He's just an actor who sometimes employs stylized acting.

      But was he a competent director? I'm not sure I have enough information to
      say. I *can* say that in "Star Trek V" he made a pretty awful film, a
      failure on nearly every level, although a sizable percentage of the blame
      must also go to screenwriter David Loughery. This is easily the worst of the
      Trek films. It's a mess.

      (Truth in criticism requires me to point out that my VHS edition is a 4:3
      pan-and-scan presentation of what was a 2.35:1 widescreen film. I would
      typically call this a butchering of the film, but that would be
      overstatement in this case since "The Final Frontier" was ground chuck to
      begin with.)

      Where to begin? How about the first hour of the movie? It's mostly just
      extended setup material -- far too extended and aimless, if you ask me.

      It opens on Nimbus III -- a backward hellhole of a desert world that's
      perhaps too ironically dubbed "the planet of galactic peace" -- where a
      Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill, reasonably cast) takes hostage the
      human, Klingon, and Romulan diplomats assigned there. But even the setup has
      its own setup; we first meet Sybok in a pre-title scene where he laughs, and
      the plot takes its time moving along to the point where Sybok takes his

      The diplomats are cast in such a way they initially seem to be legitimate
      supporting characters. We have a human named John Talbot (David Warner); an
      obsolete Klingon general named Korrd (Charles Cooper); and the newly arrived
      Romulan representative, Caithlin Dar (Cynthia Gouw). Given the amount of
      dialog these characters have in the pre-crisis prelude, one would think
      they'd be developed significantly into the storyline. They aren't. Their
      purpose in the film is merely as a worthless scrap of plotting, as bait to
      lure a Federation rescue ship to Nimbus III, which Sybok intends to steal.
      The plot's goal of stealing a starship could've been accomplished in any
      number of vastly more time-economical and interesting ways than is done

      To insert David Warner as this superfluous throwaway is unforgivable (and
      fortunately his role in "Star Trek VI" helps right this wrong). Charles
      Cooper is serviceable in an almost equally unnecessary part, while Cynthia
      Gouw is awful in a *completely* pointless role. These characters should've
      been either written as necessary pieces of the story, or cut completely. As
      it stands they are simply inexplicable afterthoughts, and exist as an
      indictor of the script's clunkiness.

      Back on Earth, the crew of the Enterprise is on shore leave while the new
      Enterprise-A, still in space dock, provides Scotty with one example after
      another (far too many for those of us in the audience) of how Starfleet's
      assembly line must've been asleep at the controls when the ship was built.
      What we get here are a lot of pointless vignettes that try to offer up
      lightweight characterization but succeed only in being some of the worst
      so-called "comedy" moments in the history of the franchise.

      Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are on a camping trip at Yosemite National Park,
      where Kirk fancies himself a free climber as he attempts to scale El Capitan
      Mountain. The rock-climbing bit strikes me as an especially implausible
      conceit. After the three previous Trek films that showed older and wiser
      characters as aging people, the message here seems to be that "Star Trek V"
      is a return to glib episodic immortality. Yes, there are a couple palatable
      ideas that counter this notion, like Kirk's line that he has always known
      "I'll die alone," and the issue of these career Starfleet guys who have no
      families. But then the payoff is the infamous "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"
      scene, which tries with all its misguided might to bring these guys down to
      earth but succeeds only in looking completely ridiculous. Only the fact that
      these actors have inhabited these roles for so long does this scene maintain
      the slightest trace of dignity, because this is simply poorly written,
      dead-end material.

      The problem with most of the lame comedy in "Star Trek V" is its forced
      nature. The movie is like the anti-"Star Trek IV." Where "Trek IV" was about
      well-oiled nuance where humor grew naturally from situations and character,
      the early scenes of "Trek V" are about painfully labored, in-your-face Three
      Stooges gags that clunk and clang to the floor. Among the most cringe-worthy
      is the awkward Scotty/Uhura innuendo, which seems to hint at a relationship
      in such a way the audience is left to decide for itself. It's such a
      needless and poorly played detour that the only possible response is one of

      That's not to say there aren't a few good lines. Some of them work because
      they don't insist on themselves. For example, Kirk says, "I could use a
      shower." Spock replies, simply, "Yes." And I sort of got a kick out of
      Spock's line near the end: "Please, captain -- not in front of the
      Klingons." But for every moment like this there are two like the one where
      Scotty hits his head on the bulkhead, har har.

      The plot slowly tries getting off the ground when Starfleet orders Kirk to
      take the disaster-prone Enterprise -- where nothing is working -- to Nimbus
      III to rescue the hostages. The amount of illogic in Starfleet's decision is
      beyond comprehension; apparently there's no one so qualified as the Great
      Jim Kirk, so Starfleet dispatches a starship that's not only almost
      nonfunctional, but docked in orbit at Earth. (Surely there's someone closer
      than a *ship docked at Earth*.) This contrived situation is of course
      something we must grant to get our characters into the action, but
      considering the only reason to have the Enterprise docked at Earth in the
      first place is for the sake of the lame setup material -- well, what's the

      Adding to the mess of the choppy storyline is a thread involving a Klingon
      Bird of Prey commanded by Captain Klaa (Todd Byrant), which immediately
      signals itself as being on an obvious collision course with the Enterprise.
      The Klingons are naturally the TOS era's default villains, but here they're
      mostly extraneous. It doesn't help that Klaa is a boring young hothead with
      so little believable motivation. His only purpose in life is apparently to
      go into battle against Kirk. His shallow immaturity only weakens the
      character to that of an obviously lesser opponent. There's no teeth to the
      part, and no point.

      When the Enterprise reaches Nimbus III to rescue the hostages, we get some
      blandly routine action sequences in a production that's envisioned as a
      Western. The visual effects throughout the film are easily the worst in the
      entire feature series. Many of the other Trek films' visuals were produced
      by Lucasfilm's ILM. Not this one, which was supervised by Bran Ferren, who,
      based on the results here, apparently had no grasp of motion-control
      photography of miniatures. Few of the visual effects are convincing, and
      many are laughable.

      Still, none of that compares to the film's worst character indignity, which
      is to put poor Uhura on center stage in a partially nude dance routine
      that's a jaw-dropping embarrassment. Do we really want to see our vaunted
      Starfleet officers reduced to this sort of wretched punch line?

      Finally we get to a point where the movie should've arrived much sooner,
      when Kirk & Co. are captured by Sybok. There's the revelation that Sybok is
      Spock's half brother, but that's ultimately of so little consequence that
      I'm only devoting this one sentence to the matter. Sybok announces his
      intention to take the Enterprise through the Great Barrier, which surrounds
      the center of the galaxy. According to myth, the planet Sha Ka Ree (that's
      the Vulcan name for it) lies beyond the Barrier. No ship has ever breached
      the Barrier, and no probe has ever returned. Sha Ka Ree is alleged by some
      as the origin of all life, where God Himself may exist. We'll get to the God
      question in a moment.

      Sybok is able to brainwash the crew of the Enterprise into following him on
      this mission by using his unique power to sense and release others' worst
      emotional pain. How this power works is unclear, and the manner in which he
      converts the crew to willing denizens is muddled and too convenient.

      But I must also praise the film where praise is due. There is a good scene
      where Sybok uses his power to look into the souls of McCoy and Spock. McCoy
      in particular lives with an awful moment that has long haunted him (and
      relives it here in the film's single best-played dramatic scene). Spock's
      pain, somewhat less plausible as presented (Sarek seems awfully cold; would
      this Vulcan have married a human woman in the first place?), centers on his
      half-human nature and hearkens back to the core of the character. And Kirk's
      response to Sybok is very true to his character: "I don't want my pain taken
      away! I need my pain!" Vintage Kirk.

      There's also a little bit of interest to find in the journey through the
      Great Barrier, which is presented as a landmark moment. Jerry Goldsmith's
      score sells it, and McCoy asks in disbelief, "Are we dreaming?" Kirk
      responds, "If we are, then life is a dream."

      The moment loses its luster, though, when you consider the shoddy special
      effects. And more importantly the obvious question: If the Barrier is indeed
      only an illusion of danger, and yet has long been believed as a possible
      gateway to the answer to the ultimate cosmic question, why has no one tried
      going through it before? Planet Sha Ka Ree itself is a disappointment,
      looking roughly like the same desert locations used for Nimbus III, except
      as seen through a magenta image filter.

      Finally comes the film's climactic moment when we meet "God." It seems to me
      that this moment is the very definition of an inescapable narrative
      catch-22 -- particularly for Star Trek. You simply must ask yourself, how
      can Star Trek presume to actually find God? The answer is, simply, it can't,
      and deep down we know that. Star Trek is about exploring space and the human
      condition, and the moment the exploration of either of those things actually
      finds God in a tangible physical form is the moment when Star Trek has
      jumped the rails beyond the scope of its parameters and announced its
      journey as over.

      The flip side of the coin is that if you don't find God here, what do you
      find instead? The answer is that you must find an inevitable disappointment,
      because there's virtually nothing you can do that will pay off that promise
      once you've set it up.

      Given that catch-22, this film obviously opts to find the inevitable
      disappointment, and delivers it disappointingly. What we're dealing with is
      something masquerading as God, and in a hopelessly hokey and unimaginative
      way, to boot: "Brave souls -- welcome!" rumbles the basso profundo voice. A
      face appears and I'm thinking of "The Wizard of Oz." "God" is soon revealed
      as merely an aggressive entity that wants to use the Enterprise to escape
      its prison of a planet. ("What does God need with a starship?" Kirk asks,
      not unreasonably. Big mistake, 'cause you made it mad.)

      The story gives no explanations for where this entity came from, why it is
      trapped here, how it knows certain things about the visitors that now stand
      before it, why it is surrounded by the Great Barrier, or why with all its
      powers it needs a starship to escape. The ensuing threats and showdowns, the
      silliness with the Klingons showing up and opening fire on the Enterprise,
      "God's" frankly pathetic pursuit of Kirk, etc. -- it's appallingly weak.
      Only in this movie can a sequence begin by pretending to have found God, and
      end with a Klingon cannon blowing "God" up.

      I welcome any intelligent attempt to consider questions of religion
      alongside science fiction. But "The Final Frontier" hopelessly bungles that
      attempt. Was its particular premise even workable? Probably not. The ending
      almost seems to acknowledge this, with Kirk saying that perhaps God isn't
      out there in space, but simply within the human heart.

      If you want a superior film that tells a story with religion and sci-fi in a
      real-world setting, I highly recommend "Contact" (1997), which addressed
      these questions in probably the only truly plausible way possible -- by
      saying that answers lie within personal beliefs that can't be proven. (As an
      agnostic, my own feeling is that the existence of God, or whatever made the
      universe and passage of time possible, is not something that can be
      comprehended in this lifetime.)

      Regardless of theological background/belief (or lack thereof), it's hard to
      imagine anyone walking away satisfied with "The Final Frontier." It employs
      labored storytelling, an inconsistent tone, half-sketched characters, and
      unfocused plotting to arrive at a thin conclusion to a misguided premise.
      Since William Shatner was the one sitting in the captain's chair when this
      ship hit the rocks, I suppose the blame lies with him.

      Copyright 2004 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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