Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Directed by: William Shatner
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Laurence Luckinbill, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, David Warner, Todd Bryant
1/2 (out of 4)
If Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the successful doctor of the Trek family of films, then Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the red-headed stepchild, the black sheep. The great success of Star Trek IV was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for bringing in money and turning more people on to Trek, of course. But a curse for a few reasons, one of which is the idea that because the previous two movies were directed by a member of the cast (Leonard Nimoy) then obviously any member of the cast could do it, especially that egomaniac named William Shatner. Shatner, creator of the Shatner school of acting – using…many…pauses…for…dramatic…effect. Shatner, the star of the 1978 Saturn Award show, where he went on to do a seemingly-drug-fueled, chroma-key, spoken word version of Elton John’s Rocketman that shall never be forgotten. Shatner, who George Takei said had a “big, shiny, demanding ego.” That guy. It’s no wonder that Star Trek V is meandering and underwhelming, and to top it off, seems like it was written off by Paramount as it was being created. Star Trek 5 is the kid with the affliction who is kept locked up in his room so as not to scare the company.
OK, I’m making the movie sound much worse than it is. It’s not completely without charm. It’s just… disappointing. First, the plot: the crew of the new Enterprise 1701-A are enjoying shore leave on Earth when a call comes in from Starfleet. On the planet Nimbus III (The Planet of Intergalactic Peace – we know that because we are told three friggin’ times), a ragtag desert army have taken representatives of the Klingon Empire, Romulan Empire, and United Federation of Planets hostage. The kidnappers are led by a very emotional Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), who is revealed to be Spock’s half-brother. Sybok has rejected his logical upbringing and embraced emotion; he believes in Sha Kha Rhee, also known as the Garden of Eden, Paradise, what have you. Having lured the Enterprise to Nimbus III, Sybok hijacks the ship and heads for the Great Barrier, some kind of energy barrier at the center of the galaxy. On the other side of that barrier is the place where God is believed to reside.
Distilled down to its elements, Star Trek 5 is about a religious zealot searching for his God. Sybok’s belief in Eden’s existence is accompanied by his peculiar ability to brainwash people into following him. By showing others their secret “pain” and sharing in that pain, they are somehow “freed” from it, but in the process, they are somehow stripped of their will, and are extremely susceptible to Sybok’s “suggestion” that they all drink the kool-aid, become space-hippies, and head for the forest on the other side of the universe. So, brother… are you Herbert, or not? Besides being a higher budgeted version of the Season 3 episode The Way to Eden, Star Trek 5 does display some genuinely good character moments involving the “holy trio” of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. We learn about McCoy’s guilt over his father’s death, Spock’s struggle with his own father issues, and the acceptance by all three that at the end of the workday, the only family they have is each other. The Final Frontier has a lot of potential – the search for “God” in Roddenberry’s atheistic/humanistic universe isn’t the worst story I have seen, and there are some good action scenes (the hostage “rescue” on Nimbus III, the shuttlecraft escape from the Klingon warbird), but for too much of the running time it’s pretty much amateur hour.
First off is the overdose on comedy, which the studio asked for, because it wanted to duplicate The Voyage Home. The problem is, Trek 4‘s humor, while slapstick in certain scenes, is overall more subtle and derives from the characters’ personalities, while the humor in this film is of the Three Stooges variety (Kirk falls off El Capitan, Kirk falls in the brig, Scotty says he knows the ship like the back of his hand before being knocked unconscious by walking into a support beam) along with some bad puns. Characters blurt out one-liners like they’re doing stand-up (Bones says to himself “If I’m not careful I’ll end up talking to myself”, Kirk climbs a mountain “Because it is there”, Kirk and Bones joke about how Spock’s digestive tract will handle a combination of beans and Tennessee Whiskey). Then there’s the illogical decision of Starfleet sending the Enterprise, which is in complete disrepair and with a skeleton crew, to rescue hostages (Kirk actually says to the admiral “Oh Please” – even he can’t believe the plot, and he’s the director!). There’s the bizarre behavior of Uhura towards Scotty, suggesting a romantic relationship that was never hinted at in any other show or movie, the portrayal of the bar/nightclub on Nimbus III as a poor man’s version of the Cantina bar from Star Wars, and the silly notion of “The Great Barrier”, which is absolute nonsense in the same way the Nexus of Star Trek: Generations was nonsense. There is all this buildup about a galactic barrier that no ship or probe can breach, and yet the Enterprise breaches it rather easily and in a very short amount of time. Talk about anticlimactic. Did I mention the three-breasted cat-girl that seems like an extra from Total Recall? How about the embarrassing strip-tease dance done by Uhura in the desert? Cap it with a sloppily edited Wizard of Oz ending that falls apart on many levels (a promised Klingon battle not only doesn’t materialize, but the antagonists end up as guests at a cocktail party in the Enterprise lounge). Then there are the special effects, which are pretty poor. Granted, the effects haven’t exactly been stellar since The Motion Picture, but it is very apparent that Paramount either gave up on this film or that the producers (and Shatner) did not know how to properly manage the film’s budget (estimated at $27,800,000). The fact that Industrial Light and Magic were off doing other films doesn’t help (Associates & Ferren didn’t get a lot of work after this).
On the bright side, it might help to think of Star Trek V as the first Trek film that felt like an episode of the TV show, so if you have a particular fondness for classic Trek, there could be something in it for you. Despite all the flaws of this film (and there are tons), I still find it strangely watchable, and that’s mainly due to the Kirk/Spock/McCoy character moments. Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley have such an on-screen chemistry that at this point you could put them in a bad rendition of Brigadoon and they would still come out unscathed. The use of aliens posing as deities is an old school Trek storyline, which helps with the nostalgia factor. Of course, as I said, you have to be a fan of the TV series to appreciate it. Bottom line, though – this is a lazy entry in the movie franchise and a good reason why a studio should think long and hard before signing a contract with an actor promising him the directors chair for an ill-advised vanity project. The odd-numbered Trek curse starts now.
– Bill Gordon