7.29.2014

FlashBack66: STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)

This fucking movie.
This movie was EPISODE I before there was such a thing.

STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER is a bad movie. It has terrible comedy, the absolute worst special effects of any Star Trek film and it's just a mess of a story. And despite all of that, I still love STAR TREK V.

Before BATMAN hit the theaters, the Summer of 1989 had several important releases preceding it- INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, GHOSTBUSTERS II, LICENCE TO KILL and this film, the follow-up to the immensely successful STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME. As was the fashion of the time, the tie-in novelization for a film would hit the stands a week before a film's release. Oh, I was so fucking slick in those days- I'd be the first kid on the block to know what happens in STAR TREK V. Yeah. Worship me, people.

Not my actual copy, but a rough estimation on my copy's condition
I tore through the novel, by J.M. Dillard, with record speed. I kept reading it until it was done. I don't remember how long it took me, but it wasn't like I was keeping a busy calendar in those days. Actually, here I am 25 years later writing about this, so I guess some things never change. Anyway, the novel was spectacular. I mean what a story! I couldn't believe the depth and imagination on display- the insight into Vulcan society, the freshness of the new mission, the politics between the three galactic powers (Federation, Klingons and Romulans). STAR TREK V was going to be awesome. All they had to do was film this thing, and after THE VOYAGE HOME, there was no doubt these guys had it under control.

Well, that's the thing. They had no idea what they were doing.

Sandra Bullock, this is gravity (sort of)
Maybe that's going too far, but the headline issue with THE FINAL FRONTIER is pretty simple: let's be all things to all people. Whereas THE VOYAGE HOME said "Let's cut loose a little" and give these characters a chance to recoup after the death, destruction and additional death of the previous two movies, THE FINAL FRONTIER said "Oh, Star Trek can be funny!" No, no, no, no, no, please no. Star Trek can be *charming* but that should never be mistaken for comedy.

STAR TREK V is the bad ex, the ugly sweater in the back of the closet, the missed shot, the total fucking dumb ass decision you made when you were in a really good mood. At the time, it felt good, it felt like an escape from the norm, like "Yeah, I'm gonna start wearing paisley silk shirts now!" Fucking hell.

Shatner, it comes back to you, my hero.  I vouched for you on the playground.  I dedicated my youth to your machismo.  I trusted you... and I still do, and I always will.  But for a couple of hours in 1989, I  wanted to apologize to my mother for asking her to take me to this mess.  On the car ride home, I recounted the true STAR TREK V story to my mom.  The beautiful story woven throughout the novel didn't exist here.  And the reason for this dissonance was the tone of the piece, and that all goes back to the film's director, Bill Shatner.
Shove this shirt up your Jefferies tube, asshole.
Here's the thing- Shatner shot gorgeous stuff. He brought in more artistic flourishes than the "stuck on the set" material from all of the previous films. Even THE VOYAGE HOME, which was mostly location shooting, looks drab in many places because Nimoy drinks his coffee straight, no water, just beans. Shatner, with his new toupee (with that goofy ass pull-down of the front follicles) and his completely off the wall middle-age aesthetics, made this movie pop off the screen.
You're so metal, Sybok.
I love the colors of the set pieces, there's emotion in the lighting on the actors. It's not the perpetually beige world of even THE NEXT GENERATION. But that wasn't the tone I was referring to as a problem. The narrative tone, with all the dickslapping and head-knocking and outright overacting is where this movie gets lost. And don't even get me started on the optical effects. Paramount wanted to keep their rookie director in line, so Shatner had to make some hard choices- and he (wrongly) decided to dump ILM for some fucking asshole named Bran Ferren to do the visual effects. Google this jackass if you're curious- his Wikipedia entry (self-edited, no doubt) calls Bran a "technologist," "lecturer," and "scientist." Bran Ferren- on behalf of the human race- fuck you.
Bran Ferren, I'm going to eat your liver.
I keep mentioning the novel because what that version of STAR TREK V provided that the film failed to was this true sense of wonder and mystery. Sybok, the main antagonist (not a villain, just a misunderstood shaman on a trip to meet the big guy), is a great character. He is the opposite of Sarek, his birth father, and he helps balance out Spock's entire struggle with his human half. Here's a full Vulcan (Sybok's mother was a high priestess who broke with tradition and embraced emotion) that showed Spock he was not inferior. Their relationship had real depth in the book, the small amount of extra perspective gave the entire story more meaning. And Sybok wasn't just a madman who happened to guess right about breaking through The Great Barrier. In the book, Sybok is a brilliant scientist too, he studied The Great Barrier at length and devised a new way of attenuating a starship's shields to withstand the cataclysmic forces inflicted by traveling through it. How long would that have taken to add into the film? 5 seconds? No, we need to see Scotty and Uhura inform us that they're banging.  What the fuck am I watching? Hey Scotty, fix your new Enterprise (that for some comedic reason doesn't seem to work). 
Scotty, I know the doctor said to eat more salads, but let's start with the croutons first.
Oh, did I forget to mention the Klingons are in this? I always look at STAR TREK V as a film without a villain, and that's kind of how I like my Star Trek in general. But Shatner brought in the Klingons, but they just happened to be the Gobot version, a little less... at everything. Yeah, these Klingons destroy what was probably the last remaining V'ger probe and then they go chase Kirk for the rest of the movie. I think the novel had them doing some other shit, but I don't remember right now.

Okay, I've spilled my pixels trashing the film, but (and here's the but) I still love STAR TREK V. I've watched the film probably 50 or so times. Maybe even more, because when the movie came out on VHS, it was originally priced for rental (at $90) and my insanely loving mother sprung for it because she knew I wanted to keep watching it. And I winced as I sat through the more offending parts. Nevertheless, I loved the moments that provided me more time with my heroes. The camaraderie between Kirk, McCoy and Spock is in full effect- sure, Spock is annoyingly still acting like an idiot in the beginning, but once Sybok shows up, Spock gets back to normal. Kirk is all over this movie, climbing shit, riding shit, mouthing off, telling everyone (including "God") to get their hands off his ship. Yes, I accept this egomaniac as my savior. Sue me. And of course, DeForest Kelley, with a simple, raised eyebrow can convey the weight of McCoy's suffering as he euthanized his own father-- a week before they found a cure for his father's disease. That scene was purely written, acted and filmed.
"... to preserve his dignity..."
And that gets to the larger theme of this story that, even on screen, I absolutely love. With all the technology, all the social advancement and all of the victories won by the crew of the Starship Enterprise, these were all people with real pain in their hearts. The years have certainly accumulated on them, and this isn't a story about aging as much as it is about keeping up hope for the future. Each of us carries deep pain- loss, suffering, regrets. Sybok, through his natural psychic gifts as a Vulcan, has trained himself to mind-meld with others to remove those feelings. Imagine for a moment what that would feel like? Seriously, take this film and put it to the side and think how you would feel if all those feelings that haunt you were suddenly taken away. What would be left? A lightness and joy that cannot be described. That is what Sybok brings to those he meets along his journey to find God. What gives people this sort of feeling in the real world? For some, religious and spiritual devotion, for others drugs or alcohol, and for the more limber among us, sex with as many people as are willing to join you. Or gambling, or puppies, or whatever the fuck else you can find whether society condones or rejects it. Sybok is the feel-good prophet, he believes that suffering is bullshit, and that if we're going to live, we must live life for a future that is free of the past. Think about the real world- how ancient conflicts are still being fought because no side is willing to move on.  I'm telling you, STAR TREK V has a provocative premise and in execution, there are moments where the film thoughtfully puts forth these ideas. And when James Kirk rebukes Sybok, the screenplay definitively makes its point:
"Damn it Bones, you're a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!"
Taking away pain wholesale is a cheat. Healing must come with time, effort and thought. We gain important things from our losses. Yes, basic stuff but think about how we lose sight of that notion in our noisy, daily routine. I need to be reminded of this all of the time.

This is where the film comes back as a cohesive story. And then they land on the purple sand world (more color!) and then things get weird and then those things kind of blow up.  That should be enough to write off the film, but yet again, these heroic characters come through the mist and appear again, talking about "losing brothers" and getting them back again. Other people have families... no, this crew is a family. And these characters are a part of my family, so I will always cherish STAR TREK V.
Don't fuck with another man's vehicle!

6 comments:

  1. I'm guilty of the same love for this mess of a film. Final Frontier was the first time for me that being a Star Trek fan felt like being in an abusive relationship. Only Star Trek V was just that one Summer night she came home drunk and smacked me around for a couple of hours. Later, when Voyager and Enterprise came around was when I got beaten on a regular basis and took it because I love Star Trek and sometimes I deserve to get hit.

    I haven't read the novel, but now I'm going to hunt it down. This film frustrates me because it could have and should have been something better. Sean Connery instead of Lawrence Luckinbill. Kirk fighting an army of rock monsters at the end. And special effects that didn't look like something out of an old episode of Captain Power.

    Still, there's some great moments which you recounted. The scene with McCoy and his father still gets me misty as is the simple and sterile reveal of Spock's pain. And my favorite part in the whole film is still when Kirk yells, "SHOOT HIM!!!" That gives me goosebumps every time. Also, the first time we see a shuttle mission in the movies! That was cool!

    Oh yeah... and I adored the bridge set in this one

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Shatner's SHOOT HIM line... yeah, perfect, almost musical the way he yells it.

      Delete
  2. Love it. And sadly now I want to dig out Star Trek V and watch it again. But I am even more curious about the book. I too read movie novelizations as a child (mad props to the Scholastic Book Club and the Bookmobile) but for some reason never ventured into the Star Trek material. Maybe I will visit this movie novelization before I watch the film again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I completely advocate the idea of reading the novelization first. It makes the film so much better. Looking back, The Final Frontier stands above probably 3 of the 4 TNG films for me. I think the fact that it tried too hard to be a mainstream comedy and that the budget lost its way, like FigureFanZero mentions above, the final product was too far away from the original and ambitious concept. And yet, I still love it.

      Delete
  3. I was brought into this world much later than when this movie or series came out so I'm just catching up. I've just finished TOS on the podcast's recommendation and am now moving into the movies and I'm sure I'll still get a kick out of it. For some reason I think it's the only one I own... I don't even know how.

    Oh and TheJackSack, if you're still looking for a Tailgate hit me up. I wouldn't mind mine leaving the house. It'd be just shipping.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Ted- I got a Tailgate a couple of weeks ago. Keep me posted on what you think of the movies.

      Delete