Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
First off, I do not hate this movie. There are things I like about it, I find some parts funny, but there are obviously bad aspects to it. However, I’ve always found something enjoyable about it even if it is a mess of a movie. As anyone who has regularly read my reviews knows very well about the summer of 1989, where movies were concerned. It was massively huge with numerous blockbuster contenders hitting almost every week, but Star Trek V, despite being projected to do very well, really took a nose dive at the box office. It was one of the bigger disappointments of that summer in relation to its projected success. The main reason for its failure? The ego of William Shatner, who was the film’s star, writer, and director, who took on a project he didn’t have the skill to deliver based on the studio’s restrictions and his own misconceived vision. Even Gene Roddenberry went on record calling the film “apocryphal,” and most simply regard it as if it never happened. There are undeniable reasons for that, but I seem to be one of the very few that gains some entertainment value from this movie.
On Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace, a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken three ambassadors hostage with a radical plan. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the newly christened U.S.S. Enterprise-A, which has ship-wide malfunctions, are recalled from shore leave for a rescue mission to the planet, but the distress call attracts the attention of a Klingon Captain intent on making a name for himself by engaging a Starfleet vessel in combat. The rescue mission goes awry when it is revealed that Sybok has used a unique telepathic ability to draw the hostages under his sway. Matters are further complicated when Spock (Leonard Nimoy) reveals that Sybok is his half-brother, also a son of Sarek. Sybok and his followers thus seize control of the Enterprise to fulfill his lifelong search for the fabled planet of Sha-Ka-Ree where he believes all life began, and that God himself waits for them. Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy struggle to regain command of the Enterprise from this apparent madman before they reach the supposedly impenetrable Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy. However, what awaits them on the other side is not what any of them expected.
This definitely had a peculiar behind the scenes scenario for such a problematic film. Star Trek V had the second largest budget of the franchise up to that point, and so, it wasn’t a matter of a lack of money for director William Shatner to achieve his vision. Instead, it seems to come down to both a mishandling of the budget as well as terrible timing all around. Industrial Light & Magic was responsible for the visual effects work on the films since The Wrath of Khan, but when this film went into production, ILM was hard at work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Constraints of time and money meant the filmmakers of Star Trek V couldn’t wait for them to be available, nor could they contend with what Spielberg and Lucasfilm were paying ILM to secure their expert services. It’s also slightly ironic since both films were distributed by Paramount Pictures, and released within about two weeks of one another. So, Shatner and Paramount had to go with a lesser effects company, and the lower grade results are obvious. They simply do not measure up to the dynamic and gloriously cinematic quality of ILM, and this further impacts the overall level of quality of the movie. Shatner had wild ideas for this film that were axed either in scripting by the studio, or simply because they could not be achieved with the resources he had. Apparently, none of these ideas were anything better than what did make it into the film, and in most cases, were far, far worse. The biggest of which was instead of encountering an evil entity claiming to be God, they would literally meet God himself, and do battle with the real Devil. As bad as you thought it was, it was intended to be terribly worse.
This film is indeed bad with foolish concepts that shouldn’t exist in a Star Trek story, and has some terrible comedy. It also portrays much of the regular cast in a very uncharacteristic fashion. With the loyalty they’ve shown, especially in The Search For Spock, it is difficult to accept that they would so easily turn against Kirk in favor of Sybok’s telepathic therapy. So, why do I enjoy this film at all? Camp value. I do find some of the comedy funny in a very ridiculous and cheap way. Yes, it is badly written low brow, broad comedy, and it is surely not the context I would want the crew ever depicted in again. Yet, when I take the film as a lower grade feature, I can just indulge in the camp value of it all. I find myself quoting lines from this probably more than any other Trek film. Where the humor of The Voyage Home was very situational stemming from the “fish out of water” context of the film, here, it is just out of place, awkward, and silly. While I do enjoy it, I can still look at it objectively and critically. Simply put, William Shatner did not demonstrate good screenwriting abilities on this film. I will grant that it is very incompatible to have comedy of this sort in a film about finding God. Shatner tries to balance broad comedy and serious drama, but that is just not a combination that mixes.
However, while the film is wrought with out of place humor and silliness, there are some excellent dramatic and character moments found throughout. I like Kirk, Bones, and Spock sitting around the campfire talking about how Kirk knows that as long as he has his friends around, he knows he won’t die. They have saved each other’s lives so many times that this does resonate for me, and is quite a good moment of depth and insight into James Kirk. He says he’ll die alone, and that was something that always stuck with me. Thus, making his ultimate demise in Star Trek: Generations even more of an insult. The scenes between Spock and Sybok have some fine dramatic substance as their shared history is played out. And undeniably, the scene where Sybok has McCoy relive the death of his father is the most powerful scene of the film, and possibly DeForest Kelley’s most profound acting in all his tenure as Leonard McCoy. In these moments, Shatner, as director, does get the dramatic side of the film down nicely, and is definitely helped by very strong acting talents. Still, they are not enough to raise the film up to respectable standards since there is so much low grade junk weighing it down. They are mere glimpses of a stronger and more tonally consistent film that could have been, if handled by better talented filmmakers. I may enjoy the film, but certainly, I will never deny that it is filled with a lot of crap.
Case in point is that what thin semblance of a plot there is doesn’t make much sense. It’s hard to fathom why Sybok would choose such a worthless rock of a planet like Nimbus III, a failed public relations stunt of peace, to launch his quest from. Obviously, he had a starship transport him to the planet in the first place, and so, he had the means to secure interplanetary travel at some point. There was no express need for him to travel to Nimbus III just to hijack a ship. I mean, there are far easier ways of obtaining a starship than taking ambassadorial hostages on a desolate planet no one gives a crap about. Thus, all Sybok really needs from this planet are followers to bear witness to his quest, and he chooses the dregs of the galaxy. This doesn’t seem like the most efficient or credible plan to me. Beyond that, the most that is going on is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy trying to take back control of the ship, but by the time they have the chance, Sybok’s already arrived at his destination. From there, it’s just a matter of exploration and survival. The entire subplot of the Klingon Bird of Prey hunting the Enterprise is more of a minor action plot device, and doesn’t feed into anything substantive. The themes of religion and finding God also aren’t really explored by any of the characters, except for Sybok, and he does tend to come off like a fanatic or cult leader. That is entirely intentional, but it also diffuses the poignancy of the topic. No one takes the issue seriously because he is viewed as a delusional person who is risking lives for his own fanatical validation. More time is spent on discussing who Sybok is, and the power that he possesses than his belief in finding God at the center of the galaxy.
I also have to criticize the idea that the Great Barrier has been perceived as impenetrable. The key idea is perception. I can’t wrap my head around how everyone is dead-on certain that no ship can survive entering the Barrier when no ship has ever tried, nor have they acquired any data on it to support such a claim. All they know is that no probe has ever returned, which hasn’t stopped starship captains from entering into the unknown before or since. Everyone considers it dangerous, tantamount to madness and suicide to try, yet the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey traverse it without even the slightest problem. Even taking the film by its own warped logic, if passage through the Barrier is merely a matter of belief that it is an illusion, that still doesn’t explain how the Bird of Prey was able to make it through. If the ships had to survive some danger to pass through that ominous barrier, then I could say that these fears were justified. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The idea simply doesn’t hold any credibility.
Furthermore, the physics of space travel are completely screwed over as it would take decades for the Enterprise to reach the center of the galaxy even at top warp speeds. Of course, the most lauded criticism of the film is why would Starfleet send Captain Kirk out on an important hostage rescue mission in a ship that is falling apart. Starfleet does say there are other ships in range of Nimbus III, but no experienced commanders. So, it wouldn’t be difficult to put Kirk and his crew on one of those vessels for a temporary assignment. It also doesn’t make sense that the fleet would build a brand new Constitution class starship when two films ago, which in the chronology of Star Trek was maybe a couple months ago, the original Enterprise was essentially called old and obsolete with no plans to refit it for continued service. The original intention was that the Enterprise-A was rechristened as such from the U.S.S. Yorktown, but this film screws that idea over completely. The idea of the Enterprise-A being a shambles is simply to remove the convenience of using the transporter to rescue the hostages, or allow for an easy escape for our heroes when the evil entity turns on them. Still, you can have the transporters be inoperable without the entire ship being a disaster. Of course, it’s also there for more moments of humor when turbolift doors won’t open, or the Captain’s electronic log book, which is independent of the ship’s systems, goes kaput. The U.S.S. Enterprise presented here is as much of a mess as the film itself.
Now, there is foolishness and stupidity abound in this film that really cannot be taken seriously because it hardly takes itself seriously. I’ve barely gotten started on the criticisms this film deserves. I could go on and on about the inanities and stuff that doesn’t make sense, and normally, I would keep going for quite a while to really scrutinize it all. However, this has already been detailed by SFDebris in his Opinionated Trek Movie Guide videos. I almost didn’t go forward with this review for fear that most of what I would say would just be a retread of his review. He essentially covered it all in excellent fashion. However, what pushed me forward with this was sharing what I do enjoy about the film, despite its flaws. I can enjoy the badly conceived and poorly executed aspects of the film while still finding genuine merit in a few areas. What originally motivated me towards doing a review at all was giving credit to one aspect of the movie that I have never heard anyone offer before. That is the performance of Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok.
The filmmakers originally wanted Sean Connery for this role, but again, due to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they had to look elsewhere. However, unlike the visual effects, they did not end up with a low grade result. Luckinbill instills great passion and theatrical zeal into the role. He is very charismatic, making Sybok a personality to contend with. He’s not out to destroy or seek vengeance upon anyone. Instead, his threat is based in his radical ideology, and that required someone not intimidating but vibrant and intelligent. He didn’t need to be cunning and lethal like Khan, but a man who views himself as enlightened but is perceived as a con man, similar to the televangelists that inspired the character. Yet, Luckinbill makes the character interesting and compelling as well as sympathetic by the end. When Sybok realizes the error of his ways, he takes responsibility for his arrogance and ego, which creates a great character arc. I think Sybok has a good ending which redeems his character, but unfortunately, its poignancy is overshadowed by the remainder of the climax with Kirk seeking to escape the evil entity. Luckinbill created a fascinating character through his performance that I actually would’ve loved to have seen more of. I think exploring Sybok in more depth would be a great thing in this actor’s talented hands. If placed in a better film, I think both Laurence Luckinbill’s performance and Sybok himself would have gained more praise, but far too often, a marvelous performance is overlooked due to the quality of the film it appears in. Luckinbill carried a lot of weight on his shoulders with this movie, and I think he carried it with more ease, grace, and integrity than anyone else in the film. While the script written around Sybok is certainly not the smartest or most logical, the character himself is given a credible life by this actor, and I think he deserves a lot of overdue praise for what he did.
The other performances are especially mixed. Even with much of the humorous content, I do feel that Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly do a very solid job, maintaining far more integrity than the script would suggest they could. Much of why the humor amongst them and Shatner works any bit as good as it does is because of their long standing chemistry. They’ve always worked beautifully together, and that goes a long way in this turbulent film. James Doohan is certainly entertaining handling the cheap humor pretty decently, and just being his charming Montgomery Scott self. I do genuinely laugh at his comedy moments. However, the rest of the main cast doesn’t have as much to work with, either good or bad, and thus, doesn’t offer much for me to comment on. Cynthia Gouw, however, puts in an entirely disingenuine performance as the Romulan Ambassador. Her line deliveries lack any substance, and she comes off like a hollow shell of a person with her light airy voice and naïve smile. There is no acting ability in what she does. She just smiles and looks pretty for the camera, which makes it no wonder that she was a model before attempting to be an actress. The usually great David Warner is criminally wasted in the role of St. John Talbot, the Federation Ambassador on Nimbus III. There is nothing in the role for him that is worthwhile. The only fortunate result from this is that this introduction into Star Trek allowed for him to take on two far more impressive roles in Star Trek VI and an excellent and powerful two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Beyond this point in this cast, it just becomes far too one dimensional to even bother mentioning. Captain Klaa fits solidly into a Klingon stereotype, but he is nothing more than that. He’s just on a shallow quest for glory.
Now, yes, I must address William Shatner as an actor here. There is an obvious ego trip going on in front of and behind the camera. This doesn’t necessarily lead to a bad performance from him, but you can definitely see how the film is designed to raise James T. Kirk up while pushing everyone else down. Shatner is entirely capable of delivering great performances, but it does take the right director to know how to wear Shatner down to get it out of him. Nicholas Meyer, director the second and sixth Star Trek movies, says on one of his commentary tracks that he had to run many takes with Shatner to get the right one. This was, as he said, because Shatner would start out trying to act like a big star in the spotlight, but as the takes went on, he’d get more worn down by the process and then give the more natural and real performance. That’s where Meyer would find the gold, and I imagine Leonard Nimoy had a similar process on the previous two Trek movies. When Shatner is directing himself, it’s inevitable that more of that big star ego will show through, but there are several moments of solid dramatic acting from him. It’s not a terrible performance at all, but it could’ve used more wrangling in, more molding to shape it properly. Regardless of the acting, there is just no denying how overly focused this film is on Kirk. Shatner takes every opportunity that he was allowed to separate Kirk in any way from the rest of his crew. Either by them betraying him, or simply being at odds with Spock or McCoy, Shatner wanted Kirk to fight this all on his own, but that simply is uncharacteristic of especially those two to abandon Kirk at all. Whatever logic he had to break, or characterizations he had to betray, Shatner was going to focus that spotlight on himself as much as possible. Thus, that is the film’s crucial failing.
Now, I never realized this myself, but a friend of mine pointed out that Star Trek V is actually the film that’s actually the most like the television series. The lower grade effects, the slight corniness, and the use of the rocky California desert as some generic alien planet are purely straight from the original television series. The storyline has the feel of something from the original series as well, in concept, anyway. Encountering strange larger than life entities like in The Squire of Gothos or The Doomsday Machine, passing through cosmic barriers like Where No Man Has Gone Before, and the Kirk action sequence along a rocky landscape like in Arena all tie the movie strongly to the roots of the television series. Granted, the writing of this film is a long way off from the best standards of the series.
The last thing to really give note of is composer Jerry Goldsmith’s return to the franchise here, and he brings all his original themes back with him. The great opening fanfare, which had become the theme for The Next Generation by now, and the excellent Klingon theme return in great fashion. It’s a very good score that is quite to my general liking, but Goldsmith just had terrible luck by being saddled with the two most critically bashed films of the series so far (the other being Star Trek: The Motion Picture). He wouldn’t return to Trek again until First Contact due to the critical and commercial failure of this movie.
Despite my own personal enjoyment of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I cannot defend it as a whole. There are admirable parts to it, but they are grossly overwhelmed by all the negative qualities present. I happen to enjoy this on a campy, bad movie level, but there is hardly anyway I forge a set of conditions under which I could generally recommend it. You’re either going to like the movie for the low grade work that it is, or you’re going to hate it, passionately. There were plenty of problems surrounding the development and execution of this film, but they do not excuse much at all of the end result. William Shatner believed he could make this movie work with his objectionable story, and the studio mandates of making another “fun” movie like The Voyage Home. He failed miserably, and this nearly killed the film franchise entirely. A better director never would’ve touched this film with Shatner’s script, and a better screenwriter would’ve scoffed at the film’s concept. I can certainly see why people revile this movie so much, but for me, there are far worse Star Trek films in existence than this one. However, others have thoroughly scrutinized those movies in far more depth than I can get to, and I have nothing new to say about any of them. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some critical statements to make about one of the more highly regarded films in the franchise, though.