I have heard a few extensive reviews of Star Trek VI in recent times, all of which praising it glowingly with nary a blemish. This is definitely one of the better films of the franchise, and the first Star Trek movie I ever saw, on cable no less. It used to be my favorite, but over time I’ve come to feel as if this film lacks a certain something to get it all the way to greatness. I certainly know what that is, but let’s give you a plot first before I share that with you.
On their way home from their first assignment, the U.S.S. Excelsior, now at the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), monitors a massive explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility. This incident signals an eventual crippling of the Klingon Empire within fifty years, and thus, motivates a push towards peace between the Federation and the Klingons, championed by Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner). Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to escort the Klingon Chancellor to a peace conference on Earth. This does not sit well for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) who is vocally opposed to the idea of peace for many personal reasons, not the least of which being the murder of his son by the Klingons. However, despite his efforts to support the peace initiative, the hope for it is soon crushed when the Chancellor’s ship is fired upon and Gorkon himself is assassinated. A malicious conspiracy becomes evident as all evidence supports that the photon torpedoes and assassins originated from the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are arrested and convicted for the crime, and banished to the frozen penal asteroid of Rura Penthe. Now, the crew of the Enterprise must expose this plot, and rescue their comrades before all hope for peace in the galaxy is destroyed.
Before I actually point out the shortcomings of the film, I think it’s fair to detail a few behind-the-scenes points first. Mainly, this film was rushed, to an extent. Paramount Pictures wanted this out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, and it just made it with a late December, 1991 release. So, the filmmakers didn’t have an abundant freedom of time to really develop this film fully, but this is not some train wreck where you can tell things were slap dashed together. This is quite a well-made and conceived movie. I merely say that if they had the luxury of no forced deadline, perhaps a few of my concerns with the script could have been resolved. They are not glaring issues, but ones that I feel take away from the potential of the movie which require some in-depth analysis.
Let me also say that there is plenty of greatness in this film. The ideas of prejudice and the struggles of overcoming those feelings for the cause of peace are very relevant. This film was made at the time of the fall of Soviet Russia and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. So, our world was going through a change of perspective and socio-political ideals. The Klingons here were essentially Soviet Russia, and Praxis was an obvious allegory for Chernobyl. This was a necessary story to be told considering that the Federation and the Klingon Empire became allies by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I feel this story was handled very well, in general. For both sides, who had gotten used to hating one another, to finally have to reach an accord of peace and allegiance would not be easy at all. Kirk is portrayed excellently in this story with him having to overcome his prejudice from the murder of his son David by Klingon hands and a life full of distrust towards them. He truly goes through an arc that re-instills the outlook of hope and humanity that Star Trek has always strived for.
This film also rebounds amazingly well from the poorly executed and conceived Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The serious tone is brought back with very solid and respectable performances by the entire cast. Every regular cast member is given some forefront time, and I love the exchanges between Spock and McCoy in the climax. Spock asks if McCoy would assist him with surgery on a torpedo, and McCoy responds with, “Fascinating.” It’s a nice sly piece of dialogue that shows the respect and camaraderie between two characters that have not always seen eye-to-eye. It’s also a treat to have seen Sulu be promoted to Captain, and given command of the U.S.S. Excelsior. I like that Scotty gives praise to the ship now because of its captain when he was ragging on it back in The Search For Spock. It’s another subtle show of growth for these characters, and the cast embodies those moments beautifully.
Now, there have been extended cuts of the film released on home video, and each cut of the film has their advantages. The original theatrical version is quickly paced punctuating some dramatic beats a little better, but the extended versions make the film feel a little fuller. The extra scenes don’t amount to too much with characters or plot, but sometimes, it helps to draw sections of a film out for more prolonged build up, such as going into Kirk & McCoy’s trial. The pacing of the film in any incarnation is quite consistent, even if it is rather gradual. What the film really lacks is a sustained sense of urgency. I believe this stems from the fact that no one knows who the villains are until the final thirty minutes or so of the movie. If the villains either don’t have a sustained presence in the film to maintain a threat level, or you don’t have them actually doing anything in opposition to the protagonists, you lose urgency in the plot. The mystery plot isn’t enough without the dramatic pressure of active villainy going on around it.
Since Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I feel it’s appropriate to draw a comparison to that film. In Star Trek II, the film was able to establish its villain in Khan and build him up as a substantial threat, and continually cut back to him to keep tension and suspense present throughout most of the movie. As long as Khan was out there plotting his next move, there was a near constant sense of unease and immediacy throughout the film. In Star Trek VI, the villains are completely hidden from us during the vast majority of the runtime. There is surely an adversarial quality to General Chang, but all the way up to and through the trial, he’s never seen acting outside the bounds and expectations of his military position. He’s not an overt villain until he’s revealed to be one until the end of the second act. And while this film has the same general runtime as Wrath of Khan, it feels much slower and thinner. There’s not all that much developing in the plot to build up momentum or create dramatic tension.
Since there is no urgency, there’s also an extreme lack of action and excitement in the film. It would’ve helped to put more dramatic pressure on the crew of the Enterprise to uncover the evidence in their investigation either by way of a time constraint or consequence. While Starfleet keeps demanding they return to Space Dock, it’s really a hollow plot device since there are no consequences or conflict involved with them constantly making up excuses to not return home. It would’ve added a sense of urgency if there was more risk put upon them for disobeying orders, such as in The Search For Spock. Even when the Enterprise infiltrates Klingon space to rescue Kirk and McCoy, there’s no real threat to contend with. Throughout Star Trek, we’ve always seen Klingon ships patrolling the Neutral Zone border, protecting their Empire, but the Enterprise whisks in and only needs to fool some lowly Klingon at a patrol station with clearly the most primitive sensors around since they cannot even identify what ship it is detecting. It doesn’t help that the entire scene is done humorously. If it was handled as a tense and serious situation where they had to evade and strategically slip passed Klingon ships during their rescue mission, it would have, again, created urgency.
Tying into this is the lack of impact with the conspiracy and mystery. Aside from one character who was briefly featured in The Voyage Home, none of the conspirators are anyone of note or poignancy to an audience. They are just one-off characters that either don’t matter or are of no surprise that they are villainous. The mystery of discovering who the assassins are has a strong setup, but eventually falls flat due a lack of tension. The crew knows that treasonous murderers are on board, but no one ever feels a sense of unease aboard the Enterprise. No one worries that two assassins are lurking on their ship capable of further ill-doings. The assassins themselves are also throwaway, nobody characters. Aside from Chang, there’s no real time spent with most of these characters to build them up one way or another to give their role in this conspiracy any weight. In most part, they could have been just about anyone and it wouldn’t have made any difference. It’s surely an aspect of this script that could’ve used a lot more work to integrate some character development and substance into this revelation. I could’ve seen a plot like this working nicely during a season long arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the writers could take their time to build up numerous characters in twisting arcs, and have a startling reveal later on. In a 110 minute movie where relatively very little time is spent with anyone but the regular cast, it’s not likely to work out very well.
My other main bother with the film is the portrayal of the Klingons. While the very honorable Next Generation Klingons could get tiresome and stereotypical after several years of overly treaded concepts, this film was made right at the strong suit of that portrayal. While it had room for flexibility and expansion, these Klingons, in general, appear to have little substance or texture to invest any interest in. Firstly, their uniforms had long been set in place as very hard and metallic, but here, most of the Klingons are wearing very soft, padded outfits which take away a lot of their visual edge. It’s the only appearance of these outfits that I know of, and it doesn’t suit this aggressive alien race that has always been very vocally opposed to softness and comfort. They are a harsh race never indulging in luxuries, but that ideal is not supported by this costume design. Their attitudes are also watered down somewhat. We already had the cunning and verbose Commander Kruge, the outspoken and aggressive Klingon Ambassador from The Voyage Home, and the rather brash and hard-headed Captain Klaa generally establishing the attitude and personalities of Klingons in this time period. However, The Undiscovered Country simply tones them down far too much for my taste. The bold and intimidating qualities which have made them such a great fan favorite are generally evaporated. The fierce, proud warrior isn’t there. While they are mostly political officers, I would expect more conviction and assertiveness in these portrayals. Furthermore, the Klingon make-up is scaled back severely. At this time, the great Michael Westmore was heading up all of the special make-up effects work and designs on The Next Generation, and the special make-up results here would’ve been far better if the filmmakers had employed his talents. The vast majority of the alien prosthetics lack a sense of fine detail or organic feel to give them a sense of life and texture. The Klingon forehead ridges are all too smooth and toned down. They mostly appear rather obviously fake and rubbery. It further adds to the out of place feel of these Klingons. They simply do not fit into what had come before or after in the chronology of the franchise. At times, they seem like a cheap imitation of a Klingon. Gene Roddenberry himself was displeased that the Klingons came off as generic villains with no exploration of their society or cultural viewpoints, and Leonard Nimoy later agreed with him after the film’s release. I agree with him as well. Time has shown the vast potential of exploration for the Klingon culture, and I think not caring to acknowledge that here results in a very flat and uninteresting presentation of the Klingons, in general.
Now, I do very much like what Christopher Plummer did as General Chang, who is a distinct exception to my Klingon gripes in this film. Right from his first moments, you can tell that he is someone to contend with. He’s a definite skilled warrior with an intimidating quality. He doesn’t give into hostility, instead he projects a patient and cunning demeanor. Plummer works excellently in the trial sequence prosecuting Kirk and McCoy with great zeal. He brings a fine theatrical sensibility to the character which allows him to command many scenes, and truly is the one that makes that trial compelling. However, at no fault of his, but of the screenwriters, is Chang’s painfully excessive quoting of Shakespeare. The bit was good for a little while, but it wears thin very quickly. Eventually, the vast majority of his dialogue is directly quoting lines from Shakespeare plays. I agree with Ira Steven Behr, who recorded a commentary track for the theatrical cut, that it’s simply lazy screenwriting. The screenwriters couldn’t come up with anything original or freshly poignant for the character to say, and so, they just flippantly copy lines verbatim from another literary work. When Khan was quoting literary works in Star Trek II, it did have a thematic purpose. His obsession for vengeance or pain of exile were parallels to Ahab in Moby Dick or Lucifer in Paradise Lost, respectively, and these quotes were used at generally the most purposeful moments. They had weight and meaning behind them for Khan. With Chang, he just spouts these lines out randomly. They hold no thematic weight or meaning at all because he has no thematic purpose in the film. He might as well be quoting anything, or saying nothing at all, because it really makes no difference what he’s saying. This lazy screenwriting becomes very irritating during the film’s climax. Even Dr. McCoy says, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.”
The film also makes blatant references to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Sherlock Holmes, and the only one I really thought was worthwhile, Peter Pan. It eventually feels like too much referencing of other material instead of the screenwriters strengthening their own original material. Whether they are appropriate references or not, it just feels as if almost every poignant piece of dialogue is lifted from another source, and that reflects a major weakness in the dialogue of the script. Nicholas Meyer can be a great screenwriter and filmmaker, but at times, I feel he doesn’t view Star Trek to be good enough to stand on its own. He has to prop it up by injecting ideas from other sources to make it great. It worked brilliantly in The Wrath of Khan, but it simply does feel like lazy, uninspired writing in The Undiscovered Country.
The great and always respectable David Warner does a fine job as Chancellor Gorkon. Nick Meyer envisioned the character as a meshing of Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev. The Lincoln aspects definitely show through with both the make-up design, and Warner’s regal, wise performance. However, I do believe Gorkon was grossly underused in the film. His goal of peace is the crux of this story, and we are barely given any substantive time with him to grasp his ideals and values. Essentially, all we know is that he wants peace, period. This feels like another mark of an underdeveloped script. Surely, the script had a good, solid foundation, but given some more time to refine and flesh it out, it could’ve had so much more dramatic impact, exciting tension, and a far wider scope. This film feels like it needed a tighter pace and an extra half hour of runtime to fully flesh out and setup all of its ideas, characters, and conflicts for maximum effectiveness.
I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood with my critiques. This is a mostly well-conceived and nicely executed film. Production values are great as is the cinematography. This truly looks and feels like a high grade film with a very polished cinematic style. The acting overall is exceptionally good across the board with the entire regular cast giving it their all. Even Kim Cattrall is very impressive as Valeris utilizing subtly in her performance, and striking a fine chemistry with Nimoy especially. Not to mention, there’s plenty of fun dialogue and moments throughout. The film lightly pokes fun at Kirk with the scenes opposite the shape-shifting Martia on Rura Penthe who continually seduces Kirk’s trust, and the brute of an alien that Kirk fights in the prison. Even Kirk fighting Martia after she takes Kirk’s form harkens back to the original series episode The Enemy Within. There, Kirk was split in two by a transporter accident, and he does battle with himself. These bits pay tribute to classic Trek moments and Kirk traits for this, the twenty-fifth anniversary, without betraying the film’s tone in anyway. Star Trek VI has plenty of character building moments for James T. Kirk as he comes to terms with his prejudice and resistance to peace. Spock gets a few moments of depth and growth, primarily with Valeris and Kirk. The Undiscovered Country has a wealth of great qualities which both vastly succeeded in their potential, but also some that didn’t quite get developed as deeply as they could have been.
The visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic are some of the best of the film franchise. Granted, the floating CGI blood in the zero gravity sequence leaves a little to be desired, but it’s certainly up to the standards of 1991’s other big special effects in Terminator 2. Of course, I believe phaser fire should cauterize a wound, and not allow blood to go gushing out like this is a slasher film. All other effects are superb. The model work on all the ships is amazingly detailed holding up to great scrutiny, and being photographed beautifully. The Praxis shockwave is a stunning feast for the eyes that starts the film off on a powerful note. All the way through, you can see the remarkable quality that ILM was worth, and what Star Trek V was lacking without their talents.
With previous franchise composers James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith both turning down this project for their own vehement reasons, Meyer had to seek out someone new to provide a musical landscape for this darker toned film. Cliff Eidelman delivered something right on the money. It’s certainly not the rousing fanfares of old, but surely appropriate for the heavier subject matter and dangerous implications of the story. He nicely throws in the right lighter cues at the perfect moments. When Kirk and Spock have a discussion just before the third act, Eidelman brings out a poignant, warm feeling in his score. His work complements the film’s various dramatic facets beautifully, and the film concludes with a gorgeous composition that sends the original crew out with class and style.
I find it difficult to express a counter-balance to my criticisms to support my opinion in that this is still a good movie. I will never deny that is, but I think it succeeds only well enough instead of exceeding where it could have. Simply put, what I’m saying about Star Trek VI is that it is a good film that still had plenty of room for improvement. It’s themes are smart and topical for the time, and still have some resonance today. Peace is a difficult thing to strive for, and some people are more comfortable with continuing to be at war with a lifelong enemy than try to learn to co-exist with them in peace. These are ideals that primarily Kirk has to deal with and overcome, and that is the best handled thing about this entire movie. While there has been a lot of criticism in this review, it’s simply to point out that many of the good aspects of this movie could have been great, if given more time to fully develop them at the script level. As I said, I have felt as if there was something lacking in this movie, and in short, that something was a lack of tension and urgency in the plot as well as a need for more substance added into many of the newly introduced characters. It has great, strong subject matter which felt like a necessary story to be told in the annals of Star Trek, but for as much as you can read into them, there’s just as much that didn’t end up on the page or the screen to flesh out those details. This is a movie I still like very much, and I think it is a respectable send-off for the original cast of Star Trek. I give it a very strong recommendation. Again, being that it was the first Trek film I ever saw, I think this is one that could draw you into the franchise, and show you it does have substance and relevance to offer.
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.
The Omen is one of those classic horror films that has received vast amounts of praise over the years. It was widely heralded upon release, and gained a powerful reputation of horror since then. It’s also a film that I have never paid much attention to. I’ve watched it a time or two before, owned the DVD for years, but it’s never really stuck with me. Six years ago, a remake was released that was almost a carbon copy, but I recall it having some things I liked about it. Still, I always felt that both versions came off about equal, in their own ways, but that’s an old assessment. So, on this Halloween, I have decided to take a fair look at both films to judge them apart from and against one another. Which one do I prefer? Which one does it better? I hope I will have an answer at the end of these two reviews.
Robert and Katherine Thorn (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) seem to have it all. They are happily married, and he is the US Ambassador to Great Britain, but they want more than to have children. When Katharine has a stillborn child, Robert is approached by a priest at the hospital who suggests that they take a healthy newborn whose mother has just died in childbirth. Without telling his wife, he agrees. Years later, after relocating to London, strange events – and the ominous warnings of a priest – lead Robert Thorn to believe that the child he took from that Italian hospital is evil incarnate. The Ambassador is approached by photojournalist Keith Jennings (David Warner) with startling evidence that supports the claims of Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton). From there, both Thorn and Jennings must take a journey to uncover the truth.
After watching this, what I find striking is that, despite all the great talents and potentially ripe subject matter at hand, this film made barely any impact on me at all. I can tell you that the film starts me off on the wrong foot with a score that is way too overbearing and obvious, but I will get to that, in depth, later on. It sets the wrong mood for me right out the gate telling me this is not a film of subtlety, but one of shock moments and broad strokes. Turns out, that’s exactly what I got.
Early on, there is an extreme lack of suspense or setup to dramatic or horrifying moments such as the nanny’s hanging. It just happens without any buildup of anticipation or tension, and the traumatic potential is barely dealt with in the aftermath. Events that should have adverse emotional effects on the characters don’t seem to have lasting impacts. Even before that, there’s a wholly unnecessary scene where the Thorns are just walking along, and then, freak out when they don’t see Damien trailing behind them. The score goes melodramatic for a few seconds before they find Damien unharmed just standing around. The moment served no purpose whatsoever, and it was even handled in a very clunky manner. The film doesn’t take its time to craft suspense to setup an audience for the chilling moments of horror. It just sort of drops them in front of you like a bag of bricks.
The thing The Omen really seemed to not take advantage of is building a looming aura. While there are moments which are strongly implied as being supernatural, that feeling is just fleeting. We are never given a lasting sense that there is a subversive, sinister force weaving its way through the background. The film also seemed to lack a natural flow of events in its long first act, and partly because of this, it takes nearly forever to build an atmosphere or sense of perceived direction. It takes nearly half the film until there’s even a sustained sense of dread or momentum for more than one scene. In the second half, for a very long stretch of time, Damien’s not even present for the threat of what he is to be sustained. There’s a simple rule in good storytelling which is “show, don’t tell.” The film takes more time telling us about what Damien is instead of showing us. Anything we are shown feels too disjointed due to that lack of natural flow in the story. Also, I certainly have no qualms about a slow burning film, but it takes until almost the one hour mark before anyone gets motivated into the action of the plot. Until then, it sort of meanders along with mysterious and murderous things happening, but no one really doing anything in light of them.
This happens when Jennings begins to convey the foreboding details behind Damien. The notes of Father Brennan about the child, and the startling evidence of the photographs are revealed to Robert Thorn. These are interesting moments which actually do nicely give us insight into the truth of the matter. Yet, it could have been used to actually create a foreboding atmosphere of terrible dread and urgency, but there’s barely any atmosphere in this film at all. I never got a sense of impending doom or urgency at any point in time. The film becomes so focused on the origins of Damien and what needs to be done about him, almost no time it spent exploring what he’s capable of. While surely the son of Satan shouldn’t be allowed to live, no time is devoted to conveying what he himself will do if not stopped. There are obviously forces around Damien causing all this death and tragedy, but he’s barely done anything threatening. All we get are people repeating the Bible passage about “from the eternal sea he rises,” but no one bothers to translate that into terms a regular person can understand. It is never put into a real world context.
The priest’s death is a tad ridiculous as he just stands there for several long seconds, waiting for the spire to fall and impale him. There’s more than enough time for him to run away from it, but he just stands there. If I look up and see something falling from several stories high about to hit me, I lunge out of the way. This isn’t nitpicky. This is challenging the intelligence of the filmmaking on display. There are any number of better ways to have plotted out and edited that scene for more immediate impact. At times, such as this one, the filmmakers try to overdramatize these death scenes. Other times, they under dramatize them to where they have almost no impact at all. If you want a better example of these sorts of deaths done better, just look at the Final Destination films.
I dearly love the work of the late Jerry Goldsmith. He was a magnificent composer. However, when it comes to The Omen, I don’t think I’ve heard a score more devoid of subtlety in my life. Every single music cue is loud, verbose, and melodramatic to the point of it being obtrusive. It treats nearly every moment as the biggest dramatic, climactic moment in the film. It’s well composed, powerful music, but it’s just too over-the-top for my tastes. It just bludgeons your ears with music. Moments that are shot and executed with a lot of suspenseful tension are ruined by the blunt instrument of the bombastic score. People have praised this score as having made the film more terrifying for them. For me, it kills the mood time and time again, and tries to force more drama upon you than the scene calls for.
Gregory Peck was an immensely acclaimed actor, but I’m a little divided on his performance here. He does have a very good presence conveying a hefty weight of drama. However, I feel he overacts in a few too many scenes. He exaggerates the drama or horror of the moment a little too much, pulling the film out of its grounded sensibilities. It’s another aspect of the film that could’ve used some more subtlety. Following further down that path, actor Patrick Troughton pushes his performance as Father Brennan way too over the top into bad B-grade movie territory. It’s a one dimensional crazy man who is very hard to take seriously.
On the other hand, as always, I think David Warner is excellent. He’s one of the finest character actors around, and he really handles the role of Jennings with grace and urgency. I don’t think I’ve ever seen David Warner not give a good performance, and here, he really shows the value and quality he’s consistently brought throughout his career. Also, Billie Whitelaw is exceptionally good as Mrs. Baylock. She is effectively creepy with a definite psychotic edge, and a pair of fiercely evil, chilling eyes. I wouldn’t want that woman roaming around my house.
Harvey Stephens does a fine job as Damien giving him a rather exhuberant fascination that implies his evil. Although, that evil never really manifests in a knowing way. It’s more of a screenwriting issue that Damien himself isn’t very active in the plot. Regardless of that, Harvey mixes both the innocence of a child with an underlying, evil nature. You can tell there is something not right about the child, and that is effective enough for what the filmmakers were going for.
Unfortunately, I was left with a blank impression of Lee Remick. She has so very little to do as Katherine Thorn that I just have nothing to say about her performance other than it was okay. Normally, if I have nothing to say, I say nothing, but I thought it was important to mention this as it ties into a lack of emotional depth in the movie. That is something I will touch on, again, later.
The effects work is a slightly mixed bag. Most of the death scenes have very impressive and somewhat elaborate effects. The decapitation was especially well done. On the bad side, while people were amazed by the shot of Lee Remick’s fall from the balcony at the time of release, today, it looks comical. It’s more like something from a parody of the movie than an actual effect to take seriously. It has absolutely no realistic quality or impact at all. What would’ve improved it is shooting it at a slower frame to generate more motion blur, and thus, creating a sense of velocity and visceral impact. Richard Donner might’ve been going for a slow motion approach, but it clearly wasn’t shot in slow motion, just performed in slow motion. Also, the prosthetic make-up on the burned priest is very primitive by even the standards of the day. It’s terribly unimpressive work. These are only minor gripes, but the film doesn’t have a lot of make-up or visual effects to comment on. That’s neither a good or bad thing, just a statement of fact.
Another real problem I have with this film is that no one is scared out of their minds at any point. I mean, it is the Anti-Christ, the son of Satan they are dealing with, but never did I feel like anyone was in dreadful fear over this reality. At least in The Exorcist, the characters were petrified by the fact that they were facing down a demon, and their fear really carried the weight of urgency and threat in that film. Here, the closest we get is our final moments with Jennings as he tries to convince Robert Thorn that Damien is no innocent child, and that he should be destroyed. Even then, it’s more a matter of conviction than fright There is such a lack of emotional depth present in this movie which results in a very mild sense of fear. This is aside from something like the dogs attacking Thorn and Jennings in the cemetery. I’m referring to people having a deathly serious fear about Damien. The characters are more afraid of Mrs. Baylock, the psycho nanny, than the actual spawn of the Devil. To me, that seems really, really backwards. He might only be a small child, but if the kid is supposed to be perceived as apocalyptically dangerous, I think our fear should be directed towards him, instead.
While the film does have its potentially shocking moments of brutality and death, I think the scary qualities are entirely religious based, and I have no such beliefs. I watched this film waiting for it to give me something to be scared or tense about, but nothing ever came. Even the climax, aside from the violent confrontation with Mrs. Baylock, lacks a driving sense of dramatic intensity. It would seem that the subject matter is what scared audiences, not so much the execution of the ideas. I don’t think the style of filmmaking holds up thirty-six years later. While it’s rather well shot and edited, which I give much credit for to Gilbert Taylor and Stuart Baird, respectively, there’s just a lack of plot cohesion and momentum in The Omen. This film had talents who were masters at their crafts from Taylor and Baird to Goldsmith, Peck, and Donner, but maybe, this wasn’t the right material for some of them to tackle. Richard Donner tried to convince himself he was making a psychological suspense thriller instead of a horror movie, apparently because thinking of it as a horror movie made it uninteresting to him. Obviously, I can’t help but take a serious issue with that point of view. Yet, what he was trying to make was indeed a horror movie, and I don’t think it’s really his forte as a director. He knew how to shock an audience, but demonstrated no ability to even attempt to craft suspense. I think it just comes down to subtlety. It takes no skill to shock an audience. To genuinely scare them through atmosphere and suspense requires quite a lot.
Honestly, I didn’t expect The Omen to hit me as this blunt and shallow of a film, and I know there are going to be people reading this shocked at this severe criticism considering the film’s status as a “classic.” However, no art should ever stand on reputation alone. Time is not kind to all movies, and some do not stand that test of it. Not to mention, for someone who has no religious beliefs, I need more than just the ideas this film presents to scare me. You’ve got to work at it. You’ve got to earn it, and this film didn’t try hard enough. The only thing that did stick with me over the years about the movie were my issues with the score, and so, I did go into the film bracing myself for that. Still, I was willing to give the score a chance to showcase some subtlety, some grace, but there was next to none where it counted. I really wanted this film to give me something impressive, something that really grabbed me, but it gave me nothing. I was almost wholly underwhelmed by the 1976 version of The Omen. At this point, I cannot fathom why I even own this movie beyond the fact that I have it in a beautiful steelbook DVD case. The creepiest thing in the movie is the last shot of the movie, and I do mean by a very wide margin.