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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
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Director William Shatner makes his feature film début with this fifth installment of the uneven but impressively durable Star Trek series. His character, Captain James T. Kirk, has commanded the Starship Enterprise through many adventures on the big and small screen. And since his co-star Leonard Nimoy directed the last two Trek pictures, Shatner’s contract mandated he would be given a shot at the next one. Like his acting, Shatner’s movie isn’t what one might call “good,” but it’s somehow all the more entertaining because of an abundance of confidence that makes up for the lack of depth, nuance, and polish. The three previous Trek films were loosely connected around a compelling narrative through-line and rich thematic concepts of mortality and extinction, renewal and rebirth. The end of the preceding movie, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, returned the original crew in their original ranks to their iconic starship where they boldly set forth on another exploratory mission. It was a perfect finale to the surprisingly coherent, unintentional trilogy that began with the second (and still greatest) entry, Star Trek Two: The Wrath of Kahn. But Paramount Pictures did not want to close down this inexpensive and highly profitable franchise, and the aging cast had no desire to stop acting in the only major roles anyone was offering them. So the question arose: how do you continue a series that ended on such a high note?

There were two directions the producers could choose. They could begin a new trilogy in the hopes of equaling or topping the first one. This would be unlikely as the previous three Trek movies had come together through that unengineerable alignment of timing, talent, financial necessity, audience appetite, ego, and pragmatism Hollywood occasionally engenders, which earns it the nickname “The Magic Store.” But that type of synergistic lightning rarely strikes twice. The more sensible option, which Shatner and producer Harve Bennett pursued, was to return to the self-contained stories that made the original Star Trek TV show so popular. And while Star Trek V bears the conclusionary subtitle of The Final Frontier, it feels more like the first in a new succession of one-off movies that are lighter and less epic in scope than the first four.

The story centers on a renegade half-Vulcan mystic named Sybok who commandeers the Enterprise and attempts a voyage through the Great Barrier at the end of the universe in the hope of reaching the place where all life begins. But the new Enterprise isn’t really up to the task. Turns out it was hastily rebuilt and in need of Chief Engineer Scott’s magic touch. So the movie opens with the crew on extended shore leave while the ship is made more spaceworthy. This enables each of the much-loved leading and supporting players to have nice character-based scenes, but it renders the first act slow and meandering. Things pick up a bit when the maybe-mad-but-perhaps-visionary Sybok takes Kirk and his crew hostage. Unfortunately, by the time we all discover what lies at the end of the universe, the narrative and the picture have run out of gas (or dilithium crystal power).

What hobbles Star Trek V isn’t Shatner’s directing per se, it’s that Paramount didn’t have enough confidence in Shatner as a director—or in the story he, Bennett, and screenwriter David Loughery came up with—to give the movie the budget required to make it work. After the runaway success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which crossed over into the mainstream more than any prior Trek film, and grossed well over five times its $21 million cost, you’d think the studio might have been willing to take more of a risk. In all fairness, the novice filmmaker Shatner did get the biggest budget of any Trek movie since the first one, which was helmed by legendary studio director Robert Wise. But Star Trek V is the first entry in the series that looks cheap. I’m not sure where the money for this movie went, but it isn’t visible on screen.

Wise’s entry, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, featured amazing special effects by the likes of Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, but their visual work overpowered the narrative, and the out-of-control budget nearly sank the picture. When Paramount turned Star Trek over to Bennett, who came from episodic TV, the mandate was to make a good but cheap product. The savvy Bennett and the cocky, inventive director he hired, Nicholas Meyer, made the stripped-down budget work to their advantage and created one of the best sequels of all time, and one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made—Star Trek Two: The Wrath of Kahn (which is one of my twenty favorite films). While it would be impossible to top Kahn, its less-than-stellar follow-up Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, also looks terrific considering its minuscule budget—the early involvement of noted effects company Industrial Light & Magic enabled a wealth of impressive sequences for a fraction of the typical costs. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home focused most of its story on Earth, thus requiring few impressive special effects shots.

For Star Trek V, Paramount opted for a less costly alternative to Industrial Light & Magic (whose best artists and technicians were busy with other 1989 blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II). The studio went with the small, New York-based effects company Associates and Ferren—a commercial house that specialized in live effects for rock concerts and Broadway shows, and had little cinematic experience outside of Ken Russell’s Altered States (1990) and Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors (1986). They were also given only three months to complete all the work—an absurdly short amount of time for a movie like this. Thus, the effects in Star Trek V feel positively amateurish. The spaceships look like they’re made of cardboard, and the initial tests for the climactic rock-monster fight sequence Shatner had envisioned looked so bad the whole idea was scrapped. [One can only wonder what Shatner must have thought 10 years later when CGI technology had advanced so far that his rock-monster concept appeared as a comical set-piece in the hilarious sci-fi send-up Galaxy Quest].

But for all its weaknesses, Star Trek V is not the worst entry in this series—it is far more entertaining than Star Trek: The Motion Picture. One reason is the humor. After the success of Star Trek IV, in which so much is played for laughs you’d think the plot would lose all credibility, it became clear that audiences would reward Star Trek for being funny (something that’s been true ever since “The Trouble with Tribbles,” a lightweight episode from the original TV show that became a fan favorite). The creative team made sure to provide ample opportunity for laughs in this latest adventure. And by now the cast and characters were so well established, it was easy to write amusing banter and situations where they would shine. Indeed Star Trek V’s trailer is a laugh riot that got viewers who were skeptical of Shatner’s abilities very excited about seeing the film.

The antagonists—Sybok, played by Laurence Luckinbill (The Boys in the Band, Cocktail) and a bunch of Klingons who seem like they walked out of a ‘80s fitness gym with a disco theme and a well-stocked bar—never provide any real threat. The other supporting characters are even more forgettable— talents like David Warner and Bill Quinn are both frustratingly wasted in underwritten roles. But each of the regulars gets many moments to shine, and for Trek fans, that should be enough. Likewise, Trekies should also find something appealing about the small scale and leisurely pacing of the script. If you love spending time with Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy then you will enjoy seeing them on a camping trip in Yosemite National Park, even though these early scenes come across a little forced. Make no mistake, this movie is a bit of a trainwreck, but at least the ride is amusing almost all the way through.  

Twitter Capsule:
Shatner’s laughably unbalanced feature début may be a mess, but it's not the worst entry in this durable series. Loughery’s script provides ample (in fact too much!) room for all the characters to shine.

Directed by William Shatner
Produced by Harve Bennett

Screenplay by David Loughery
Story by William Shatner, Harve Bennett, and David Loughery

With: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, David Warner, Laurence Luckinbill, Todd Bryant, and Spice Williams

Cinematography: Andrew Laszlo
Editing: Peter E. Berger
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

Runtime: 107 min
Release Date: 09 June 1989
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1