I had heard such awful things about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. William Shatner was promised the director's chair after he reprised his role in Star Trek IV, but he didn't just direct; he had a big hand in writing the thing (apparently due to a writer's strike). As I placed the dreaded blu-ray disk into my player, waited anxiously for the menu to appear, and apprehensively pushed the play button, I was starting to sweat a bit. Is this the end? Am I about to watch Star Trek as I know it go down in flames through a series of horrible slapstick bits, campfire sing-alongs, and god-awful visual effects? Kill me now! Just end it here!
Good thing I had low-as-dirt expectations, because it really wasn't that bad. The story is coherent, the characters never stray too far from their established personalities, and the music by the returning Jerry Goldsmith is excellent as usual. When I say the story is coherent, I mean it makes sense within the context of the film, not that it's especially good. And make no mistake; this is the weakest film in the series, right below The Motion Picture. In fact, it has all the opposite problems of The Motion Picture, whereas that film had no comedy, color, or fun, The Final Frontier tries too hard to be funny and colorful. However, it often mistakes corniness for charm, which is oh-so grating.
We catch up with the crew of the Enterprise, having been fully reinstated to their old positions after their world-saving actions in The Voyage Home (Kirk is demoted from Admiral to Captain, Spock is first officer, etc). Kirk (Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and McCoy (DeForest Kelly) are on shore leave, camping at Yosemite National Park (and doing some stupidly dangerous rock-climbing as well). They are called back because (get your surprised face ready) there's a hostage crisis and the Enterprise is the only ship close enough to respond to the emergency on the planet Nimbus III. When the crew assembles, including Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei), Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Scotty (James Doohan), they arrive at Nimbus III to find that the hostage situation was a hoax, and the crew is now at the mercy of a man named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill). He is an infamous Vulcan who believed that the ways of their ancestors, savage and emotion-driven, was the key to self knowledge, and he's gained a strong cult following. He's on a quest to find the physical manifestation God (I think), and he believes that on a planet known as Sha Ka Ree he will find the answers he is looking for. But, wait! There's more! Sybok is also revealed to be... SPOCK'S HALF BROTHER (insert soap opera organ here).
Actually, one of my favorite parts about The Final Frontier is Sybok. He's so positively un-Vulcan in his mannerisms that it only makes sense why Spock would be ashamed of him, and consequently, would never have mentioned him to his best friends. Sybok mind-melds with people and psychologically lifts their mental pain, including emotional scars from past trauma. There's a really great scene where Sybok melds with McCoy to reveal something that he's always regretted; he pulled the plug on his dying father, and shortly after, the cure to the disease his father had was found. It was a really powerful scene that shows us a side of McCoy we rarely see, him some unexpected character development (it makes no sense how the other people in the room can see the memory...but I digress). I see Sybok as a stand-in for cult leaders that get people to commit group suicide; he's very charming and offers people hope, but where he's ultimately leading people is deeply twisted. Shatner wanted to represent the fraud of televangelists, and I think he did a good job.
Something else I really liked was the running theme about how people's pain and experiences make them who they are. It's something that Kirk says multiple times, and it definitely feels like a topic that could have gotten its own episode during the show's initial run. What gives the theme added resonance is Kirk's newest pain, the loss of his son. While Shatner definitely writes Kirk to be the main character of the film, he does give the others things to do; this is definitely in keeping with the Enterprise crew's group dynamic seen in the last few movies. Unfortunately, that spells comedic disaster for some of the crew members.
Uhura gets the worst of it for sure. In order to distract the guards on Nimbus III, Kirk devises a genius plan to distract the guards BY MAKING UHURA GET NAKED AND SING WHILE HOLDING LEAVES ON HER PRIVATE PARTS. I wasn't offended, exactly, but I did think to myself, "What the hell am I even watching?" It was awkward and stupid and unnecessary. Other random things like Scotty cartoonishly banging his head into a wall, the men singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat while camping, and the slapstick antics while the new Enterprise if falling apart are flat-out painful. I'd love to see the Enterprise gang going camping, just not hosting a sing-along for kindergarteners. The Voyage Home set the standard for comedy in a Star Trek film, but The Final Frontier fails to live up to it in every regard. The story is needlessly padded as well, featuring Klingon hostiles that never take the film to any interesting place, making their presence feel extremely superfluous. However, these issues only sinks the film so far.
What really undoes any credibility the film might have had are its really terrible special effects and its moments of horrible editing. Due to the fact that ILM was too busy (and cost too much), The Final Frontier's visual effects were handled by smaller, lesser known houses. Don't think I'm knocking new talent; these effects companies were old fashioned, in a bad way. Embarrassing rear-projection, reused shots from the previous films, Klingons that look like Klingon cosplayers, one too many shots of an obvious stunt double for Shatner during the mountain climbing scene, the horrible, wobbly compositing effect on the image of "God" at the end... all these little aesthetic elements and cheap production values rob the movie of believability and are laughable by the standards set by the other films. And don't get me started on the editing during the scene where Kirk, Spock, and McCoy go rocketing up an elevator shaft, passing the same floors several times. Just. Awful.
Expectations make up big part of how one will enjoy a film. In my experience, to really judge something objectively, it's best to have no expectations; watch the film as it is, not as a comparison of what you thought it would be. However, Star Trek V is a movie that you MUST watch with low expectations, or else you just can't enjoy it. I got a lot of enjoyment out of it, even though it's impossible to deny that it's a pretty bad movie. Definitely the worst in the series thus far into my Star Trekking, but not quite the dog shit I was prepared for. All I can say is that I'm glad I got it over with and I'm pretty excited to move on to Star Trek VI (mostly because, for once, I have absolutely no idea what it's about).