Friday, September 26, 2014

Star Trekking: The Undiscovered Country

Before watching the sixth Star Trek film, experiencing the saga was always like looking into a time capsule; regardless of how timeless the stories are, Star Trek (from a production standpoint) always seemed to live comfortably in the years before I was born; the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s.  I could look at the series and films as products of their time or as products ahead of their time.  But now? StarTrek IV: The Undiscovered Country was made in 1991.  I may have been a baby, but I was alive, dammit.  That means that the franchise had been alive for twenty-five years, and despite already spawning a spinoff TV show (The Next Generation), it was still the same at the core; Kirk, Spock and McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew having exciting, dangerous, mysterious, and thought-provoking adventures in space.  But these guys were getting old, and by this sixth film, something feels right, if a bit melancholy, about saying good-bye to them.

We catch up with Captain Sulu (George Takei) as he and the crew of the Excelsior are nearly decimated by a... hang on... Captain Sulu? Excelsior? Oh my, when the hell did Sulu become a captain?! Good for him. Anyway, the Excelsior is nearly destroyed by the shockwave from the surprise explosion of the Klingon moon Praxis.  This throws the balance of life off considerably for the Klingons, leaving their ozone depleted and their energy-producing facilities on Praxis destroyed.  They offer peace with their longtime enemy, the United Federation of Planets, for the sake of their own survival.  As an escort to Earth, the Enterprise crew meets with Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) and his associates, including his daughter Azetbur (Rosanna Desoto) and Chief of Staff, Chang (Christopher Plummer).  However, something goes horribly wrong when it appears that the Enterprise has fired upon the Klingon's Bird of Prey ship in an act of  hostility.  Soon after, the Chancellor is assassinated by two men in space suits, framing Kirk (William Shatner) and McCoy (DeForest Kelly) as possible suspects.  Kirk's son was killed by Klingons in Star Trek III, giving Kirk a reasonable motive for the murder. With so much tension between the Federation and the Klingons, this might just be the spark that ignites all out war.

The Klingons have always been Star Trek's representation of Communists in the real world, drawing the most obvious parallels in the TV series.  This film takes the metaphor a step further by portraying Klingon/Federation relations with undertones of racism and cultural tolerance.  While it may be a bit on-the-nose, I like the way the Enterprise crew positively detests the Klingons based mostly on their customs (including the way they smell and how they eat).  It creates interesting character interactions between the main cast and the Klingons, with an early dinner scene being a standout Trek moment.  Kirk has his reasons to hate them (the death of his son), but overcoming his racism is a major part of his growth in the film.  The characters typically preach about how people have overcome prejudice and racism in their century, yet because the majority agrees, the Klingons are the exception.  It adds a bit of unintentional bigotry to the main characters (actually making them a bit more realistic).

The actors really shine in their last outing as these characters, which is very pleasing to say the least.  While Sulu spends most of the film off screen, his presence is felt whenever he interacts (via monitor) with the rest of the cast.  James Doohan as Scotty, Walter Koenig as Chekov, and Nichelle Nichols as Uhura get their typical supporting roles, but always add a certain something that gives their parts a larger-than-life feel.  This cast is, without a doubt, a family, and by this point it can't help but show. The new helmsman, Valeris (Kim Cattrall), is a welcome newcomer and acts as a Vulcan protégé for Spock.   McCoy and Kirk also get some great moments when they are arrested and taken to the Klingon prison planet as they plan their escape and reflect on everything they've been though together (it also brings about some of the film's funniest scenes).

Leonard Nimoy might just be at his best in The Undiscovered Country.  Allowing himself to accept emotion into his life (to a certain extent), his character is totally rounded out and his arc is complete.  No longer cold and calculating, but warm and rational, Spock seems to be the only character to have no initial prejudice against the Klingons.  He even volunteers the Enterprise crew to escort the Chancellor to Earth.  Spock appears to have a life where he can mix logic and human emotion to achieve true balance; it's just such a great note to leave his character on.  There's even an important theme about racism buried within his relationship with Valeris (one that I also thought was well-explored in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).  There's another kind of racism; believing that because someone belongs to your race or species that they are your ally.  Without spoiling, Spock's  interactions with Valeris later in the film are effectively heart-wrenching.

Nicholas Meyer, who directed The Wrath of Khan and co-wrote The Voyage Home, returns to direct The Undiscovered Country, and wow did I miss him.   Though input was obviously provided by the cast, the studio, Gene Rodenberry and co-writer Denny Martin Flinn, there's something about Meyer's touch in both Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country that just hits the right notes.  There's a style to the mood and direction that is unmistakably unique to both films, and as a result, they are the most dramatically satisfying in the saga while still keeping in with the spirit of the original show.  It's a great looking film too; it's darker than the average Trek movie, and the Enterprise feels more lived-in.  The Klingon prison planet feature some gorgeous cinematography as well, with sweeping shots of the snowy mountains and claustrophobic tightness down in the mines.

It is immediately apparent  that ILM returned to do the visual effects, and it's even more apparent that it's ILM in 1991, because there is some honest to goodness early CGI in this thing!  To give the illusion of zero gravity blood spurting out of wounded Klingons during the assassination, ILM created digital lava-lamp-looking blood and animated it into the scene; an effect that was almost certainly not going to come from any other visual effects studio at the time.  It might be obvious now that it's computer animated blood, but I'm sure in 1991 the effect was positively mesmerizing.  In addition, the space shots, morphing effects, beaming, lasers... everything looks the best it ever had up to this point.  Do I really need to say that it's a major step up from The Final Frontier?  I can't even imagine how the show's original VFX people (people who might as well have had crayons to create laser effects) must have reacted when they saw how far the franchise had come.

Cliff Eidelman provides a dark and exciting score that emits a sense of danger and adventure, and perfectly suits The Undiscovered Country's tone.  The score also contains leitmotifs of the original Star Trek theme song; a pretty smart inclusion, considering this is the soundtrack to what would be the original crew's final mission.  Mind you, I don't think it really compares with Jerry Goldsmith or Jame's Horner's scores, both of which had such memorable themes and ear-meltingly gorgeous instrumentals.  But it definitely works for the movie at hand, and it really is beautiful to listen to even on its own.

What the undiscovered country is, according to the film, is the future.  A bright and peaceful future was important to not only the Klingons and Federation in the film, but to the post-Cold War world as well.  With a taut screenplay that tells a good who-done-it mystery, great character interactions and total commitment from the cast, solid production values and some very poignant Shakespeare references, The Undiscovered Country closes out the original Star Trek series very well and honors its legacy.  Are the characters a bit too racist for the sake of the story?  I don't think so.  The crew has their legitimate reasons for hating the Klingons, and it helps exploit a certain human flaw in all of them despite claiming to live in a world without racism.  The message of the film is about overcoming prejudice, and it's tastefully executed.  I sort of got chills when the camera backed away from the crew to show all of them (except Sulu) sitting at their designated posts, looking out into space one last time.  And the handwritten cast signatures during the main credits? Genius. It's a satisfying conclusion to a wonderful film and television series.


Now on to... the next generation!