I don't know this for certain, but I strongly suspect this particular review is requested in the hope that somehow, in some way, this poorly-reviewed William Shatner film might be rehabilitated in popular imagination. For instance, requests for a review of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier spiked after my positive review of The Motion Picture. My supposition thus leads me to believe that a lot of Star Trek fans must -- secretly? -- enjoy the oft-derided fifth film, and are seeking valid, well-enunciated arguments in support of it.
I can relate to that. Big time.
After all, I am a Star Trek fan, and can see the silver-lining in every Star Trek movie. So I am happy to enumerate the aspects I appreciate and admire about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
However, for the record, it is also necessary for me to note where and when things go dramatically wrong with the movie. So -- to quote Joss Whedon -- this review isn't going to be all "hugs and puppies."
That fact established there are indeed many components of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier worth lauding and I will explain in detail below why I feel that way.
Let's start, however, with a brief re-cap of the plot. The fifth Star Trek picks up with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew on vacation on Earth -- in the paradise-like setting of Yosemite -- when a dangerous hostage situation unfolds in the Neutral Zone. There, on Nimbus III -- on the "planet of Galactic Peace" -- a Vulcan renegade named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken hostage the Romulan, Klingon and Federation counsels. He has done so with an army of devout "believers." Sybok's gambit is to capture a starship so he can set a course for the center of the Galaxy and find the mythical planet Sha Ka Ree (named after Sean Connery), where he believes "God" awaits.
An unprepared U.S.S. Enterprise, with only a skeleton crew aboard, is assigned to rescue the hostages. The attempt fails, and Sybok commandeers the Enterprise using his particular brand of Vulcan brainwashing to persuade the crew to follow him. In particular, he frees each man he encounters of his "secret pain." Kirk soon learns that Sybok is Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) half-brother, a heretic who rejected Vulcan dogma and came to believe that emotion, not logic, is the key to enlightenment.
With a Klingon bird of prey in hot pursuit, the Enterprise passes through the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy and encounters a mysterious planet. There, on the surface, awaits a creature who claims to be "God." Kirk questions the Being, and soon a vision of Heaven goes to Hell.
From Captain Kirk's effort to climb El Capitan at Yosemite National Park in the film's first scene to Sybok's probe through the foreboding and mysterious Great Barrier, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier concerns, in large part, a typically-Star Trek conceit: the human quest to reach a higher summit and to find at that apex a new or deeper truth about our existence.
When Mr. Spock asks Kirk why he would involve himself in an endeavor as dangerous as climbing a mountain, Kirk answers simply, "because it's there." That's a simplistic but apt shorthand to describe one of our basic human drives. What our eyes detect, we want to explore, to experience. Enlightenment, for us, is often attained on the next plateau.
Sybok terms his search for "God" the search for the "ultimate knowledge" and he too seeks to climb a mountain after a fashion: penetrating the Great Barrier which protects a secret at the center of our galaxy. The means by which Sybok conducts his quest are not entirely kosher, however (kidnapping diplomats and hijacking a starship). But his quest, though coupled with his vanity, is sincere. An outcast among his Vulcan brethren, Sybok believes that if he can "locate" God, his beliefs will be validated, and thus perhaps re-examined by those who made him a pariah.
At one point late in the film, Kirk seems to suddenly realize that Sybok and he share a similar drive; that he has stubbornly refused Sybok the same liberty he affords himself, not merely to "go climb a rock," but to see, literally, what awaits at the mountain-top. Upon this realization, Kirk gazes knowingly at an old-fashioned captains' wheel in the Enterprise's observation deck. His hand brushes across a bronze plaque engraved with the legend "Where No Man Has Gone Before," a re-iteration of the franchise's "bold," trademark phrase. In a world where so many sci-fi movies depend on black-and-white portrayals of "good" and "evil," it's quite bold that The Final Frontier actually establishes a connection --- and one involving the meaning of life itself -- between protagonist and antagonist.
While discussing Shatner, I should also add -- no doubt controversially -- that Shatner boasts a fine eye for visual composition. The opening scene on the cracked, arid plain of Nimbus III, and the follow-up scene set at Yosemite reveal that he has an eye not just for capturing natural beauty, but for utilizing the full breadth of the frame. As a director, Shatner came out of television (helming episodes of T.J. Hooker), but his visual approach doesn't suggest a TV mentality. On the contrary, I would argue that there are moments in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that are the most inherently cinematic of the film series, after Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Abrams' big-budget reboot of 2009.
On the first front, William Shatner sought initially to make a serious, even bloody movie concerning fanatical religious cults and God imagery. His plan was shit-canned in large part, by Paramount Studios. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) had just proven a major success, and the Powers That Be judged this was so because the movie evidenced a terrific sense of humor, particularly fish-out-of-water humor. The edict came down that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had to include the same level of humor.
Frankly, this edict was the kiss of death. The humor in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home grew organically out of the situation: advanced people of the 23rd century being forced to deal with people and activities of the "primitive" year 1986. The scenario there called for fish-out-of-water humor, and no characters were sacrificed on the altar of laughs.
Above, I described the thematic principles of Star Trek V: seeking the ultimate summit both externally and internally, and discovering that the Divine is inside us -- or is, actually, the Human Heart. So how exactly, does Scotty knocking himself out on a ceiling beam, or Uhura performing a fan dance, or Chekov rehashing his "wessel" shtick fit that conceit?
The short answer is that it doesn't. Such humor had to be grafted on here, and it shows. It's forced, awkward, and entirely unnecessary. The inclusion of so much humor actually runs counter to the grandeur and seriousness of the story Shatner hoped to tell.
And then -- in a typical bout of bean-counter nonsense -- what does Paramount do next? Well, it advertises and markets Star Trek V: The Final Frontier with the ad-line "why are they putting seat belts in theaters this summer?" suggesting that the movie is an action-packed roller-coaster ride! This is after they demanded the movie be a comedy! Talk about assuring audience dissatisfaction. Tell audiences that the movie they are about to see is super-exciting and action-packed, and then give them Vulcan nerve-pinches on horses, Uhura and Scotty flirting with each other, and crewmen singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Quite simply, The Final Frontier's marketing campaign didn't do a good job of managing audience expectations.
The second aspect of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that damages it so egregiously involves the special visual effects. A movie like this -- about the search for God, no less -- must feature absolutely inspiring and immaculate, awesome visuals. We must believe in the universe that includes Sha Ka Ree, and the God Creature.
Perhaps Star Trek V could have surmounted this problem, since the TV series was never about special effects anyway, but about ideas. But the special effects in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier fail to even adequately render believable and "real" such commonplace Star Trek things as starships in motion or photon torpedo blasts. Watching Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a little bit like watching Golan and Globus's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1986): the cheapness of the effects make you wince, and stands in stark contrast to a franchise's glory days.
And the editing! Oh my, to quote Mr. Sulu.
Forget the script (which might have worked without the studio-demanded humor). Forget the acting (which is pure Star Trek ham bone -- and, in my estimation, perfect for a futuristic passion play), it's the editing that scuttles this film. Whether it's allowing us the time to notice that Sybok's haircut and outfit change on Sha Ka Ree, or permitting us to linger too long on visible wires in two fight scenes, Star Trek V's cutting is just not up to par.
There's a Star Trek fan out there on the Net who has taken it upon himself to re-edit Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and you know something? It's a worthy enterprise. Preferably, Shatner should do a director's cut, and trim his misbegotten film down to a mean, lean eighty-five minutes. The worst editing, effects, and jokey moments would be excised, and audiences would be surprised, perhaps, how visually adroit, how dynamic, how meaningful and even spiritual this Final Frontier could be sans the theatrical release's considerable problems.
Let's face it, modern criticism often thrives on hyperbole, so it's fun and dramatic to declare that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is one of the ten worst science fiction films EVER! The only problem is, it's not necessarily true.
Whereas, by contrast, the details in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier definitely draw heavier scrutiny. The "bad movie" snowball, once rolling down a hill, just grows larger and larger. We forgive less and less. Every aspect of the film is nitpicked and called into question, deservedly or not. It becomes harder, then, to register and recognize the good.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an ambitious failure. But ambitious may be the operative word here. The movie certainly aimed high, and hoped to chart some fascinating spiritual and philosophical ground that feels abundantly true to the Star Trek line and heritage.