They say if you stare too long, into the abyss, it will stare back into you. Watching Star Trek V: The Final Frontier makes the viewer acutely aware of the accuracy of that statement, except the abyss is William Shatner, believing he is a good director and very desperately hoping he can convince you he is as well.
The fifth mainline Star Trek feature film is something of an odd beast, to say the least. After Leonard Nimoy directed the third and fourth films, Shatner invoked a clause in his Paramount contract giving him the right to direct the next film in the series and have a say in its story. Paramount braced themselves for the experience and it was a heady one, with Shatner proposing a story where the crew of the Enterprise are forced to travel to a planet in search of God but instead discover the Devil pretending to be God, and are caught in a cosmic battle between good and evil. Aware they were under a contractual restraint, Paramount executives put the story into development, managing to convince Harve Bennett (producer on the second through fourth films) to return to help guide - or make filmable - the "ambitious" project. Bennett realised that Shatner had become fascinated by the idea of televangelists, particularly corrupt ones who conned people into giving them money by promising them a place in the promised land. Script rewrites with David Loughery developed the idea that there was no real God or the Devil in the story, and instead an imprisoned alien entity would pretend to be God to try to hitch a ride on the Enterprise out of its prison.
With this new story in place - one less likely to get the franchise blacklisted by Christians - and the cast signed up (Nimoy stoically agreeing to return as a professional courtesy to his colleague Shatner, but frantically encouraging rewrites behind the scenes) things were in a promising place for perhaps a watchable movie. But The Final Frontier immediately ran into a series of big problems: Paramount decided to rush-release the film to hit the summer 1989 market rather than wait until Christmas; additional rewrites designed to iron out the remaining script problems were halted by the 1988 Writer's Strike; and Industrial Light and Magic and most of the other big Hollywood effects companies were fully booked with projects like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II and Tim Burton's Batman. The only effects company available on short notice were, how shall we say, "not very good" and inexperienced, wasting a huge amount of the film's not-ungenerous budget (half again that of The Voyage Home) on test shots that went nowhere.
So, whilst Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a diabolical mess of a movie with awful visual effects, major script problems and leaden direction, it's unfair to blame all of this on the film's director and star. In fact, the film has a reasonable amount of merit to it. It's the only film in the franchise to follow the TV show's lead and focus extremely closely on the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship, the emotional core of the original series. With Shatner clearly exhausted from pulling double duty as director, and Nimoy giving arguably the most phoned-in performance of his career (there are a few scenes where you can see Nimoy's soul vacating his body during some of his line readings), it falls on DeForest Kelley to emerge as the film's most valuable player. He adds charm and wit to the campfire scenes at the start of the movie, and the scene where he has to relive the death of his father might be McCoy's most challenging emotional scene in the entire franchise, and Kelley rises to the occasion tremendously. James Doohan and Nichelle Nichols have a fair bit to do, for once, and there's an intriguing hint that they're in a relationship, or might be headed that way, which is never really followed up on. Nichols also gets her infamous "fan dance" scene, which remains baffling (and where Uhura got the fans is never disclosed).
On the guest star front, the film lucks out with Laurence Luckinbill, a well-regarded stage actor who very rarely did film or television (Star Trek V is literally his last on-screen starring role). Luckinbill gives a spirited, enthusiastic performance as Sybok, the Vulcan who rejected logic to become a man of faith, very much the televangelist of Shatner's original inspiration. But he's not a lunatic or a fire-and-brimstone preacher, rather a man of charisma, intelligence and tremendous empathy who inspires trust. It's a really hard mix to nail successfully, but Luckinbill succeeds. Other castmembers are also very good, particularly David Warner, Charles Cooper and Cynthia Gouw as the ambassadors to Nimbus III, though they seem to have less screentime than was originally envisaged; Warner and Cooper were later invited back to the franchise, the latter also as a Klingon, possibly to make up for this. The other Klingon villains are a bit one-note, but they're not needed for much more than that.
So having an accomplished guest cast and some great scenes for the established regulars result in some pretty good moments in the film. Unfortunately, the problems elsewhere almost overwhelm the movie. The effects are terrible: back-projection (!) is used for some of the space scenes and other scenes that normally use greenscreen and this does not look very good, at all. Jerry Goldsmith returns for his first soundtrack in the franchise since Star Trek: The Motion Picture and seems to have gotten confused and just reused his score from that film with little in the way of new themes or development. It's the first time in the movie franchise so far that a soundtrack disappoints. The physical effects are also embarrassing. A physical fight between Kirk and a cat-alien on Nimbus III is Doctor Who-on-a-bad-day levels of cringe. The climactic battle on Sh Ka Ree sees Kirk call a photon torpedo - a device which at its lowest level is still basically a tactical nuke - down on his head and it causes almost no damage to the surrounding area. It's all deeply amateur hour, except there's Trek fan films which have more convincing production values.
But the key weaknesses of the film remain the script - even this much-improved one over the demented original story treatment - and Shatner's leaden direction. Although reportedly Shatner was a convivial director on set, even earning the respect of actors he'd annoyed over the years like Doohan and Takei, he doesn't have much sense of pacing or energy, and his shots are often rote. There's little sense of the invention or energy that both Meyer and Nimoy brought to the fore in the preceding three movies. In more than a few scenes, the lifeless takes make you horrifically wonder what the takes were like which weren't used. Mercifully, Paramount have declined Shatner's various offers of a Director's Cut, which is probably for the best.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (*½) is not a great movie, which is a shame because it does have potential. The idea of both individuals and an alien playing on people's faith to manipulate them has a lot of merit, and the character-based interplay between the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is the closest the movies ever get to the TV show. DeForest Kelley might give his franchise-best performance, making up for Shatner and Nimoy (both off their game). But the combination of Shatner's lifeless direction, the absolutely woeful visual effects, a phoned-in musical score and a weak script eventually provides the Enterprise crew with an enemy they cannot overcome.
My brain cannot compute that The Final Frontier, Batman and The Last Crusade were all in the same year. Intuitively, it feels to me as though Frontier must be from 1975, Batman from 1985, and Crusade from... well, maybe not 1995, but at least 1992, say. In how it looks, in how its acted and in how its written, it feels an entire generation younger and fresher than Frontier...
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