Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cosmic Continuum

STAR TREK V: The Final Frontier (1989)


Ten years ago, a Trekkie dream came true, STAR TREK, the 1966 television series became a major motion picture. Watching the film was like having a holiday visit with one's relatives, or getting together with old friends. After the initial joy of seeing the old gang, all together again, up there on the big screen, that 1979 movie, directed by Robert Wise, quickly disintegrated into a sterile trip to the dullest part of the galaxy; just a long sustained series of special effects, for their own sake, and sans plot; pre CGI effects that spewed out ad infinitum over most of the soon slumbering audience (myself included). Yet, when the credits finally rolled, we all forgave Gene Roddenberry for his sophmoric expensive, yet empty, excesses, and simply cheered for the fruition of a fantasy; STAR TREK, the Movie.

Four years later, in 1982, the Sci Fi Restoration seemed to arrive with the release of STAR TREK II: The Wrath of Khan. This film pulled the series back into balance, and firmly back onto the Federation track. Director Nicholas Meyer put together a beautiful film; exciting, funny, and still somewhat challenging...all the things that we fondly remembered about the first two seasons of the original television series. RicardoMontalban reawakened a character, Khan, originally created for a single TV episode, "Space Seed". Khan, quite a formidible advesary, made all the series characters have to shape up, and begin to act like, and function like the crew of old.

Then came the golden age of Star Trek, in 1984 and1986, with the reign of Leonard Nimoy. The stalwart crew searched for Spock, and embarked on the long voyage Home. With Leonard Nimoy at the helm, both films were an artistic and commercial success. He deftly steered the ship from the serio-miasma of a Mozart opera, where Kirk found a long-lost son and Spock was reborn, all the way to a cosmic egological adventure in which our favorite spaceship crew was actually permitted to walk among us. The pace, plot, special effects, music, and editing were all first rate. And more significantly, Nimoy, as a superb actor, never allowed us to catch him directing.

In the year of our Lord, 1989, William Shatner, he of the many hair pieces and ascending ego, has taken his turn sitting in the director's chair, and with a pair of heavy hands on the helm, he has guided us to, STAR TREK V: The Final Frontier.

The opening sequence was well-handled, in which Laurence Luckinbill, a longways from his role in BOYS IN THE BAND, is introduced as the mysterious messianic Vulcan, Sybock; appearing monk-hooded on a blue unicorn out of the swirling dust of the parched planet, Nimbus III. But then unfortunately, we are transported immediately to join the crew of the Enterprise, many of which are on R&R on old Earth in the Yosemite valley.

It becomes immediately evident that William Shatner, and co-writers David Loughery and Harve Bennett, have painted the plot with broad slapstick strokes. It has been reported that Shatner went to Nimoy for advice regarding this shoot. It is a pity that he did not travel back to the well of Spock more often. This might have been a tighter picture if he had. In an early scene, Kirk, Spock, and Bones are sitting around an evening campfire in their Levi 501's and space boots, waxing philosophical about life, comradeship, death, and the cosmos. The scene works magically, even if you try and resist it as fluff, like a well rehearsed Laurel and Hardy routine. These seasoned troupers get a lot of mileage out of all the personal bickering and scatalogical references.

For the first time in the franchise, and for the only time as far as I know, in many scenes there is crude language, almost vaudevillian, or burlesque; a typical naughty words used to shock us, uttered by characters we least expected it from. It is supposed to be humorous, but somehow for me the harsh vernacular seemed inappropriate, even tedious. One recalls the F-words used in the ALIEN series, and in that mileau, it fit. In most modern films, vulgarity is our constant companion. Four letter words proudly and profanely pepper our screens regularly. Most of the time, this is not a problem. After all, what would a Scorsese or a Tarentino film be without the F-word? Not so for the world of Star Trek. Somehow it has always been, and will probably remain, a less lusty science fiction. I know that I risk sounding like a prude, or a purist, but I was flat jarred when Bones cussed out Spock. I did not further the plot, nor did it really help us to more fully understand any of the character's motivations.

Soon Sybock creates havoc on Nimbus III in order to lure a starship into his web. Luckinbill captures three ambassadors [ Klingon, Federation, and Rommulan], who were all but abandoned on that drab outpost. It appeared that along the way, rolling over the editor's table, one of the sub-plots got muddled. The ambassador from the Federation was played by the fine British actor David Warner. As screened, Warner's role is nothing more than a cameo. One gets the nagging feeling that some salient chunks of the plot were trimmed out for expediency.

After the Enterprise is captured, with Sybock giving the orders, it's off at warp speed for a appointment with destiny, a journey beyond the Great Barrier all the way to Eden. Sybock, as Spock later reveals, has spent a lifetime exiled from home and pursuing the most holy of quests; the search for the ultimate truth.

On Eden, Sybock insisted, they would quite probably meet up with God himself; quite a concept. And finally there would be answers for all the questions of the ages. Although Sybock's eventual fate seems arbitrarily handled, this role is the best filmwork that Luckinbill has done in years. Sybock definitely deserves to become a worthy addition to the Star Trek canon of characters.

There are divers events and sub-plots a plenty; Spock and Sybock share a Vulcan secret...a Klingon bird-of-prey warship pursues them through the Great Barrier, where no man, or creature, has gone before...and the Klingon vessel is captained by a blood thirsty warrior who is eager to place the "head of Kirk" on some dark trophy room wall...Nichelle Nichols seems finally ready to declare her love for Scotty...Chekov gets to play Captain...Sulu gets lost on a hike...and Kirk, once again, gets to extol the virtues of imperfect human nature, and he finds himself pitted against both a gallactic Messiah, and yet another omipotent Godhead.

Jerry Goldsmith, one of the finest film musicians around, gave us a muscular score that kept the pace lively. The cinematography by Andrew Laszlo was better than average. But the visual effects done by computer animator wizard Brian Ferrew were hardly adequate. It kind of looked like he was asked to do more with less. And most of the costumes, along with many of the set designs were pedestrian; especially all the things we witnessed in Paradise City on Nimbus III; just more of the MAD MAX/ROAD WARRIOR desert apocalyptic fashions. And hey, haven't we seen that motley intergallactic gang of space hooligans that peopled the saloon a few dozen times before in other features? These creatures are starting to remind me of that tired old gang of extras that showed up all the time in those Republic"B" westerns (although the furry feline stripper on a leash was a nice touch).

The crew of the Enterprise does get to wear some spiffy new uniforms though; toning down the paunch of James Doohan, and the stern on Nichelle Nichols, and we do get the treat of seeing some new sets on the re-fitted starship. But today, in the Star Trek motion pictures, Roddenberry has to do some catch-up ball with the writing and the effects. There is a new spoiler in the Star Trek phenomenon. It is a television series; STAR TREK: The Next Generation.

I like this new series. It has taken a full year forPatrick Stewart as the new Captain to full ingratiate himself with me...but now the deed is done. The new series offers us a sleeker, faster, sportier, breakaway, dragstrip Enterprise; full of now familiar places like the holodeck, the gym, and the spiffy new crew lounge, overseen by the pensive and wise Whoopi Goldberg. Roddenberry has dazzled us with the technical beauty and fine writing on this new television series, and he needs to fuse some of this enthusiasm and technology to the original crew and the original concept.

The real pleasure in viewing STAR TREK V comes from the subtle interplay between those seven magnificant veterans, who have come together, one more time for us. It is true that now we can clearly see how deep the lines appear on their collective faces, reflected in firelight, starlight, and the light of battle. We have come to accept these characters as friends. 23 years of Star Trek leaps across the decades like a dynamic dream. That dream is enrichened by this latest adventure, this family gathering of ancient eagles.

Glenn Buttkus 1989

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