Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) Director: William Shatner
“What does God need with a starship?”
Inspired by religious fanatics and televangelists, Star Trek V is an all around ridiculous movie. After Leonard Nimoy directed the two previous films, William Shatner decided to exercise his “favored nations” contractual clause which granted him the opportunity to direct the next Star Trek film. And while initial ideas for a film seemed compelling at the time (i.e. a cult leader in pursuit of a god, which was inspired as William Shatner watched late night televangelists on television), the final product sadly grew into a bloated, over-written mess by studio executives. With fears of how an American audience might respond to such overt religious themes, even the show’s initial creator Gene Roddenberry, himself an avowed atheist, was uncomfortable with such a playful examination of religious zealots. Unfortunately, the finished project for Star Trek V is a convoluted, awkward, and downright sloppy picture.
The opening is actually fairly compelling –on a planet called Nimbus III located within the Neutral Zone a scrappy man is digging holes trying to eek out a living as a horse rides up bearing an ominous Vulcan religious prophet of sorts. Later, a religious uprising known as the “Galactic Army of Light” captures several diplomats as hostages (including a widely studied Klingon military strategist named Korrd) and the group then takes over the planet’s capital city, Paradise City –a place which has devolved into immoral licentiousness in recent years (as exemplified in a three-breasted feline stripper and other odd pleasures). After the credits roll, The Enterprise crew are called back from shore leave in California in order to respond to an emergency situation. Much of the early film is focused on Kirk, Bones, and Spock on shore leave in Yosemite. Despite his advanced age and portly shape somehow Kirk is able to free-climb El Capitan (?), before falling hundreds of feet to his near-death before being rescued by Spock and his gravity boots, and they spend the evening awkwardly drinking around a campfire and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The tone is simply all over the place. Is it funny? Is it serious foreshadowing? Who knows. At any rate, they are quickly called back to the Enterprise and whisked away to Nimbus III to settle the religious uprising but they encounter a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) –later revealed to be Spock’s half-brother– who takes control of the Enterprise with plans to breach the “Great Barrier.” There is a bizarre scene on Nimbus III where Uhura performs a feathery exotic dance routine in order to distract a group of apparently sex-crazed guards. Anyway, the Enterprise passes through the anticlimactic “Great Barrier” en route to a mystical planet called Sha’Ka’Ree where they meet a godlike being (its true nature is never explained) and he demands possession of their starship. It is a crude reworking of the classic season one Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” only far less intriguing. In response to Kirk’s interrogation, the godlike being reveals himself to be evil, a vicious entity entrapped on this planet like a prison enclosed by the Great Barrier. Sybok, realizing he has led everyone into a dangerous situation, sacrifices himself so the others can escape. The film closes with a scene of Kirk, Spock, and Bones singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” again in Yosemite.
There are many other goofy scenes I neglected to mention in this film –including a moment in which Scotty accidentally runs into a wall knocking himself unconscious, and an unexplained religious power overcomes Sybok which allows the crew to see strange visions and act foolishly. Nevertheless, fans of Star Trek will still find some praiseworthy segments of the film. Despite being a mess of a production, there are some vague traces of intriguing ideas explored in the film –religious fanaticism, how to deal with revolutionaries, and questioning whether gods are either good or evil beings. I heard a theory that the best way to view this film is to simply consider it all to be a vain dream of Captain Kirk while sleeping in Yosemite rather than as an actual adventure. Unfortunately, this interpretation is not enough for me. Star Trek V is a low point in the series –much of the movie either elicits uncomfortable belly laughter at its ridiculousness, or else cringe-worthy wincing at its awkwardness.
It thankfully still had a traditionally significant moral issue to address. Namely the consequences of being misled by a false God. When Kirk asks: “What does God need with a starship?”, that alone can help the most important point of the movie make enough sense. But I can certainly agree that there were a lot of things that could have been done much better.
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