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Consumed With Hate: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

🌌 What If God Was One Of Us...

The Crime: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
The Guilty Party: William Shatner
Overview: Shatner directs an outing that's long on philosophy and short on anything at all happening

Why I Hate It...

While a lot of fun gets poked at it, Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales is arguably the best (or at least second-best) in the series. It's fun, it leans into the character camaraderie, and tells a story about making intergalactic peace through persistence and science. It nicely caps off the story arc that was started with Wrath of Khan and resets the entire crew back to their pre-Khan status quo, working as both a potential endpoint for the original cast (who were quickly aging out of their roles) and as a jumping off point for more. The guiding hand here was Leonard Nimoy, who wanted to make a movie that didn't rely on spectacle or a charismatic villain or solving a problem by shooting guns at it. The result is a film that--despite the gimmicky fish-out-of-water storyline, despite leaning hard into 80s ecological messaging, despite not even taking place in future--feels more like Trek than any other film in the series.

So then they let Shatner have a go at one, and the result is... not great.

Star Trek V starts (after a cold open on the villain engaged in some new-age perniciousness) with a man climbing a mountain. After a few minutes of this, we get the surprise reveal that the climber is Captain Kirk. This is a surprise indeed, since the stunt double doing the climbing does not look like William Shatner in silhouette. After some vacation-related shenanigans, the crew of the Enterprise gets called in from their shore-leave to embark on a mission to Paradise City, where the grass is green and the girls are... no, apparently it's a dystopian little desert settlement. The writers' desire to revel in some obvious irony and oblique references to Milton was evidently stronger than their sense that maybe naming a location after a very popular song might take viewers out of the story a bit.

We discover that Paradise City has been taken over by rebels led by Spock's half-brother Sybok, a Vulcan prince who embraced the passion of his ancestors rather than logic and has become a cult leader by taking on people's pain and helping them work through it. The mechanics are fuzzy, but basically he manages to brainwash everyone he interacts with and is on a mission from God™ to bring a starship beyond the Great Barrier--a thing that, like Kirk's ability to free-climb mountains, hasn't really come up before despite being kind of a big deal here--to meet God™ on Sha Ka Ree. What is Sha Ka Ree? It's an energy source, but also a planet, and also Heaven, also it looks like Utah with a magenta lens filter. I can only assume it's where Puff the Magic Dragon frolics in the autumn mists as well.

Sybok takes control of the Enterprise and puts Kirk, Bones, and Spock in the brig because so far they're the only ones immune to his brainwashing. Well, Bones isn't, per se, but he's loyal enough to Kirk and Spock that he stands by them regardless. There's some escape business, but none of it matters because they take the ship through the Great Barrier anyway and this is not even a difficult thing to do, apparently. They arrive, meet God™, ask what God™ wants with a starship anyway, then God™ gets mad and starts blasting them with His laser eyes. Sybok realizes he's been played and that this God™ isn't the real God™ because it only has the TradeMark and not a true Copyright symbol, I think. There's an escape, and then a Klingon Bird-of-Prey that had been following them in order to kill Kirk ends up killing God™ instead (metaphor?) and they all live happily ever after and finally get to finish their shore-leave.

If the story sounds dumb... that's because all Star Trek stories sound dumb--I've already mentioned once in this post that my favorite of the original cast films is the one where they go back in time to save the whales. The dumb story is not why it's a bad movie. In fact, I would take it a step farther and say that I actually like a lot of the ideas buried in this film. I love dipping into the lore about how Vulcans used to be passionate and war-like and it got them into trouble so that's why their culture is obsessed with logic and reason. And having a villain who rejects that is a very interesting idea. Having that same villain be essentially a stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard is an even bolder idea. To be fair, officially Sybok was inspired by televangelists, but his whole vibe is "I will fix you through the power of you telling me all your secrets and I apply some science fiction to them." I mean, what could be more Scientology than that?

I also like the idea, name notwithstanding, of Paradise City: what was intended to be an experiment in peaceful coexistence between the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans, but in practice is a remote backwater hell-hole where emissaries get put out to pasture. That's good worldbuilding right there. Oh, and the finale, when the Bird-of-Prey obliterates a false God™ and it's revealed that the gunner was Spock! What a potent metaphor! The walking manifestation of logic and reason straight up murders a powerful entity that was pretending to be a benevolent deity but was in reality attempting to spread to the rest of the galaxy like a virus. Those are some really cool story ideas.

Too bad it's all undone by poor execution. The movie suffers from a lack of stakes and narrative momentum. The action sequences are tired and unengaging. The banter is fun, but it takes too long to get to the story--it's a full thirty minutes in a 100-minute film before the Enterprise crew get the specifics of their orders. The new Enterprise is not working properly. It's essentially in closed beta, but this goes nowhere as a plot element. The cat-and-mouse with the Klingons is resolved in a very stupid way. Oh, and this is fun: as a thematic refrain, the movie keeps going back to... wait for it... Row Row Row Your Boat. This gets the full plant/reminder/payoff treatment so when Kirk sees Sha Ka Ree he can say "Life is but a dream" and it's supposed to mean something. And then it gets a reprise at the end with Spock playing it on his Vulcan lute.

Not helping things is the fact that Sybok's powers are very ill-defined. He "takes on people's pain," but what does that even mean? It means he brainwashes people, but the actual experience of it isn't demonstrated until pretty dang close to the end, and that scene feels kind of Fabulist, so it's hard to tell if he's using some kind of Vulcan mind powers or if the director is just being artsy. (Note to creators of speculative fiction: you have to clearly delineate your world-building from your metaphors, or the audience gets confused.) So throughout most of the film, he's amassing an army by being a charismatic but poorly trained mental health counselor? It's only revealed very late that he wants the ship because he had a vision, so the whole thing about going to a planet to meet God™ is a surprise heading into Act 3. So if you're my very religious mother seeing this in the theater with her church-going children, then that makes for some awkward conversations on the drive home, let me tell you. Oh, side note: Sha Ka Ree was named after Sean Connery, who was going to play Sybok but then went and made Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade instead. Which was the smart move on his part.

The movie also appears to be in active denial of the fact that... these people are old. Which is not to say that there can't be interesting and exciting stories told about them. But so much of the movie feels like an insistence that this crew is young and energetic and sexy, dammit! And they're not. It starts with the ridiculous mountain-climbing opening and proceeds through to a very contrived scene where Uhura distracts the rebels by performing a nude fan dance on a sand dune. (There's not time to go all the way to the city, so let's lay a trap for these people who have horses and are slightly closer to us than the city.) At one point Kirk is wrestling with a triple-breasted cat lady... Oh yeah... there's a triple-breasted cat lady in this movie for no goddamn reason. And the fight scene basically involves her jumping on top of him and thrashing around for a minute until he throws her across the room into a pool table where she instantly drowns. Because the pool table has water in it, no really, and cats are basically the Wicked Witch of the West, as everyone knows. So when he throws her straight up from a close-up and then she insta-deaths on the other side of the room with no connecting shot... I mean, it looks about as bad as you're imagining.

And that's the whole movie. Lackluster direction, a story that has interesting ideas but doesn't know what to do with them, and a commitment to the vigor and vitality of its cast that feels at best artificial and at worst like a pretty embarrassing failure. And all of it has Shatner's name on it, since he not only directed the movie, he came up with the story and also worked on the script. And it bombed, due in no small part to its clumsy theology lesson that shows up unexpectedly three-quarters into the film. The franchise almost didn't survive.

Next week, we're looking at one of the many movies called Robin Hood...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.