Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Defending Star Trek V

by ScottDS

Let’s go back in time to the summer of 1989. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Licence to Kill, Ghostbusters II, the juggernaut that was Batman. . . and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the film that easily could’ve killed the Star Trek franchise (but thankfully didn’t). I’d say a good 90% of Star Trek fans consider the film an unmitigated disaster – or at the very least, an odd curiosity, a vanity project for its director, a film that had the rug pulled out from under it by the studio. . . a film about Big Ideas without the Big Budget to pull it off. But I like it!

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had in their contracts a “favored nations clause” which stipulated that anything one actor received, the other would also receive. After Nimoy’s success behind the camera on Star Trek III and IV, it was Shatner’s turn. His original outline was titled An Act of Love and told the story of a holy man named Zar (later Sybok) who is searching for God. Zar hijacks the Enterprise and turns the crew against Kirk. After arriving at the planet where God supposedly resides, Kirk and Zar instead find Satan (and, by extension, God exists). Zar dies and Kirk manages to save Spock and Bones from being whisked away to Hell. The studio liked the idea but producer Harve Bennett (who had joined the franchise on Star Trek II) said it reminded him of a TV Guide logline: “Tonight on Star Trek, the crew finds God.” Immediately, the viewer knows this is impossible.

Ultimately, the crew would not find Satan, but instead an alien entity masquerading as God. Gene Roddenberry had his misgivings and both Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley demanded revisions: neither Spock nor McCoy would ever betray Kirk. Screenwriter David Loughery was hired to turn Shatner’s outline into a script but two things were working against him: the 1988 Writers Guild strike and the studio brass who, after the success of Star Trek IV, wanted more humor in the film. The studio also demanded budget cuts, which meant Shatner had to scale back his vision for the ending, which involved angels and demons in a rather Dante-esque tableau. Shatner and Co. scrapped this and went with six lumbering rockmen. . . then later one rockman. . . then finally some flying energy bolts. Unfortunately, Industrial Light & Magic wasn’t available to produce the visual effects and the filmmakers went with Associates and Ferren in New York. As anyone can see from the final film, they were in over their heads.

Looking back at the film now with the benefit of hindsight, it’s actually not bad. I think it’s better than the last two TNG films (Insurrection and Nemesis) and I give this film all the credit in the world for having a big heart and for wearing it on its sleeve. As much as Shatner enjoys action, he also dares to ask the Big Questions about man’s purpose and relationship to the universe. This harkens back to the first film which, despite its flaws, had a good old-fashioned sense of adventure. Whereas most of the films are your standard action films with Hornblower-inspired space battles and fisticuffs (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), Star Trek V is an adventure in which our crew sails into the unknown, survives it, and emerges on the other side wiser for having faced the challenge. There’s also a great familial feeling on display. The trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy has never been better and they share some heartfelt scenes throughout the film.

Shatner proves to be a capable director. This was his first theatrical film but he had prior experience directing theater and episodic television. I don’t entirely blame him for the difficulties he had to face here (all of the above plus a Teamsters strike!) and it’s a miracle we even got a watchable movie out of it. Shatner knows how to frame a shot and, as I wrote in my Temple of Doom article, establishing geography and spatial relationships is important. There are also some interesting camera moves (including a bridge shot which starts at an overhead angle, rotates, and eventually tilts to eye-level) and some great individual shots including one in the opening of Sybok riding his horse which looks like something out of Lawrence of Arabia, and another towards the end with Kirk, et al. walking down a mountain which is silhouetted against the sun.

The opening credits feature Kirk free climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. While some may consider this nothing more than an ego trip for Shatner, I believe it when he says (in on-set interviews) that it is representative of man’s need to scale new heights. Kirk, Spock, and Bones share a poignant scene in front of a campfire where, as usual, they contemplate their own mortality and Kirk admits that he’ll die alone. This comes full circle wonderfully at the end when he tells Spock he thought he would die and Spock, having just rescued him, replies: “Nonsense. You were never alone.” Kirk also insists that men like them don’t have families – another line that is paid off when Kirk mentions that he lost a brother once but (looking at Spock) he’s glad he got him back. Bones: “I thought you said men like us don’t have families.” Kirk: “I was wrong.” It’s scenes like these that make geeks like me want to be a part of this universe and spend time with these characters.

Sybok is portrayed by Laurence Luckinbill, who does not get the credit he deserves for his performance. Sybok, it turns out, is Spock’s half-brother. He was banished from Vulcan for embracing emotion instead of logic. This is best exemplified in his first scene in which he laughs – something Vulcans aren’t exactly known for. Luckinbill portrays Sybok as cunning and manipulative (the character was inspired by televangelists after all!) but also strangely dignified and we genuinely feel for him at the end when he’s defeated by his own vanity and avarice. His best scene – and arguably the best scene in the film – takes place in the ship’s observation lounge in which he attempts to relieve Kirk, Spock, and Bones of their “secret pain” – which is how he’s able to amass followers, who are so grateful for the experience that they’ll follow him anywhere. We see Bones relive the experience of pulling the plug on his ailing father and Spock’s father’s initial rejection of him for appearing “so human.” Kirk will have none of this and the scene culminates in a great Kirk Speech in which he yells, “I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain!” It’s might be one of the best scenes in any Trek film.

Another item in the plus column is the excellent music score. This film marked the return of composer Jerry Goldsmith to the franchise ten years after his Oscar-nominated work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He reprises his theme to that film (which had since become the theme to TNG) along with his Klingon theme while developing four entirely new themes: a theme for Sybok, a theme for the “God planet” Sha Ka Ree, an Americana-flavored theme for the Yosemite scenes, and a four-note “quest motif” which he would use again in future Trek scores.

While most of the visual effects are subpar (Shatner and Co. admit this much on the DVD retrospective), there are a few great shots, including one of the Enterprise against the moon as well as a fun crash sequence in which a shuttlecraft barrels its way into the shuttlebay. The scale is off but it’s still exciting. No one will ever argue that Star Trek is about special effects but, sadly, this is one film in which they were sorely needed. Ironically, the low budget meant they had to produce many of the effects in camera (without compositing) and there are some good shots that resulted from this, mainly any shot in which we see outside the Enterprise through a window. With bluescreen, the camera would most likely have been locked down. . . but with rear projection live on the set, Shatner could have a moving camera and there would be no matte lines.

As much as I enjoyed the new Star Trek reboot, it wasn’t nearly as humanistic as this one, nor did it have that extra little bit of intellectual “oomph,” the Big Ideas that keep people thinking on their way out of the theater. At the end of the day, I think this film deserves another look. There are some good lines of dialogue and character moments and while some of the humor falls flat, some of it actually works, including the Yosemite “Goodnight” scene which must’ve been the filmmakers’ homage to The Waltons. If Paramount ever allows Shatner to produce a Director’s Cut of the film, I’ll watch it (he was already denied once) but if they don’t, I can live just fine with the film the way it is now.

Bonus: Captain Kirk is Climbing a Mountain (Techno Remix)

57 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the excellent defense of Star Trek V Scott!

It sounds to me like this thing was a mess to make. But let me say that I think Shatner's instincts were good, even if the execution was a mess. And I do think the spirit and heart of this film are in the right place.

I also agree that Laurence Luckinbill does a fantastic job.

Tennessee Jed said...

count me among those that never felt very good about this film. But, since I have to get my semi-annual teeth cleaning, I'll be back." Nothing wrong with Hornblower :)

DUQ said...

I'm one of the few who enjoy this film a lot. I love the camaraderie of the characters.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Class was cancelled due to a missing computer (seriously, the teacher admitted she couldn't teach without PowerPoint) so here I am ready to comment.

Yeah, I would argue that Shatner's initial idea raised too many eyebrows but his heart was certainly in the right place and that the film could've been infinitely better had the filmmakers been afforded the resources (more money, a competent effects house, etc.). Or would it have been just as bad, only flashier? I think of gags like Scotty hitting his head on the bulkhead... rhetorically speaking, is there any version of the film where this kind of humor isn't included?

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Fair enough. And I hope you're more diligent about flossing than I am!

I've never read any of the books but I'm a big fan of the Hornblower TV movies they did in the 90s with Ioan Gruffudd and Robert Lindsay.

ScottDS said...

DUQ -

Good to hear. I'm also a fan of the camaraderie and I think Shatner captured it well in this film.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Who knew education had become so fragile? LOL!

It's hard to say if a better idea would have included an idea as stupid as that? I tend to think if they had latched onto a better idea, then they would have had more to fill the story with and they wouldn't have gone for the pointless and silly things they included.

ScottDS said...

(I left another comment in the sequel thread).

I have to agree re: the humor. In the DVD retrospective, producer Harve Bennett kinda shrugs and implies it was simply a domino effect: one bad joke that the studio must've liked led to a dozen bad jokes that no one liked. "Okay... next?"

Shatner asked Paramount for funds to create a new cut of the film for DVD with presumably new effects but was turned down. While I'm one of the fans who would love to see it, other fans rightfully ask, "Would new effects make a difference? The plot problems would still remain."

Kelly said...

I don't know that money is the problem. I know it would help with the effects, but good story doesn't require money, it just requires creativity. And if your story is good, then the effects should be able to work around that poor effects. I think that's the problem with modern Hollywood is they think money is a substitute for story but it's not.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott,

I don't think a new cut would change much (though it could be interesting to see) because there just isn't enough story to work with here to change the nature of the story -- and I don't think fixing the effects would change much of anything. In other words, the problem isn't that the story is going in so many directions that they could redirect it, the story is just a very simple straight line and there's really no way to change its course.

On the jokes, it probably is what you describe. With a very narrow story like this, they looked for filler. And with little else going on, the jokes became much larger than they would have been in a thicker story. And once you start down that kind of path, it becomes very easy to keep doing it.

P.S. I get e-mails on all comments made at the site, so I see it. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Kelly, That's an excellent point. I'm not a believer that money should ever be a problem either -- at least once you get to the point of having competent sets/locations and camera work. The rest can be written around. Effects should add to the story, not substitute for it.

ScyFyterry said...

I like Star Trek V enough to watch it, but it's one of my least favorite of the series. It just doesn't feel like it's worthy of being a film. It feels like a half hour idea that they stretched out.

ScottDS said...

I know you get e-mails but every now and then a comment gets through, which is why I always try to comment within the first two hours. You know, just in case. :-) (It's my OCD.)

Yeah, this might be a case where the film can't be improved much by a new cut, as opposed to something like Alien 3 which I feel is infinitely better in its extended form (but not perfect). I also think the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II was a missed opportunity but that's another story.

ScottDS said...

Kelly -

I think this film, unfortunately, depended more on the visual effects than, say, the other Trek films. Unfortunately, the story in this film was too flawed to overcome the poor effects work. I think some people would forgive the film if it only had bad effects but there were plenty of other problems on display, too.

ScottDS said...

ScyFy -

I do think the film is inferior overall, but it's a strange case where the characters and themes keep me coming back, whereas Insurrection and Nemesis leave me wanting, because I can see all the flaws and all the missed opportunities and those films don't have those great little moments.

I don't know if it still exists on YouTube, but a fan recently created an edit of Trek V that approximated an episode, with act breaks and less humor and gags - it actually kinda worked!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I haven't seen that, but it really doesn't surprise me that they could cut this film down to an episode and it would work. Much of the film is simply filler to make the film longer and I think tighter editing would have left a much shorter film even without losing any content.

I haven't seen the longer version of Alien 3, but I can tell you that the longer version of Aliens is a vast improvement.

Ed said...

Scott, I have tried to like this film but I can't. You make an excellent defense of it, but it just doesn't work for me. I don't hate it or anything, but it just never feels worth my time when I've seen it. I can't honestly say why, but it just feels so flat throughout.

Individualist said...

I actually did not have a problem with the movie until then very end. It just appeared to be too pat.

Although the line "why does God need a Starship" was one of the best in all movies.

To me the ending, go there and the alien demon thing takes the starship and leaves is pretty silly. Why mess with a Star Ship of the Federation that will be looked for.

Why not a quiet freighter in the edge of space that no one would know was missing for weeks anyways. I don't know what would have been a better ending but I think it was the end of the film that was the problem.

ScottDS said...

I like the longer version of Aliens but, honestly, both versions work for me. Cameron created that cut for the laserdisc in, I think, 1991. There was nothing wrong with the film except it was running too long.

As for Alien 3, I've already written a short defense of that film in my guilty pleasure article. The production of that film was even more hellish than this one.

tryanmax said...

I admittedly have a real soft spot for V--with fond childhood memories of the drive-in theater and promotional Kraft® marshmallow dispensers--but I think that the only thing a bigger budget could have added was perhaps the chance to replace some of the filler with more visually appealing filler. That could maybe change the grade from a B- to a B+ (assuming the B).

The story is scant, but it is very heartwarming and of all the films does the most to emphasize the camaraderie between the main characters. From a character standpoint, I think the film is very satisfying, not because of any particular revelations (I don’t think there are any), but because it reaffirms just why we are so attached to them.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I had no idea they ever made such a thing! LOL! Nice.

You're right, by the way, the film is heartwarming in many instance and I do like that part very much. Indeed, I think the intent of the film and the spirit are in the right place, it's just the execution that is lacking.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, In truth, I think that's one of the best lines in all the films -- "what does God need with a star ship?" That's a brilliant line which says a lot philosophically and really sums up the clarity of mind Kirk has.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, movie tie-ins were one of the highlights of a childhood in the 80s! (The thing worked for $#!+ by the way. I wish I still had mine.)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, When I was a kid, we got some cool Star Wars glasses and posters as Burger King and then trading cards in Wonder Bread. I don't recall a lot of other tie-ins and certainly nothing on the scale of this!

ScottDS said...

Ed -

Fair enough. I didn't honestly expect to change anyone's mind (if I do, it helps!).

ScottDS said...

Indi -

I also love that line. As for your question, if Sybok had hijacked some lowly freighter, there would be no movie since Kirk would never be called in to save the day. :-) Or maybe he would be called in and we'd skip the Nimbus III scenes altogether.

This film suffers from a similar problem that affects the first two films. In those films, the Enterprise is called in because it's the only ship in the area. In this film, Kirk is the only "experienced commander" who's available, which is just an excuse to show the ship in a state of disrepair when, let's face it, no military would send a ship in that condition out on a mission.

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

Well said!

When the film was released, I was only six and still a few years away from full-fledged Trek-mania, so I never would've noticed the Kraft dispensers in stores. Or maybe I would have and I would've asked, "Mom, what's this? Can we see this movie?!" :-)

ScottDS said...

Andrew, et al -

The first McDonalds happy meal movie tie-in was for Star Trek: TMP. Commercial here.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've never bought the "the Enterprise is the only ship in the area of Earth" line. I think that's really stupid. There is no way someone else isn't with range of Earth.

But in terms of why he would need the Enterprise this time... If you will recall from the episode "Where No Man has Gone Before," the barrier is impassible and even the first Enterprise barely survived the attempt to break through. So there is no way he could do it with anything less than a real star ship.

// nerd knowledge off

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - Hornblower books were superb and Roddenbury, as you know, considered S.T. to be Hornblower in Space or Wagon Train to the stars. However, I agree. I have the entire set of Hornblower films on DVD. :)

Since I was not a great fan of the original movie, I only saw it once back when it came out. So, you should consider mission accomplished to the extent next time it becomes available to view, I will give it a chance armed with your solid perceptive abilities.

Of course, you and I will always agree that a terrific film score is like a great sixth man in basketball . . . . invaluable.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Aren't they different barriers? In the episode, it's the barrier at the edge of the galaxy but in this film, it's the one at the center of the galaxy...? :-)

tryanmax said...

Actually, you had to mail in proofs of purchase from certain Kraft products (+S&H). I think I earned mine eating mac 'n' cheese. I remember trying to eat with that junk silverware. Boy, was I into it!

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Good to hear! And, yeah, reading the Hornblower books are on my "bucket list" so to speak. I also have the DVD set. I love Paul McGann as Lt. Bush in the later films, along with Matthews and Styles.

Paramount is currently working on a series of Star Trek score restorations and some of the niche record labels have been releasing the complete scores to the films, remastered with additional tracks, detailed liner notes, etc.

La-La Land Records released the complete score to this film in late 2010 but it was a limited edition and all 5000 copies sold out within a few months.

A bad score can make a good film bad but a great score can make a bad film better.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott,

// nerd argue power activated

That's true, these are different barriers but I would think the principle is the same. Also they do say throughout the episode that the barrier is impassible.

So if you were going to try to go through an impassible brick wall, would you rather try it in a tank or a pinto?

I think Sybok makes the right call. :)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Excellent! Mac and cheese is great!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed and Scott, What's funny is how when you really hit upon a great score, that's what you remember from the films. When I think of Harry Potter or Jaws the first thing that comes to mind is the most recognizable part of the score more so than any images.

Ed said...

Scott, You do a good job of arguing, but the film just doesn't work for me. Nice article!

Also, I agree with you about "Alien 3". The extended version is much better.

ScottDS said...

Ed -

Thanks!

Nice to see some else who's seen the extended Alien 3 and enjoys it. Most people I know tell me, "I hated the original version and you're actually asking me to watch a longer version?!"

My reply: "Yes." :-)

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Sadly many film scores have become so generic... sonic wallpaper with no recognizable themes or melodies or anything like what we grew up with.

It's a combination of shortened post-productions schedules, directors who don't know dick about how music is supposed to work in film, and executives who are convinced that big symphonic scores sound "too old-fashioned."

rlaWTX said...

I can't remember having seen this one. But now, I'm kinda interested.

ScottDS said...

rla -

It's certainly worth watching at least once but, whether or not you'll like it, I have no idea. :-)

You may have seen it parodied or referenced here and there, especially Kirk's "What does God need with a starship?" line.

rlaWTX said...

the climbing stuff sounds familiar - did those 3 go camping in any other movie?

ScottDS said...

Nope. This is the only Trek film in which anyone camps. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think there is a lot of room for a lot of different kinds of scores in films, and the idea that a soundtrack must be a big booming thing really is a very dated idea -- I can't think of anything memorable from the 1940s for example when all films used the big booming approach.

But that's not how good scores are done. Good scores are unique and somehow match the film itself, they aren't just generic music laid over a film. And not taking full advantage of the ability of music to make a film really stand out and to highlight the emotion of each scene is truly wrong thinking.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

You touch on a rather controversial subject in film score geek circles: does a good score fit a pre-designed "template" of what good music should be, or is it whatever works for that particular film, even if it isn't memorable or listenable outside of the film itself?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, There's no question... the score is there to complement the film. That's it's purpose. Otherwise it would be like the cinematographer saying "we should shoot some nice mountain shots even though the film takes place entirely in an apartment because I like mountains.

Koshcat said...

When this movie came out, I was very disappointed. I really liked Star Trek VI, so I sort of put this aside as just the odd numbered curse. Since the sixth one, the rest really went downhill so this one stands up reasonably well. I found the humor and jocularity to be somewhat distracting at times. Uhura's naked dance left me somewhat scarred as well. The part in the movie where Sybock is trying to convert Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is the best part of this movie and probably one of the best in the whole series.

I like the reboot, even with its flaws because it allows the story to continue with using aged, decrypted actors. I tried to comment on the weekend question: worst sequel ever, but was denied. Not sure why. Anyhow, I had just watch the first hour of Indy: Crystal Skull. Dear Lord, it is awful. It would have been much better to just use a new Indy and maybe even a new director much like the Bond series. It is the absolute worst sequel ever because expectations were high and not only was it a bad movie, but they ruined Indy (and Harrison Ford) in the process. Troll 2 was better.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshkat, Sorry to hear that. I'm not sure why it denied you? Your comment didn't end up in the spam filter. It must have been a glitch. I'm not even running comment moderation so it should have allowed that. Please let me know if you have problems in the future.

On the film, I agree with you and Scott that the camaraderie in this film. That is something many of the other films miss.

Koshcat said...

No worries. Computers are fickle sometimes. Personally, I blame Napolitano. Was that another black helicopter...

AndrewPrice said...

Well, she is monitoring the internet after all.... wouldn't want terrorists posting copyrighted material, would we?!

ScottDS said...

Kosh -

I wholeheartedly agree about the "conversion" scene being one of the best Trek scenes, period. I didn't care for Uhura's fan dance - of all the awkward moments in the film, this is the one that makes me cringe the most. It's not even Nichelle Nichols - it's the idea that someone actually liked this gag.

For me, the odd/even curse was rendered obsolete with the even-numbered Nemesis, the tenth film, which was just disappointing.

And ditto: re Crystal Skull.

Anonymous said...

...Luckinbill was the second choice as Spock's half brother; it was intended to be Sean Connery but due to strike problems by the time that filming began Connery was at work on 'The Last Crusade'...

ScottDS said...

Anon -

That's right, hence the planet name "Sha Ka Ree." :-)

Kit said...

Nichelle Nichols dance. Shudder.

My skin is crawling just thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering why so many consider the plot of Star Trek V "thin?" It may seem thin, with the limitations of the film's budget... but the plot is ambitious, and delves deep into human psychology.
Consider... a self styled prophet becomes a heretic to his own people. He is exiled... and he accumulates followers from the fringe elements of many worlds. He has "visions," and through emotional manipulation he get's people "on board" with his revelations.
Wow... brings to mind Mohammed, or Joseph Smith... not at all like a "televangelist." He's a "cult leader," with the powers of Vulcan mind control at his disposal. How much more interesting this is, than "Khan"... fueled only by vengeance.
The humor... dippy, forced into the story. A Director's cut would probably take some of it out.
The "finding God" bit is NOT the main thrust of the story... God isn't even mentioned until the film is near climax. The only thing emphasized is finding "the source,' or "the place from which Creation sprang." A Planet symbolized by Eden. By the time Sybok mentions God, Shatner verbalizes what the audience feels... "You are mad." Sybok, in a mature reaction, ponders the possibility. "Am I? ... We shall see."
This is GOOD stuff.
When they make it through the barrier (which was an illusionary danger, like sailors in Columbus' day feared that they would sail off the edge of the Earth), they have "something" pilot the shuttlecradt down to the planet. They then watch a "stonehenge" pop up around them... whooo boy. Something big is coming... you know it can't be "God," but it is something powerful!
If the effects revealed the alien in some other way at the end... giant rock monster, demonic creature, whatever... and if it chased Kirk in a longer scene... the tension would of been much greater. Subtract the silly energy blob face,the lightning bolts, and the wailing "Yoouuuu!!"
The God pretending alien also has a great Irony to it. While Sybok was manipulating his followers, he in turn was being manipulated by a powerful alien con artist. Sybok then becomes a hero, fighting the alien while saving Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.
With a more serious tone, the cutting of some scenes, and the addition of a tense and well rendered conclusion... we're talking about a mighty fine film here.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I get the feeling that more and more people are coming around to this film. It's the same thing with The Motion Picture. As people have more time to think about these films in hindsight, they are seeing the things that didn't hit them when they first saw the films and they weren't what people had expected.

ScottDS said...

Anon -

Excellent comment!!

This film is definitely more about the journey than the destination and as much as films like this shouldn't depend solely on visual effects to work, this is one film where they were really needed.

A director's cut would be wonderful but Paramount doesn't seem to be interested and Shatner is most likely over it by now. Trim a few of the jokes (but keep the campfire scenes), produce new visual effects, and re-edit a few other scenes, and you'd have a pretty decent movie.

Good stuff, indeed. The observation lounge scene is one of the best scenes in any Trek film and has more heart and soul than any two blockbuster sci-fi films made today.

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