Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Rated PG (for sci-fi violence, some language, and some sensuality)
Released: June 9, 1984
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: William Shatner
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Laurence Luckinbill
I not only have an affection for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I actually admire it.
The most maligned of the Original Cast entries (considered by many the worst of all the Star Trek films), Star Trek V is certainly a problematic movie. But it’s not a stupid one.
Directed by William Shatner (with a story concept and arc outlined by him as well), The Final Frontier was going for a Star Trek brass ring, seeking to combine the philosophical reach of Star Trek I with the action, humor, and sentimentality of Treks II, III, and IV. Forget the search for Spock. This was the search for God.
And while Shatner can’t quite corral his ambitions into a cohesive whole, he succeeds far better (and more consistently) than the film’s unfortunate reputation suggests. The failures of Star Trek V aren’t so much those of a director who was in over his head; they’re of producers who didn’t have their director’s back. (We’ll get to that.)
Everything about this chapter feels like it was clearly designed to be the last one. As if the subtitle The Final Frontier wasn’t declarative enough, there was the quest for the Almighty (it doesn’t get any bigger than that), the entire cast was clearly beginning to age, and they even brought back the main theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (and its composer Jerry Goldsmith, who delivers another first rate score in a saga filled with them).
All the pieces seemed to be placed together as if to put an exclamation mark on the fact that this movie would be the grand finale. There’s even a moment early on at a campfire in which Kirk’s death is possibly foreshadowed.
Shatner’s aspirations can be felt immediately in the opening pre-credit sequence, with a character entrance drawing epic inspiration from an iconic moment in Lawrence of Arabia. By scene’s end we’ve been introduced to a villain: Sybok, a Vulcan who’s not just emotional but messianic.
Back on earth, the Enterprise crew is on shore leave. Sulu and Chekov are literally lost in the woods, Scotty and Uhura engage in some PDA on the Enterprise bridge (who knew?), while Kirk, Spock, and Bones are camping out at Yosemite National Park where Kirk “relaxes” by doing a death-defying free climb ascent up El Capitan.
(Side note: it’s even in the little character choices like this that the spirit of exploration permeates the franchise. It’s not just found in space travel, or even inherent in that; it’s in the fabric of who these people are – Kirk especially – whether in a starship or on terra firma. These fundamental traits are missing from the new Star Trek reboot).
The charismatic Sybok has taken Federation hostages on the desert planet of Nimbus III (which has a whole Mad Max vibe going on), so Kirk and the gang are called back early because the Enterprise is the only ship in the quadrant (that old chestnut). They soon learn, however, that Sybok’s intentions aren’t evil but spiritual, even if his methods to achieve his goals are radical, and illegal.
Shatner does all the core Star Trek things right – the humor, the sentiment, the camaraderie of the crew and the bond of its core Kirk/Spock/Bones trio – even if he does amp them up a few notches too many at times.
And in one of the series’ happier ironies (given the infamous tensions between Shatner and the non-Nimoy/Kelley cast mates), Shatner generously gives his old supporting crew more range to express their characters beyond how they follow orders (Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura especially; exotic moon dance, anyone?).
Interestingly enough, the first cut of the film shown to the studio heads – prior to any visual effects work having been done – was received with great enthusiasm. Everyone loved it. They were excited, and even wondered if they had a bigger hit than Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home on their hands. Then in post-production, things began to fall apart.
The top visual effects studios (including ILM, which had done the three previous Star Trek movies) were maxed out with other Summer 1989 competitors like Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Ghostbusters II. Executive Producer Ralph Winter began to look elsewhere and ended up going with an untested visual effects team in New Jersey, one that had never worked on a feature film level before. Effects shots continually came in late and far below expectations (although to be fair, they were given nearly half the time of industry standard). They were in over their heads but the producers, at this point, had nowhere else to turn.
This history is all detailed in the DVD’s “Making Of” half-hour documentary, one that’s surprisingly candid for a studio sanctioned extra. The producers (and Winter especially) let Shatner and the film down by not having his post-production ducks in a row, and the studio let the franchise down by not protecting it as they should have along the way. Compounding the situation was a Writer’s Guild strike that delayed production from starting until late 1988, yet Paramount refused to move the release date from early June of 1989.
The end result was the shoddiest looking visual effects of the series, by a long shot. The spaceships were marred by flat two-dimensional movement, there no added visual textures to blend the compositing between miniatures and backgrounds…
…and Shatner’s vision for various galactic sequences (The Great Barrier, especially) had to be drastically simplified in order to be completed in time for the release date, as did the whole action climax. Star Trek V spent more money than its predecessors to far less results, all because of decisions that were made entirely out of Shatner’s control.
That’s not to say Star Trek V’s shortcomings are all in the visual effects department. There are uneven aspects for which Shatner is directly responsible, namely:
- Some of the humor is clunky.
- Some of the sentiment is flat-out corny.
- The featured actors in smaller roles are almost uniformly flat and simplistic.
- The Klingons have never been less compelling.
- Sybok hypnotizes and converts an entire starship crew with too little resistance.
- The climatic God sequence is ambiguous in all the wrong ways.
Plus, the crew is starting to look too old to be doing this.
When visual effects are good, problems like this are minimized and easily dismissed. When visual effects are bad, problems like this are maximized. They stick out, and become an albatross.
And yet the script had great core strengths, too.
- The bond between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is finally explored on familial terms.
- The idea of deep personal pain being a “formative good” rather than strictly a “burdensome bad” is an intriguing philosophical theme (explored through an intriguing central scene that gets very personal for Spock and McCoy).
- As Sybok, veteran theatre actor Laurence Luckinbill gives a mesmerizing performance marked by its vast range, one that is passionate, nuanced, and always spontaneous. It warrants comparison to Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, it’s in that league. (Yes, I just said that.)
- The grand narrative stakes weren’t based on stopping another apocalyptic threat (as so many effects driven spectacles are, particularly now). Rather, the stakes were in seeking something out; the greatest Being of all, no less.
And yet when visual effects are as bad as they are here, these merits are compromised and understandably missed. So, too, is the fact that much of the humor actually is funny, and much of the sentiment actually is sincere, and some of the character moments are among the series’ best.
There’s a lot of good work here tainted by cheesy special effects that undercut the vision Shatner had planned (and had been promised) – including a Rock Men element in the climax that had to be scrapped altogether because their effects work hadn’t been priced or scheduled correctly (again, that’s a producer’s job).
Look, even if the special effects had all come through as planned, Star Trek V at its best still may have ended up being considered the least of the six Original Cast entries, but it wouldn’t have been deemed a disaster. Its strengths, I believe, would’ve been more easily apparent (as they were during that initial studio exec screening), and it’d likely be judged more as an intriguing if overambitious curiosity, even a cult favorite.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier didn’t hit a home run but, my goodness, it sure swung for the fences (a virtue that Star Trek Beyond, for example, sorely lacks). Yes, it’s the worst of the Original Cast movies, but only by a thin margin, not a vast one.
Nevertheless, when it was all said and done, two things were abundantly clear:
1. This crew needed to retire.
2. But not like this.
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (Currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)
- Star Trek V boasted the biggest opening weekend of the franchise to that time, its $17.3 million topping Star Trek IV’s $16.8 million. It tanked fast, however, ending up with a series low of $52.2 million. (It has since been bumped up one from the bottom by The Next Generation movie Star Trek: Nemesis. That phased out at $43.2 million.)
- It faced a lot of competition in the summer of 1989. Along with Batman there were also major sequels to Indiana Jones (i.e. the Last Crusade), Ghostbusters and Lethal Weapon (both 2’s), and James Bond (License to Kill).
- Series producer (and writer) Harve Bennett plays the cameo part of the Admiral that commissions the Enterprise for the mission.
- Harve Bennett suggested that Star Trek: The Next Generation may have been partially to blame for this film’s lower box office performance. None of the previous films had to compete with a concurrently running (not to mention popular) Star Trek TV series. Bennett believed many Trek fans didn’t rush out to theaters because they were already getting Trek at home.
- George Takei initially refused to reprise his role as Sulu in Star Trek V strictly because William Shatner was directing. Not only did he agree to return after a personal sitdown with Shatner, but after the production wrapped Takei praised Shatner’s creativity and the enthusiastic atmosphere he created on set, especially in the face of studio pressures, saying, “I have enormous admiration for his ability to block that kind of pressure from seeping on to the set,” adding, “despite our sometimes strained personal history, I found working with Bill as a director to be surprisingly pleasant.”
- Uhura’s exotic dance scene was originally suggested simply as a joke by screenwriter David Loughery, but Shatner, the producers, and Nichelle Nichols loved the idea.
- Originally, screenwriter Loughery had Spock and McCoy siding with Sybok, but Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley objected, saying neither would ever betray Kirk.
- Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan who also did the final uncredited rewrite of that screenplay, was offered a chance to take a pace at this script but he declined.
- Shatner asked Paramount for money to complete the film as he had originally intended, for the DVD release, but the studio refused.
- The failed “Rock Men” that had to be ditched (after a disastrous screen test and no more budget) seem like an early incarnation of the Rock Monsters that appear in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which was also produced by Paramount. I am not aware if Aronofsky attributes any inspiration to Shatner’s concept.