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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

#724 - Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
William Shatner, 1989

The crew of the Enterprise are called in to resolve a hostage situation but are instead coerced into helping a religious zealot search for God.

I'm definitely amused by the notion that the long-running Star Trek cinematic franchise has a curse of sorts that results in each odd-numbered installment being substantially weaker than their even-numbered counterparts (though this arguably went out the window with Nemesis, the tenth film in the franchise and also generally considered one of the worst). This hasn't automatically made the odd films unquestionably terrible, though; original film The Motion Picture had enough technical and musical quality to make it watchable, while The Search for Spock wrought a decent enough film out of a storyline that was intended to undo one of science fiction's greatest tragedies. The films involving the cast of The Next Generation didn't fare so well - cross-over Generations was an ultimately middling attempt at passing the torch, while Insurrection felt a bit too much like an episode of the show that was unnecessarily blown out to movie length. (Never mind the reboot.) Fifth entry The Final Frontier had managed to earn an especially unfavourable reputation even by the notoriously haphazard standards of the franchise, but seeing as it was the only Trek film I hadn't yet seen, I figured I would still have to watch it.

The Final Frontier doesn't start too promisingly. After a brief prologue that introduces the film's chief antagonist, a Vulcan zealot named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), the film launches into a prolonged sequence where the main cast members are spending their shore leave camping in Yellowstone National Park, complete with campfire singalongs and hover boots. Of course, their shore leave doesn't last long before the Enterprise is called in to deal with a hostage crisis that is being orchestrated by Sybok, which also happens to draw the attention of a glory-hound Klingon captain. To go into further detail would arguably spoil the plot and the various reveals (even though I knew them already), but such details aren't especially relevant in the grand scheme of things since it ends up being a plot that Star Trek has covered before and since. Of course, there's nothing wrong with doing variations on a theme, and if nothing else The Final Frontier provides enough of a variation to partly justify its existence. Sybok proves complicated enough as his quixotic quest to find God (or at least the Vulcan equivalent) is driven by such a tangibly sincere belief that he is able to magically manipulate others into helping him as a result.

With the notoriously over-dramatic William Shatner taking over directorial duties for this installment, one could very easily expect the film as a whole to suffer. Granted, the film does have its questionable moments - the most notable example of such involves a considerably aged Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) carrying out a seductive song-and-dance routine in order to lure some enemies into a trap - but I daresay that the film's good moments manage to outweigh its bad ones. There's a memorably potent sequence where McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is made to confront his darkest secret, plus Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must also deal with his own preexisting connection to Sybok. In this context Kirk (Shatner) doesn't really have too much of an arc, especially when compared to the last few films - instead, his own concerns with facing his mortality (especially how he insists that he will die alone) and his skepticism about Sybok's unwavering faith in the existence of God can't help but feel like diminishing returns even as it attempts to do something original. The plot also feels a bit listless and stretched-out even as it is peppered with action sequences whose ambition is often beyond their reach.

While there's plenty here to suggest that The Final Frontier earns its reputation as one of the worst Star Trek films (and probably the worst out of the ones featuring Kirk and the original crew), I honestly found myself enjoying it a lot more than I would have thought. It builds off an incredibly familiar Trek plot while also failing to reach its true potential, but it doesn't make a mess of things despite some weak humour and special effects work. If anything, it does yield a handful of strong moments that rise above the rest of this admittedly mediocre film. While much of the interplay between characters tends to be ridiculous for one reason or another, there are still good instances of everything ranging from sarcastic camaraderie to heartfelt catharsis. Add in an appropriately versatile score by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith and you have a film that definitely won't be a contender for the best Trek film but still proves surprisingly decent despite its many flaws.