More noise than signal

Star Trek: The Final Frontier

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

I suppose the capsule review of “Bill Shatner meets God and punches him” isn’t enough? Oh well…

William Shatner takes the reins for this outing – the moment we’ve all been waiting for, or at least the moment that he was waiting for, with a script developed from one of his ideas.

The Nimbus III Project was a dream, given form. Its goal: to prevent another war, by creating a place where humans and aliens can work out their differences peacefully. It’s a port of call – home away from home – for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers.

Humans and aliens, wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal . . . all alone in the night. Hang on, that’s not right. That’s Babylon 5.

Nimbus III was the same idea, with Klingons, Romulan and human settlers theoretically banding together to build an idyllic new world, but the planet turned out to be a barely inhabitable dustbowl where the prevailing aesthetic is very much Wild West with Touchscreens. Used as a dumping ground for criminals and washed up diplomats, it’s in no condition to defend itself when a small cult-like force ultimately revealed to be under the control of Spock’s half brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) shows up and takes over the joint.

Taking the ambassadors hostage, they demand attention, and it falls to Cap’n Kirk and the Funky bunch to cut short their shore leave, complete with perilous mountain climbing and gravity boot rescuing. On reaching Nimbus III, Sybok reveals his true intentions, wanting to hijack the Enterprise and head off to the centre of the galaxy, passing through a supposedly impenetrable barrier with the intent of finding Sha Ka Ree, the cradle of creation, and along with it, God.

Sybok has rejected the strict compliance with logic and suppression of emotion that the rest of the Vulcans have somehow managed to impose on the entire planet, which saw him exiled from his homeworld and family. He’s now using his mental powers to revisit the defining moments of pain and upset in people’s life and helping them deal with this, which for reasons not entirely explained makes people rather compliant with Sybok’s schemes.

Kirk’s having no part of this procedure, claiming his pain defines him as though he’s a character off Hellraiser or something, but Sybok’s party trick convinces the other key members of the Enterprise to go along with it, apart from Spock – whose essential response of, “Yes, and?” seems to be the only appropriate one for everyone, but hey ho. So, with that pair suitably restrained, off they go to Sha Ka Ree. Unfortunately the effects budget runs out on the way.

They find, at least as far as the script is concerned, a alien that takes on the aspects of divinity to trick them into releasing him, with only Kirk seeing through the ruse with his penetrating question of “What does God need with a starship?” – angering “God”, and showing the others the error of their ways and getting the heck out of there. It’s a horrendously cheap sequence, replete with polystyrene rock monsters and special effects that are basically a floodlight on a stick to represent the supposed creator of all things, and it’s very much an ending where the reach has exceeded its grasp and a pretty amateurish, farcical note to end a film on.

I consider that a bit of a shame, as in the early running there’s evidence that the lessons of the previous films had been learned. The outdoor shots of Yosemite and the Mojave desert location used for Nimbus III look pretty good, and lends some authenticity to a franchise that’s not exactly been teeming with it. Initially, at least, the cast again show the mix of camaraderie and needling, particularly in the Kirk/McCoy/Spock trifecta, that’s difficult not to like.

I have the feeling that Laurence Luckinbill was cast primarily on his physical resemblance to their first choice, Sean Connery, but again in the early running he’s crafting a very different, interesting antagonist. In fact, throughout the piece I’ve no real complaint with his performance, but rather the writing. It’s in no way clear why having some dude essentially say there, there, it’s all right, would make him worthy of becoming instantly convincing as a leader the way this script relies on. It’s daft. Really daft. I might have let that slide were it the daftest thing in the film, but it’s not.

The final act lacks all credibility. From the ten thousand feet view, it makes a sort of sense, but the actuality of it is such a dreadful effects boondoggle that it really kills it. However, the worst of it all is that when you hear Shatner’s vision for it, it wouldn’t really be any better. A shade less embarrassing, perhaps, but the main flaws are structural, not cosmetic.

Science fiction’s taken several cracks at dealing with religion, and I can’t really think of any off hand that’s been particularly successful at it. Of all the vehicles to examine it, though, there’s scarcely a less suitable vessel than Star Trek. It wasn’t until Deep Space Nine that there was any attempt at characterisation of aliens at all apart from the hat their species wears – Klingons are warriors, Romulans are devious, Vulcans are emotionless and logical, Ferengi are obsessed with money, etc, – let alone have characters complex enough to start talking about their foundational beliefs one way or another.

I’ve never held this in as terrible a regard as most other people do, in part because I think the first half of the film’s okay, but mainly because I welcome Shatner’s attempt at tackling something a little more ambitious than the franchise had been shooting for thus far. He’s missed by a mile, obviously, but he deserves a little credit for trying.

That partial defence aside, though – it’s by no means a film I could to recommend a casual observer. It’s not even one I could in all honesty recommend to a Star Trek fan. Hell, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to a fan of this film.