Life is a Dream – The Final Frontier 33 Years On
James T. Kirk – “Excuse me, I’d just like to ask a question… What does God need with a starship?“
On this day in 1989, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier launched in cinemas worldwide. For many, it was a day of disappointment. Even now, Star Trek V is considered the black sheep of the original cast outings, consistently appearing at the bottom of fan rankings.
I’ll be honest – I was one of those fans. By the time the movie rolled around, I was fully invested in what came next for Kirk and co. My growing enthusiasm had reached fever pitch after Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and my expectations were off the charts. While I freely admit that the mismanagement of said expectations is entirely a problem of my own making, that the movie was… not the best… is something many Trek fans have come to agree on.
My views on the movie have mellowed over the years. I’m sure some would label my growing attachment to it a form of Stockholm syndrome, that – as is typical of fandom – we take a poor element of something we love and convince ourselves that “no, really it’s good” in an attempt to validate our feelings towards it. This is not quite the case here. I would like to think I’m self-aware enough to know when I’m just kidding myself, and when I’m being realistic. And I believe I’m being realistic enough in the view that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier will never, in its current form, be considered the pinnacle of Star Trek storytelling.
There is a hell of a lot this movie gets right. So right, in fact, one could argue it carries the rest of the movie, saving it from being a complete failure. There’s been so much written over the years about the many problems this production suffered that it would be pointless to reiterate them here. Needless to say, the final product didn’t turn out as anyone intended, including the director. Its problems are on display for all to see. And yet, among its flaws – and it has many – there is a great movie in there, if only time, patience and skill had been allowed to chisel out a masterpiece. Given that, I firmly believe Star Trek V could have been one of the greatest of the Trek movies.
I’m not here, however, to review the movie that could have been, only as it stands. And this movie has many issues: pacing, script, redundant characters, some lamentable special effects (a decision to take effects duties away from Industrial Light & Magic for this installment), and a relatively inexperienced director.
For his part, William Shatner does a perfectly serviceable job, with some truly beautiful scenes, especially when the filming takes place planetside. It’s clear, however, that the entire process began to get away from him somewhat as the project wore on, with the studio even beginning to talk about a replacement as the release date fast approached. Certainly budget was no issue, as this movie had a larger allocation than any of the three previous movies. Even so, several intended scenes had to be cut prior to wrapping, which leads to an overall sense, while watching, that the movie isn’t quite complete. One can’t help but think that – had Shatner been given more support during production, keeping a tighter rein on proceedings – then perhaps things could have gone differently.
These problems notwithstanding, there are certain elements this movie does get right, and one of those is in the characterisation. A big selling point of TOS over the years is the interplay between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and while we’ve had elements of this throughout other movies in the series, The Final Frontier places them front and centre for the entire runtime. Although some of the dialogue may seem a little forced, the camaraderie between these characters – the love they have for each other – shines through. It’s a true highlight of the film. And even though some of our other crewmembers may not be served as well as they or we would have liked, this movie nails the triumvirate better than any movie before or after.
The acting for the most part is – given the material, in some cases – exemplary, though the Klingon characters are unfortunately reduced to one-note villains. Special credit goes to Laurence Luckinbill, however, who makes Sybok a fantastically complex antagonist. Even though Gene Roddenberry considered the character apocryphal, Luckinbill plays the role with conviction, and I’m honestly still blown away by his performance.
It’s also refreshing to see Trek return to the metaphysical well that was such a boon throughout The Original Series. It may not have worked fully here, but it’s admirable that the filmmakers attempted something different, rather than spend time exclusively on starship battles and explosions.
Over the years, I’ve come across people who adore this movie, one of them going so far as to state it’s their favourite from the entire series of Trek films. I truly feel it’s a shame that more don’t subscribe to this view, considering how misunderstood this movie is. The Final Frontier is, in my opinion, an underrated gem, and while it never reaches the level of others in the series, there’s a great deal in this movie to love.
In these days of director’s cuts, restored footage and ultimate versions, it’s a missed opportunity that Paramount doesn’t attempt to coax Shatner back and allow him to fulfil his original vision for the movie. With the sad loss over the years of so many of our original cast, however, this would be a difficult task to accomplish. Just imagine, though, how magical a newly restored version of this movie could be…
Life could be a dream.