Did it really take William Shatner in the director’s chair to finally give us a decent Star Trek movie?
I’d rather credit others for the modest successes of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, yet another installment in the franchise created by Gene Roddenberry. In fact, Final Frontier would be another wash were it not for Laurence Luckinbill as the series’ first interesting villain (and yes, I’m counting the bewilderingly beloved Khan).
Luckinbill plays Sybok, a Vulcan renegade who has abandoned that alien race’s allegiance to logic in favor of a therapeutic form of mysticism. Like Bill Clinton, he gathers converts by looking deep into their eyes and telling them he feels their pain.
“Each of us hides a secret pain,” he tells DeForest Kelley’s “Bones” at one point, prompting a vision of a shameful moment in Bones’ past that brings to mind the wrenching introspection of 1972’s Solaris, the Andrei Tarkovsky space epic that was remade by no less than Steven Soderbergh.
After assembling a band of acolytes, Sybok hijacks the Enterprise from Kirk (Shatner) and pilots it toward the Great Barrier, a cosmic void where Sybok believes he will find God. Luckinbill makes Sybok such a persuasive, empathetic character – he has the deranged sincerity of a cult leader – that Kirk and company begin to believe he might just be right. For much of the film, you’re not sure whether he’s enlightened or crazy.
With this framework in mind, a Solaris reference isn’t such a stretch. If the first film blatantly hoped to mimic the philosophical grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey – and failed because its ambitions were so obvious – this piece of pop cinema comes closer to such a goal by allowing the “cosmic thoughts” – to borrow a phrase from the picture itself – to emanate naturally from the story line and characters.
Still, I’m grading on a sliding scale here – Final Frontier is “good” only in relation to the previous Star Trek pictures. I’ll admit Shatner stages a moody, Mad Maxesque opening in which Sybok “counsels” a recruit on a barren, smoking desert planet, but he’s also the one who oversaw Kirk’s catfight with a three-breasted feline stripper.
As for the unfortunate moon dance performed by Commander Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), I would say Nichols is too old for this (the series had reached a point where such thoughts applied to most of the crew), except that no one should be asked to awkwardly gyrate under the light of multiple moons, no matter what their age.