Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, directed by William Shatner) starts with an arresting image of a mysterious rider emerging from a blasted landscape. It's a visual that I had forgotten in the years since I first saw it, and it gave me hope that my opinion of the film might change with a new viewing. It wasn't long before I realized why I had forgotten it. It was quickly swamped with sillier and sillier images. In truth, I've been dreading revisiting this movie. My memory of it from when it was first released was of a crap grenade, and throwing myself on it in the name of blogging wasn't particularly appealing.
My twenty year-old impression of the film wasn't wrong.
The story here involves a renegade Vulcan whose Galactic Army of Light commandeers the Enterprise and takes it on a quest to find God. They're chased by a Klingon Bird of Prey whose captain is intent on testing himself against Kirk. It's nothing if not ambitious, but it's so filled with psychobabble and pseudo-philosophy that it turns ridiculous. The movie is also a paean to William Shatner's boundless ego. Like the previous entry in the series, this movie goes out of its way to provide each member of the crew with some bit of shtick. Uhura's bit is the most out of character, methinks, in which she does a fan dance to distract some bad guys. The bad guys, for their part, act like morons when they see this. Most of the other characters--including Kirk--come off as buffoons. Again, this is an extension of the modus operandi of the previous film.
What keeps this from the deepest depths of bad cinema is a consistently high level of production design and a few committed performances. It's certainly an attractive film. It goes back to Jerry Goldsmith's fanfare from the first film in the series, which is a welcome change from James Horner's tonally inconsistent work in the previous couple of films. Plus it ties the movie to The Next Generation, which was coming into its own at the time of this film's release. DeForrest Kelly gets the best scene in the movie, among the actors, in which his doubts as a doctor are brought to the fore. Leonard Nimoy's Spock is nicely conflicted, too, in a story that brings him into conflict with his own renegade half-brother (a mis-cast Laurence Luckenbill).
It's the main concept that really does this movie in. The Enterprise used to go out to meet god on a regular basis when the original series was on the air. For that matter, the first film in the series has echoes of this plot, too. The occasional religiosity of Star Trek has never sat well with me. When Shatner points out the absurdity of the film's conceit near the end of this film ("Excuse me? What does god need with a starship?"), he unwittingly points out the absurdity of his own film, but I find myself in sympathy with him, not only for the level of his unconscious critique, but also for putting my own skepticism into his own mouth.
In sum, Trek V combines the series' religious impulses with the buffoonery of Trek IV, and where that film was awkward, this one is embarrassing. To an extent, I kind of like the fact that this film exists. It stands as the movie series' equivalent of the television show's balmier episodes like "The Way to Eden" or "Who Mourns for Adonis." But, y'know, those episodes were embarrassing, too.