Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
But seriously, what does God need with a starship?
By the late 1980s, Star Trek was a dependable brand for Paramount Pictures. After the expensive fumble of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a new producer with an eye toward making Star Trek work as a film endeavor assembled writers, directors and craftsmen to build on the foundation of The Motion Picture‘s cinematic canvass. The effort led to one genuine classic, a surprise money maker and a middling entry we might talk about someday … though I’m still not convinced Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is cheesy. Star Trek V, however, has all the marks of a particularly cheesy flick. It is an example of an auteur drunk on his own hubris and a cynical cash-grab with studio interests in mind. One of the two ambitions is usual enough to power a cheesy movie, but like the matter/antimatter injectors, this movie needed both to fuel its Constitution class spacecraft into infamy.
The story concerns the aging crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise a few months after they saved the Earth in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Their new Entertprise is a disaster, necessitating Scotty (James Doohan) to supervise a major refit while the rest of the command staff enjoy an extended shore leave on Earth. Unfortunately for them, agents of the Galactic Army of Light have taken control of the only settlement on Nimbus III — the Planet of Galactic Peace — and are holding the Federation, Klingon and Romulan ambassadors stationed there hostage.
As often happens in Star Trek, the Enterprise is the only ship within range of getting to Nimbus III quickly and extracting the ambassadors. Y’know, despite a malfunctioning transporter and a skeleton crew. Captain Kirk’s (William Shatner) mentions these issues, but the ship is dispatched to deal with the situation.
But so is a Klingon Bird of Prey.
On Nimbus III, Kirk and company encounter Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill); a passionate Vulcan with a fairly solid mind-control technique. Like a certain real life religion we will not name, Sybok claims to make trauma go away by sharing it with him. But once a person shares with Sybok, they are under his command. This is how he founded the Galactic Army of Light and how he takes control of the Enterprise. In the fallout, Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly) are left fighting their friends and dodging enemies aboard their very own starship. Also, Scotty knocks himself out by walking into a bulkhead.
The high-minded goals and silly antics are very much the charm of the film. Shatner, the principal author of the story, intended to more directly confront religion with Sybok originally designed to be a televangelist character instead of a subtle e-meter. He also wanted the characters to find their way to an alien world containing the powers of Lucifer. Not an alien co-opting the Prince of Darkness swagger for himself, but the honest-to-God Devil. Paramount talked him down to the Luckinbill version of Sybok and a character which we’ll call “The God of Sha Ka Ree.” And because the previous film’s humor was touted as an element of its success, the studio asked Shatner and his writing partners to infuse his grim tale with some humor.
The humor works out this way: Chekov (Walter Koenig) pretends he’s the captain while Kirk tries to infiltrate Sybok’s compound. Earlier, he and Sulu (George Takei) get lost while hiking around Mount Rushmore. Then there’s Scotty’s self-inflicted knock out and a subsequent scene in which he is frightened by the idea that Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) is into him. Oh, she also dances nude while they’re on Nimbus III, but I can’t pin down if its meant to be joke because she’s older or because she’s black.
Either way, it comes back to Shatner’s notion of humor: he humiliates the rest of the cast while Kirk suffers no similar indignity; with the possible exception of sitting on a toiler in the brig when he learns Sybok is Spock’s half-brother. Other than that, Kirk is an prime example of 23rd Century manhood as he resists the absolution Sybok offers and stands his ground against the presumptive Allmighty to ask him the most important philosophical question of this or any age: “What does God need with a starship?”
And yet, it’s key to making the movie enjoyable. Shanter’s hubris, like Kirk’s confidence, is indomitable in the face of his somewhat unwilling castmates, numerous script rewrites and a budget which kept disappearing on him. Even nature was against him as many of the scenes shot at Yosemite had to be remounted because the Sun refused to cooperate. While the story falls apart, Shanter’s will to be the director of a Star Trek movie keeps it going. Well, at least until the incomprehensible final battle with the God of Sha Ka Ree.
To its credit, the film is paced better than The Motion Picture and Shatner’s camera department shoots the sets borrowed from Star Trek: The Next Generation rather well. Also, Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which incorporates some of his themes from the first film, is wonderful and elevates the somewhat shabby look of Nimubs III, the transporter room and Sha Ka Ree itself. And as a director, Shatner is a serviceable television style workman. The shots are not flashy, but they do the job. In fact, the neutral, television look is something Nimoy brought to the films in Star Trek III. Shatner, himself trained to direct on T.J. Hooker, was merely maintaining the house style.
But it all adds up to what I imagine people expect Star Trek to be, a vain, silly space opera pretending to talk about weightier issues when not cutting away to terrible model shots. And since Star Trek endures, it is easy to go back to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and look at the time its captain steered it into the side of a planet.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms. It is also available on Blu-ray.