"What does God need with a starship?"
There's just no way to sugarcoat this: 'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' is the worst of all the 'Star Trek' movies. The film has often been called "Shatner's Folly." After co-star Leonard Nimoy's tremendous financial and critical success directing the last two 'Trek' pictures, leading man and notorious egomaniac William Shatner demanded his day in the sun. Paramount consented. The franchise was on top of the world at that point. 'Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home' had been a huge hit in theaters, and 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' was igniting the passions of a whole new audience on TV. What a great promotional opportunity it will be, the studio reasoned, to let Captain Kirk direct his own 'Star Trek' movie. Contracts were signed, the cast was reassembled, and soon the wheels were set in motion for what surely would be the biggest 'Trek' of all. And then everything fell apart.
This is the one where the crew of the starship Enterprise goes searching for God. While not directly tied to its predecessors as tightly as the films in the "Genesis Trilogy" had been, 'The Final Frontier' picks up shortly after the events of 'Star Trek IV.' Having blown up their old ship, Kirk (now demoted back down to captain) and team returned to Starfleet and were promptly handed the keys to a brand new vessel exactly like it. How convenient. This new Enterprise-A was apparently built overnight, and still has some kinks to be worked out. Nothing much in it works right. Scotty is cranky, and the ship is nowhere near spaceworthy yet. Nonetheless, a hostage situation on planet Nimbus III in the Neutral Zone has escalated tensions. Starfleet recalls Kirk, Spock, and McCoy from shore leave, and rushes the Enterprise out to defuse the situation.
Arriving on the barren desert planet, they discover that Sybok, a rogue Vulcan who has embraced his emotions, has formed an army of religious zealots and kidnapped the human, Klingon, and Romulan ambassadors. His plan: to lure a Federation starship in on a rescue mission, hijack the ship, and fly it to the center of the galaxy. He believes that by breaching the Great Barrier, a dangerous energy band from which no vessel has ever returned, he'll find the mythical planet of Sha Ka Ree (sometimes called Valhalla, or Eden, or countless other names -- basically Heaven), and even God himself. The notion sounds pretty nutty, but Sybok has a remarkable ability to brainwash people into his service. Half the crew of the Enterprise will fall victim to his influence.
Released during the summer of 1989, one of the most competitive blockbuster seasons of all time, 'The Final Frontier' was easily overwhelmed by the likes of 'Batman,' 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,' 'Lethal Weapon 2,' and more. Until 'Star Trek: Nemesis' in 2002, it held the record as the lowest-grossing of the 'Trek' films. Relative to its budget, it still made a small profit (which 'Nemesis' can't claim), but was clearly a failure with both critics and audiences.
To be fair, Shatner had grand ambitions for 'Star Trek V.' He wanted it to be a film of Big Ideas, reminiscent of the more philosophical episodes of the original TV series. The story, which he helped to develop himself, was designed as a fusion of the thematic weight from 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' with more of the action and adventure from the entries in between. This was to be the movie where 'Star Trek' addresses the greatest question of all -- the one about the meaning of life, the universe, and all that jazz -- but still has plenty of snarling Klingons, and shooting, and explosions.
Sadly, what we got instead was just a big mess. Paramount lost faith in the project early on. The studio insisted that more humor, which had been such a popular component of the last movie, be added to the script. Then they slashed the budget, and slashed it again, forcing Shatner to scrap some of his big effects sequences and rework most of his other concepts. When Industrial Light & Magic proved unavailable, the special effects were outsourced to a small firm in New Jersey whose work was nowhere near the same standard. The movie just kept getting watered down more and more. Shatner, as a first-time feature filmmaker (he'd previously only directed a few 'T.J. Hooker' episodes), had his hands full just trying to complete the picture at all, and simply wasn't capable of pulling it together successfully.
As ultimately finished, 'The Final Frontier' is overloaded with dopey comic relief. We've got the almost-elderly Kirk climbing a mountain in his spare time (an unintentionally hilarious image on its own) while being badgered by Spock in a pair of jet boots. The lead characters participate in a rousing chorus of "Row Row Row Your Boat" around a campfire, and later discuss the profound philosophical implications of said song. Uhura does a semi-nude fan dance to distract some baddies at a critical moment. And Scotty bumps his head. Ha ha.
The low-rent special effects look awful, especially the ink blot imagery at the Great Barrier, and "God" himself (who naturally doesn't turn out to be quite who Sybok thinks he is). The main cast are really showing their ages, and the unflattering costumes only emphasize how pudgy most of them had gotten. Although Laurence Luckenbill is pretty charismatic as Sybok, the girl playing the Romulan ambassador couldn't hack it in dinner theater. By the time the action gets to Sha Ka Ree, which looks an awfully lot like Death Valley as seen through pink-tinted sunglasses, it's all too obvious that the production had run out of ideas and run out of money, and that everybody just wanted to wrap the damn thing up and call it a day.
That's really a shame. There's a kernel of a good idea in 'Star Trek V' that could have made for an exciting and intellectually-stimulating movie if allowed to develop without studio constraints. In concept, it bears a lot of resemblance to 'Original Series' episodes about superior alien beings parading themselves as gods, such as 'Who Mourns for Adonais?' or 'Plato's Stepchildren.' And frankly, Shatner isn't that bad as a director. He stages most of the action effectively enough, and keeps the pacing brisk. He shows his love for 'Trek' in the little details, like bringing back the communicators and shuttlecraft from the old show. Aside from the aforementioned Romulan girl, the director elicits good performances from most of the cast. He's worked with the lead actors long enough, and knows these characters inside-and-out.
In fact, 'The Final Frontier' actually has some terrific character moments for the main crew. The campfire sing-along is a bit much, but the jovial interactions between Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest are some of the best of the series. The actors are all comfortable in their roles and enjoy playing these characters. More than any of the others, this movie emphasizes the family dynamic at the heart of 'Star Trek.' There's some real emotion here, too. McCoy's flashback to his father's death is just heartbreaking. That scene belongs in a better film.
As it stands, 'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' is a movie of missed opportunities. It fails on most counts, but isn't as entirely worthless as its reputation might suggest. The film has its heart in the right place. Only the execution is lacking. Boy, is it lacking.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' is available on Blu-ray exclusively as part of the 'Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection' box set from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Annoyingly, every single disc in the set automatically starts with a very loud trailer for the 2009 'Star Trek' feature film and an ad for the Blu-ray release of 'Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 1' before the main menu.
Unfortunately, 'Star Trek V' is another Blu-ray transfer plagued with issues. At the very least, it has a much better sense of sharpness and detail than the 'Star Trek IV' disc. Although some scenes are more detailed than others, at its best, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is very revealing of things like the wire holding the stunt man during his mountain fall, Shatner's toupee, Nimoy's nylon wig, and the many bad blue-screen composite shots. That may not sound so great, but I'd personally much rather be able to see that level of detail than not.
The picture also has strong colors, especially when you get to the psychedelic ink blot effects at the galactic center and the weird pink tinting on Sha Ka Ree. Like all the discs in the set, the Blu-ray is presented in the movie's original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Shatner makes surprisingly effective use of the widescreen framing.
Some viewers have pointed out that, in a few scenes, the contrast balance of the Blu-ray is much hotter than the earlier DVD edition. Specifically, this occurs when the shuttlecraft lands to retrieve Kirk from Yosemite, and during the appearance of "God" on Sha Ka Ree. In both instances, whites are blown out with obvious detail crush. If you were to look at an isolated screen shot, you'd probably assume that there's something wrong with the Blu-ray transfer. However, the Blu-ray is faithful to my memory of the movie's theatrical prints (I saw it twice), while the DVD looks too dim. You must remember that, in both cases, the actors are meant to be bathed in super-hot light. When the shuttlecraft shines its spotlight onto Kirk's face, the DVD looks more like he's standing in front of a table lamp. As far as I can tell, the Blu-ray is more accurate in this respect.
On the other hand, black levels in space do seem a little too light at times, and the opening credit text looks bleached. So, perhaps some electronic contrast tweaking has taken place, but I still think that the Blu-ray's levels look better on balance.
So what's wrong with it? Once again, Digital Noise Reduction has been liberally applied. Waxy facial features aren't so much a problem here, but this disc has some terrible issues with film grain processing. Countless scenes exhibit artifacts where grain freezes in place or swims in unnatural patterns as the actors move through it. This detracts from the desired filmic appearance, and is frequently very distracting.
There's no question that the Blu-ray has a lot more detail than the DVD, and is superior in most respects. But it should still look significantly better with a fresh film-to-video transfer.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack is very loud and directional. Dialogue is a little soft, and some of the sound effects are a bit bright. On the other hand, the track has some nice low-end rumble and fairly good use of the surround channels. As cheesy as God's howling may be, it fills the soundstage with admirable clarity and immersiveness.
Jerry Goldsmith's score is presented with decent musicality. Overall fidelity is satisfying. I wouldn't call this the best-sounding disc in the set, but it is at least on par with the second and third movies.
A few scenes in the film have subtitled alien dialogue. The subtitles are all contained within the Scope movie image, and are safe for viewing on 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection screens.
The Blu-ray carries over just about everything from the 2-disc Special Collector's Edition DVD released in 2004.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The Blu-ray also includes a few new features.
Will Work in Any Blu-ray Player
BD-Live: Requires Profile 2.0
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
The only item missing from the 2-disc Special Collector's Edition DVD released in 2004 is the text trivia commentary by Michael and Denise Okuda. The information in that track was mostly consolidated into the new Library Computer feature.
The 'Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection' contains six feature films and an almost overwhelming volume of supplemental content, both old and new. Although the video quality of some of the later movies in the set is a bit uneven, all are significant improvements over their old DVD editions. Even with its high list price, the set is an easy recommendation for fans.
'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' may be the weakest movie in the series, but it has more positive elements than most fans are willing to acknowledge. Honestly, it's still 'Star Trek,' and not unwatchable by any means. Like most of the later movies in the set, the Blu-ray has problematic video, but pretty good audio and a bunch of bonus features.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.