“It’s going to be of interest mostly to trekkies, and then only so they can analyze what’s wrong with it.”
Well I agree with Mister Ebert so let’s get this ball rolling. The sooner I start the review the sooner it’s over.
This movie really is an enigma to me. In following with my previous idea that the one at the helm should be familiar with the franchise they’re working in, or if they’re not take cues from those around you who are, and make sure your vision doesn’t totally overturn what makes the franchise work. With that in mind this movie should have worked just fine. Shatner is obviously familiar with the franchise because he’s in it and he’s surrounded by his cast-mates who also know how the franchise works. So what the hell happened?!
In the interest of full disclosure I have not read Shatner’s Star Trek Movie Memories book or the book his daughter wrote. So if any of my conjectures here are answered or debunked by information there I will happily amend my ideas.
First off Shatner at least in the commentary seems very focused on how different shots look and how they transition in this film, specifically the opening ones. And I agree they do look very nice, the problem comes from it being style not substance. A lot of the scenes are interesting to look at, but they don't make sense in the film. Shatner would probably make a much better cinematographer than he does a writer and director.
Shatner also talks about the fact that you need motion in a motion picture and he mentioned this in the Star Trek 4 commentary as well and that to me kind of speaks to the limited range he seemed to have as a director when focusing on this project. That every shot has to have movement to keep the audience engaged and invested, and have it be cinematic; and it doesn’t. In fact a lot of movement can actually be really distracting when it doesn’t serve a purpose. If the purpose of the shot, what you’re trying to convey to an audience, doesn’t require that your actors move then don’t move them. Especially when you’re on a tight schedule as he was and he even says that stationary shots are easier to shoot, and they are because there’s less worry that people are going to miss their marks. I mean what’s the point of having the Romulan ambassador walk down the stairs when Sybok is making his demand tape and then walk right back up the stairs to where she was to begin with? Why not just keep her still? Budget was also apparently an issue with this film, but as I said in an earlier review this film had the second highest budget out of the first six films so I don’t think money was really the big quality factor. The issue appears to be that money was used in areas where it didn’t need to be. Like the cat dancer in the bar. That whole thing could have been cut and the money for make-up and all the rest could have gone to something else, like making the Klingons not look like their faces have been stitched together by an eight year old.
Another major stumbling block is that Shatner wanted to move this back to the formula of the original series, and I think that’s one of the big sticking points here. We’ve moved beyond that within the film franchise. Shatner for whatever reason didn’t seem to recognize this. Now seeing the trio of Kirk Spock McCoy back together is fun because we had stepped away from that in the last two films. Spock was obviously out of commission in the third film and the last film focused on putting the crew in different groups from the norm. However, even here the regression is easily seen. The Spock McCoy relationship that I praised so much in the last film has pretty much disappeared. Although McCoy’s hostility with Spock does give us one of the only funny lines in the film: “God I like him better before he died!” Once again McCoy is the only one bringing humour to the film. Still, the fact that McCoy's character development after carrying Spock's katra has just up and vanished is disappointing to say the least. Furthermore, in the commentary Shatner talks about how Nimoy and Kelley had to be convinced to do the story Shatner wanted to tell. And Shatner seemed more focused on the scenes themselves then how they tie together as a whole unit. Yes the scene with McCoy and his father is a great acting moment for Deforest Kelley, but you really don’t know why a doctor would have issues with pulling the plug, Shatner? Especially on his father? Euthanasia, voluntary or not, is one the most heated moral debates you can have. Of course it could be seen as inconsistent for McCoy who is a character who has always valued life deeply and even says so in the beginning of the film to perform that kind of act. I can see why Kelley would have reservations about playing that. However, the fact that he does do it provides depth for the character. To have that contrast of outlooks on life is interesting and is insightful to see why McCoy values life so much and works so hard to preserve it, but it isn’t about McCoy really in the grand scheme of the plot. It’s about finding a good reason for him to leave Kirk’s side. According to the commentary this is the same reason Sybok is Spock’s brother. Again this has interesting implications for the character of Spock. Having this brother who embraced the emotions and passions of Vulcan’s ancestors and being banished for it had to be hard for Spock. How much more pressure would Spock now put on himself to be a perfect Vulcan? Not only to make up for his perceived handicap at being half-human, but also to replace the elder son Sarek lost. It provides a whole new layer for the character, but again it too really isn’t explored well enough. There was a hint of that with Spock telling Sybok that he had found where he belonged and was no longer the lost boy Sybok had left behind when they were young, but that’s all it is, a hint. All of that is really just to get Spock to leave Kirk’s side too and the only reason it didn’t happen was because Kelley and Nimoy both put their foot down and said no to doing it. The focus of this film is clearly all on Kirk to the expense of everyone else, and that sucks the fun out of everything from the story to the acting.
While in the last film everyone seemed to be really relaxed and having a good time here you can just see that the supporting cast is doing their best with material they clearly don’t like. There’s no enthusiasm, there’s no fun, everyone seems kind of resigned, like we have to be here let’s just hurry up and get the shot done and then we can leave. Sulu and Chekov are there to be the butt of terrible jokes about being lost, and Koenig’s half-hearted delivery of “Sulu, look it’s a miracle” just highlights how much the man clearly does not want to be doing this. You can just see how James Doohan thinks hitting his head on a beam is stupid for his character. The way he kind of wobbles his head as he falls down. Though I do have to admit I always laugh at that scene. Yes it’s stupid comedy that doesn’t fit at all with the tone of the film and makes Scotty look like an idiot in his own ship. I still laugh anyway. I’m a fan of the Three Stooges and the classic Looney Tunes shorts, sue me.
Now there is one thing about the supporting cast that I enjoy in this film and that is the pairing of Scotty and Uhura. Now since I blasted the Abrams movie for the poor handling of the pairing of Spock and Uhura I’d like to talk about this pairing a bit. I actually really like this pairing and I think it works in the film. It’s one of the few things that does in my opinion, and I think the reason for that is that it’s just there. Uhura isn’t reduced to girlfriend eye candy just because she’s dating Scotty, both of them are in the film to do their jobs and don’t let the relationship get in the way of that, and this is a relationship between equal colleagues and so there isn’t teacher student red tape to get ensnared in. Also they have background in their years together and this relationship while it seems to come out of nowhere to the audience is clearly an established one for the characters. They are comfortable with public displays of affection and were planning to take shore leave together. Them getting together could have happened at any point before this. I personally liked to think it happened in the lost years between the original series and The Motion Picture, because between Spock running off to Gol, Kirk becoming an admiral that nearly sucks the life out of him, and McCoy growing that horrible beard I’d like to think some people in the Enterprise family weren’t totally screwing up their relationships. Finally I love this pairing because it’s an older couple. I’m glad when movies and TV shows acknowledge that life, including your romantic life, doesn’t end after you hit 50 or 60.
While I like most of the music here I have no idea why they chose to use The Motion Picture theme for the opening credits. Sure watching The Motion Picture is a little bit weird with the The Next Generation theme, but they didn’t know in 1979 that it was going to be re-used in another series later on and be firmly identified with it. This film doesn’t have that excuse. This was released when TNG had already been on the air for two years, it was now and forever their theme. There was a lot of other fine music here, including what comes immediately after when Kirk is climbing El Captain, why not use that instead?
Honestly, there is really only one way this film works for me and that is to bring in the ‘it was all a dream’ trope. Everything that happens in the movie in between the two camping scenes is just a dream Kirk is having brought on by too much bourbon and beans. Now this lifts the film in many ways for me. The first being that all the logic breaking stuff like the Enterprise having more decks than your average skyscraper and Sybok’s convoluted quest for God gets chucked out the window. Dreams don’t run on logic so the plot doesn’t need to either. Also this interpretation brings a neat glimpse into the mind of Captain Kirk. Why is the Enterprise a broken piece of junk put together by monkeys? Because the Enterprise A could never live up to his original silver lady. Why does his crew betray him? Because Kirk fears that time has changed too much and the crew can never be what it once was. He fears they have moved own with their careers away from him, remember Chekov was serving with a whole other ship and crew back in Wrath of Khan, and he will be left alone. The villain is a generic Klingon because that’s who Kirk has always fought and he sees it as the natural order of things, as we’ll see in the next film. Everything just comes together really well for me in this context. Of course Shatner said in the Star Trek 4 commentary that he thinks the ‘it was all a dream’ idea is a cheap story point so I know that he wasn’t going for that idea here, but it makes the film far more bearable for me.
In the end this film really just seems to be an example of a director who didn’t know how to pull everything together into a proper production. This film falls in line squarely with The Motion Picture for me. I find it difficult to sit through either of them in one sitting. I like certain scenes here and there, some of the ides are interesting, there are a few moments that are fun or funny, some character bits I enjoy like the Scotty Uhura pairing, but overall it’s just a mess and easily deserves to be on the list of worst Star Trek movies ever made.