Saturday, April 20, 2013

Let’s Review a Movie: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Well it’s a happy 76th birthday for George Takei today.  To celebrate the occasion I’m taking a look at the last film with the original cast and it’s a damn find send-off.

As it is a send-off the plot revolves around the crew of the Enterprise being called back in for one last mission, to be the olive branch for a full peace treaty with the Klingons.  Now the whole being put out to pasture idea is bit hit and miss for me.  Yes, it’s the last film for the original cast and so the film does a good job reflecting that in universe I just think it still needed to be developed a little bit more.  I mean Sulu is off being an awesome captain of his own ship so obviously he’s not retiring, and that means Chekov shouldn’t be either if this whole being decommissioned thing is done by age.  And if it is done by age why is Admiral McCoy still apparently active in the TNG pilot at 137 years of age?   

Well anyway despite a bit of a flimsy set-up were off to save the Federation and the Klingons and this time it won’t be in fist-fights, except on the prison planet, it’ll be in a diplomatic arena.  And hooray to the make-up department in this movie, because we’re back to proper looking Klingons instead of that Halloween costume look in The Final Frontier.  The forehead ridges actually look like something made for a movie and with nice variation too.  Christopher Plummer has talked about how he didn’t want the big forehead thing for his character in this film.  Chang with his shaved head makes him distinct among his people, while keeping things like the moustache and some bumps lets the audience know that he is still a Klingon; along with his whole devotion to being a warrior.  That combined with the bolted on eye patch makes him memorable and establishs him as a complete badass.  I love Chang as a villain and I think the plot holds up really well too.

The whole theme works even though I don’t get all the in jokes, because it deals with an event within universe in an interesting way.  I really like that prejudice still exists in Star Trek, because it makes the universe so much more relatable.  Have we as a society progressed a long way since the sixties?  Of course we have.  Do we still have a long way to go?  Absolutely.  By the 23rd century has the Star Trek universe made great progress?  No question.  Yet we can see with the attitude about the Klingons that they still have a ways to go too, and that’s great to see.  Kirk’s prejudice I actually find really interesting because I think it comes at both a professional and personal level.  The Klingons have always been the enemy that he stood up against as a captain.  Even after ‘Errand of Mercy’ the antagonism is clearly still there between the two sides with episodes like ‘A Private Little War’.  Then adding to that we have the loss of David his son at the hands of the Klingons that Kirk has clearly never put behind him.  I also think it’s good that this whole plot point comes to ahead after being hinted at in the earlier films.  Krudge worried that Genesis would be a way for the Federation to conquer the Klingon Empire and that the talks of peace were just meant to be a smokescreen to their real plans.  The Klingon ambassador saying that there would be no peace in Star Trek 4 as long as Kirk lives.  The whole plan to develop Nimbus Three as a joint venture between the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans, it’s just too bad that last bit had to be in such an awful movie. 

The only prejudice angle that I think is a bit off is Spock’s claim about being prejudice about Valeris, because of her accomplishments as a Vulcan.  That never made any sense to me.  Spock intrusted her to hunt down the boots of the assassins and had no reason to doubt her sincerity in carrying those actions out.  Sure he did want her to replace him as first officer on the Enterprise, but number one the final decision for that post wouldn’t be his to make, and number two I always thought him wanting a Vulcan there was a bit of nostalgia for the good old days and not a prejudice.

Now Valeris as the director’s commentary explains was supposed to be Saavik, but Kirstie Alley turned it down or Gene Roddenberry vetoed it I’m not sure.  I don’t know if they even asked Robin Curtis about it.  Still I think having Valeris there as a new character works.  I think we’re allowed to see her enough to have a connection to her.   To see her and Spock interact and feel the betrayal of that relationship.  The only scene that I find a bit dodgy with this is when there leaving Spacedock and Kirk orders impulse power and Valeris counters with the regulations of thrusters only.  Obviously it’s a callback to Star Trek 2 which doesn’t really work without Saavik actually being there.  Still, I like that we don’t have Saavik here.  Now this could just be a knee jerk reaction that I wouldn’t want a character I enjoyed so much to turn out to be a villain here, but also that I don’t know if it would fit Saavik’s character to want to attack the Klingons this way.  She always seemed more professional than to stoop to such low behaviour as conspiracy to commit murder and then framing Kirk for it.  Sure she could have had a turning point with David’s death, but that’s already Kirk’s motivation in the film and so I think that might have made them too similar. 

With the theme and the characters also comes the great music which provides such a fitting undertone to the darker tone this film takes in address the events going on here.  The whole allegory to the Cold War is great even if I don’t get all the references.  Although I was alive when the wall and the Soviet Union fell I was too young to have those events have any impact on me.  The Cold War was an event in my history classes, not something in my daily life.  So when watching this film I don’t get some of the in-jokes like Nixon going to China, but the movie is still perfectly accessible regardless.  I also find it strikes a great balance between drama and comedy that was so thoroughly mangled in the last film.  For instance even though I didn’t know that Chang’s line about “don’t wait for the translation answer me now!” was from a real event I always laughed at it.  I also laugh at Chekov’s line about the Russian epic of Cinderella and dropping the boot all smug in front of the crewmen, and then cameras cuts to feet that would never fit in those boots.    

I like all the other character touches too like Spock and Kirk’s heart to heart as they head to the peace conference.  I love Kirk and McCoy being stuck together on Rura Penthe.  I love Scotty and Uhura’s moments helping Spock dodge Starfleet so they can wait to beam McCoy and Kirk to safety.  I love how Sulu holds his own as captain of the Excelsior.  Even if Spock and McCoy making the torpedo at the end totally robs him and his crew of their crowning moment of awesome.  Furthermore with Nicolas Meyer back in the director's chair we a nice variety of shots going on here.  I love that he breaks the gravity of the Klingon ship and we get to see them float around during the assassination.  The Klingon blood looks great and I didn't realize that was a computer effect until I watched the commentary.  When they're searching the Enterprise for the boots and uniforms I like that we get to see all the crew areas of the ship.  Bunk-beds and closets, things we often never get to see and it's neat.  Although I always have nagging question about the design of the  officers quarters, why do they seem to get smaller over time?  I mean in the original series there was a desk, a dresser, and a bed.  In Wrath of Khan Kirk had a little office space, an opening by the door to hang his jacket and we didn't see a bed so that was probably sectioned off by more than a fancy grill.  It looked quite professional I thought.  In this film we have a desk and a bed crammed against a wall and all of it is out in the open for everyone to see.  Why do the quarters now look smaller than your average college dorm room?        

Anyway let me sum this all up.  This is the curtain call movie and so ending the film with the cast signing off for the credits at the end was a touching final tribute to them (and as a credit bonus I noticed on this viewing that Adam Nimoy helped work on the film).  This whole movie really worked on that level.  Sure I think some of the retiring crew idea is a bit clumsy, but on the whole it works.  The crew gets to have one last great adventure.  It’s funny, and dark, and provides everyone with moments to do interesting things.  The theme allows exploration of something going on in our world in both a large and a small way.  The music matches the locations and sets look great, even if I don’t know why the quarters keep shrinking.  And the quote from Disney’s Peter Pan by Kirk lets us in the audience know that the adventures will always be out there for us to see and remember and share.  Then the crew rides off into the sunset, kind of a nice tie back to the Western genre roots from which this whole concept grew.  Also with Kirk changing out the narration at the end from no man to no one we had a nice subtle passing of the torch to The Next Generation.

And then the next movie had to go and fuck it all up.

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