Few spectacles will lower your jaw to your lap faster this summer than the first oh-my-God glimpse of the aging crew members of the starship Enterprise reunited for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The joke goes that there haven’t been so many wrinkles and wattles on parade since the California Raisins. But there’s nothing funny about the desperate way the old gang resists the fact that time goes by. What could have been a heartfelt valedictory to the troops in the September of their light-years becomes instead a losing battle to keep gray hairs, crow’s-feet and unsightly bulges at bay.
There’s no telling how much of the film’s $32 million budget went to flattering lighting, slenderizing costumes or cosmetic surgery. But I haven’t seen an outlay of wigs, capped teeth and corsets to equal this since La Cage aux Folles. The producers even recruited Kenny Myers, of Return of the Living Dead fame, as a special makeup designer. All to no avail. The rejuvenation attempt is ineffectual and deeply, irredeemably embarrassing.
William Shatner (Captain Kirk) and James Doohan (Chief Engineer Scott) suck in their guts so often you fear they’ll hyperventilate. Leonard Nimoy (Science Officer Spock) — like Shatner, he’s fifty-eight — appears even less expressive than usual buried beneath pounds of pancake. DeForest Kelley (Dr. “Bones” McCoy) is pushing seventy; he should know better. There’s also Walter Koenig (Navigator Chekhov) and George Takei (Helmsman Sulu) acting like bird-brained Boy Scouts and, this floored me, Nichelle Nichols (Communications Officer Uhura) doing a striptease for horny space creatures.
What’s next, the Star Trek Workout Video? I wouldn’t be surprised. There’s an operative principle here: greed. In Hollywood, you don’t kill a golden goose, especially one that took so long to start laying fourteen-karat eggs. Though the Star Trek TV series produced seventy-eight episodes before being axed by NBC in 1969 after three seasons, the show never crawled above a pitiful Number Fifty-two in the ratings. Only in syndication (by 1972, the series was rerunning in 170 markets) did Star Trek win a wide audience and spawn books, records and licensed products, plus four feature films, which grossed a whopping combined total of $350 million.
The big-screen Treks are a mixed bag. The first, Star Trek — The Motion Picture, in 1979, was an overproduced snore. The second, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in 1982, was better, thanks to Ricardo Montalban’s campy villain. Director Nicholas Meyer wisely put the stress on fun. But Nimoy, making his film directorial debut in 1984 with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, took the serious route. The result was the lowest-grossing entry ($76 million) in the series. Lesson learned. Nimoy — again directing and starring as the half-human, half-Vulcan — tried a lighthearted approach on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in 1986, and racked up raves and the highest take ($110 million) of any Star Trek to date.
Nimoy was suddenly in demand. Disney hired him to direct Three Men and a Baby (another smash) and The Good Mother (less than a smash but a class literary property). Shatner stewed; he reportedly refused to appear again as Kirk unless he also got his chance to play director. He got his wish.
Shatner, whose directorial experience had been limited to Los Angeles theater productions and a few episodes of his TV-cop series, T. J. Hooker, was determined to make a splash. He has. But probably not in the way he intended. Star Trek V: Shatner’s Folly (the subtitle is mine) handily takes the hollow crown as worst in the series. It’s bloated, bombastic and maddeningly pretentious.
It’s a lot like the character of Kirk. The captain always was a bit of a pompous ass. Kirk had to be bigger, braver, nobler, smarter, sexier than anyone else. Fortunately, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry sometimes allowed other, quirkier characters to score points off this twenty-third-century paragon, which saved Kirk from being insufferable.
Nothing saves him this time. With Shatner in command — not only does he star and direct, the story was his idea – Kirk is the whole show. We catch up with him on vacation. He’s climbing a cliff. Not just any unbroken cliff, mind you, but the world’s tallest: El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. Spock, Bones, Chekhov and Sulu are on vacation, too, but only Kirk defies death. What a man! Spock, the ninny, wears levitation boots, while the others worry below.
Called back to the Enterprise (despite the budget, it still looks like a flying waffle iron), Kirk embarks on a mission that really leans hard on his promise to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” He must rendezvous with God at the center of the galaxy. That’s heaven. A Vulcan renegade named Sybok, played by Laurence Luckinbill, is holding Kirk’s ship hostage. Sybok thinks the Enterprise can bust right through the Pearly Gates.
The trip gives Kirk and company time — way too much time — to consider the big who-and-what’s-out-there questions of existence. Not the stimulating kind you might find in the science-fiction writing of Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Robert Heinlein or in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s more like the cosmic pablum of Kahlil Gibran. Not content with making his actors look like dime-store dummies, Shatner makes them mouthpieces for dull gab that never stops.
Trekkies will cry foul if I give away more of the plot. Let me merely note that heaven looks disappointingly like what it really is, the California desert tinted red; that the talking head on view there resembles an angry Max Headroom more than God, Satan or the personification of man’s vanity; that the evil Klingons pursuing Kirk also deliver more blather (in Klingon, with English subtitles) than action; that the film is devoid of grace, wit or the excitement needed to rouse a justifiably dozing audience; that Shatner can’t direct for diddly. Credit the bungler, though, with raising support for an issue previously unthought-of at the end of a Star Trek film: enforced retirement.