Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier nearly destroyed the film franchise, but Paramount had other plans. 1991 was the 25th Anniversary of Star Trek, and they wanted to take full advantage of that by making one last feature that would send the crew off right. They hired the director of Star Trek II, Nicholas Meyer, to helm the film and come up with a story with the help of Leonard Nimoy. The entire cast came back, Industrial Light & Magic was secured for the FX and the trailers touted the film as the “last adventure” (in one of the coolest teaser trailers I’ve ever seen) for this crew. In December 1991, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was released. It was awesome.

On the eve of retirement, Kirk (William Shatner) and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are charged with assassinating a Klingon ambassador and are imprisoned for the crime. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the Enterprise crew must help them escape to thwart a conspiracy aimed at sabotaging the last best hope for peace in the galaxy.
This film is chock full of social/political commentary that Star Trek fans ate up upon its release. The Chernobyl style disaster that rocks the Klingon Empire to its core was very topical at the time, as was the idea of the Klingons (standing in for the Russians) wanting to coexist in peace with their neighbors (The U.S.). The overall thematic arc deals with racism, and learning to not judge anyone just by the color of their skin, or in this case the ridges on their head. Kirk’s arc deals with this exclusively. Of course it’s all done in the Roddenberry style to mask its true intent.

What makes this entry so great in my eyes is that every, and I mean EVERY, crew member gets something to do. Chekov and Scotty lead investigations aboard the Enterprise to search for the traitors and clues to the mystery, Uhura gets some comedic moments when trying to get the ship past a Klingon border patrol, Sulu is finally given the command of his own ship (the Excelsior) and Spock takes command of the Enterprise after McCoy is imprisoned with Kirk. Even though the final curtain call shot of the crew is kind of an epic fail (Sulu is missing), we finally get to see the crew working together to solve a problem just like in the classic series.
The acting is thankfully improved since the last film as well. Shatner is doing his best to, and I’m assuming this, put his directorial debacle behind him and go for broke in what was to be his final performance as Kirk (until Star Trek: Generations came along). Sure he has some goofy line deliveries (“…fire!”) and he is a little too old to be getting into a fistfight with anyone, let alone himself, but this is vintage JTK. One of my favorite moments in all of Trekdom is in the beginning when Spock is trying unsuccessfully to convince his Captain that helping the Klingons is in the Federation’s best interest. His response of “Let them die!” gets me every time. You can feel the hatred oozing from him. Shatner stepped up his game and it paid off.

Leonard Nimoy seems to be on autopilot for the most part, but there are a few moments where he comes alive and struts his stuff. When he confronts Valeris about her betrayal you can almost hear his voice crack due to his complete disappointment and frustration. DeForest Kelley is the comic relief guy once again, and even though he gets a number of horrible lines (“This is fun”) he manages to stay true to his character (“That cunning little Vulcan!”). His “I’d give real money if he’d shut up!” line cracks me up to this day. George Takei gets a lot of screen time, and it’s a welcome change. The scene he shares with an uncredited Christian Slater is fun, and watching him take command of his own ship is rad (“Target that explosion and FIRE!”). James Doohan, Walter Keonig and Nichelle Nichols do the best with the material they are given.
The new cast members are kind of amazing and kind of not. The villain, General Chang, is played by none other than Christopher Plummer. The character is written in the style of Khan since he enjoys quoting Shakespeare, and Plummer plays him as an honorable psychopath who just wants to trade blows with Kirk (“In space, all warriors are cold warriors”). He chews scenery about as well as Montalban and he looks like he’s having the time of his life playing a villain like this (“Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”). Kim Cattrall on the other hand really sucks and she looks like she just doesn’t get this playing a Vulcan thing. She’s smarmy, petulant and kind of unlikable. You can tell she’s in on the conspiracy from the moment she shows up on screen and she doesn’t do anything to hide it. It’s kind of strange knowing that she was originally going to play Saavik in Star Trek II, but passed due to unavailability. Would my opinion of that movie change if she took the part? Food for thought.

The dogfight during the finale is one of the best and most suspenseful in the series. You basically have a ship that can launch torpedoes while invisible and there's no way to defend yourself against it. Seeing the Enterprise being torn apart by multiple volleys is pretty cool, and when it turns into a two-against-one battle things get really sweet. My only complaint is the convenient and overly hokey solution to the invisible spaceship problem (“The thing’s got to have a tailpipe”). The FX during these scenes are amazing looking to this day, and because of the Praxis shockwave sequence every sci-fi movie from that point on had to have a similar effect when something massive exploded in space (George Lucas had it added to the original Star Wars trilogy whenever a Death Star would blow up).
I also have to mention the score by Cliff Eidelman. While not a traditional Trek score, the dark main theme and awesome percussion was just what this movie needed to separate itself musically from the rest of the films, especially The Final Frontier. I still listen to the soundtrack regularly and find it to be a refreshing take on the material, unlike what was featured in The Voyage Home (ugh!).

Unfortunately there is some shit floating in this Olympic sized swimming pool of sci-fi awesomeness. There are way too many overly sentimental moments and some of the dialogue is absolutely foul (“They can’t arrest you for having feelings.”-“Then we’d all have to turn ourselves in.”, “What we require now is a feat of linguistic legerdemain and a degree of intrepidity.”, “Guess who’s coming to dinner.”). Some of the cast feel the need to sort of wink at the audience now and then, and it’s really cheesy whenever it goes down (“I can’t believe I kissed you!”-“Must’ve been your lifelong ambition!”). There’s also some convenient plot devices that irk me to no end. Like Spock just so happens to have a tracking device on him to slap on Kirk’s back before he’s sentenced, the crew having exactly what they need on hand to take out the cloaked ship in the finale and the fact that Valeris had a recording device on her while visiting Kirk’s quarters as if she knew she’d get some juicy sound bites from him to use in his trial.
While The Undiscovered Country does at times feel like a feature length episode of The Next Generation, it does have a large enough scope to qualify it as a theatrical feature. And rightfully so. This flick is a fast, fun and thoroughly worthwhile addition to the franchise. The crew goes out with a (literal) bang, and watching the actors write out their autographs over the end credits gave me chills when I first saw this in the theater. It’s a classy way to send off this cast of great characters, and it’s one of the best films in the entire franchise.

4 out of 5

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