The rule of thumb on Trek films is said to be that even numbered films are good, odd numbered films are not. I’m of the view that The Motion Picture is a fine and enjoyable (albeit slow) bit of filmmaking, but if I concede that my view on that movie is an outlier, then I also have to concede that the even/odd theory works pretty well, because The Final Frontier is kind of a terrible.
From the groan-worthy Kirk rock climbing sequence to the vague nature of what the crew are facing to the Klingons inserted into the movie solely to give Kirk a deus ex machina rescue in the end, very little about this movie works. Even the humor feels forced and out of place, especially next to the bright and shiny fun of The Voyage Home.
Kirk and crew are tasked with flying out to a distant planet and rescuing some hostages, but there are a few problems. First, the hostages are being held by Spock’s half-brother, and second, ooops, turns out they weren’t hostages after all. It’s a trap!
It’s hard to find a decent movie hidden among this film’s faults because even the basics are mediocre at best. For example, Sybok, the crazy Vulcan cult leader who doesn’t act like a Vulcan, is a poor choice for an antagonist. The actor puts on a fine performance, sure — and good performances are needed to balance out some of the worst Shatner ham in the series, thanks to Shatner directing himself (who thought that was a good idea?) — but isn’t half the idea of Spock that he is a Vulcan with human tendencies? It’s what makes him unusual. It’s what makes him unique. Sybok is Ultra Spock. It doesn’t work, and it also takes away from Spock’s unique role in this universe. It’s like making Batman’s main villain Batbat, a bat who dresses like a bat.
Sure, there are some Klingon villains wedged into the story, too, but they really serve no purpose in the story. Their every scene feels like an interruption. Some Klingon captain is obsessed with beating Kirk to prove his warrior status, so every 15 minutes or so we get an insert scene where he scowls a bit. That’s it. Why is this in the movie, save for the abovementioned deus ex machina?
Back to Sybok and the poor writing choices surrounding him. The other poor choice, and one that has a significantly negative impact on the movie, is that the writers keep his goals secret. First he has hostages for some vague political reasons. Then he wants to go to a mythical Vulcan planet for similarly vague reasons. It’s not until the last 20 minutes of the movie that we learn he’s searching for God.
Why keep this close to the vest? The fact that we never have a clear idea of what our heroes are up against, what our villain wants to accomplish, or what the stakes are is a detriment to the whole movie, making it feel like a series of scenes rather than a focused story. Worse still, the idea of flying out to some hard to reach planet to find God is actually pretty intriguing. They should have laid that out on the table from the very start!
Nevermind that they build up the impossibility of flying through the Great Barrier only to breach it in seconds (totally anticlimactic), or that Sybok somehow manages to brainwash the entire Enterprise by means that are never quite clear (in every brainwashing scene we actually see, he does it in person, one-on-one), or that the alien-who-pretends-to-be-god is an English-speaking dude with a beard (if no ship has ever breached the barrier, how …), or that not only is the humor far too slapstick (“Look at these wacky hijinks, Spock’s jet boots aren’t working!”), or that that humor actually impacts the story in stupid ways (Scotty “hilariously” knocks himself out cold and gets captured as a result; some writer thought that was a good idea?), or that the crew has a damn horse-rustling scene (seriously?). Nevermind all that.
It’s just not a very interesting story as presented, especially because the most compelling concept of the entire movie is held secret until the very end.
Poor choice atop poor choice atop poor choice makes for a poor picture.
It would have been easy to forgive other gripes had the story worked. Uhura’s dance scene would not seem as silly in a better picture. The incongruity of the gritty, rural nature of Paradise in the otherwise pristine Trek universe might have actually been interesting in a better picture. Shatner’s overacting could be taken in stride in a better picture.
But this is not a better picture. It’s a damn poor one. At least The Search For Spock made a valiant effort at being warm, thematically rich, and compelling. It may have failed, but it was a noble failure. I didn’t much like it, but I can’t knock the effort.
This just feels cobbled together by committee, a slapdash affair with absolutely nothing to recommend it. And that’s not hyperbole. There is no reason to watch this movie. Not ever. When your film’s most memorable scene is a nearly 60-year-old lady writhing around on a hilltop with a cringey soundtrack behind her, and the only other scene you’ll remember features a giant glowing God cliche shooting lasers from its eyes, you’ve done something very, very wrong.
Star Trek: The Final Frontier. Never again.