Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, A Last Hurrah That Works More Than Just Metaphorically!

The Good: Good plot, Nice message, Decent acting, Most character work
The Bad: Returned scenes garble everything, Spock's character
The Basic: Despite some serious character and plot flaws, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country remains a solid film that illustrates a diplomatic process that meets with resistance.

"All good things must come to an end," goes the old saying and as the actors portraying the primary cast of the classic 60's science fiction show Star Trek aged and decided they were done with their occasional outings into the final frontier, they closed the series with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Not ones to go out on a low note, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-A is charged with essentially creating universal peace and making the 25th Anniversary of Star Trek an event.

When the Klingon moon Praxis explodes, the Klingon homeworld's environment and power supply is crushed. Unprepared for the magnitude of the environmental disaster, the Klingons turn toward their old enemies, the Federation for help. Captain James T. Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise head to a rendezvous with the Klingon flagship that ends with an unfortunate incident wherein the Enterprise apparently fires on the Klingon ship and StarFleet officers beam aboard and kill the Klingon Chancellor.

As Kirk and McCoy are tried and convicted by the Klingons for failing to save the life of Chancellor Gorkon, a new Chancellor is named. Spock works to find the evidence to exonerate his friends before they are killed on an icy prison planet and in the process, he uncovers a plot that strikes at the heart of all he believes in.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is one of those movies that comes in with a bang - the explosion of Praxis is quite impressive - and manages to go out with one as well. This is the end of an era, the cinematic adventures of Captain Kirk and his crew, and by the way the crew is split up, the viewer feels that. To wit, Captain Sulu is in command of the U.S.S. Excelsior and while he is invaluable to the film, actor George Takei is virtually relegated to a cameo role as a result.

The Undiscovered Country is hailed by many as the best of the Star Trek film franchise and while it is a wonderful film, three things keep the movie from rising to the level of greatness that was achieved by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (click here for my review of that!) and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (click here for that review! ), especially when those two are viewed together as one longer movie. The three things that keep The Undiscovered Country from being even remotely considered perfects are: the bastardization of the idea of the Federation and StarFleet for plot points, Spock's actions near the climax of the film, and the sloppiness of the writing as far as basic details go.

On the two-disc special edition DVD of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the director's cut of the film is presented, which simply reinserts a subplot into the movie that involves a rescue attempt for Kirk and McCoy by high command figures in StarFleet. Recutting the Colonel in with his essentially racist (against Klingons) viewpoints and remarks cheapens what Star Trek stands for.

I've vigorously argued that Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek was not truly achieved until Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yet, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the supplemental characters are all motivated by conservative ambitions to keep a cold war mentality going and they are almost universally prejudiced, barbaric and, well, dumb. In short, Roddenberry's vision is of a humanity that is not motivated by greed, war or prejudice and yet in The Undiscovered Country, the highest levels of StarFleet are filled with people who are only avaricious, barbaric and bigoted. It's insulting to anyone who has watched Star Trek and bought into concepts like Infinite Diversity through Infinite Combinations. It's a cheap way to flesh out the plot at the expense of the greater themes Star Trek had stood for for a long time before.

Moreover, the viewer is asked to believe that high level conspirators within StarFleet, the Klingon and Romulan Empires are working together to . . . prevent the major powers from working together. Wrap your head around that.

Even more troubling is what happens with Spock near the climax of the film (I'm writing around a lot of details here to prevent any "surprises" from being leaked!). On the bridge of the Enterprise, Spock roughly grabs a fellow officer and performs a Vulcan mind meld. The person resists and Spock pushes. In essence, the audience watches Spock rape another character and the scene is disturbing, treated as uncontroversial and guts the pacifistic, rational character that fans have loved for the twenty-five years before this film was made. The scene is violent and more than anything else in the movie is why the film ought to have been rated PG-13 (it escaped with a PG and for those who do not follow my reviews, I seldom bother even noticing ratings from the MPAA). Strange, considering Leonard Nimoy was intimately involved with the creation of the story, that the writers would so incredibly botch the character of Spock.

While the other two elements might only be appreciated by fans, the final problem is sloppiness that any moviegoer who is awake for this film will find troubling. The first words of the film are uttered by Captain Sulu, dictating a captain's log about how the Excelsior is returning from the Beta Quadrant where it has been cataloguing gaseous anomalies. At the climax of the film, Spock and McCoy retrofit a photon torpedo with . . . the sensor equipment that the Enterprise had used on its last mission, cataloguing gaseous anomalies. Now, I'm not saying that there isn't a whole lot of gas that needs to be catalogued in space, but it seems like the writers mixed up their two ships and that's just indefensibly sloppy. What's sadder is that Uhura's suggestion that they utilize this equipment is the strongest contribution she makes to this endeavor.

Beyond that, the movie is wonderful. Even if one does not like Star Trek (heretic, you!), The Undiscovered Country is a vital outing that is accessible to anyone. Like the very successful cinematic outing Star Trek IV The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country takes a powerful social idea and couches it in the science fiction/adventure trappings of Star Trek. In this case, the philosophical question of what happens when there are no more wars to fight is tackled.

The Undiscovered Country is a metaphor for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, with the Klingons taking the place of the USSR and the Federation embodying the United States. The tensions, mistrust and machinations are compelling. Sure, it buggers the viewer to see Klingons and humans working together so they won't have to work together, but the idea is very well explored.

In fact, outside the comedic elements that are thrown in to try to capitalize on the same formula as The Voyage Home, the dinner scene wherein the concept of peace and life without wars is debated is brilliant and vibrant.

The reason The Undiscovered Country ultimately works as well as it does is because it maintains the focus on the characters, in this case Captain Kirk and . . . well, virtually everyone else. Chancellor Gorkon is an idealist, General Chang is the fairly generic villain and Captain Spock is more diplomat than science officer here, which foreshadows his return in "Star Trek The Next Generation's "Unification, Part II.” Gorkon and Spock are rational, idealistic alternatives to the conservative, warring viewpoints expressed by Kirk and Chang. These other characters service Kirk by providing him with guides by which to grow.

And Kirk grows beautifully in The Undiscovered Country. While some die-hard fans seem to hate the idea that Kirk might hate Klingons, the motivations seem very vivid, considering what happened to his son in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Kirk's anger becomes something he must confront and a serious liability to his ability to perform his mission. Indeed, because he is clinging to his hatred of Klingons, he is easily convicted at his trial on the Klingon homeworld. Through the course of the movie, Kirk wrestles with his dislike of Klingons and his desire to see them suffer as a result of the actions certain individual Klingons have taken.

One person I know is deeply offended by Kirk's suggestion near the beginning of the movie that the Federation's response to the Klingon's desperate crisis is "Let them die." I believe his utterance, in the halls of StarFleet's most powerful people, is a shocking statement that serves the story well, while preserving the character of Captain Kirk quite well. It's hard to be high and mighty when you are hurt, no matter how evolved one is.

Moreover, how Kirk's reaction evolves from being willing to let the Klingons suffer and die without aid to his shock when Gorkon is murdered, is compelling. This leads the viewer on an emotional journey that is realistic, intense and wonderful to watch.

Part of what does this is the acting. Guest actors include David Warner as Chancellor Gorkon, Kurtwood Smith as the Federation president, Mark Lenard as Sarek and Brock Peters as Admiral Cartwright, all of whom are familiar to fans of the "Star Trek" franchise for other roles. Here they each perform wonderfully, contributing to their characters in ways that transform them from "types" on the page to vivid individuals on the screen.

Christopher Plummer plays General Chang and his performance is wonderful. Plummer is menacing, maniacal and clever as the one-eyed general. Plummer varies his performance between cultured and deadly with an ease that overcomes his prosthetics. He steals every scene he is in.

Having seen some episodes of Sex and the City, it's a pleasure to see Kim Cattrall acting in The Undiscovered Country. She plays Spock's protege, the Vulcan Valeris. She is emotionless and wonderful in the role and it's a big stretch for those who are used to her from the other show.

It is William Shatner whose performance rules The Undiscovered Country. Kirk's character journey would not be possible were it not for the depth and scope Shatner used to portray him. He throws his whole body into the role, playing sedate and intellectual in the dinner scene and making his brawl on Rura Penthe completely believable. Shatner earns his pay and it's a pleasure to see him redefining Captain Kirk as a truly dynamic character in this outing.

The two-disc DVD set is very much designed for the fans. Bonuses include commentary and a number of featurettes that explore the ending of the adventures of the original Star Trek. Virtually all of the bonus features explore The Undiscovered Country in the context of the Star Trek universe (including a wonderful one where guest actors are shown in their various other Trek incarnations), leaving little for those who are not fans of the franchise to celebrate.

And there is a lot in the movie that is geared toward a more mainstream audience. The conflict in The Undiscovered Country is one of life and death that is wonderfully open to anyone who likes a good political thriller. At the end of the day, The Undiscovered Country is about how governments relate and the machinations that are in place to create and disrupt peace. As a result, the film succeeds admirably in making a statement about what peace ought to cost.

That's a lesson anyone can appreciate.

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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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