Friday, May 1, 2009

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Retrospective)

It's amazing that Star Trek VI, a direct allegory for the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, still holds up eighteen years later. Its story feels in no way dated or stale. In fact, The Undiscovered Country feels more relevant now than ever before, as technology has made the world seem both smaller and yet more divided. At its core, the story is timeless: what do you do when your enemy stops being your enemy? How do those who fought and served forgive? How do they move on?

Added to this central idea is the foregone conclusion that this was to be last feature for the original cast, an idea Paramount advertised to death in an attempt to get people back into theaters after Star Trek V. The median age for the cast at that point was around sixty, and The Next Generation had come into its own by 1991. It was time to pass the torch. And this melancholy fact heightens the drama: these characters may have outlived their usefulness, and this could be their last time to make a difference. And with that in mind, the story gains a weight that wouldn't have otherwise -- and ties brilliantly into the movie's central themes of not being able to let the past go.

And if this wasn't the last original cast feature, if there wasn't such a rush to get a Star Trek film -- any Star Trek film -- into theaters for the franchise's 25th anniversary, it probably would have been a very different film. Writers Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn make some very ballsy decisions with this story, and it's among the franchise's darker stories (only beat by one or two episodes of Deep Space Nine). I still can't believe they got away with it, because they make the majority of the Enterprise crew racist.

True, the human characters in Trek have never been a fan of the Klingons, but they never seemed to really hate them. There's venom and bile to spare in The Undiscovered Country. Having Brock Peters -- the man that played Tom Anderson in To Kill a Mockingbird, for God's sake -- deliver a clearly racist, hate-filled speech about the Klingons is frankly shocking. (On a side note, I'm glad Peters played Sisko's dad on DS9 after Star Trek VI, a character that reflected the best of us, instead of the worst.) Even worse: elements of the Federation and Klingons finally agree upon something and work together for the first time, in the interest of continuing their cold war, to continue hating the other in peace.

I've been watching the Original Series these last few months, and I expected the Klingon episodes to play out as anti-communist propaganda. There's only one episode with them in the first season, and I was surprised by it. Even if it is a USA vs. USSR story, both parties act like meddlesome dicks who can't mind their own business, with Kirk coming off almost as bad as the Klingon heavy. In that story -- and many others -- the Klingons are an allegory for some of the worst parts of our nature, the need to control, to make war, to dominate, to limit choice and freewill - which means they play just as well with or without their ties to the Soviet Union.

Some might disagree with Meyer's choice to make the Enterprise crew bigoted, but to me this makes the story honest. They would hate the Klingons. Without this element, there would be no dramatic arc for the characters. Plus, it would make them look like a bunch of pompous goody-goods (one of Next Gen's biggest problems, but I digress...) next to the Klingons. Both sides have something to learn here, which makes the story work..

And Kirk's realization that he's got a lot to learn about another culture plays out beautifully. For the first time, he meets Klingons that are not part of the war machine. He sincerely mourns the death of Gokorn, a diplomat who is assassinated as so many peacemakers have been in human history. He learns firsthand how much he has in common with his enemy - both his best and worst qualities.

It's an incredibly strong script, and the only thing stopping it from beating The Wrath of Khan for my favorite Trek story is the compromises Nicholas Meyer had to make for the film to reach the big screen. The film feels rushed in order to make the 25th anniversary release date, with several plot holes and continuity errors, which are really only noticeable on repeat viewings -- but they are, to me, very noticeable. You can practically feel the stress coming off the cast and crew from making this film so quickly in many scenes. It lacks the sweep or the confidence of The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and First Contact.

And the final battle is severely disappointing - the place where the film's limited budget shows the most. The final battle between the Enterprise and Chang's Bird of Prey could have really been something. Instead, the Bird of Prey kicks the shit out of the helpless Enterprise until Spock figures out a way to completely reverse the scales.

It's interesting to note that VI is both the beginning and the end of two eras of special effects. It's the last Trek film where the majority of the effects shots were done optically instead of digitally, though there are a fair amount of digital effects in the film - the shockwave, the floating blood, and the morphing effect that was all the rage after Terminator 2. But despite this new technology, models were used exclusively for the Enterprise and the other space ships in Star Trek VI. In the next film, Generations, there was a pretty even mix of optical and digital effects used for the starship shots. By First Contact, almost every visual effect would be produced by computers.

I'm not a CG hater, but optically composting scale models for colossal ships like the Enterprise gave them a weight and believability, a feeling that these ships really were lumbering through space, that digital effects are still unable to replicate to this day. It's the only thing that optical effects still have over digital effects, and while it would be silly -- not to mention visually inconsistent, costly, and time-consuming -- to use models for the "beauty" shots, I wish they were still used more commonly for less action-heavy sci-fi stories (which are also in short supply these days, but that's a different rant for a different time...).

What else is there to say about this film? Not much -- except to say that you should watch it if you've never seen it, or haven't seen it in years. It's a wonderful send-off to the original cast, and one of the best Trek stories ever filmed. After all, you've never experienced Shakespeare until you've heard it in the original Klingon...

No comments: