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EZ Viewing: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

The second film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country!

I respect J.J. Abrams for what he accomplished with his Star Trek reboot.  (Click here for my review.)  I enjoyed the flick, and am thrilled that Trek is exciting and “cool” again.  But THIS — Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country — is my kind of Star Trek: dark, sophisticated, and adult.  This vies with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the position of my favorite Star Trek film, depending on my mood.

An ecological disaster on the Klingon homeworld leads them to make the first gesture of peace towards the United Federation of Planets, their bitter enemies for so many decades.  Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are sent to escort the Klingon chancellor to a peace conference on Earth, but a brutal assassination sends the two galactic super-powers once again hurtling towards war.

Star Trek VI is a serious, dark film.  Yes, there is some action/adventure to be had, but for the most part it’s a rather somber film.  The film is brave in presenting our hero, Captain Kirk, in a pretty unsympathetic light: Kirk is still filled with anger at the death of his son at the hands of the Klingons (in Star Trek III), and is shown to be remarkably cold and callous at the prospect of the terrible fate about to befall their empire.  “Let them die,” he quietly tells a shocked (and disappointed) Spock, early in the film.  I love this portrayal of Kirk – it’s a very human depiction of this heroic character, and it gives Kirk a real journey to go on over the course of the film that has nothing to do with warping across the galaxy.  It’s a potent, emotional core to the film.

Trek VI has an incredibly smart, literate script.  The film is filled with references to literature and history.  Some of those are obvious (such as the Shakespeare-spouting Klingon villain, General Chang) while others are much more subtle.  (One of my favorite moments is when, during Kirk and McCoy’s trial on the Klingon homeworld, General Chang angrily shouts at them “Don’t wait for the translation!  Answer me now!”  This, of course, is a nod to Adlai Stevenson’s speech to the UN during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)  Even the film’s title, I probably don’t need to point out to you, is a reference to a famous line in Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech.  The film’s central story – the prospect of peace between long-time enemy super-powers, and what that means for the “Cold Warriors” so used to hating their enemies – was inspired by the real-world events happening as the film was being made: the beginning of Perestroika and the end of the Cold War.

All of which is my long-winded way of saying that YOU DO NOT NEED TO BE A STAR TREK UBER-FAN TO ENJOY THIS MOVIE!!!  I think that the movie’s adult themes and sophisticated allegories are compelling to Trek fans and non-fans alike.

But for the uber-fans, since Star Trek VI is the final film starring the original cast, the movie is filled with lots of little nods and references to the history of the series (many familiar characters return, such as Sarek and the Klingon Ambassador from Star Trek IV) and connections to Star Trek: The Next Generation (Michael Dorn plays his TNG character’s great-grandfather; the peace conference is held at Camp Khitomer, a place of enormous import to Worf’s TNG back-story; and of course there is Kirk’s wonderfully playful final Captain’s Log entry).

There are so many moments in this film that I adore so much.  I love Kirk and Spock’s confrontation at the start of the film, in which Kirk expresses his anger at being sent as a peace envoy to the Klingons.  (Spock’s response: “Only Nixon could go to China.”)  I love the dinner scene, when the Enterprise hosts the Klingon chancellor and his party to dinner aboard the Enterprise.  What begins hopefully of course devolves into anger and hostility, and the scene is brilliantly written and performed.  I love the horrific, haunting mind-meld scene.  I love Captain Sulu.  I love the somber score.  And I am in absolute awe of the note-perfect final scene, a superb send-off to the cast of the original Star Trek.

The regular cast does admirably.  The always-great Leonard Nimoy turns in what is probably my favorite performance of his as Spock.  The way he expresses silent rage – while still, barely, maintaining his Vulcan emotional control – when he slaps a phaser out of a character’s hand at a key moment is astounding.  Even the sometimes mocked William Shatner does fine work, turning in a remarkably subdued performance as Kirk, with few histrionics.  The guest cast is stupendous.  Christopher Plummer, one of the finest actors of this generation (just last week I was praising his work as Sherlock Holmes in my review of Murder By Decree), appears as the villainous, bald Klingon General Chang.  He’s so good in the role that it makes me giggle with glee.  I also love David Warner (appearing in his second straight Trek film, though in Trek V he played a different, much-less-interesting character) as the Lincoln-esque Klingon chancellor Gorkon.

The visual effects – by ILM – are some of the best in the series, and I also love the look of the sets and costumes.  The Enterprise, in particular, never looked better.  Notice the subdued color scheme of greens and blues that fits the movie’s darker tone.  Very clever.  The movie has an epic feel that is quadrupally impressive when one considers that this film was made for the paltry-even-in-1991 budget of only $27 million dollars.

Credit for all of this must primarily go to the amazing talent of Nicholas Meyer, who wrote and directed the film.  (He also wrote and directed Star Trek II, my other favorite Trek film.  See any pattern there??)  As I commented in my recent review of Mr. Meyer’s film Time After Time, he is, in fact, the non-mystical reason for the so-called odd-numbered Star Trek curse (in which the even-numbered films are thought of as far-superior to the odd-numbered films).  The reason is simple:  Mr. Meyer wrote and directed Treks II and VI, and also co-wrote Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  He was not at all involved with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek III, or Star Trek V.  Hence the higher quality of the even-numbered films.  Mr. Meyer “gets” Star Trek the way few others ever did (despite his not really having been a Star Trek fan before beginning work on Star Trek II – not unlike J.J. Abrams twenty years later).

This is a phenomenal film – Star Trek at its very best.

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