It's got a plot and a villain unlike any other in the entire film series, and it does something genuinely different with the setting than I think any "Trek" fan would have expected at that point in the franchise. It also more than redeems the series after the horrific "Star Trek V."
You know what Toshi liked most about "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country"?
All the goddamn Klingons.
He's decided that Klingons are about the coolest thing ever invented. He loves it when Klingons are horrible, too. The meaner and nastier they are, the more Toshi cheers. He spent two days talking like Christopher Lloyd after he saw "Star Trek III," and so far, he's told me that I'm wrong when I say the Klingons are the "bad guys."
"No, dad. No. They're not bad guys. They're crazy."
Which is somehow a pass. I'm cool with that. I love the way he processes things right now. All the way up to the time they start kindergarten, kids exist in a sort of fog of fantasy and unreality and role-playing and magic. And Toshi's life is, I think, a little extra wierd for growing up in my house.
More on that at the end of this piece...
[more after the jump]
First, though, here's why I hate "Star Trek V" even more after rewatching it back-to-back with this film... because "Star Trek VI" proves that William Shatner absolutely had the goods.
He just needed a filmmaker to build scenes around him. Nimoy is one of the best friends William Shatner ever had, because he directed him to absolutely precise effect in both of his "Trek" films. Nicolas Meyer, of course, directed "Wrath of Khan," making him the other best director-of-Shatner of all time, because the work he gets here is great, putting him toe-to-toe with Christopher Plummer, who comes on strong in every moment he can. Meyer knew that the only way you could really build a perfect Shatner scene is by putting someone so strong up against him that they're not going to give an inch, no matter how much Shatner pours it on.
Released in 1991, "The Undiscovered Country" is a goodbye on two fronts. First, it's a goodbye to the original cast, the original crew. This is the last big adventure with all of them together. It's a victory lap. If this was the laziest of the films, I wouldn't be surprised... but it's not. Because it's also a goodbye to one of my favorite sub-genres of film SF... the communist/Cold War metaphor. There are about 10 bazillion films that fit that description, and it's little wonder... as terrorists are to our current pop culture consciousness, so were Communists for a good 20 years. In 1991, a Glasnost fable told with "Star Trek" characters was actually a fairly heady idea for a franchise that had just taken a huge commercial credibility ding.
And the coolest thing about it is that, at its heart, it's a murder mystery. Set onboard a ship. Which you've got to admit is not a standard-issue "Star Trek" movie. It's a juicy conspiracy movie, and part of the fun is watching it all unravel as Kirk and the crew hammer away at it. David Warner, who did indifferent work in "Star Trek V," seems enervated by the presence of Plummer, and also because of Meyer, who he had collaborated with so succesfully in "Time After Time." And Kim Cattrall plays a Klingon officer who manages to distinguish herself enough that there's little danger of her being called a Saavik retread, although as I understand it, originally this character was literally supposed to be Saavik. Considering how her storyline plays out, that would have been an interesting payoff to a fairly bland and mismanaged character.
The entire cast manages to regain lost dignity here, shaking off "Star Trek V" like a bad dream. The film plays, for the most part, without any of the winking that hobbled that film so badly, and in many ways, this feels like the smartest closing of the book on these characters that you could ask for. My one complaint is that the racism against the Klingons is so pronounced in the characters this time that it's sort of like watching "Back To The Future 2," where Marty McFly suddenly develops this insane fetish about being called chicken which never existed in the first film. I get why they did it, and they paid it off for two whole films, but it was still sort of out-of-the-blue when they introduced it, and here, they crank up the xenophobia to a huge and obvious extent. It's a little off-putting, actually, to see this cast that's spent so much of the rest of the franchise reaching out to new cultures and species suddenly acting like my grandmother. closed and afraid. Still, it can be explained to some extent by just how vicious the Klingons are, and in Kirk's case, the death of his son in the films certainly gives him justification for his attitude.
Out of all the films, this is the one that led to the most questions from Toshi as we watched. He was confused by the murder mystery, he didn't understand the Cold War dynamics at all, and there was more talking than I think he was prepared for, but in the end, the Klingons more than won him over, and he cheered every moment of Mr. Spock in the film.
When we got to the end, he asked me what was next.
"That's it. That's all the films they made with that cast and crew."
"What?! Why they not wanna make more of them for you and me so we can watch them?"
I tried explaining "The Next Generation" to him, but he wasn't having any. He felt betrayed by the idea that there were a finite number of movies featuring the original cast, and he actually sulked about it a bit. I think I've assuaged that hurt by introducing him to the animated series ("Toshi, do you like cartoons?" "Duh, daddy." "And you like 'Star Trek'?" "Of course I do, daddy." "What would you say to a 'Star Trek' cartoon?" "...") and by screening the original series on BluRay, but the movies... to him, that's "Star Trek."
I am pleased by how his experience with these films has given them back to me, with fresh reactions and fresh enthusiasm, and in general, watching these films with him and then writing about them for you guys has been one of my favorite experiences so far at HitFix.
And it got me thinking.
When I was a kid, there were no movies on home video. Not when I was really young. If you were Elvis, you could get movies on videocasette that the studios sent over as a courtesy. But that wasn't even something I fantasized about. I was just happy with whatever came on TV, whenever TV was allowed. And it was non-negotiable. I was given TV as a privilege, not as a right. My parents had books in the house, and they were always encouraging me to read.
Today, I am surrounded by media. In my office. In my living room. In my garage. On my shelves. Around my workspace. Above my bed. In boxes. In 300-disc binders. In the packaging. Out of the packaging. Physical. Digital. Backed up. Irreplaceable.
And at some point, all of that media belongs to Allen and Toshi. My boys are absolutely free to follow their curiosities as far as is age-appropriate. We've got VHS. DVD. Laserdisc. Store-bought. Used. Traded. Bootlegged. Some of it lugged around for over 20 years now. There are digital files that I have on a hard drive in storage that came off of a particular vinyl album that I owned when I was 15 years old. The same copy, captured with all its hisses and pops. And all of that, every bit and byte and file and stack, all belongs to my boys.
If they want it. If not, then it's damn nice to have m'self.
The point is, Toshi and Allen are growing up in paradise compared to what I had, and I'm curious how the availability of all of this is going to affect them and influence what they do or don't watch.
Basically, I'm building a Film Nerd 2.0 right now in Toshi. I'm not sure Allen's ever going to be the same way, which is fine. The things I do with him right now have nothing to do with movies, and I love that time just as much. He's 19 months old, for god's sake... if I were trying to force him to fit into the same mold as Toshi or me, I'd be a real jackass. It should never be about programming someone to be a smaller version of me, but instead, should always be about encouraging him to follow his own tastes and providing the films he can watch as he does so.
I've been asked to do more of these types of pieces with Toshi, and so this final "Star Trek" article also serves as the kickoff for "Film Nerd 2.0," my new ongoing series, in which I share some of the landmark geek movies I grew up watching with Toshi, and I offer you guys not only my perspective, but the shared perspective that comes from watching these with someone who has no cynicism about this business, no agenda in what he does or doesn't like. He is pure id, responding to each film fresh, and he has helped recharge my own battery as a film fan in ways I can barely articulate.
Won't stop me from trying, of course.
Next up on "Film Nerd 2.0," Toshi's first encounter with "The Last Starfighter" on BluRay.
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