Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) (part 4 of 6)
The story, in concept:
As an idea, having Kirk torn by the idea of peace with the Klingons and having to fight to preserve it in spite of some misgivings is a solid one, which ties in nicely with the events of the second and third movies (he meets his son in the second, and loses him in the third).
I also like that the story takes the Federation away from the rather stale, Dudley Do-Right tone the franchise usually has, and shows the viewer a darker side to it. One of the main problems I’ve always had with Trek was that it tried to make a utopian society into a positive thing, whereas most sci-fi tales show the inherent flaws in such a system.
Going against the grain isn’t a bad thing at all, but in the case of Trek, it usually went too far the other way, and made the good guys come off as shockingly naïve at best* whenever something that challenged their world view came up.
[*Why yes, Star Trek: First Contact. I’m looking at you and the “Battle of the Pompous Windbags” duel that Patrick Stewart and Alfre Woodard got into. The same goes for the blind hero worship that served as the B plot. By the way, Melville called, and he wants a royalty check in the mail within a month, or he’s gonna send a giant white whale after your ass.]
In the case of this movie, though, the corruption is acceptably muted (as opposed to the ninth movie, which was just stupid in the way it involved the Federation with the villains), with a few disgruntled military officials on both sides taking things into their own hands.
It is, in fact, a nicely taut political thriller, which the franchise didn’t really do all that often. Kirk and McCoy serve nicely as the noble men who are wrongfully accused (well, Kirk maybe has it coming a little, but we can get into that later), and the rest of the crew could easily be replaced by the standard crusading journalist if this was a thriller set in the real world.
The idea is great, as we automatically feel for the main characters, since we’ve been watching them for the last 25 years (the film was released as part of the franchise’s 25th anniversary celebration). It’s also rather ironic that a movie that begins with a nice memorial to Gene Roddenberry (he died earlier in 1991) proceeds to tell a story that would never have gotten the green light from the man.
On a side note, I also dig the Shakespeare references thrown in throughout. General Chang quotes him, as does Gorkon, and the title of the movie is a Hamlet reference. Hell, the way the story plays out could almost be called Shakespearean if you wanted to stretch things a little. As a fan of the dude’s writing, I get a kick out of it.
And yes, I did just refer to one of the greatest playwrights in history as a “dude”. As a native of Southern California, it’s my sworn duty, along with incessantly wearing sunglasses, not being entirely opposed to eating tofu, and walking around in shorts in the middle of January.
A fitting sendoff:
The movie is, in addition to being a taut thriller, the last chance for fans to see the original crew in action. Everyone gets their moment for the most part, with Sulu finally getting to run his own ship (the Excelsior from the third film), the main trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy getting their usual moments, Scotty in the engine room doing his usual (though, there is that nice badass moment at the end that I noted above), and Uhura and Chekov… Well, the franchise barely gave two shits about them anyhow, and here they just press buttons, but at least they’re treated fairly well! No nude fan dances, thankfully, though Chekov does have one or two obligatory moments of stupidity (no, you really, really shouldn’t raise your shields on a diplomatic mission when the diplomat you’re picking up arrives). But that’s just par for the course with him, so one can’t really get too grumpy about it.
The last scene is a nice ending, as Kirk gives one last captain’s log before the main cast signs off… literally.
Of course, they sort of took the piss out of it a little in the next movie, but that’s why we have a fantastically funny, insightful recap of that movie right here.
Virtually everyone does solid work here. The crew is good as usual, which one would expect from actors who have been playing the same roles for 25 years.
But I do have to praise William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy for their work. Kirk is a little more introspective here, which Shatner plays quite well, and Nimoy does a nice job of showing how a man in firm control of his emotions can feel guilty about making some bad decisions (of which Spock makes quite a few here). It’s a nicely subtle bit of acting, as is his work during the Valeris interrogation. He’s clearly not thrilled about having to do this, and the reactions of his fellow crewmembers make the scene even more unsettling.
As for the non-regulars, David Warner is his usual quality self as Gorkon. What can I say? He’s a British character actor. That alone guarantees he’ll at least attempt to give a shit… his turn in the fifth movie notwithstanding.
Christopher Plummer also is great as the bad guy General Chang, complete with sinister mustache and an Eyepatch of Evil, plus the obligatory love of culture (Shakespeare, in this case) that one generally finds in the better James Bond villains.
He’s clearly having a ball as he taunts Kirk with quotes from the Bard, goes all Perry Mason by way of Snidely Whiplash (in terms of his looks) during the trial, and just being an awesome dick of a villain. Trek has had a lot of good villains, but Plummer is one of the best, proving that Klingons have upper class douchebag snobs as well as noble warriors who put honor before all else.
That’s the main difference between Plummer’s villain and F. Murray Abraham in Insurrection. Both characters are essentially just self-centered assholes, but Plummer’s character has a little dignity, class, and style. It also helps that he doesn’t whine like a bitch when things don’t go his way.