For many Star Trek fans, “The Undiscovered Country” is a redemption of the series after the disaster of “The Final Frontier.” I can not be counted among those fans. This film has never set well with me. Perhaps it was a bridge too far, a vain attempt to recapture the past glory of “The Wrath of Khan.” But while Nicholas Meyer helps to restore the cinematic vibe missing from the previous film, and the story of old warriors facing the frightening realities of peace is good, the actual script is lacking.
The film begins with an incident throwing the Klingon Empire into chaos. How is an empire that stretches across a large part of the galaxy and has rivaled the Federation for 70 years unable to deal with the loss of a single moon? I don’t know. Something about not having enough air? OK. We’re then introduced to a bunch of Klingons and the racism of the Federation is accentuated. OK. The Federation includes countless species from countless worlds, but they’re unable to deal with the slightly odd behavior of a few Klingon?
By this point, we’ve been introduced to all the major players. Several of the characters are portrayed in a way that makes them seem suspicious, from the odd behavior of the new Vulcan to the mustache twirling theatricality of the old Klingon general. Sadly, this is because the movie, which sets itself up to be a mystery, lacks any subtlety. Everyone who seems to be untrustworthy and potentially a villain is in fact untrustworthy and eventually proven to be a villain.
Star Trek has always been rife with references and nods to history and literature. But the script for this film is so packed with referential jokes that it becomes distracting. And not just the obvious Shakespeare lines, but the Adlai Stevenson translation quote, the Nixon in China bit, the Sherlock Holmes as Spock’s ancestor, Rura Penthe, etc. etc. etc. Nods and references are fine, but there comes a point where it starts to seem self congratulatory (see: anytime Dennis Miller talks), and this film reached and passed that point.
The best parts of the Star Trek films have always been the character moments, and “The Undiscovered Country” does have a few good ones. I especially like all the stuff with Sulu as captain of the Excelsior. And the investigation, where Spock and the crew go all CSI, trying to track down the real killers is great. Sadly, they’ve already essentially Columbo’ed us by making the mystery completely without mystery. I like the relationship of Kirk and McCoy when they get sent to prison, even though I don’t like the whole prison sequence. The knee genital gag…Oh, boy, that’s lame.
Christopher Plummer is pretty amazing as the totally over the top, batnuts Klingon Chang. He’s turned it to 11 and is chewing scenery like a cowboy chews tobacco. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the performance works in the context of the film. It’s too wacky in a film that’s trying to be somewhat serious. And it’s really unfortunate that he’s so obviously bad, and then turns out to be bad. They could have done something to defy expectations. Kim Cattrall on the other hand, is absolutely dreadful. It’s obvious that her character was supposed to be Saavik (also played by two terrible actresses), but by making her a new character, she’s robbed of any emotional weight. And I can not stress enough that Cattrall’s performance is dreadful.
I am glad that the film’s plot does not revolve around a direct threat to Earth, nor does it spend an undue time on the ol’ homeworld. I just wish the plot we are presented were crafted in a more challenging and interesting way. When you make a conspiracy/mystery film, where the tension relies on the audience investing in the riddle, you shouldn’t make it so blatantly obvious. While none of the Star Trek films are perfect, and some have some bigger, more obvious flaws, something about this one just rubs me the wrong way. It might be an objectively better film than “The Final Frontier,” but it certainly doesn’t bring me as much joy.