June 9th, 1989
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Nutshell: The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise falls under the spell of Spock’s half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) as they barrel to the center of the universe to find God.
1989: “Star Trek V” holds a special memory for me, as it represented a perception of freedom brought on by the power of the pedal -- the bicycle situation I wrote about earlier. The summer of 1989 gave me tremendous consumer power to choose the films I wanted to see when I wanted to see them, but the showing of “Star Trek V” I attended 20 years ago presented a challenge alien to my puny leg muscles. To witness the latest adventures of Captain Kirk, I had to wheel myself over to the stately Cooper Theater, a former home to the glory of Cinerama and unofficially the finest movie palace the great state of Minnesota has ever seen. Trouble is, the Cooper felt a million miles away, even involving the crossing of a freeway! Sure, I could’ve bugged someone to taxi me straight to the theater doorstep, but that would’ve been smart. I was 13. I wasn’t smart. I decided I had to earn this one.
Well, I made it without much of a fuss. I suppose that needed a spoiler alert. It was a harsh journey necessitating unseen, exquisite two-wheeled maneuvers, split-second mental acrobatics, and the precise navigation of four whole miles, but, for a sheltered dork like me, it was practically a bloody, stumbly, sun-caked trudge to Mordor.
I wasn’t a “Star Trek” kid at the time. I did manage to see both “The Search for Spock” and “The Voyage Home” theatrically, but this sort of sci-fi only electrified my system years later. In 1989, it was still “Star Wars” or nuthin’. Still, the summer vacation promise of space battles and charismatic actors was fascinating. If my memory serves me correctly, “The Final Frontier” wasn’t the most stirring adventure imaginable, yet I recall being mesmerized by the dark psychological tone of the piece, especially exhibited in a cavernous, historic theater with about 10 other people in attendance. I didn’t reject the film at the time for the production problems that would become painfully obvious later. I was simply taken by a widescreen story told with unsettling pockets of intimacy.
2009: “The Final Frontier” has been vilified to an eye-popping degree over the last two decades, by both fans and civilians equally hungry to sully the ivory tower of “Trek.” Yes, perhaps William Shatner should’ve been shooed away from the director’s chair. Yes, the special effects are literally unfinished and look quite pathetic at times. Yes, there was no demand for a half-nude, fiftysomething Nichelle Nichols to perform a lusty fan dance. Yes, the whole God narrative is a conceptual no-win situation, leaving the finale of the film, and its colossal laser-shooting deity face all the more absurd. Hey, it’s flawed “Trek,” but I’m not convinced “Final Frontier” is as ghastly a movie as its reputation suggests. In fact, I dig it.
Having digested 20 years of production revelation, analysis, and Trekkie regurgitation, the finicky particulars of the film’s box office and fandom failure are crystal clear. The picture is hardly a “Wrath of Khan” triumph, yet the meditative qualities of the script recall the finest moments of the original series, and the Sybok “share your pain” sequences invite stellar work from Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley (Luckinbill is equally as terrific). The comfort zone of the cast, while not exploited to its fullest degree, carries much of “Final Frontier,” even through the toxic nonsense of the ill-advised God material. Coming after the joyful, breezy “Voyage Home,” I understand why the public revolted. However, accepted on a smaller scale and with a fast-forward button within reach for the climatic confrontation, “Final Frontier” is a warmly crafted picture only lacking a sophisticated technical and dramatic finesse the earlier features held in abundance. The film is never aggressively odious, just undernourished.
But I offer no excuse for the “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” bookending sequences. To figure out what the holy hell Shatner was thinking there would take an ego drill the size of Greenland to properly excavate. If there wasn’t a cringe-inducing show tunes duet in “Star Trek: Insurrection,” the campfire camaraderie in “Final Frontier” would easily nab the honor of being the most atrocious scene to ever crash a “Star Trek” movie.
Nutshell: Having recently met and fallen in love with Julie (Mare Winningham), Harry (Anthony Edwards) plans a late-night date with his new girlfriend. Arriving late, a dejected Harry picks up a ringing pay phone nearby. On the other end of the line is a panicked caller informing Harry there’s only 70 minutes to escape Los Angeles before nuclear war breaks out.
1989: “Miracle Mile” screwed me up big time as a kid. You see, while my fellow early teenagers were out in the world either gathering critical life skills that would help to enrich their adult lives or at least trying to clandestinely slip into more obvious, smutty R-rated events at the multiplex, I was attempting to watch everything I could get my hands on. This meant routinely viewing material that was way over my head. “Miracle Mile” was such a picture.
The great thing about sneaking into art-house cinema with limited universal appeal is that the theater staff rarely takes notice. Try to “Mission: Impossible” your way into “Road House,” and there’s always going to be a snotty 18-year-old usher with a weird sense of professional obligation (rewarded with a blazing $3.35/hr wage), eager to toss out younger folks who would perhaps like an early glimpse of a female breast or two, and definitely some acts of extreme violence. Try to finagle safe passage into a low-budget screen affair with limited marketing and iffy distribution, and there’s not a theater in play that would hang around to enforce the restrictive rating. Really, what kind of nerdly kid would actively seek out challenging screen fare?
My appetite for forbidden fruit probably led me to “Miracle Mile,” along with my percolating paranoia/obscene fascination with nuclear war. The details of my attendance are too foggy these days to be exact, but one element remains as clear as day: the final 45 minutes of the film.
Playing with traditional, toe-tapping romantic comedy structure, writer/director Steve De Jarnatt creates citywide panic with only the bare minimum of screen ingredients. “Mile” is a fierce, terrifying picture that allows itself a few choice moments to play possum right before it unfurls a hypnotic wrath of terror, following Harry as he traverses the streets of L.A. in an effort to save Julie before the end of the world. However, to a soft mind like mine, the last act of the feature, where the reality of futility sets in and Angelino chaos is crowned, was a creepshow of astonishing power. *Spoiler alert* Ladies and gentlemen, Harry and Julie are ultimately reunited, but only to die together. The bombs go off. The world ends.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. The lovers were supposed to live. The bombs were going to be a hoax. “Miracle Mile” was one of my first interactions with a downbeat, sucker-punch ending, and the picture disturbed me immensely at the time. Partially because I kept waiting for De Jarnatt to flick the switch and reverse the intensity, but mostly because atrocious actor Kurt Fuller (him again!) developed a nasty case of melty eye once the missiles landed.
“Miracle Mile” knocked the wind out of me at a time when that type of sensation from the movies wasn’t exactly expected.
2009: “Miracle Mile” now stands as a slightly dated piece of ‘80’s nuclear paranoia, buffered by a successful tweaking of established romantic comedy formula. It’s the meet cute taken to its ultimate statement of devotion. The Tangerine Dream score and Ewok-sized cell phones aside, “Miracle Mile” remains as chilling as ever; it’s a uniquely accomplished nail-biter incredibly efficient with exposition and an absolute demon with scares. These days, with the Gaspar Noes and Lars von Triers of the world making hopelessness an art form, I’ve grown accustomed to exiting the theater emotionally thrashed and mentally shattered. Yet, “Miracle Mile” still packs a wallop, especially when everything goes to hell and our lovers are forced to confront their mortality. The gorgeous, unbearable feeling of doom that De Jarnatt (who, in a wicked turn of fate, went on to direct “Lizzie McGuire”) evokes is, well, miraculous.
“Miracle Mile” plays brilliantly fast and loose, relying on a frightening pitch of apocalyptic bedlam to hurl itself to the bitter end. It’s one of the finest thrillers/doomsday pictures of the 1980s, and if you’ve haven’t seen it, make a plan to. It’s truly a unique piece of suspense.
Coming next week…
Who ya gonna call…um, again?
And Nicolas Cage takes a giant leap for weirdokind.