Saturday, April 25, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

By 1986, Star Trek was twenty years young. While it may have started out as the little show that bucked the odds, it had since become a proven commodity and reliable moneymaker that Paramount could count on to refill their coffers every couple of years. Thus, pretty much as soon as The Search For Spock hit theaters, another entry took on the air of inevitability.

As Trek IV begins, Kirk and crew are still on Vulcan following Spock's mental retraining, before deciding collectively to use their captured Klingon ship to return home and face the music for their (unnecessary!) actions in Star Trek III. Their homecoming is interrupted when a mysterious alien probe (a distant cousin, no doubt, of the mysterious alien probe from The Motion Picture) makes a destructive beeline for Earth, vaporizing the oceans, raining destruction on the planet, and just generally making the planet uninhabitable.

Why, you ask? For that, we turn to Mr. Spock, still plenty fast even on a slow day, who deduces that the probe is attempting to communicate with Earth's humpback whales (which are extinct in Trek's 23rd century). In short order, Kirk formulates a plan to solve the crisis by retrieving humpbacks from Earth's past, bringing them back to future, opening communications with the probe, and thus rescuing the planet. Hey, don't look at me. These are the same guys who thought stealing the Enterprise was a great plan last time around.

It had to happen, though. Star Trek and time travel go together like lifting sofas and back pain: do the former long enough, and you'll eventually end up with the latter. During the TV run, they went to the time travel well several times, including the first season episodes "Tomorrow is Yesterday" (where the Enterprise goes back to the then-present day '60s) and "The City on the Edge of Forever" (which remains one of the finest hours of Trek ever aired), so it was only a matter of time before the movie series followed suit.

In a marked tonal shift from the thematic discussions of life and death woven through the previous two films, even though the stakes are higher in The Voyage Home, those stakes never intrude on the intended hilarity of what's meant primarily as two hours of pure escapism. For this go-round, the returning tag team of producer Harve Bennett and director Leonard Nimoy once more drafted Nicholas Meyer, who skipped out on the last movie, in a writing capacity.

Given Meyer's presence on the bill, it's not too surprising that where the movie most excels is during the 1980s sequences that he penned (after covering very similar turf in his own Time After Time, right down to the San Francisco setting). We get the expected struggles with language ("Double dumb ass on you!" says Kirk to an angry motorist) and the wry commentaries on "modern" technology (Spock nerve pinches a punk playing a boombox too loud. Remember boomboxes?). It's the usual sci-fi fish-out-of water stuff that I have to believe was tired even back then, but Meyer's words, coupled with our familiarity with these characters, provides a nice cushion to charm us through it.

And speaking of charm, in their search for whales, Kirk and Spock (luckily) find out that two humpbacks are exhibited in Sausalito, and (even more luckily) are soon to be released into the wild. This is the cue for our man Kirk to turn it on for the marine biologist in charge of the animals (Catherine Hicks, who would team a decade later with fellow Trek movie alum Stephen Collins on 7th Heaven), leading to some amusing byplay between the two (She: "Are you from outer space?" He: "I'm from Iowa, I only work in outer space.").

While, the filmmakers deserve points for their "Save the whales, save the world" story, which is good-intentioned even if a little too on the nose, so much time has passed from when the film was "current," that much of the Reagan-era topicality that was laced into its DNA has been left by the wayside (The Voyage Home is older now than the original show was then). A generation removed from the Cold War, the comic value of the Russian Chekov asking about where to find nuclear "wessels" probably isn't as ha-ha hilarious as it once was (although, unlike last time, it's good to see Chekov finally getting his moment to shine).

By the time our heroes have retrieved the whales and returned to their own era (don't ask how they left, don't ask how they got back), we move into "checklist" territory, going down the tally of story elements that need resolution. First up, saving the planet. Check. Next, the trial and eventual commutation (with Kirk's rank reduced from Admiral to Captain as "punishment"). Check and check. Lastly, there's the matter of a ship for him to command, and as luck would have it there's a brand-spanking new starship Enterprise waiting for him and his crew. From there, with everything from the last two flicks nicely wrapped up, it's off to the next movie and another adventure.

Like its predecessor, Star Trek IV does what it needs to do and not much more. It doesn't strive for the scope of the first film, nor the emotional depths plumbed by the second and third. The marching orders here were for a romp, and a romp they produced, helped along by Leonard Rosenman's bouncy music score, steering wide of Goldsmith and Horner's bravura thematics, and Nimoy's breezy direction, displaying considerable assuredness with his sophomore effort. If there's a problem, it's one that's perhaps inevitable with the passage of time. Some of the humor hasn't aged especially well, and by the time we get there, the suspense for the climactic trial is pretty much nil.

Still, back then this was clearly the recipe for success, as Trek IV reached a level at the box office that far surpassed any of the preceding films (or subsequent ones, for that matter), and achieved three-pronged hosannas from critics, the general public, and the Trekkie audience. As it happens, this was the last time the original Star Trek crew would have the stage all to themselves. This was Thanksgiving of '86, and another generation was getting ready to rear its bald head in a few short months. But that didn't mean the voyage was over for the original crew just yet. B+


Ian Sokoliwski said...

I don't like this movie at all.

Yeah, I know. I'm the only one :)

I find nothing appealing about the movie at all. The humour seems forced and out-of-place to me.

Before I go any further, I'd just like to point out that I don't like any comedies without the work Airplane in the title. So there is that...

I get why they were trying to make the movie so funny - lightening things up after the past really dark tales - but it ends up taking me out of the story too much. Not to mention the logic problems with the script don't really give you any help with staying in the story in the first place.

I mean, WHY would a Klingon Bird of Prey have audio recognition files on an extinct species from Earth? How could an engineer from the 23rd century know how to quickly work an original Macintosh? (seriously, all you webmasters and code-monkeys and programmers out there, can any of you use punch or IBM cards? and that computer technology is only a few decades out of date!)

...okay, I'm not going to post a list of all the logic problems with this movie...I'd basically have to post the script.

Suffice it to say, all the what the? going on kept me from getting into what is basically a pretty...well, kinda boring story, truth be told.

Okay, one more MASSIVE logic problem and then I'll end this. This is supposed to be a story about ecology and Man's destruction of native species and harming the environment, right? This is supposed to be all about how we are supposed to be good to the planet around us and much more enlightened in general, right?

Okay. In that case, why does this other species, the ones wanting to communicate with the whales, use a means of communication that DESTROYS THE FRAKKING ENVIRONMENT!???!??!?!?!! I mean, seriously, they disable every starship that gets near them with this communications system, then start to EVAPORATE THE FRAKKING OCEANS?!???!??!?Way to be enlightened, guys.

So, yeah. The central premise of the movie is...somewhat faulty. IMHO. YMMV. ;)

Zaki said...

Ha! Great post!

I think I'm more ambivalent towards TREK IV then anything else. Don't hate, but don't love it either.

As far as the Klingon computer having access to the sound of whales, I figured that in the three months the ship was on Vulcan, they probably uploaded a Starfleet or Vulcan database at some point.

Your point about the probe is a good one, though. I know there was as novel written back in the late '80s called PROBE that went into more detail about it, so maybe it was addressed there. I tend to treat TREK fiction like poison ivy though, so I wouldn't know. :-)

Ian Sokoliwski said...

HAH! You know, I was rearranging the furniture in my apartment yesterday, moving my Star Trek Ghetto (the bookshelf that contains my three dozen or so ST novels), and noted that I actually owned a hardcover of Probe but had never read it.

Mayhaps I should do that later today...

The Mad Swede said...

Have to confess that it's one of my favourite Star Trek movies, but will equally fast also confess that it was the first one with the original crew. At this point in time (read: in the late 90s), I had been converted towards becoming a Trekkie through TNG and DS9 (the latter reamining my favourite Trek) and the turning point towards old material (of which I've admittedly seen very little) was catching this movie on the Sci-Fi Channel. And after that renting most if not all of the movies to date.

Andrew Wood said...

You've seen this, right? The complete version of the punk song played by that dude on the bus.

You'll never hear a better use of the word "eschew" in the English language!