Friday, April 24, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

If loyal Trekkers had any doubts about Mr. Spock's fate following his heroic sacrifice in the closing minutes of Star Trek II, those concerns probably evaporated once it was announced that Leonard Nimoy was stepping behind the camera to direct the follow-up. After all, it wouldn't be much of a "Search" if they didn't, y'know, find him. Suddenly, Trek III wasn't about whether Spock would be back, but how.

Picking up shortly after The Wrath of Khan faded to black, the scarred-and-blackened Enterprise limps back to Earth's Spacedock after defeating Khan and depositing the body of Captain Spock on the newly-created Genesis planet (that's from last time). Before the crew even has time to adjust to their losses (including the Enteprise itself, which is being decommissioned in favor of the newer, swankier Excelsior), two problems soon arise.

First, Doctor McCoy is suffering the effects of a last-minute mind transfer from Spock ("That green-blooded son of a bitch," he says, "It's his revenge for all those arguments he lost.") Second, Spock may not be so dead after all, as is discovered by Kirk's son David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) and Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis, replacing the suddenly-expensive Kirstie Alley) when they find Spock's empty casket and a Vulcan child wearing his burial robe on the surface of Genesis -- presumably regenerated by the mysterious properties of this new planet, and rapidly aging. I'm sure you can connect the dots from there.

When Spock's father Sarek (Mark Lenard, reprising his role from the "Journey to Babel" episode of the series) informs Kirk that his son's remains must be brought to Vulcan (chalk it up to some mystic booga-booga about the Vulcan afterlife), Kirk and Co. risk their futures by disobeying orders and commandeering the Enterprise to return to Genesis. In the process they face-off against an ambitious Klingon captain (Christopher Lloyd) who hopes to harness the power of the Genesis effect for his own destructive ends. Why? Because he's a Klingon, and that's what they did in the pre-Worf wilderness of 1984.

When all is said and done, Kirk has lost his newfound son, as well as his beloved Enterprise. But Spock lives.

Perhaps it was inevitable, after Star Trek II managed to strike all the right chords both creatively and emotionally, that the next go-round would end up just a little bit dissonant. There's nothing bad about The Search For Spock per se, but the sequential drive is focused so completely on turning the switch from "dead Spock" to "live Spock" as efficiently as possible that it gives the whole thing a rote, baseline functionality. A quarter-century away from any tension about Spock's eventual fate, this robs the film of the dramatic impetus that initially powered it.

In directing his first feature film, Nimoy doesn't embarrass himself. He executes the proceedings with a workmanlike efficiency that doesn't betray any major missteps, but neither does it lend the project any stylistic distinctiveness. Also, the same budgetary constraints that Khan was able to so-neatly sidestep thanks to its tightly-spun narrative momentum prove harder to overcome here. The obviously stagebound nature of the Genesis planet feels claustrophobic and artificial just when it should be panoramic and breathtaking.

Trek III was penned by producer Harve Bennett, flying solo this time around after the previous Trek's writer/helmer Nicholas Meyer passed on undoing Spock's death, and Meyer's nuanced, literary touch is deeply missed. Bennett described the process of writing Search For Spock as starting with Spock alive at the end, and working his way backward to figure out how he got that way. Sadly, this mechanistic paint-by-numbers approach becomes more evident when viewing the film in hindsight, and makes the seams a little too obvious.

Far too often there are instances of characters acting illogically based on information they couldn't have, such as Kirk's rush to retrieve Spock's body when, as far as he knows, it vaporized inside its casket after being launched into space. And when asked about taking the Enterprise back to Genesis, the Starfleet Vice-Admiral sternly admonishes Kirk that "The Enterprise would never stand the pounding, and you know it." You mean the pounding from the Klingon ship that's going to attack her? The question is, how do you know it?

For that matter, couldn't the science ship Grissom that's orbiting and charting the planet (and that his own son is a crewmember on) find Spock's body and bring it back? There's an attempt to address this with some dialogue from Kirk about it being his responsibility, but of course the real reason is because the plot necessitates that ship getting destroyed so Kirk can show up and have the big throw-down with Lloyd's Captain Kruge.

Then there's the little matter of stealing the Enterprise, unquestionably the action highlight of the film's second act. The leadup to this sequence gives each of the Trek extended cast a moment to shine (something lacking in the two previous films), whether it's McCoy's comical confrontation with Starfleet security, Sulu's takedown of a guard, Scotty's disabling of the Excelsior's engines, or Uhura's tidy disposal of a high-strung Starfleet rookie. Come to think of it, poor Chekov gets left out. Sorry man, maybe next time.

Nevertheless, as thrilling as the sequence is in an old-fashioned "caper" way (and helped tremendously by the returning James Horner's musical accompaniment), what remains unaddressed is how Kirk thinks the best way of returning to Genesis is by stealing the Federation's flagship from what I can only imagine is the height of security, to have it run by a crew of five (four, really, since McCoy's in and out). Really? This is the great plan formulated by Starfleet's best and brightest?

Again, it's a plot necessity so we can get to that dramatic moment when Kirk is confronted with the loss of his son at the hands of the Klingons. And I'd be remiss in not mentioning Shatner's performance here. The look of shock that glosses over his eyes, the stumble back as he tries -- and fails -- to reach for his command chair, the plaintive, "You Klingon bastard, you killed my son," all combine to give us one of his finest moments in the role, providing a rare peak behind the veneer of the indomitable space captain.

Faced with certain defeat, Kirk makes the fateful decision to scuttle his ship by setting its self-destruct sequence. What follows has a funereal somberness, from the initial countdown, to the ship's fiery demise, to its wreckage burning up in orbit like a falling star, and it remains a powerful moment -- even with full knowledge that another Enterprise was just one movie (and one letter) away. If the moment of David's death fails to match the dramatic weight of the death of the Enterprise, that's probably unavoidable, since our attachment to the old ship goes back longer and has roots that are planted deeper.

Ultimately, if Star Trek: The Motion Picture was undone by its lack of tonal reverence for the TV series, The Search For Spock has the opposite problem, relying a bit too heavily on the audience's ingrained attachment to the characters and their world to overlook the logic problems outlined above. Even Lloyd's baddie Kruge doesn't have much in the way of motivation beyond it being his assigned role as the antagonist (and not an especially bright one at that). Nevertheless, we gamely go along with it because we want and expect a climactic brawl (especially since we never got any Khan/Kirk fisticuffs the last time around).

Star Trek III does what it needs to do by restoring part of the original status quo and setting up a new one to be resolved at a later date. As the middle leg of a de facto trilogy to conclude two years hence, The Search For Spock paved the way for the franchise to experience its biggest box office success to date. But back in '84, that was all part of the unknown future, and longtime fans would have to content themselves with the promise, explicated at film's end, that "The Adventure Continues..."

Spock was back. Now what? B


Ian Sokoliwski said...

Meh. That's the general reaction to this movie. It's got some cool ideas, and the Klingons are kinda fun (if, as you say, a bit bad for the sake of being bad and lacking any coherent motivation).

In no way the worst of the films (personally, I prefer it to The Voyage Home, but I'll leave that diatribe for your next review), it introduces a MASSIVE amount of nit-pickers quandaries (money? huh? I thought they didn't have moneys in the future.) and out-and-out bizarre notions (why mothball the Enterprise after the huge refit it recently had? Seems like a waste of those space-moneys they may or may not have).

Oh, yeah. Protomatter. I've got a can of that in the back of my fridge someplace.

Back to one of those old Best of Trek reviews, there was an interesting notion put forward that Kirk was counting on the Genesis Wave regenerating Spock and programmed his torpedo-coffin (torfin? coffedo?) to do a soft landing on the planet. Otherwise, what the frak?!?!?!

Oh, yeah. The Grissom. I'm sure the writers had someone else in mind, but looking at this movie today, it would appear that the CSI franchise is still going strong in the 23rd Century, and Starfleet decided to name a science ship after everyone's favourite forensic entomologist ;)

Zaki said...

The whole protomatter thing doesn't ring true for me either. There's no way Genesis could have gotten as far as it had without someone figuring out that David had "cheated." Again, plot contrivance. It's understood that when crafting a movie there's a certain amount of push and pull for storytelling convenience, but the strings shouldn't be so obvious.

Steve McCauley said...

Not to mention they didn't need the ProtoMatter contrivance -- the Genesis torpedo was designed to work on a planet -- not a nebula!

Zaki said...

Good point!