Synopsis: Admiral Kirk’s defeat of Khan and the creation of the Genesis planet are empty victories. Spock is dead and McCoy is inexplicably being driven insane. Then a surprise visit from Sarek, Spock’s father, provides a startling revelation: McCoy is harboring Spock’s living essence. With one friend alive and one not, but both in pain, Kirk attempts to help his friends by stealing the U.S.S. Enterprise and defying Starfleet’s Genesis planet quarantine. But the Klingons have also learned of Genesis and race to meet Kirk in a deadly rendezvous.
eyelights: its plot. its strong storytelling. its cast.
eyesores: the casting of the younger Spocks. Uhura’s relative absence. some of the special effects and sets.
“The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”
1984’s ‘Star Trek III: The Search for Spock’ is one of the most undeservingly maligned films in the ‘Star Trek’ franchise. Unfortunately sandwiched between two of the most popular entries of the whole series, ‘The Wrath of Khan‘ and ‘The Voyage Home’, it’s remembered without any fondness as merely a connecting thread; fans are quick to say that the odd-numbered entries in the series are the worst.
I beg to differ.
First, let’s discuss this view: While I can find no defense for ‘The Final Frontier’, one could easily argue that people who are critical of ‘The Motion Picture‘ and ‘The Search for Spock’ are blockbuster movie fans – not science-fiction, let alone ‘Star Trek’, fans. They want their pictures to be less cerebral and more visceral; ‘The Wrath of Khan’ was the action Trek, and ‘The Voyage Home’ was the comedy Trek.
Don’t get me wrong: I love those movies. I just think that ‘Star Trek’ has far more to offer than mere fireworks (let’s ignore what Captain Kirk 2.0 has to say about that, shall we?): It can be a reflection of the societal and personal concerns that we face in our everyday lives, but given a perspective or a scope that we may not have. In essence, it can be a vehicle for discussing and exploring larger ideas and concepts.
You simply can’t do that while you’re busy running around, fighting and destroying things.
The title for ‘Star Trek III’ says it all: It’s a search for Spock, who had a dramatic demise in the previous film, but who, thanks to his casket’s proximity to the Genesis planet, may very well be alive. To add a little piquant (for those who want action with their sci-fi), there’s the addition of an antagonist, in the form of Kruge, an ambitious Klingon who wants not just the plans to Genesis, but the technology as well.
At its core, however, the picture is an emotional journey about friends risking everything, facing and surmounting the odds to rescue one of their own; it’s about the bonds between people. But it’s also about the bonds between life and death, as the picture postulates what the meaning of death truly is. Is it the death of the body, or the death of the spirit? This is a movie title with more than one meaning.
Ultimately, though, ‘The Search for Spock’ is a movie filled with tons of memorable bits:
The opening recap: Seeing the footage from the end of ‘The Wrath of Khan’ first reminds us of the loss of Spock, and then takes us all the way back to Genesis, where hope lies. The sight of that capsule in the middle of the wilderness inspires all sorts of possibilities; it makes you want to see what will come next.
John Horner’s score: Continuing in the same vein as in the previous film, Horner accentuated the more sweeping, romantic aspects of his score. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of John Williams’ score to ‘Superman‘ (minus its iconic Main Title, naturally). It’s not nearly as nautical this time, and much more beautiful.
Kirk’s isolation: At one point Kirk muses on Spock’s death, the trainees having moved on to their various commissions, and David and Saavik being on their way to Genesis. It speaks of a vacuum in his life, a sense of emptiness, a mixture of empty nest syndrome and mourning. It makes him much more human and relatable.
The Klingon Bird of Prey: Holy crap! This ship is amazeballs! I know it was originally conceived as a Romulan ship, and even though the villain changed halfway through production, they kept it. But it work. In fact, I like it better as a Klingon ship than a Romulan one. Its beauty and slickness belie the Klingons’ brutality.
The Klingons’ cruel and unflinching sense of duty: Kruge has stolen data on the Genesis Project; his lover has made a deal with smugglers to get their hands on it. However, when he finds out that she’s seen it, he advises her that she will have to die – a realization that she does not struggle with at all. Wow, it’s amazing to think that their sense of duty supersedes the desire to live, their desire for one another, their own selfishness. It’s a jaw-dropping moment.
The spacedock: The Enterprise’s arrival at the spacedock may not be as awe-inspiring as the unveiling of the Enterprise in ‘The Motion Picture’, but it rather impressive: The spacedock looks amazing, the way the NC-1701 makes its way in to dock is super cool, and the sight of the Excelsior is quite something (I prefer the Enterprise, but the Excelsior is nonetheless remarkable).
The break-in of Spock’s quarters: Like, what the Hell is going on? Who would dare to break into Spock’s quarters? And how the Hell is Spock sitting there, speaking to Kirk? It’s such a mindboggling scenario, especially since we don’t fully understand Vulcans, but it totally pays off when we find out the truth. Holy !@#$. Mind blown!
The Enterprise’s retirement: Starfleet is doing what?! WHAT?!!! !@#$
David and Saavik’s discovery: Back on Genesis, David and Saavik discover that simple bacteria on Spock’s pod have developed at an astounding rate. Not only that, but the pod is empty; Spock’s body is nowhere to be found. Tingles for anyone who gets what’s happening. And what’s great is that the picture doesn’t spell it out – but at least the fans would get it.
Sarek’s visit to Kirk: Not only is the Vulcan mythology expanded upon here, but everything that had been hinted at has been confirmed. Due to the title, we knew Spock wasn’t gone forever, but now we understand what’s happening and what needs to transpire for Spock to return. Wow. It’s going to be quite the race against the clock! Especially with the Klingons around.
McCoy’s cantina scene: I love this bit. This is the ‘Star Trek’ version of the cantina scene in ‘Star Wars’, with McCoy trying to hire a pilot to take him to Genesis. McCoy rarely got solo bits in the series, so it was nice to see his interaction with other people. Yes, he’s as prickly as usual. But the best part is when Starfleet Security shows up to bring him back and, confused, he tries to do a Vulcan nerve pinch on him. He’s confused because it doesn’t work and the Security Officer is confused because he doesn’t know what’s going on. Priceless!
McCoy’s rescue: To get McCoy on Genesis, the main crew of the Enterprise decide to break him out of the brig and conspire to ensure that it goes smoothly: Scotty sabotages the Excelsior, Uhura gets a shitty gig at a transporter post, and the others take on the brig. It was nice to see them work in concert for their friend. There’s a great dynamic between them on screen.
Kruge: I love that Kruge is an ambitious loser: He fails time and time again, but is implacable because his ambitions are greater than any setback; he’ll gladly lose minor battles to win the war (if only he knew that he will eventually lose even that!). What I like about it is that the villain feels real – he’s not an indestructible force that the good guys have to overcome. He’s a person with strengths and weaknesses, just as the heroes are people with strengths and weaknesses. He’s a terrific character, if less theatrical than Khan was.
David’s death: The death itself was nothing remarkable and was staged in a corny way, but Kirk’s reaction sold it. Shatner may be criticized for many acting faux pas, but he does have his moments. And this is one of them. He’s absolutely stunned, and misses his chair while trying to back into it. You totally feel the heaviness of the moment. And, not only that, but it will inform his character in “Star Trek VI’, which is so brilliant. It’s such a poignant moment.
Kirk sacrifices the Enterprise: Having been incapacitated by the Klingons, and about to be boarded, Kirk decides to destroy his ship to obliterate his enemy. It’s a huge sacrifice and it’s stunning that he would dare to go ahead (although it helps that it was to be decommissioned).
But, more than this, it’s the first time that the NC-1701 was ever destroyed. At the time, it was wrenching to see this happen, especially watching it burn across the Genesis sky. Holy fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu…. they actually destroyed the Enterpise!
Since then it’s been done to death, as though the ship were disposable. Give it a rest, Hollywood: As with anything, the more you do it, the less impact it has. You can even come to take it for granted, when it happens this damned often. And it can even become a joke. Just not a funny one.
Reunion with Spock: After a lengthy ceremony to transfer Spock’s katra from McCoy’s mind, Spock is ushered out by the Vulcans, pauses, reconsiders and comes back to speak with the crew. He has no memory of what’s taken place yet, and his first contacts are tentative, questioning. But he’s back. And the delight on everyone’s faces and the intuitive bond he has with them is apparent. It’s a great close. And it’s the perfect bridge to the next adventure.
Of course, the picture is hardly perfection itself; it has its flaws:
The Klingon dog: WTF. I know the production had budgetary constraints, but you’d think they’d at least get in touch Jim Henson’s team to get the job done. What a crap hand puppet this is. It’s an eye-sore in an otherwise perfectly serviceable special effects movie.
The countdown to destruction: Like, seriously, the countdown to self-destruct gives everyone 60 seconds to get from the bridge to the transporter and getting the Hell off the ship. There’s no way you can do that under two minutes, even with such a small complement. On top of that, getting the Klingon aboard, and the time it takes for them to get to the bridge, should have added minutes to the moment. So, 60 seconds? Not bloody likely. In fact, in the movie, which is already edited for time, the scene takes 1m42s. The whole time I was shaking my head, telling myself it was impossible. And all they had to do to fix this was put the timer at 120 seconds. Doh.
The Genesis sky: The background behind the crew when they first arrive on Genesis looks so shoddy, it looks like they’re in front of paintings. To give it perspective, it looks about a real as anything in the ‘Star Wars’ prequels. But with a painting, not CGI.
The actors playing Spock: Seriously, while the kids looked like each other a little bit, they looked nothing like Leonard Nimoy. Let’s just say that Zachary Quinto looks more like Spock. ’nuff Said.
Spock’s transformation: The prosthetics used to make it seem as though Spock were mutating, growing at an advanced rate, looked like garbage. Might as well get the team from ‘The Howling’ to do it, ’cause they couldn’t have done a worse job.
Kirk’s shot at Kruge: Seriously? A phaser can blow someone back something ten metres? I thought you got shot, you went down! Not so here! Plus which, Kruge was clearly on ropes – the motion wasn’t realistic at all.
Uhura’s minimal screentime: While her parts were excellent and they made the most of Nichelle Nichols, it’s sad that she didn’t get more screentime. Having said this, she probably would have been squandered had they tried. Her part was excellent here, short though it may be.
The Vulcan set: Man, the finale was SO shot on a soundstage. The design is nice, but it looks like we’re watching theatre, not a motion picture. The rest of Vulcan is gorgeous, though.
Ultimately, I’d have to say that ‘Star Trek III: the Search for Spock’ is a more consistent and emotional journey than ‘Wrath of Khan’ was. They’re both great films, and although the former features more thrills, I think that this one is far more satisfying. Having said this, it’s one piece in a triptych (with ‘Wrath of Khan’ and ‘Voyage Home’), a unified story arc that ‘s perfectly bridged by this entry in the series.
I think that respect and acclaim for it are long overdue.
Date of viewing: June 27, 2016