Movie Review: Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

(Note: yes, you read that correctly. It’s Trek III, not Trek II. For more on why, I refer you to here.)

A dying planet. A fight for life. The Search for Spock. (Poster by Bob Peak, taken from Wikipedia)


Released: June 1, 1984

Synopsis: The Enterprise comes back from its most recent excursion, beaten down and with chunks of its crew – including its science officer – dead. As the NCC-1701 dry-docks, Dr. McCoy begins acting bizarrely. Meanwhile, Lt. Saavik and David – Kirk’s son – have been left behind to orbit the Genesis Planet, and discover that Spock has been revived as a child. Due to some proto-matter in the Genesis device, the body of Spock has mere hours to live. Unfortunately for them, they wind up intercepted by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), the commander of a Klingon vessel, and are kidnapped.

Kirk and Spock’s father, Sarek, deduce that Spock transferred his katra – living spirit – to McCoy, and that McCoy must give Spock’s body the katra soon, or else the doctor will die. One problem, though. Not only is Spock’s body on the Genesis planet – where even discussing the planet is forbidden due to the political controversy involved in its creation – but the Enterprise is due to be scrapped. Determined to save the lives of his best friends, he and a skeleton crew commit Grand Theft Starship, taking the Enterprise out of dock for what is certainly her last tour.

No prizes for guessing what crew meets what commander.

Review (QUITE A BIT SPOILER-Y): Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is my all-time favorite movie. Its themes are a loving tribute to the works of Shakespeare, while still forming its own identity. Its characterization is beautiful. Its special effects are great, considering the $10M budget. Its dialogue is fantastic. And the ending… so poetic, so tragic, so beautiful.

It’s almost impossible to top Wrath of Khan… even with a direct sequel. So, how did they do?

Strangely enough, Search for Spock is often cited as the rare “good” odd movie. For those unaware, there seems to be a pattern for Trek movies, where the even-numbered movies have more critical acclaim than the odd-numbered movies, which are often regarded as milquetoast, when not regarded as bad. This trend is said to have reversed itself in the new century – Nemesis got slammed, Trek 09 was seen as great (if somewhat simplistic), and Into Darkness got a divisive reaction.

But back to the task at hand  – Search for Spock.

The setup for this movie is rooted in one of the central themes of many theological beliefs – that of life beyond death. Some believe in reincarnation, others believe in an afterlife, and others believe you get one… and that’s just the simplified version. Star Trek was known for addressing societal issues and beliefs through a sci-fi lens, and the Vulcan katra is no different. Even if the theological implications were unintentional, and the katra was just meant as a way to bring Spock back, the comparison is interesting enough.

However, the over-reaching theme of this movie lies in the question… is it worth it to sacrifice logic and reason, if it would benefit the needs of emotion? In this way, Search for Spock is something of an inverse to the theory prescribed in Wrath of Khan – do we have to make emotional sacrifices for the most logical outcome?

Here, the answer is simple… maybe.

For Kirk and his friends risk literally everything with his decisions. To save his closest confidantes, Kirk defies Starfleet and steals the outgoing flagship – in any case, not only grounds for a dishonorable discharge, but an outright crime. Remember that Kirk is the most decorated Captain in Starfleet. That takes chutzpah.

And his other closest crewmembers go along with him. That alone shows just how close the crew of the Enterprise got in their missions – they are willing to sacrifice their own careers for the lives of their crewmen.

Of course, this movie needs a bit more complexity than that, so this movie needed an antagonist beyond “Federation Regulations”. Cue the Klingons! For those unaware, the Federation and the Klingon Empire are historic antagonists. They were written as something of an allegory for the Cold War. During 1984, when this movie debuted, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – both of them Conservative/Anti-Communist icons – were at the height of their power and cultural influence.

Now, consider the Federation/Klingon conflict is sorta like the Arms Race during the Cold War… with sci-fi elements, of course. For one side to get the ability to create unlimited supplies or generate more life, or to put a permanent base on the planet… that would be a major score for the side that has the Genesis device. Sorta like an anti-nuclear war.

Or is it that anti? Remember, Genesis was used once… by a madman, in an attempt to wipe out an entire Federation Starship! The casualties of that alone included one of Starfleet’s most decorated Science Officers, and the buildup led to dozens of casualties below the bridge. Some officials in the Federation might have feared that, had gotten into Klingon hands, the Federation could very well have been toast. Likewise, some in the Klingon empire might have felt that, should the Federation get ahold of this device, not only would they have the ability to overpower the proud empire, but they would do so in a manner that is riddled with hypocrisy.

This last part leads to my discussion on Kruge, the antagonist in Search for Spock. He is occasionally written off as a one-note character, just there to give the movie some conflict. However, I think that this simplifies the character. Because of the reasons mentioned above, you could argue that Kruge is only acting in the best interests of his people – making a preliminary strike on the Federation to try and get the information on Genesis. Christopher Lloyd adds a few traces of humanity to his character – you have to look closer at his acting.

Beyond that, I found the climax to be entertaining. Before I go on, I should note that this is only part of a spoiler, given that one part of this scene was featured in the trailers! So, here goes…

After an incident involving David (which causes Kirk to react in one of Shatner’s best performances ever), Kirk offers to have Kruge board the Enterprise so that the skeleton crew can surrender. In a moment of overconfidence, Kruge gives two minutes for the crew to prepare. Kirk pulls a trick up his sleeve to finally cripple the crew of the bird of prey and save Spock. The end result? The Starship Enterprise brings down a dozen Klingons as she explodes. This leads to probably the most poignant quote in the movie – the one that sums up the theme of Kirk’s character…

Kirk: My god, Bones… what have I done?

McCoy: What you had to do… what you always do – turn death into a fighting chance to live.

To quote David… “What good words.”

So, not a bad film, right? Indeed, it isn’t a bad film. However, it’s often ignored when talking about Trek films. There are a few reasons why this film didn’t reach the status of Wrath of Khan.

First, in terms of this movie’s tone, it seems somewhat uneven. Its first half hour is dramatic, dealing with the fallout of the Battle of the Mutara Nebula. Its second half hour is one of the most comedic stretches in the franchise – the only drama coming from the fact that the crew are rebelling against Starfleet. Then the Klingons kidnap David, Saavik, and Spock, leading to one of the most tragic scenes in Trek history. Now, Wrath of Khan also had scenes of comedy inside it, but not only were they relatively subtle, but were also woven very well into the plot of the movie.

Secondly, Wrath of Khan itself. This film had to follow up on one of the greatest pieces of Star Trek and modern science fiction ever made. In contrast to that movie, Spock seems to be a bit simpler, with its big themes being (as mentioned above) theology, the arms race allegory, and emotion over logic. Contrast with Khan, which in a way similar to Shakespeare, dealt with age, death, revenge, insanity, power, creation, genetic engineering and scientific ethics, and the power of logic versus emotion. Granted, not every movie can be Khan, and Spock handles its themes well enough, but the difference is jarring.

Lastly, Spock’s success was then rewarded by The Voyage Home, which managed to have much more of a focus with the comedy, toned down the slapstick somewhat in favor of character interactions, and managed to keep a relatively even tone throughout.

Or, to sum up the last two points, it was a good film stuck in between two of the most iconic films in the franchise.

I think everybody knew that they weren’t going to top Wrath of Khan when Search for Spock came out. And it didn’t. Still, it was a more than serviceable movie that did what it needed to do – bring back the face of the franchise. Is it the only “good” “odd” movie out of the first nine? Who knows? All I know is that I’d be willing to watch it again.

…And the adventure continues…

Tidbits:

  • Leonard Nimoy directed the movie – the first time a main actor in the franchise directed anything. Supposedly, the 81st episode of The Original Series was supposed to be directed by William Shatner. Then, during filming of the 79th episode, the cast was told to begin clearing out their lockers, there would be no more Star Trek. (Shatner finally got to direct a piece of Trek history… it was Trek V.)
  • Uhura gets one of her best moments ever, when she basically forces the operator of the Transporter to stand back – at phaser point – so she can help rescue her friend. Too bad she doesn’t appear again until the very end, but The Voyage Home makes up for that by having her in a subplot.
  • One other interesting contrast between Khan and Kruge, could be good or bad depending on how you view it, is their battle strategies. Khan and Kirk never met face to face. While this was due to technical problems, it also showed just how cerebral Khan could be – having learned from “Space Seed” – and just how powerful he was at the end. Kruge’s climatic battle is face to face – a possible sign of his own confidence in himself.
Favorite Scene: Enterprise going out in a blaze of glory – she brings down a dozen Klingons, and Kruge’s chance of victory – with her.

Least Favorite Scene: Not a scene, but they could’ve done far more with Uhura. Second prize goes to those who made the trailer. Nice job spoiling a plot point.

Score: 7.5.

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