STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK: The One Where Sulu Gets Up From His Station

Star Trek 3 Poster Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) – Directed by Leonard Nimoy – Starring William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Christopher Lloyd, and Robin Curtis.

Compared to Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK is a determined and enjoyable improvement. Blending the best of both films (TMP‘s maturity and sense of scale; Khan‘s reliance on interpersonal relationships), SEARCH confidently and effectively tells a very simple, very straightforward tale.

Yes, it’s too slow. Yes, it’s not well acted. Yes, the effects were probably awful even in 1984. Yes, Star Trek still treats slowly backing out of a garage as an action sequence. But the solid (if plodding) script and fine direction make this an enjoyable ride – even if it’s still more akin to your dad taking “the scenic route” home instead of hopping on the Autobahn.

Picking up shortly after the closing of Khan, SEARCH sees the Enterprise returning home as Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis) and David (Kirk’s kid) stay behind on the Grissom (probably named for the astronaut and definitely not named for the guy on CSI) to observe and study the Genesis Planet. (Why they don’t call this planet “Genesis” instead of “The Genesis Planet” is a question I choose not to ask.) Bones has Spock’s katra (his living spirit) in his head and it grants him the ability to talk in Spock’s voice. Also, it’s driving him crazy. Spock’s father, Sarek, visits Kirk to tell him he must bring Spock’s body and katra (thus, McCoy) to Vulcan so spirit and body can be reunited. Kirk and Co. have to steal the Enterprise because the Starfleet has plans to decommission her in favor of their fancy new spaceships and can’t be bothered to help track down Spock.

Pause. Sideways Venting Ahead:

In my reaction to Khan, I mentioned that I hate stories where the action-adventurer doesn’t want to action-adventure. It turns fun heroes like Spider-Man into mopey losers. It turns a likable loser into an unrealistic, egotistical jackhole. (Seriously, Sam Witwhicky, you’re going to leave your smoking cool 2009 Camaro at home just because it turns into a robot? Really? Did you finally realize you’ve been dry humping your girlfriend on the hood of your new best friend and it made you feel a little awkward? Get over it, he doesn’t mind and your girlfriend digs it. Roll with it.) Frankly, I want Zod to conquer Earth every time I hear mention of those awful Superman movies. When Clark gets beat up in the diner, I’m standing and cheering for that selfish prick to get his ass handed to him.

The only time when it’s acceptable to have a story where the reluctant protagonist gets to try and not be the protagonist is when either, 1. the film gives you a real consequence to that action (like, say, when your girlfriend gets blown up in The Dark Knight), or 2. when you’re the Hulk. Even then, it’s only acceptable if the protagonist isn’t moping. There’s no moping by protagonists (or Companions, Peri, Tegan, and Adric) in action-adventure stories about not wanting to be in an action-adventure story. A dislike for moping is why I’ve paid to watch Spider-Man and not Woody Allen.

On a smaller scale but kicking up the same hornet’s nest of annoyance are when stories put an unlikable person in an unlikable position for cheap reinforcement. The two most recent examples: The first takes place in the recently reviewed Alice in Wonderland (2010) where a total loser asks Alice for her hand in marriage. Of course she’s going to say no based on the conception of her character’s story arc, but the movie cheaply reinforces this by having the potential husband be someone she’d never get together with, no matter the circumstance. Why not have the suitor be someone she might actually like, giving the decision more gravitas?

The second instance takes place in SEARCH, with the inclusion of the sad-sack Styles, captain of the Excelsior. (Did you forget you’d come here to read a review of STAR TREK III? Sorry. The mind wanders.) Here, the last-year’s model Enterprise is placed in competition with the latest-and-greatest Excelsior. This is almost always a silly message, which seems like a play to nostalgia and conservatism more than an actual story-relevant notion. For a franchise that’s supposedly about the future to create a movie which is now fearful of the future and clinging to nostalgia seems disingenuous. It’s fetishizing the Enterprise instead of holding to the show’s premise to “boldly go.” We can boldly go, but we can’t go boldly in a new ship with a new engine?

The story sets up this false antagonism between old ship and new ship and you know the old ship is going to have some kind of throwdown with the new ship and we’re all gonna root for the old ship because no one (except for maybe Stan Lee) wants the next movie to be about the continuing adventures of the starship Excelsior. The Excelsior, though, is still part of the Federation. They’re the good guys. They are, in every way, just as good and honorable a ship, a crew, a mission, as is represented by the Enterprise and her crew. It’s just that the story needs for them to be, if not the bad guys, then certainly the uncool good guys.

So what do the makers of SEARCH do?

They give the Excelsior a complete loser of a captain, who no one who’s served with Kirk (or watched all those TV episodes and two movies) would ever want to serve under.

Right. The biggest, brightest, newest toy in the Starfleet Garage and they turn it over to a complete waste of a captain. I really hate crap like this.

It’s stupid, done simply to reinforce the actions of the hero, as if you weren’t already going to root for Kirk’s mission to save Spock.

I know it’s a small point, but it grinds my gears, and it lets Kirk’s actions seem all the more commendable because, even if you were still entertaining the idea that he’s wrong to steal a Federation starship, you wouldn’t want dorky James B. Sikking and his uncool mustache to catch him. Styles’ loserdom even allows you to happily applaud Scotty’s sabotage of the Excelsior’s engines.

Which, in itself, is an admission that the new ship is better than the old ship.

Which, in itself, is an example of the seemingly dogged determination of the makers of Star Trek to give you as few big action pieces as possible. We’ve got the set-up for the Excelsior chasing the Enterprise out into space, with the new ship’s transwarp drive battling the old ship’s, um, regular warp drive, but because Scotty has pulled a few small pieces from the engine, the Excelsior simply sputters to a halt.

Awesome.

(If nothing else, this proves that Paramount will not cater to the whims to the toy market. “Mommy, mommy, can I get the Excelsior with the Sputtering Engine Drive? Pleeeeeaaaaase! It doesn’t even need batteries!”)

For all it’s intelligence and interest in working in concepts of Christian theology, the Star Trek movies seem to rarely want to wander into the murkiness of moral ambiguity.

I’ve front-loaded my shots at the movie, but let me reiterate that while SEARCH FOR SPOCK is certainly not an all-time classic movie by any stretch, it is a very good movie, making improvements in several areas over its predecessors.

The most obvious area of improvement is in the use of the entire cast to create an effective story and an effective movie-going experience. For starters, everyone has something to do. Twice in the first-half of the film Kirk makes a point to go around the bridge and make individual contact with his crew. It’s a smart move for a captain; after experiencing two major events (the death of a ship’s officer and witnessing the Genesis Effect), it’s important for Kirk to re-establish that individual connection. It makes the crew feel important and it allows for him to evaluate their state of mind. This film might be primarily about friendship, but he’s still their captain.

Finally given something to do, Doohan, Takei, Kelley, Nichols, and Koenig attack their roles with energy most of them haven’t been asked to bring in the preceding two movies. They don’t have huge roles and their characters’ presence in the film is determined by what they can do for Kirk and Spock, but the film’s script (solidly written by Harve Bennett) allows them some agency: They decide to help Kirk break McCoy out of prison. They decide to help Kirk steal the Enterprise. Sulu decides to beat up that prison guard. Scotty decides to ruin the Excelsior’s engine. Uhura decides to pull a gun on a non-Enterprise cadet to beam Kirk and Company over to their ship. Kirk doesn’t order them to do it – they insist on doing it.

When they reunite with Spock at the end of the film, they not only seem genuinely happy, but you believe it because of everything they’ve had to risk to get to that moment.

Standing in marked contrast to the previous two films, where the actors basically just repeat whatever Kirk says back to him, or were shown simply performing their expected actions for their position on the crew, we finally get to see them in normal clothes and having actual conversations and making their own decisions. It’s a great change, and even if they just do what Kirk wants anyway, at least they get to make that choice on their own and not simply out of mandated duty because he’s the captain.

The film doesn’t forget that it’s still Kirk’s movie, however. The captain is nice enough to invite the others to his apartment for drinks, but when Spock’s dad shows up to chat, the others have to leave the room. Where do they go? I like to think they all shuffled into Kirk’s bedroom and giggled themselves silly at the presence of the ceiling mirror, disco ball, shag carpet, stripper’s pole, and karaoke-slash-fog machine.

Kirk, then, is still the center of the movie, but even his own self-interest has been greatly tempered. Where TMP saw a Kirk desperate to regain command of the Enterprise, demoting the ship’s current captain into becoming his assistant, and Khan saw Kirk forced to the center by a madman’s revenge quest, SEARCH has a Kirk willing to sacrifice his own career for the sake of honoring and possibly restoring his dead friend.

For the first time, too, there’s a real sense of a playful, gallows humor on display which goes a long way to making the film enjoyable. When Kirk’s appeal to go after Spock is denied by the higher-ups, Kirk tells his officers, “The answer is no. I am therefore going anyway.” When they’ve stolen the Enterprise and taken off for the Genesis planet, Kirk quips to his crew (it’s just the cast regulars aboard, minus Uhura) how, “I intend to recommend you for promotion, in whatever fleet we end up serving.”

It’s a small line but it lets his crew know that everyone is in this together and that he appreciates what they’re doing.

The movie needs that kind of levity because, once again, the Enterprise really isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere despite, in fact, being very much in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s almost like the movie feels like it has to give us the sense that space is big and so it’s going to take some time to get from point A to B. Honestly, I don’t care. Get to where you’re going. This is a movie not a science lesson.

At least this time they spend this travel time building story; we get extended scenes of the happenings at the Genesis Planet, where Saavik and David have found a confused, silent Kid Spock, who’s growing rapidly in fits and bursts alongside the rapid growth of the planet. Turns out the planet is going to go kablammo because someone’s risk-taking son with curly blonde hair used some dangerous protomatter as a shortcut.

Adolescent Spock is going through something called “pon farr,” which I think I used to go through when I was 15 and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue came in the mail. (Where have you gone, Kathy Ireland?) I don’t really care about the details except as presented in the movie, which sees Saavik helping Spock through this by apparently mating with him. I sort of didn’t understand that part of the movie because Vulcan mating apparently involves gently caressing fingers and not getting naked.

But good for Adolescent Spock, whatever it was that happened. (There certainly weren’t any hot, older women wanting to caress fingers with me after I spent a few hours studying Kathy’s bikini. Yeah, the yellow one. You know.) Not only has Saavik gotten more attractive between pictures, she’s gotten a lot nicer, too. Gone is the by-the-book, eager to please Kirstie Alley version, replaced by the inquisitive, maternal Robin Curtis version. An improvement on every level.

Like Khan, SEARCH gives us an actual villain, and it tries to replicate the Khan-Kirk animosity by having Kruge (a Klingon, played by Christopher Lloyd) give the order that leads to the death of Kirk’s son, David. Kruge doesn’t really work, however, because they movie doesn’t know if they want him to be the super bad-ass Klingon who’s willing to kill his own lover and crew for crossing him, or the possibly morally justified bad guy who simply doesn’t want the Federation to have such a devastating weapon as the Genesis Effect in its arsenal.

If you know me, you’ll know I’d rather have seen the film push in the latter direction because moral ambiguity and contradictions are fun, but I’m not gonna hold it against the film for emphasizing the dangerous, psychotic side of his personality because what we get is pretty good. He and Kirk battle both through their starships and in person, correcting what I feel was a mistake in Khan. And whatever Kruge’s lack of Khan-ness, he is responsible for giving the order to kill Kirk’s kid, at least, which creates a nice bit of animosity between the two captains.

I do think the whole Kirk’s son sub-plot sabotages both films it appears in by adding one too many sub-plots on Kirk’s plate instead of spreading it around, as revelations about David have been given short-shrift in two movies now. The demands of the film’s main stories don’t give Kirk adequate time to work through these revelations and the decisions of the writers and directors (and even Shatner through his performance) don’t provide enough subtle nods to what Kirk’s going through internally for it to work as effectively as it could.

What hurts Kruge most, though, is Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd’s a great character actor but he doesn’t have the weight to make Kruge a true menace and the film isn’t interested in pushing the idea of him being in over his head. It doesn’t matter how much make-up they bury Lloyd under, he’s not running away from his signature voice – which is an awesome voice, but will always sound like that of an aged crackpot more than a superbad heavy.

The starship battle with Kruge does finally manage to give the Enterprise a signature moment in SEARCH, too. It’s an effective (if slow) sequence that sees Kirk sacrificing his ship for the good of the mission. Harkening back to the first movie, it is nice to see it affirmed that Kirk cares for his mission and his officers/friends more than the ship, and that some of the reason why he had such a mad-on to get his ship back was to be with the people who crew the ship and not just because of his lust for adventure.

Despite all my reservations, SEARCH FOR SPOCK works. It’s a good movie with real, engaging characters, in an interesting story. Ideas that I would like to see explored aren’t, but I’m willing to forgive them because it was great to be invited on this trip, with this group of people who genuinely cared for one another and, unlike previous films when they had to constantly tell Kirk they were his friend, here they simply show it through the power of their actions.

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