Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

Less than the sum of its parts
Released:
1984

Director: Leonard Nimoy

Starring: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Lloyd, Robin Curtis

The Setup:

Kirk and company steal the Enterprise in order to go back and get the regenerated Spock.

Discussion:

So as part of my continuing obsession with Star Trek that blossomed after the J.J. Abrams movie, and impulse buy of movies II-IV assured that I would be watching this one again. This one doesn’t have the greatest reputation of all of them [it is an odd-numbered one], and I didn’t recall it was being especially wonderful—aside from the fact that they blew up the Enterprise, before they started doing that in pretty much every movie—but upon review it actually turns out to be quite good, if somehow still not as great as it seems like it should be. We can speculate on that later, but for now, let’s get down to it!

We open with a flashback to the end of Wrath of Khan where Spock dies. It is blue tinted and in a small frame that slowly fills the screen and changes to color. They shoot his coffin down to the Genesis planet, where life is developing at an artificial rapid pace. The first new sequence of the film finds Kirk on the bridge, giving all of our characters a quick check-in as he goes around checking on the status of systems. He is morose and bitter after the death of Spock. They arrive at this big space station and pull into what is essentially the parking lot, seeing this big new fancy ship, the Excelsior, that is the pride of the new fleet. There’s a shot which has always been one of my favorites—I don’t know why it’s quite so satisfying—of people in a lounge getting up and staring at The Enterprise as she pulls in, huge gash in her side. You’ll notice that she actually has quite a bit more damage than she actually sustained in the last movie. You’ll also notice that Janice Rand is there as a call-out to some of the original series’ fans. Anyway, it’s not before they learn that the Enterprise is being decommissioned and the Genesis planet has become an intergalactic controversy. They are all advised that it is essentially a forbidden topic.

Meanwhile these Klingons, led by Christopher Lloyd [best known as Doc in the Back to the Future films] as Kruge, buy information about the Genesis project on the black market, then kill the people that sold it to them! They are BAD PEOPLE. Understand that. Meanwhile Starfleet ship Grissom [named after astronaut Gus Grissom] is at the Genesis planet guarding it. David, Kirk’s son and designer of the Genesis device, and Saavik, now played by Robin Curtis, are there. Many people hate Robin Curtis’ performance, but I didn’t mind her [she takes Vulcan emotionlessness seriously], and to me ANYTHING is better than Kirstie Alley. Anyway, they find a life form reading on the planet and go down to investigate. This turns out to be lucky for them, as a little bit later Kruge and pals show up and blow the Grissom to smithereens!

Anyway, back on [or rather NEAR] Earth, McCoy has broken into Spock’s cabin and is talking crazy. It’s hard to know what all of this would have been like if you DIDN’T know that he’s carrying Spock’s consciousness, but I think pretty much everyone was miles ahead of the screenplay on this one. Anyway, soon Spock’s daddy Sarek shows up, and he’s got a bone to pick with Kirk. He’s bewildered why Kirk didn’t bring Spock’s body to Vulcan, because “Spock made a request of you.” I liked this whole serious reproach scene by Sarek. Anyway, Kirk says his mind doesn’t have any Spock in it, so they decide to do a mind-meld. They re-live Spock’s death, and it’s a little moving to see Kirk have to go through that again. However, it’s all leavened by how FUCKING DUMB Kirk is being in not connecting any of this to the fact that his other best friend is acting crazy and spouting Spock dialogue! So you just sit there gritting your teeth. Luckily, one doesn’t have to wait too long before the Spock-McCoy mind-meld is confirmed. One of the annoyances of this film is the way it tries to play off footage from the first film as security cam footage [it’s the security camera that edits!], but at least they have the decency to cut in a different angle for the mind-meld shot. Anyway, Kirk needs to pick up Spock’s body fast, before it gets too moldy, and bring it, along with Spock’s mind, to Vulcan. But Starfleet won’t let him go! Well, I guess that’s it, then! Sorry, Spock!

SPOILERS > > >
Noooo, silly! Dang it all, they’re going to steal back the Enterprise! Kirk coordinates with the remaining crew members and they break McCoy out of the hospital [presided over by this big hulking cutie with a mustache [below], inspiring me to start a fan softcore website, or at least a calendar, STARFLEETHUNKS.com]. Kirk tells them all he can’t ask them to go, but of course they volunteer anyway. They barely get the doors open in time, and the crew of the Excelsior, which has Miguel Ferrer on staff, is pretty smug about their ability to go after them. Oops, but Scotty disabled their warp drive. So the Enterprise is off with no interference. I read on some website somewhere that the sequence of Kirk stealing the Enterprise is Trek fans favorite sequence from the movies.

Meanwhile, Saavik and David find Spock’s coffin, with only his neatly-folded burial robe inside. At least his regenerated infant self is neat and respects ceremonial clothing. They go from a jungle environment to a snowy one, and it begins to become apparent that all is not well with the Genesis planet. It’s breaking down fast. Saavik notices this, and tells David “It is time for total truth between us.” I liked that line… it makes “Total Truth” sound like both a ‘truth or dare’-style game, and also like a game show [“It’s TIIIIIIIIIMMMMMEEE for TOTAL TRUTH!”]. The total truth is that David used some unstable element in order to get Genesis to work, and now it’s coming apart fast. In other news, they find Spock as a child. Please do not put too much thought into why Spock would have regenerated as a child, and what happened to the rest of his body [please do not email me with your theories, either]. You do have to admit that the whole Genesis thing is one of the better excuses for a character to come back to life, however. Anyway, he’s growing fast [why his development is stable and the planet’s isn’t is also unexplained], and is soon going to hit Jamie Farr, which is Vulcan puberty. And apparently it hurts. At a certain point Spock is getting to that sexy time, and Saavik does that thing where you stroke each other’s extended fingers. I know that always drives ME crazy. Anyway, this is apparently standing in for real sex, which Spock has to have NOW in order to complete his development. Apparently in the novelization of this Saavik and Spock actually do it, and she ends up carrying his child. Anyway, I think we’re supposed to understand that Spock needs to get reunited with his mind in time or he’ll… well, something bad will happen. By the way, remember how having Spock’s consciousness in McCoy was supposed to be driving McCoy insane? Well, I guess that clashed with the filmmaker’s desire to have McCoy in his old familiar role, because after that first little freak-out in Spock’s cabin, he’s pretty much just regular old McCoy, seemingly no worse for wear, except for a few touches here and there.

So the Enterprise arrives at Genesis. They can’t find the Grissom, but they think they spot a ship for a split second. No surprise, it’s the Klingons. They see the cloaking distortion, and I don’t know why they can’t just fire on that, but whatever, they end up shooting the Klingons as soon as they de-cloak. Then the Klingons get one shot in against the Enterprise and the ship is dead. Kirk tries to bluff, but Kruge sees through it, and orders the Genesis data, or he’ll kill one of the prisoners on the planet [they have David, Saavik and Spock]. The klingon is going to kill Saavik, but David attacks the klingon [can’t have him just be stabbed in the back like a wuss, can we?] and ends up dead. Saavik reports in her straightforward, unemotional manner, and Shatner gets to throw his big scene! Actually, he’s very good though. He stumbles and falls, and says “Klingon bastard, you’ve killed my son!” Then it sounds so good he says it again. But what gets me is the little half-sob he utters in between. It’s… not bad!

Now the Klingons are going to beam over for tea. So Kirk springs into action and starts the self-destruct sequence! You might lose sight, in the excitement, of how it’s pretty amazing that even though basically everything on the ship is dead, the viewscreen, computer, elevators and transporter—in fact, everything they need to effect their plan—still work perfectly! They beam out, the klingons beam over, and the ship blows up. Personally, I think the destruction could have gone on quite a bit longer—they ARE blowing up the Enterprise, for God’s sake—but another thing reviewing these films makes apparent is their limited budgets. Anyway, you do get one good shot of the hull burning away where you can see the superstructure inside. This was accomplished by making a thin Styrofoam hull, then dripping acetone on it. On the planet, the crew watches Enterprise burn up in the atmosphere, and Kirk says “What have I done?” and Bones replies: “What you always do. Turn death into a fighting chance to live,” and oh God, couldn’t we just have left that line out? MUST we editorialize? Wouldn’t it have been stronger to just have them all watch in silence?

Then Kirk and Kruge have a big brawl while the others get beamed up to the Klingon ship, and eventually Kirk gets up there, too. They take off and get Spock to Vulcan. You’ll notice that when the Federation crew is on the Klingon bridge, the color is mostly blue, whereas when the Klingons are on it it’s green. Plus, now that I think about it, I’m quite sure that the Klingon bridge in The Voyage Home is entirely different than the bridge [of the same ship] here. Anyway, they get to Vulcan, some lady does a night-long mind-meld, and in the morning: Download Complete! They should invent Vulcan torrents. Kind of amazing that it only took two seconds to get Spock’s complete consciousness INTO Bones but all night to get it out.

So afterward Spock has a nice scene where he silently gazes at each crew member, finally arriving at Kirk. He says “Your name is Jim,” and it seems he’ll be back to normal right quick, and I’m sure after some more complications that will allow them to drag the next storyline out, he will be. Then we get a title “And the adventure continues…” and it’s over.
< < < SPOILERS END

When I was finished I thought “Boy, that was a lot better than I remembered, and the crew really had to make a lot of sacrifices.” Similarly, if you look on IMDb you’ll find a lot of users describe the film as “better than they thought.” And yet after you’ve watched it, somehow it just seems a lot less urgent and interesting. This should be—and could be—the Empire Strikes Back of the series, and yet it’s just kind of inert. So why does it seem so lame when you look back on it later? Well, I’m glad you asked, because that’s what this next thrilling paragraph is all about!

I think there are several factors. The first is that although it’s really fun that Kirk and crew steal the Enterprise, there is precisely ZERO suspense created that this might in fact jeopardize their careers. So it’s great to watch, but it carries little weight. The second culprit is our villain Kruge, who does little but provide an obstacle for the crew, but really doesn’t fit into the story in any interesting way. You could completely forget what he’s doing there at all. There are certainly ways to wring tension out of a random story element, but this film just can’t make something compelling of it, perhaps because of reason number three: the relatively loose script, and especially four: Nimoy’s slack direction. He does a perfectly adequate job, but this film needed more than just adequate to hold it together. It’s all fine, but none of it is great, and it just adds up to what we have: a film that is less than the sum of its parts. The final kicker is the way the ending essentially just peters out, erasing most pleasant memories one might have had of the film. I think when you end you film with a resurrection, you have to make a HUGE deal out of it, just to give it that extra oomph and the power it deserves. I’m trying to think of films that end with resurrections, and only Frequency comes to mind—but even that movie imbued the event with a great deal of emotional power. The structural challenge of this movie is that it doesn’t end with anything being gained—it ends with something being REgained. So at the end they are back at the state they were in before—having given up a great deal to get there. Yet the movie just gives us a very dull, dry mind-meld and quite reserved reunion. Would it be so much to ask that the mind-meld have some directorial flourish? Some drama? Would it be so wrong for Kirk—or better yet, the whole group—to embrace Spock in joy once they get him back? Spock could be completely bewildered by this, and it would be funny and touching. And then to have the whole thing just stop dead with a lame “the adventure continues…” title… I mean, the disparity between potential and realization is just too great, and it’s too bad, because I think the limpness of the ending really erases the earlier achievements of the picture in most people’s minds.

As I read more and more about the behind-the-scenes of these movies, one thing that continually strikes me—especially now that, 20 years later, these are beginning to look like classics of a certain kind—how sad it is that Paramount shafted them with lowball budgets and rushed productions every single time [except the first film, budget-wise], and how much better they could have been if they’d received the money, attention to detail and time to develop they deserved… especially given that this was Paramount’s prime money-making franchise at the time. It’s especially sad because there’s really no way these films could be remade—they are one of a kind. The new, young cast of the Abrams film could never encounter Khan—they’re in an alternate timeline and haven’t encountered Khan yet, if they will at all.

It’s especially sad with this film, which has the most unrealized potential of all of them. Given all the losses the crew has to suffer in order to get Spock back, it’s just a shame none of them could receive the real emotional weight they deserved, and the overall film the power it should have wielded. It’s pretty good—it could have been great.

Should you watch it?

Of course, it’s still pretty good and very much worth watching.

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