Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek III: The Search for Spock' (1984)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

After the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it makes sense that Paramount would want to capitalize on its popularity with a direct follow-up. But most of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock feels like an extended epilogue, a roundabout way of undoing some of the plot elements (both major and minor) of Wrath of Khan. It even opens with a recap featuring clips from the last movie, just like a TV episode. Although Spock's return is a foregone conclusion (and was heavily foreshadowed by the reshot ending of the previous movie), other developments in this movie feel sort of like cop-outs, and end up retroactively damaging the elegance of the storytelling in Wrath of Khan. It's not surprising that Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer declined to return for a movie that would undermine a lot of what he built, but that did open the door for cast member Leonard Nimoy to make his directorial debut.

Nimoy obviously understands these characters, and he does a solid job with a story that's very focused on the relationships among the core Enterprise crew. For the second half of the movie, there's literally no one else on the Enterprise except Kirk (William Shatner), McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Scotty (James Doohan), Sulu (George Takei) and Chekov (Walter Koenig). Poor Nichelle Nichols gets sidelined for more than half the movie as Uhura helps her fellow crew members commandeer the Enterprise but then stays behind to cover their tracks. She gets a nice moment as she threatens a young Starfleet lieutenant so she can help the rest of the crew escape, but then she disappears for the next hour.

The movie takes place directly after the events of Wrath of Khan, and the first half, with the crew winding down, bonding and then hatching their new plan to bring back Spock (via the memories he implanted in McCoy and his body that's been regenerating on the terraformed Genesis planet created at the end of the previous movie), features some entertaining and poignant moments. Kelley does a great job of playing the mix of McCoy and Spock's personalities, and Shatner projects real grief at the loss of his friend (although nothing in this movie is as emotional as Spock's death scene in Wrath of Khan). Doohan, Takei, Koenig and Nichols each have their own brief moments to shine, and together they project the camaraderie of the crew.

The larger plot, however, is less successful. Setting the action around the Genesis planet sort of stretches that idea past its usefulness, and making it into an unstable time bomb does a disservice to the noble characters who built it. That includes Kirk's son David (Merritt Butrick), who returns here in a largely expository role only to get killed when the plot needs higher emotional stakes. Robin Curtis replaces Kirstie Alley as Lt. Saavik, and she lacks Alley's wry humor and thoughtfulness. Saavik ends up coming across as just another generic crew member here. And Christopher Lloyd hams it up as Klingon villain Kruge, who has some of Khan's motivations (he wants to get his hands on the Genesis device for nefarious purposes), but none of his soul or depth. His scenes are mostly cheesy, and the big climactic hand-to-hand battle between him and Kirk (something that Khan never got) is mostly a letdown.

Still, the fact that the movie goes on for another 15 minutes after that demonstrates that it's really about the bond among the crew members and their dedication to rescuing Spock, and that comes across well. Spock's resurrection may not make much sense, cobbled together from throwaway moments in Wrath of Khan, Vulcan mysticism borrowed from old episodes of the TV show, and the sheer dedication of the characters, but it works on an emotional level, and that's what counts in the end. Search for Spock may be an overblown bit of fan service in a way, but it's fan service created with care and dedication.

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