Thursday, July 14, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home' (1986)

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

Like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is one of those movies that was ubiquitous on TV at just the right time when I was growing up, and I'm pretty sure I saw it (or at least large parts of it) multiple times on TV as a kid. It's the Star Trek movie I remembered best before I actually became a Star Trek fan around the midway point of The Next Generation's run. I remember being thoroughly entertained by this movie without knowing anything else about Star Trek, and that's clearly the point of it. But coming back to it now, with much more knowledge of the world and the characters, I was less entertained by a Star Trek movie that seems designed to appeal to that demographic of young (or immature) moviegoers who know nothing about Star Trek and don't care to.

At least it doesn't star Eddie Murphy, though. That apparently was one of the original ideas for this movie that finds the crew of the Enterprise traveling back to the then-present day (i.e., 1986) and having wacky interactions with the locals while attempting to procure two humpback whales and bring them back to the future to save Earth. Like The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home is an immediate follow-up to the film preceding it, and the first 40 minutes deal with various issues related to how the previous movie ended. At one time the movie was set to focus on the trial of Kirk (William Shatner) for all the transgressions he committed in his efforts to resurrect Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in the previous movie, and I like the way the early part of this movie explores the consequences of Kirk's typically reckless actions.

But Nimoy, who returns as director and also helped develop the story, wanted to make this movie a lighthearted romp, so the main portion of the action takes place in the past, as the crew wanders through 1986 San Francisco getting into scrapes while attempting to procure two humpback whales. The danger in this movie is very similar to the danger in The Motion Picture, with a mysterious alien vessel destroying or disabling everything in its path while sending out a message to a long-gone presence on Earth. V'ger was trying to reach NASA in The Motion Picture; here it's a probe trying to contact whales that have gone extinct.

The potential destruction of Earth is really just a plot device to get the Enterprise crew to travel back in time, and once they do, the tone turns to light comedy, with a jaunty score and a bunch of cheesy fish-out-of-water humor. During the 1986 portion of the movie (which was primarily written by The Wrath of Khan's Nicholas Meyer), you can see why Nimoy would go on to direct Three Men and a Baby. After being surprisingly chaste throughout the movie series to date, Kirk finally gets a love interest of sorts in marine biologist Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), and they have a nice chemistry, even if their entire romance only culminates in a kiss on the cheek. Splitting up the crew into teams gives the supporting characters some decent chances to shine, although most of it is through silly humor like Chekov (Walter Koenig) accosting people about "nuclear wessels" and Scotty (James Doohan) attempting to talk to a computer via the mouse.

Still, Nimoy, Meyer and writer-producer Harve Bennett understand the character dynamics well, and The Voyage Home does continue the arc of Spock's reconnecting with his friends from the previous movie. The conclusion puts the crew back on a brand new Enterprise (this is the only Star Trek movie in which the Enterprise basically never appears), and it feels like both an ending and a new beginning. As a goofy piece of '80s pop culture, in the vein of something like Short Circuit, The Voyage Home is harmless enough, but it lacks the depth and excitement of a truly great Star Trek movie.

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