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Jammer's Review: "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" (1984)

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: Spoilers follow for 1984 s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. ... Star Trek III: The Search for Spock 1984, PG, 105 minutes DVD 2-disc release:
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 13, 2002
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      Warning: Spoilers follow for 1984's "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock."


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      Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

      1984, PG, 105 minutes
      DVD 2-disc release: 10/22/2002 (USA)

      Written and produced by Harve Bennett
      Directed by Leonard Nimoy

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ***
      -----

      "My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me."
      "You would've done the same for me."
      "Why would you do this?"
      "Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many."

      And there you have the underlying message of "Star Trek III: The Search for
      Spock." "Star Trek III" is like a parallel, mirrored version of "Star Trek
      II: The Wrath of Khan." Both films are about life and death, sacrifice and
      renewal. If Spock made the ultimate sacrifice in "Star Trek II," then "Star
      Trek III" is about how Kirk and his crew -- making their own sacrifices --
      try to repay that debt in order to save Spock.

      The "Search for Spock" is the companion to but not the equal of "The Wrath
      of Khan." It grows logically, emotionally, even philosophically from the
      events and themes of the previous film, so much so that the themes and the
      way they line up with the previous film are almost more respectable than
      this film in and by itself. That's not to say "The Search for Spock" isn't a
      good film. It *is* a good film, although it does not strike us in the way
      its predecessor did, perhaps because the underlying events are not always
      quite so immediate, convincing, or unexpected.

      Although "Trek III's" storyline wasn't planned at the time of "Trek II's"
      conclusion, there was a single, brief, vague seed intentionally planted near
      the end of "Trek II" -- where Spock mind-melds with McCoy and says only,
      "Remember." Crafty filmmakers keep their options open, and
      screenwriter/producer Harve Bennett did exactly that with the conclusion of
      "Trek II." He picks right up from there to tell the story of "Trek III,"
      which takes place only a matter of weeks (I believe) after the previous
      film, as Enterprise limps home with a skeleton crew. Kirk's personal log is
      marvelous in setting an initial somber tone -- establishing the quiet
      following the storm that was "Trek II's" costly showdown with Khan. Says
      Kirk's narration: "The Enterprise feels like a house with all the children
      gone. No -- more empty even than that. The death of Spock is like an open
      wound."

      The death of Spock will not for one minute be lost upon the audience, and
      the filmmakers make it clear to us that life aboard the Enterprise is
      anything but normal. The early scenes reveal that the Enterprise itself has
      apparently reached the end of its life; the wheels of Starfleet's
      bureaucracy are in full motion, having reached not only the conclusion that
      Genesis is an off-limits place and forbidden topic of discussion, but that
      the Enterprise herself is no longer worth refitting and should be
      decommissioned. "Jim, the Enterprise is 20 years old," says Admiral Morrow.
      "We feel her day is over."

      And then a somewhat emotional Sarek appears and reveals to Kirk that Spock's
      knowledge and experience, his "living spirit" -- his Katra -- is at risk of
      being lost forever since Spock's body has been abandoned on Genesis. McCoy
      is now carrying Spock's Katra in his mind, which explains his new mental
      problems. Says Sarek of Spock's essence floating around in Bones' head: "One
      alive, one not, yet both in pain." Bones' reaction upon hearing this news is
      much funnier, in the spirit of classic Spock/Bones verbal sparring, even now
      that Spock is absent: "That green-blooded son of a bitch. It's his revenge
      for all those arguments he lost."

      And hence begins the search for Spock, to retrieve his body from the
      recently quarantined Genesis Planet -- against Starfleet's explicit
      directives to the contrary -- and return it to Vulcan for final resting and
      to remove Spock's Katra from McCoy's mind. Kirk relays to his crew Admiral
      Morrow's non-granted permission: "The word is no. I am therefore going
      anyway." In saving Spock, Kirk and his crew will have to defy Starfleet,
      risk their careers, and put themselves in the middle of a dangerous showdown
      with a Klingon crew, who see the Genesis experiment as a test of a new
      weapon of mass destruction.

      As a matter of premise, I sometimes wonder about the suspense issue, and
      what audiences in 1984 really thought about all this; could any Star Trek
      film be called "The Search for Spock" and *not* end with the crew of the
      Enterprise finding and saving Spock? I somehow think not.

      Of course, success in capturing an audience is often a matter of timing and
      execution even more so than subject. In that regard, I've often thought of
      this film as the set-piece Trek film. There's certainly a story being told
      here, both on and below the surface, but for me the film lives and is
      remembered more for its big moments -- the theft of the Enterprise, the
      space battle with the Klingons, the trickery and destruction of the
      Enterprise, the fistfight against the apocalyptic background, and ultimately
      the mystical resurrection of Spock on Vulcan.

      On the new DVD commentary track, Leonard Nimoy says one of his goals in
      directing the picture was to make grand, "operatic" emotional gestures
      throughout the film. Even before having heard that on the commentary track,
      that's exactly how I had planned to describe the sequence where Kirk and his
      crew steal the Enterprise.

      The theft of the Enterprise is one of my favorite sequences in the Trek
      canon. The theater for this caper is a huge orbital space station, still one
      of the most striking images of futuristic human construction the franchise
      has brought us. The music and the visuals say about everything that needs to
      be said. The dialog, while useful in adding some detail, is minimal and in
      many ways unnecessary. This is a sequence sold on special effects that are
      grand yet simple, slow and elegant, telling an exciting story in a peaceful
      way. James Horner's score is unforgettable, and the whole scene becomes,
      yes, operatic. It's a virtuoso sequence that communicates the joyful aspects
      of Kirk's renegade-like escape while also showing the lengths he and his
      crew are going and the risks they are taking. And while the Excelsior is
      bigger and better and faster than the Enterprise, in the end it simply comes
      down to our crew's ingenuity.

      I've always enjoyed how the supporting characters get their little highlight
      moments in the Enterprise theft sequence. Working as a team, everyone is
      essential, whether it's Uhura making sure "Mr. Adventure" stays out of the
      way, Sulu getting the upper hand on the big guard that calls him "Tiny," or
      Scotty sabotaging the Excelsior's new and much-ballyhooed transwarp drive.

      In between the big moments is perhaps where the film occasionally stalls.
      There is much time spent following David and Saavik around on the Genesis
      Planet, and sometimes these scenes grow repetitive. Such scenes communicate
      the information they need to get across, but not always with great
      fascination or insight. David and Saavik are not inherently interesting
      characters and serve mostly to advance the plot. (It's hard in particular to
      make much of Saavik; Robin Curtis performs the Vulcan dispassion to a dour,
      flat extreme.)

      The pseudo-science involving Spock's body's resurrection and how he's linked
      to the Genesis Planet falls probably just outside the realm of conventional
      sci-fi wisdom; we must simply accept the device at face value. (To hope for
      some sort of revelation regarding life and death would, I concede, be an
      absurd expectation on the viewer's behalf.) We learn that David's research
      to develop the Genesis experiment included use of protomatter -- dangerous
      and unstable -- in order to cut scientific corners. This is causing the
      planet's own self-destruction. The movie seems only as convinced about its
      science as it absolutely has to be, and no more. It works because the film
      is not about science but about characters and what they have at stake. Much
      of the blame for Genesis' deterioration falls at David's feet and the story
      sets him up for a moment where he must redeem himself.

      That moment is, of course, the moment where he puts his life on the line to
      save Spock and Saavik from the Klingons, while Kirk and his crew, after an
      orbital battle with the Klingons (which the Enterprise was not equipped to
      fight), find themselves in a tragic stalemate. David is killed. It's at this
      moment in the film (as Kirk collapses to the floor before then pulling
      himself together) that we realize this is the mirrored version of "Trek II."
      In "Trek II" Kirk regained his son alongside the loss of Spock. Here he can
      regain Spock but only after losing his son.

      And, on top of that, also his ship.

      The film's next noteworthy action set-piece is Kirk's clever plan to trap
      the Klingons and set the Enterprise's auto-destruct, to "give death a
      fighting chance to live," as Bones eloquently phrases it. It's a visceral
      moment as the Enterprise is violently blown to bits, and then a moment of
      mourning as the ship burns in the planet's atmosphere, leaving a fiery trail
      behind it as our characters watch from the planet surface. This cinematic
      gesture is the conclusion of a trap that is a cross between the hugely
      satisfying and the patently absurd. These Klingons, let's face it, are
      slow-witted fools. As delicious as Kirk's trap to blow up the Klingons is,
      these guys must be pretty close to brain dead to watch a countdown to zero
      with such complete and utter cluelessness.

      The sole exception is Christopher Lloyd's commanding Klingon villain, Kruge.
      He's not exactly the smartest Klingon ever to live, either, but Kruge
      provides a reasonable adversary for Kirk that's usually watchable. He's in
      absolutely no danger of outdoing Khan in the effective-villain category, but
      as Trek villains go, he's not bad. He's motivated by an unbending desire to
      get his hands on the Genesis secret ("Genesis! I want it!"), and at the very
      least he's content to die trying.

      The final fistfight between Kirk and Kruge is in the old tradition of
      Westerns and, for that matter, the original Star Trek TV episodes. It
      greatly benefits by being set against an apocalyptic background of noise,
      fire, wind, volcanoes, lightning, and other assorted furies. Everything that
      takes place on the Genesis Planet, up to and including the final fight, was
      shot on a single massive soundstage set rigged for artificial weather,
      crumbling rocks, and flames. This is a marvelously versatile set that I'd
      say the producers got their money's worth out of, even if the cacti in the
      snow look fake. (But then, how could cacti in snow *not* look fake?)

      The film's final sequence, in which the Katra is transferred from McCoy back
      into Spock's reincarnated body, involves much Vulcan mysticism, depicted
      with a great deal of gravity and conviction. Vulcan mysticism can come off
      as conveniently magical, but it's a part of the Star Trek universe we
      accept. That the film takes this all so seriously is a crucial fact; it
      carries us along through Spock's revival, where we're reassured that the
      universe has in some way been set right.

      The last conversation between Kirk and Spock, right down to its dialog about
      the needs of the one outweighing the needs of the many, is an appropriate
      mirror image of the scene where Spock dies in the previous film; it's all
      about people making sacrifices to set things right. Spock's decision in
      "Trek II" grew out of perfectly reasoned logic, whereas Kirk and his crew in
      "Trek III" are motivated by needs that are essentially contrary to logic and
      yet no less valid.

      There's also something reassuring about "The Search for Spock" because, like
      "Star Trek II" before it (as well as "Star Trek IV" after it), it buys into
      the concept of an ongoing arc for the characters of the Enterprise. It is
      not simply an episodic movie adventure, but also a piece of a larger canvas.
      And most importantly, just like its predecessor, it realizes that in real
      drama you do not get something without paying the price.

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      Copyright 2002 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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