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Jammer's Review: "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986)

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: Spoilers follow for 1986 s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. ... Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home 1986, PG, 118 minutes DVD 2-disc release: 3/4/2003 (USA)
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 9, 2003
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      Warning: Spoilers follow for 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."


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      Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

      1986, PG, 118 minutes
      DVD 2-disc release: 3/4/2003 (USA)

      Screenplay by Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes
      and Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer
      Story by Leonard Nimoy & Harve Bennett
      Produced by Harve Bennett
      Directed by Leonard Nimoy

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ***1/2
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      On Thanksgiving Day, 1986, at the impressionable but cognizant age of 10, I
      saw "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" at the Cinema I-II-III at Eastland Mall
      in Bloomington, Illinois (is there such thing as a cineplex with only three
      screens anymore?). It was my first Star Trek movie as a sentient human being
      (my parents had apparently dragged me along as a very young observer to
      either -- and possibly both, but I'm not sure -- "Star Trek: The Motion
      Picture" and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," but I certainly hadn't by
      that point approached an intellectual stage of awareness that I can recall).

      I still clearly remember standing in line for that movie. I remember
      thinking how odd it was standing in a mall where every store was closed and
      the lights were off, except for the movie theater. (Movie theaters are, of
      course, open every holiday of the year, since that's when people go to
      movies.) Funny thing how the memory works and images fade. I remember that
      image of a closed mall, which stands out more than anything else. I also
      remember a story about whales and time travel and an odd Mr. Spock, who was
      for whatever reason not quite himself and who also could not successfully
      use the word "hell" in a sentence -- a word that, by the way, I was still
      too young to say, lest the parents give me looks of disapproval.

      I guess you could call that the official day I became a follower of Star
      Trek, having the tradition of watching these movies and TV shows passed down
      to me from my Trek-watching parents, who had been teenagers back in the days
      of The Original Series on TV. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" would be on
      the air a little less than a year later, and I officially found myself on
      the Trek bandwagon. That was some 16 1/2 years ago. Eastland Cinemas is
      itself long gone; it was shuttered in 1993 while I was still in high school.
      I look back now while completely separate instances of "gee, that was a long
      time ago" cascade upon each other.

      It's probably safe to conclude that I didn't completely "get" Star Trek at
      that time. I wasn't really familiar with the characters or the history, and
      I probably wasn't sure why these people were on the planet Vulcan in a
      Klingon ship that was apparently not even theirs (thank goodness for the
      Klingon ambassador's recap on the Federation Council floor). But I did
      understand the concepts and paradoxes of sci-fi and time travel. After all,
      "Back to the Future" had just been a big hit that was one of the more
      memorable movies from my youth.

      Anyway, perhaps I can pull myself out of nostalgia long enough to actually
      review this movie.

      I'm older and wiser now, and more cynical. I know Star Trek forward and
      backwards, and for some time I haven't seen Trek without also looking at it
      from the viewpoint of "Trek critic" (and sometimes even "jaded Trek
      critic"). Watching "Star Trek IV" is like turning back the clock to simpler
      times. It's the Star Trek movie that somehow brings Star Trek to its most
      understandable and down-to-Earth terms. It does this by bringing it to our
      own world, namely San Francisco, Earth, in 1986.

      Of the 10 Star Trek movies, probably three count in my book as the
      "standouts" -- all for different reasons. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"
      is the best of the series and serves as the true emotional and philosophical
      core of the film franchise. Next comes "Star Trek: First Contact," which is
      the best example of technical sci-fi action storytelling combined with a
      poignant self-reflection on Trek history and lore.

      After that, ranked at No. 3, would be "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," which
      is not a particularly deep or significant film but delivers an unforced,
      breezy story that works well and is simply entertaining. If "Wrath" is the
      philosophical/emotional piece and "First Contact" is the
      technical/historical piece, then "Voyage Home" is the character/charisma
      piece. No Trek movie feels less forced and more natural than "The Voyage
      Home." Everything about the movie feels like it was achieved effortlessly --
      an effect which requires great effort, care, and insight to achieve.

      "The Voyage Home" might also be appropriately labeled The Mainstream Trek.
      It's the one movie in the series that achieved unexpected popular commercial
      success and existed more or less on its own terms. It did this, quite
      simply, by existing in a more recognizable world. It's a broader, lighter,
      and perhaps safer picture. There are no villains, there is no violence. But
      there is a threat in the form of Earth's own past. The concept is simple:
      Earth's future is to be destroyed by something that happened centuries
      earlier. The story is a parable for the unseen consequences any given action
      could have.

      The massive probe at the story's outset comes looking to talk to humpback
      whales. There are none for it to talk to. Notable is how this mysterious
      probe is one of Trek's larger-than-life sci-fi elements, an object of
      seemingly infinite power and holding mysteries that are not to be solved by
      the story -- permissible in the 1980s but not anymore, it would seem. Modern
      Star Trek deals more comfortably with at least vaguely tangible and limited
      objects rather than all-powerful forces hiding grand mysteries.

      In order to save Earth from the probe, our crew must retrieve humpback
      whales from Earth's past. As the object in the movie, the whales work well.
      On the new DVD commentary track, Leonard Nimoy talks about the difficulty of
      coming up with an object that was adequate for our crew to retrieve through
      time. There was discussion during the script-development stages, for
      example, of making the object an extinct plant that would cure a disease in
      the 23rd century. But the problem with that idea was the lack of theatrical
      scale. What would seem grand enough to center the adventure on? The concept
      of whales, with their size and scope and mysterious songs, proved to be a
      good choice.

      The movie should not be seen as a polemic. There are no politics in the
      film, and it does not excessively preach about the evils of the whaling
      industry but simply looks at it from a standpoint of humanity: Why kill
      intelligent and wonderful creatures merely because you can? It is an
      interesting human trait that we do many things because we can, rather than
      because it's good for us or anyone else.

      The main guest character is a whale expert named Gillian Taylor, played by
      Catherine Hicks in a performance that at times has a little too much
      insistence and perk for my tastes but works in the context of the story. For
      Kirk and Spock's mission to find humpback whales, she represents their entry
      point to the 20th century, as well as an obstacle who must be convinced of
      what must be done to save the future.

      Always evident here is an effortless flow to the characterization and
      dialog. Broad humor in the Trek universe has sometimes come across as an
      unnatural foray, but not here. When you consider how "Star Trek:
      Insurrection" tried with all its might to make detours to the lighter side,
      but could not get there -- or look at "Star Trek V's" sorry attempts at
      humor -- you can see just how well-oiled "The Voyage Home" manages to come
      off. The movie's best laugh comes not by its words but in its notes, after
      Gillian asks, "You guys like Italian?" -- which sets off a priceless verbal
      collision between Kirk and Spock that is pointless to explain and must
      instead be witnessed.

      Of course, Spock's incompetent attempts to fit in by swearing is good for
      some chuckles, as he inserts "hell" where it does not belong. Later, the use
      of "colorful metaphors" (a great term) has turned into a running gag,
      delivered deadpan style: "Spock, where the hell's the power you promised
      me?" "One damn minute, admiral." It is a measure of our affection for these
      characters that they can get so much mileage from such cheerful goofiness.

      Plot details? I don't think I need to go much into it. There's the
      construction of the whale tank, the trespass into the nuclear "wessel," etc.
      The key here is to give everyone a small mission, which they carry out with
      relative ease and often with some sort of comic payoff. There's of course
      Scotty's encounter with a 1980s Macintosh, and the story's wink-wink
      attitude toward time travel when he gives away the formula to "transparent
      aluminum" (Kirk's earlier bit of selling his antique glasses from "Star Trek
      II" to an antique dealer is an even better gag because it's also an
      in-joke). And, of course, there's Chekov being captured by the U.S. Navy
      aboard the USS Enterprise -- which is fish-out-of-water plotting at
      simultaneously its most obvious and most fun. It goes without saying that in
      the course of the plot there will be some light jeopardy, a successful
      rescue of the whales, and a triumphant return to the 23rd century where
      Earth will be saved by whale song.

      The tech aspects are limited and the film does not dwell upon them, all the
      better for playing to the mainstream audience. Beyond the plot itself
      involving time travel and warp speed, this movie steers as clear as possible
      of tech and stays the course for character interaction. Special effects are
      more restrained and earthy, particularly (and for obvious reasons) in the
      20th century.

      I've never been a big fan of the Leonard Rosenman score for the film. It's
      adequate but not memorable, apart from the main theme, which is memorable
      but doesn't quite feel like Star Trek ... which perhaps may be the point
      given the film's Earth-bound premise. Still, after the magnificence of James
      Horner for Treks II and III and Jerry Goldsmith for ST:TMP, Rosenman comes
      across as junior varsity.

      What I especially like about the TOS feature franchise is how Treks II, III,
      and IV create a story arc for the crew of the Enterprise -- a trilogy of
      chapters that coexist and belong together, despite their differences in tone
      and subject (most especially with "Trek IV's" lighter touch). Kirk and his
      crew face the music at the end of this film for their crimes in the previous
      installment. The charges are forgiven, of course, and the crew is reassigned
      to a new ship (Kirk's demotion to captain and the "A" tacked onto the new
      Enterprise are nice touches), but the way the opening and closing scenes
      deal with the consequences stemming from the previous film ensures that the
      audience knows this continues the story -- even if half the movie's running
      time exists in its own storytelling universe.

      There's a feeling of continuity to the TOS movies that's too often lacking
      in the TNG features. "The Voyage Home" accomplishes its goal of continuing
      story threads while at the same time being the Trek movie that most exists
      outside the Trek universe. It would stand as the oddest entry to the film
      franchise ... if it weren't the most accepted and mainstream of them all.

      In taking the characters as far away from the Star Trek context as the
      series tends to get, it actually ends up revealing them as exactly who they
      are in their purest form -- at their most human, most natural, most
      restrained, and most believable.

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      Copyright 2003 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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