Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek Film Series (1984-1986)

3. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Time has come to discuss the dreaded Star Trek Movie Odd/Even rule. For those unfamiliar (And I can’t imagine anybody reading this would be), the rule dictates that the even number Trek flicks “rock” and the odd number ones are “teh suck.”

Obviously, it’s was in the wake of Part III that this opinion formed but, honestly, “Search for Spock” is not that bad. After “Wrath of Khan,” it is disappointing and the film is somewhat awkward overall but there are several stand-out moments. It is a direct follow-up to the last, a move I’ve always admired, and it at least deals with the ramifications of the last film’s ending logically. Bringing Spock back from the dead could’ve been an epic death cheat and rob “Khan”’s ending of its power. While I can’t really argue with that too much, the issue is handled delicately. The biggest problem has less to do with the idea of resurrecting Spock and more too due with the vague details. His body lands on the Genesis planet and just, magically, becomes connected with the planet’s life force.

The story’s structure is, over all, a little sloppy. The villainous squad of Klingons run in and out of the story for the film’s first half while we cut back and forth from the Enterprise’s crew to the events on the planet. Not only is it slightly slipshod, it affects the pacing, causing events to drag somewhat. One thing I do like about the earlier parts is Kirk and crew ship-napping the Enterprise and going off on their own thing. It’s a nice element and offers characters overlooked by the last two films chances to shine, specifically Sulu and Scotty. Heck, even Uhura gets a badass scene. (Though I wonder if that character will ever get real development.) Robin Curtis is definitely a weaker Saavik then Kristie Alley.

It was a weird casting decision to have recognized character actors as the Klingon bad guys. While none of the performance are bad, per say, Christopher Lloyd and John Larroquette’s voices and mannerisms are so recognizable, even under makeup, that it’s hard to take them seriously as a threat.

Once all the story threads come together near the last act, things smooth out, but there’s another problem. Spoilers alert ahead: I really dislike the way David’s death is brushed off. He was a major character in the last film and, as Kirk’s son, should be an important part of the mythology. But he gets axed, Kirk kinda’ morns for a minute, and then the story moves on to the action-packed finale, without batting an eyelash. After handling a major character’s death so well and with so much pathos last time, it just seems really limp-wristed and weak here. Shatner’s performance suffers because of it.

However, the self destruct of the Enterprise and Kirk and Kruge’s final showdown both make for exciting action sequences, even if the whole thing rings slightly hollow. The same can be said of the ship firefights earlier. The resolution on Planet Vulcan makes for the most satisfying moments in the film and at least ends things on a positive note. Apparently, the hesitant Nimoy was lured back by a directing offer. He shows a solid enough hand and the occasionally shoddy effects can’t be blamed on him. Ultimately, “The Search for Spock” is a mostly solid film damaged by a handful of seriously problematic story issue.
[Grade: B-]
It sounds ridiculous on paper. The Enterprise crew goes back in time to save the whales. It probably sounded like the “Trek” team was submitting to the same trend that gave us the World Wildlife Fund and Captain Planet. While the film comes close to bumping up against camp or goofiness, “Star Trek IV: The Journey Home” turns out to be one of the most satisfying entries in the series.

The most successful aspect is that it stripes the series down to its bare essentials. No big phaser fights, no intergalactic ship battles, no deaths. The only trademark we have of the series is the sense of adventure and, of course, the characters. Everyone has something to do in the story. By breaking up the crew and sending each off on their own adventure, the entire cast gets equal screen time, more or less. I suppose Sulu and Uhura get the shaft, as usual, but are still important to the story. And, heck, Chekov actually becomes a major plot point. Nimoy gets to play Spock as somebody relearning much of his life. Shatner is allowed to stretches his comical ability, something he’s always good at. I was happy to see so much Scotty in this movie, even if Doohan’s characterization began to lapse into parody around this time. Catherine Hicks is the sole important addition to the cast. While her and Kirk’s chemistry isn’t ideal, it isn’t a bad performance.

Dropping everyone in the middle of 1980s San Francisco is gimmicky, as with any time travel story. The situation leads to the kind of fish-out-of-water comic relief you’d expect. Sounds stupid right? All I can say is we must have a good script because the futuristic cast having to put up with inconveniences of the past are actually, legitimately entertaining. Maybe it’s just because the copious humor is a relief after the fairly serious previous three installments. McCoy’s reactions to then-modern day medicine provide some of the biggest laughs, while Spock’s attempts at swearing also get a number of chuckles. The only sour note hit is the famous Punk on the Bus scene, which just strikes me as obvious. (And, yes, yes, I love the wessels too. Who doesn’t? You have no soul if you don’t love the wessels.)

The movie has some of the best special effects of the series and they hold up amazingly well. The model shots of the ships and the probe, though used sparingly, are all excellent. The animatronics of the whales are hugely impressive, to the point were most viewers at the time didn’t even realize there were puppets, and rightfully earned the film an Academy Award nomination. Nimoy’s directorial skills have evolved. The time travel sequence of the film is the most interesting bit of the film, a surreal dream mixture of beautiful, serene images. It’s an auteur moment that shines through naturally in the kind of movie you wouldn’t expect to see it in.

I do have one major problem with the movie. It gets off to a fast start. The general premise is set up as quickly as possible. Not a bad idea, as we want to get the crew to 1986 and get to the meat of the movie. But the chaos the probe causes and the way Spock immediately deciphers time travel are rushed through awfully quickly.

I’m ultimately too sentimental. “The Voyage Home” is, on its own, a funny, exciting adventure flick and a solid “Trek” entry. But the whale aspect made it a childhood favorite of mine and much of that nostalgia probably links to my enjoyment of it today. If nothing else, the film successfully wraps up the plotline started in “Wrath of Khan.” By the end, everyone’s right back where they belong. You can’t deny, it feels good to be back.
[Grade: A]

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