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Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

With Attack of the Clones there was some improvement in the prequels, but many of the stinging problems from The Phantom Menace still exist here.  The pace is generally improved with some more action sequences, some better characters, and more interesting locales to explore.  However, the supposed “love story” between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala couldn’t be more contrived or agonizingly acted.  Of course, there are frivolous character and story elements peppered throughout which have no bearing on anything at all.  So, let’s jump into it, and deconstruct Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

Set ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now the Senator of the planet Naboo, and is leading the opposition to creating an army of the Republic.  This is in response to a faction of political separatists, led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who want to breakaway from the Republic.  After an assassination attempt on the Senator’s life, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her.  After the assassin strikes again with the Jedi thwarting the attempt, they capture the assassin, but she is killed by a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) before they can obtain any answers.  The Jedi Council then send Obi-Wan and Anakin on separate missions with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fearing for Senator Amidala’s safety.  Anakin is sent with Padmé to Naboo as a protector.  However, their feelings for one another slowly stir to the surface causing emotional conflicts for them.  Worse yet, nightmares of his mother trouble Anakin enough to return to Tatoonie in an attempt to save her from dire peril.  Meanwhile, Obi-Wan’s investigation ultimately leads him to the planet Kamino where he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving this assassination plot, the Separatist movement, and a Clone Army which could lead to all-out galactic war.

While there are various negatives I wish to point out here, let me counter-balance the review of Episode I by starting out with some positive aspects of this film.  Mainly, the visual effects are far improved and much more consistent than what The Phantom Menace offered.  It’s hard to believe that CGI evolved so much in such a short span of time, but the industry required it.  Bigger films were being made now because filmmakers saw what could be accomplished, and the technology and artistry of these effects houses simply pushed hard to match up with the demand.  Everything is generally more detailed in Episode II, and the story allowed for a more vast and diverse set of locations, vehicles, props, and alien creatures.  So, there was more of a canvas to apply the improvements in digital filmmaking.  Still, the movie is starved for more practical locations.  Granted, many don’t exist in reality, but the constant filming against blue screens begins to wear thin.  It takes away from the potential depth of the frame, and the tangibility of the environments they inhabit.  So much of it just feels fake because it is fake.

On a better note, George’s decision to shoot in high definition digital video was something I was supportive of, same as with Robert Rodriguez.  That evolution in video camera technology has actually allowed for my independent filmmaker career to exist.  Unfortunately, I did not see Attack of the Clones in a digital projection theatre.  That experience would have to wait for Revenge of the Sith.

Another positive is that there is more life with a few characters.  Ewan McGregor steps into the mentor role of Obi-Wan Kenobi well injecting some nice dimension into his scenes.  He feels more fleshed out and comfortable this time around.  A little chuckle here, some urgency there go a long way to show the depth and personality of his matured Kenobi.  He truly feels like a good leader, a fine Jedi, and an interesting character to follow now.  His single scene opposite Kenobi’s alien friend Dex shows more intelligible and relatable character traits from him than most anything displayed in The Phantom Menace.  It shows both a jovial, friendly side, but also, the inquisitive mind of the character.  McGregor is surely an excellent actor with a wide range, and I am glad that his talent was allowed to be more in the forefront here.  Of everyone in the prequels,  his performances feel the most natural and dimensional.  I feel he sells Anakin’s downfall more that Hayden Christensen does.

The legendary Christopher Lee gives us a villain with some substance in Count Dooku.  I only find it unfortunate that he doesn’t show up until half way through the film.  This would be better if he was built up more to create mystery or anticipation around him, but he’s barely mentioned in that first half of the movie.  And where Darth Maul had nothing to say for himself, Dooku has plenty, and Lee works his scenes very well.  There’s enough ambiguity about Dooku to build suspicion and doubt over what he claims to be truth.  Lee’s performance rides the fence of a man who could either be a straight out villain or a controversial strong leader who has a valid point of view.  He’s just shady enough to keep it all uncertain.  His scene opposite the imprisoned Kenobi is quite rich with juicy character interactions.  It is a pleasure indeed.

Unfortunately, from there, the quality of the performances start to get more one dimensional and hollow.  Natalie Portman, again, is reflected as a far lesser grade acting talent than she truly is with poor characterization and awkward, ineffective emotions.  While she has a generally good show of emotions, they seem to lack depth or realism.  The romance, of sorts, between Padmé and Anakin never feels earned, only forced.  For the life of me, I cannot rationalize why a young woman dedicated to peaceful, intelligent solutions would ultimately marry a man who confessed to a rage filled slaughter.  Tusken Raiders or no, Padmé has always sought out the way of peace in all situations.  She never comes off as someone in favor of blind hatred or rage, and in all other instances, appears to have a distaste towards unwarranted violence.  She didn’t murder Nute Gunray at the end of the last film.  She retook her throne and put him into the custody of the authorities.  She believes in justice, and resolving conflicts with negotiation and rational thought.  However, she marries a man who is volatile, insubordinate, emotionally unstable, immature, and supports tyrannical political ideals.  There is no rational reason they would be attracted to one another side from the physical aspect.

Now, I really don’t know any of Hayden Christensen’s other work to offer a perspective on his talents.  Granted, the characterization of Anakin Skywalker is not his fault at all.  He played the character that was on the page.  There’s nothing different he could’ve done with what he was given to make Anakin a better character.  Still, there are many moments where he comes off as wooden.  Much of his intended “serious” or “mature” dialogue is delivered with a drab, downtrodden empty quality.  As with Portman, there’s no depth behind what is said.  Anakin Skywalker should have been a rich character with many sides from the brave and honorable to the conflicted and troubled.  Considering the entire saga is ultimately his story from innocent child to conflicted Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader to redemption through his son, Anakin Skywalker should have been the most fascinating character of all six films, but he ultimately comes off as one of the least interesting and most annoying in these prequels.  So, what Lucas gives us is a very immature and flat character who has little for an audience to emotionally invest themselves in.

There are other characters which I do have things to say about, mainly the Jedi Masters, but they are best left for my summation in the Revenge of the Sith review to avoid redundant criticisms.  However, to briefly touch upon those thoughts, I have to say that if Yoda has nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, he ought to keep his mouth shut.  So much of his dialogue ultimately makes him seem like a short-sighted fool.  He has plenty of opportunities to act upon the bad vibes coming off of Anakin, but he never takes any action in response to them.  And I do believe having Yoda engage in frivolous lightsaber battles is a terrible idea.  Instead of criticizing the cringe inducing visual of Yoda flying around like a video game character and acting like some dim-witted action hero parody, I want to point out the purpose of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga.  They are a plot device used to twist the storyline into a new direction, and that is not at all a negative thing.  However, that is not the case with Yoda’s duels.

For example:  the climactic saber duel in The Phantom Menace results in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn which gives way to Anakin being less-than-well trained by Obi-Wan.  The death of Darth Maul opens the way for Dooku to become the new Sith apprentice, and setup the circumstances for the Clone War.  In Attack of the Clones, Anakin charges into battle, gets his arm chopped off, and begins to lose more of his humanity from this loss.  This motivates him to kill Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and his death makes way for the rise of Darth Vader.  Then, Obi-Wan destroys Grievous, and thus, motivates the end of the Clone War, the attempted arrest of Palpatine, and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force.  Vader versus Obi-Wan in that same film results in the half-man, half-machine Sith Lord, destroying Anakin Skywalker further.  Ben Kenobi’s death in A New Hope allows him to become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” by becoming one with The Force, and helping to guide Luke anywhere at anytime.  The duel in The Empire Strikes Back clearly sets up a whole host of character and plot twists to the point where in Return of the Jedi, the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes the catalyst for Luke to put down his arms, and ultimately, instigate the event that turns Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker.  So, you see, lightsaber duels are never gratuitous action scenes.  They serve a very specific plot purpose.  That is except for all of Yoda’s lightsaber battles.

They do absolutely nothing to further the saga along.  Here, he fights Dooku, only to lose.  In the following film, he fights the Emperor, only to lose.  By showing that Yoda is unable to defeat a Sith Lord in battle makes it difficult to believe he’s the right one to train Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.  Not to mention, in that marvelous film, Yoda talks entirely about how the physical is inconsequential to one’s power with the Force, but in Attack of the Clones, he does nothing but resort to physical means of combat when a few minor Force tricks do nothing against Dooku.  And once he has lost, he is apparently so worn out from the battle that he has to strain his Force abilities to lift a piece of machinery from crashing down on Obi-Wan and Anakin.  In Empire, Yoda lifts the whole X-Wing fighter from the swamp and onto land with amazing grace and ease.  There, all that mattered was the will and confidence to achieve such a feat.  This is another obvious example of George Lucas’ change in philosophy that occurred between the creation of the two trilogies.  Yoda’s physical strength should not have an effect on his power with the Force.  If Yoda can only call on his Force powers in short bursts and it exhausts him to do so, that only shows that his power is very limited.  This is in direct contrast to Yoda’s teachings in Empire that, because the Force is his ally, he is powerful beyond physical strength.  By failing to defeat any Sith he opposes, and straining to do what should be easy for him with his purported Jedi mastery, it only proves that he’s no more capable than any other Jedi.  Yoda is supposed to be the most accomplished and powerful Jedi around, but if this is the extent of their power and wisdom, it is no wonder the Empire was able to wipe them out.

Another thing that is eradicated, again, is intelligence.  I mentioned in The Phantom Menace the absurdity of how the Senate was run in that one outspoken statement from any one representative immediately causes sweeping change in the Senate.  That returns here, and in cringe inducing fashion.  As Senator Amidala returns to Naboo to hide from her assassin she leaves Jar Jar Binks to act in her place with her Senatorial power.  Representative Binks is then manipulated into going before the Senate and propositioning the Senate to vote emergency powers to the Chancellor so he can authorize the creation of a Clone Army.  This one vote from one STAND-IN for a Senator immediately allows for it to happen.  Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the film, the Senate is entrenched in conflict over whether to create an army or not, and Amidala has been the leader of the opposition to this.  I find it highly improbable that the majority of the Senate and Amidala’s supporters would suddenly roll over because this dim-witted fool speaks up.  I mean, it’s not like they didn’t just have Padmé on a holonet transmission where she could speak on her own behalf in front of the Senate.  Not to mention, why is everyone talking about going to war the whole film when, until Obi-Wan uncovers the Separatist’s plans, no hostile action had been taken against the Republic?  As far as the Republic knows these people simply want to become a separate autonomous alliance of worlds.  Sure, the Republic being split in two would cause some controversy and unease, but immediately jumping to the prospect of war is a little rash when they have no evidence of violent intentions from the Separatists.

I also have issue with what was done to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones.  I’m a general fan of the character, and I find him interesting and exciting.  However, Lucas does another frivolous, pointless change to a character.  Making Boba Fett a young clone of Jango Fett is inane as it serves no purpose towards the plot or the characters of Jango or Boba.  There is no reason Boba Fett couldn’t have been a regular offspring of Jango, and be given his own unique identity instead of being just another clone out of thousands or millions.  I also find it quite creepy that Jango is raising a clone of himself.  It almost sounds like the strange machinations of a mad scientist to being doing such a thing.  Speaking of pointless things, the assassin Zam Wessel had no purpose to being a shape shifter.  Again, it serves no purpose to the character or plot.  It actually could have been used intelligently with Zam changing form and escaping into the crowd, and creating an actual challenge for Obi-Wan and Anakin.  Instead, it’s just there to make her more “alien” and to show off another little visual effects gag.

Digging into Jango Fett a little more, I did enjoy what Temuera Morrison brought to this role.  He’s both a cunning, dangerous bounty hunter and a smooth gentleman.  Morrison has some restrained charisma in this role allowing Jango to come off as a smart and savvy villain that is confident without being arrogant.  He has a very nicely played scene opposite McGregor as Fett and Kenobi size each other up in a stand-offish exchange of words.  It’s a strong first true impression of Jango that really sparks an interest, and Morrison handles the overall demands of the role exceptionally well.

On the technical side of things, Ben Burtt should be ashamed of some of the editing in this film.  The one part that stands out is the saber duel between Anakin and Dooku.  The close-up shots of the two swinging their blades around actually have no continuity to them at all from one shot to another, and hardly look like they’re clashing blades.  It looks more like an interpretive dance than an aggressive battle.  It’s shoddy work.  There are other instances where editing should’ve been tightened up to maintain immediacy in character reactions, or maintain rhythm in certain action sequences.  However, the sound design in the film is excellent.  The sonic charges deployed by Jango Fett in the asteroid field create one of the most awesome speaker blasting sound effects I’ve ever heard.  The city sounds on Coruscant are excellently crafted to create a nicely enveloping world, and the end battle scenes are well balanced for fine clarity where the sound effects don’t simply become an indiscernible onslaught.

What I also do like about this film is the added atmosphere tying in with the mystery elements of the story.  The various night scenes create a neo noir visual aesthetic that really appeal to my tastes greatly.  The stormy environment of Kamino was an excellent choice that further heightened the mood of the film.  As Kenobi gets deeper into the mystery, the more treacherous his surroundings become, and it culminates in a stellar fight between Obi-Wan and Jango.  The slippery aspect of the landing platform added a different dynamic which keeps the sequence exciting and unpredictable.  Obi-Wan doesn’t get to rely on the lightsaber as much, and has to be more innovative and cunning to survive.  This is more akin to classic Star Wars were characters were made intelligent to figure their way out of tight situations.

Of course, pulling directly from the original trilogy is not entirely the most successful approach as the end duel between Anakin and Dooku demonstrates.  It tries to recreate some of the smoky light and shadow effect of the climactic duel in Empire, but it comes off as forgettable and mild.  It really comes down to a buildup of characters, emotions, and plot points.  In Empire, the visual of the carbon freezing chamber with its smoke and orange and blue lighting enhanced the tone of the story being told.  It is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and ominous.  Everything built up to this, and it sends a chill down the spine of many viewers.  Here, it’s just a nice visual.  There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s just another hollow throwback to a better film.  The duel itself is not that impressive, either.  Conversely, I’ve never had an issue with the asteroid field battle in this film.  It’s entertaining and exciting.  While it is a throwback to Empire, it works for me as it is a logical progression of the plot, and showcases some of Obi-Wan’s cunning combat skills.

While the plot is more sensical than The Phantom Menace, there is both padding to make up for a lack of plot developments and hanging plot threads that never get tied up, ever.  Obi-Wan’s investigation into the poison dart should really end with the scene where he meets Dex who tells him its from Kamino.  Instead, it goes on for another two scenes where he investigates the planet in the library, and then, since he can’t find it there, he goes to Yoda for answers.  Yoda has none, but the little kids he’s training do.  This not only unnecessarily pads out the film, but also makes Obi-Wan Kenobi look stupid because he can’t figure out something a five year old who can’t act could.  It’s never explained who deleted Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or how they did it.  Also, everything about Jedi Master Sifo Dyas ordering the Clone Army despite having died around the same time is never cleared up or resolved.  I could speculate on the truth, but that is all that can be done.  Lucas lays no clues to come to a confident answer, and no one in the film tries to figure it out.  It’s entirely forgotten by the next action sequence.  It is also curious that the Sandpeople would hold Shmi Skywalker captive when they’ve always been murderous scavengers, and there is fan conjecture over this saying it was orchestrated by a third party.  However, there is hardly anything within the context of the films to perceive it as anything more than it appears to be.

Again, the romance storyline between Anakin and Padmé really doesn’t hold together.  The dialogue is stilted, the performances are wooden, and the entire interaction is more like a screenwriter’s naive perception of love.  The Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship worked because these were two well developed characters with strong personalities and honest, realistic emotions.  It felt like a natural, organic relationship that evolved and grew between them.  Plus, they didn’t fall in love and get married within the course of a few days.  Anakin and Padmé feel like an immature teenage high school couple who over dramatize their so-called romance because they have no genuine grasp on what real love truly is.  They think that what they have is love, but they would be wrong.  What they have, at best, is the illusion of love built upon teenage style angst and physical attraction.  And again, Padmé is subjected to Anakin whining about Obi-Wan, blaming him for everything that’s wrong in his life, being insubordinate to his superiors, bitching her out in front of the current Queen of Naboo, and confessing to the mass murder of not just the Tusken Raider men, but the women and children, too.  Quite frankly, in any other film, Anakin Skywalker would be the psychotic villain, and Padmé would be running away from him screaming in horror.  I can’t imagine that she is meant to be a moronic idiot, but that’s exactly how she continually comes off considering all of this nonsensical madness.  No woman in her right mind would be so eager to love and marry a man like this.  It also makes no sense to me why Padmé is so vehemently opposed to just being involved with a man.  She keeps saying she loves Anakin, but then, says she can’t love him because she’s a Senator.  That doesn’t compute in my brain.  No other reason is ever given.  She’s a Senator, and so, she can’t go out on a date.  That’s her entire reason.  No expansion on that at all.  It’s ridiculous.

Never minding all of that, Attack of the Clones has plenty of good action sequences.  While not all come off as rational, like Obi-Wan uncharacteristically jumping out the window to grab the assassin droid (couldn’t he have just used the Force to disable it and bring it to him?), the scenes are well structured and choreographed.  They are all different and maintain good momentum, to a point.  The previous movie had a serious lack of compelling action scenes, and traded them off with long, drab dialogue scenes.  Here, it seems like they have to milk the action scenes for as much as they’re worth because the plot lacks enough threads to weave throughout the 120+ minute run time.  While the droid factory sequence is decent, it is ultimately another piece of run time padding.  It could be a much tighter sequence, if you had to have it, but it needs to be long to stretch the story out.  This is the case with most of the action scenes especially the speeder chase through the nighttime of Coruscant.  It’s not a bad action sequence, but an action scene is best when it’s tightly paced and gets straight to the point.  If you’re going to have a chase scene, make it count with a solid pay-off.

Again, there are some cringable attempts at humor here, but this time, it falls on R2-D2 and C-3PO.  I won’t get into it.  It’s brain dead idiotic slapstick gags that would even be bad in some television program for kindergarteners.  This crap has nothing to do with anything in story, action, or character development.  It’s gratuitous garbage filled with horrible puns, and that’s all I’m going to waste my time mentioning it because this review is too long as it is already.

I really hoped to say more positive things about this movie, but the more I dug into it, the more flaws I saw.  It’s frustrating to me that I want to enjoy more about this movie, but it’s designed to backfire on me.  I’m not going into these films with the intent of tearing them down, and I hope the praise I have offered up reflects that mentality.  I don’t have any memories that stick out about my theatrical experiences with this movie, unlike the other two prequels, and so, I can’t recall my early feelings on it.  I did purchase the John Williams score CD the same day, and so, that says something.  Of course, regardless of the quality of the films, I do own all of the soundtrack CD sets.  Anyway, while Episode II makes some improvements from Episode I, some problems are exchanged for others, and some of the biggest ones are never fixed.  Again, I don’t want to hate on George Lucas, but the man is not helping me to avoid doing so.  I can forgive certain underdeveloped aspects of a film depending on various factors, but the rampant stupidity of some characters and the horribly contrived love story are too much to forgive.  Thankfully, I do have very fond memories of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and so, I have more sentimental leeway to offer it.  But that’s another review for another time.  As Attack of the Clones stands, it’s a long way from greatness, but at least, I can sit through it.  I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.


Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)

There is a myth in Star Trek lore that the even numbered movies are good and the odds numbered ones are bad.  That’s fairly simplistic, and not entirely a fair statement.  Yes, the franchise has had poorly conceived and problematic films in its lineup, but that hardly means that all the lesser entries are terrible.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a lot going against it, but as evidence by it, the talents of Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley have always been able to add redeeming qualities to all the original cast films.  Their chemistry, charm, heart, charisma, and depth have always shone through.  While there is a potential future review from me for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I wanted to delve into the follow-up to the franchise’s most critically successful film.  I wanted to address Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  While the first and fifth films have very obvious problems that have been well vocalized, I feel Trek 3 gets too much of a bad wrap.  I can pinpoint and agree with the reasons why, but I believe it’s been overly beat up because of it being in the shadow of The Wrath of Khan.  Time for someone to give it a more fair viewpoint.

The starship Enterprise is heavily wounded in the aftermath of her battle against Khan, but her crew survives by way of the sacrifice of Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  His body is launched from the ship in a memorial ceremony, and crash lands on the Genesis planet.  As the Enterprise and her crew arrive home to Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) finds his close friend and confidant Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelly) in Spock’s sealed quarters talking crazy, and eventually finds himself in lock-up after trying to charter passage to Genesis.  The hits keeping coming as Kirk learns that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned as the Starfleet brass believe her day has passed.  This is ever more apparent with the experimental new U.S.S. Excelsior ready to begin trial runs, ushering in a new era of Starfleet engineering.  However, Kirk is soon paid a visit by Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard), who tells him that Spock’s katra (i.e. everything that is not of the body) still lives, and they determine that Spock mind-melded with McCoy before his death.  This commits Jim Kirk to a course of action that could cost him his career by stealing the Enterprise to rescue Spock’s body from the newly formed Genesis planet, and reunite it what’s in Leonard McCoy’s mind.  Meanwhile, a ship of rogue Klingons, headed up by the cunning and merciless Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), seek to learn the secrets of the Genesis Device for the protection of the Empire with the science team on U.S.S. Grissom, including Kirk’s son David (Merritt Butrick) and Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis), caught in the crossfire.  The sacrifices of the crew of the starship Enterprise will be dire as they endeavor on their search for Spock.

I believe why this film is not as highly regarded as others is the lack of a strong theme.  In The Wrath of Khan, there was a prominent exploration of age, life, and death.  What they all mean in context to one another, and how someone like Jim Kirk dealt with them.  Here, there was enough room left open for strong themes to be explored, such as sacrifice and rebirth, but the opportunities are not taken with much ambition.  Considering all Kirk has battled through from Khan to the death of his friend, ship, and son, the story was ripe for deep resonance.  Of course, The Voyage Home doesn’t have such dramatic elements to it, and it has been widely beloved.  The Search For Spock is a segue between the tones of the films its sandwiched between.  It has its strong, dramatic elements, but also a lot of fun and light-hearted charisma.  One would think it would be praised for that fine blend, but it does lack the ambition that those other two films had.  They took some chances, pushing themselves for higher standards, and they succeeded.  While this second sequel doesn’t have much scope, I do gain enjoyment from it.  There are many aspects that I find are worth commending.

I love how the film is able to show the loyalty of the Enterprise crew.  Admiral Kirk gives them the opportunity to walk away before getting too deep into this rogue mission, but they have no hesitations in voicing their loyalties.  They are willing to stand by Kirk, regardless of the repercussions, because of  what they owe him, and ultimately, what they owe Spock for his sacrifice.  That strong, indestructible bond is not something that all Star Trek casts have been able to achieve, and that history amongst the crew of the original U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701 sells so much of Kirk’s motivations here.  Even if the film doesn’t dig deep enough to show how it penetrates to his soul, a seasoned viewer already knows it.  Tying into that is the always solid chemistry amongst the regular cast members.  They work as an ensemble that is very cohesive, and always on the mark.  Regardless of the quality of the film they are making, or how troubled the production may have been, the actors never get lazy or sloppy.  They respect their characters and the legacy they leave behind.  No pun intended, but Shatner puts in an admirable performance giving the film its constant pace through his wit and charisma.  He adds in the right touches of humor, as do his co-stars, but focuses the drama of the screenplay when it’s needed.

This film was really the dawn of the revamped Klingons.  The makeup redesign happened in the first film, but here, they finally explore the revised culture of the warrior race.  The concepts of honor, guile, and glorious death are well explored through Christopher Lloyd’s excellent Commander Kruge.  While the character himself is not explored with as much depth as he could have, Lloyd plays a surprisingly solid villain.  He’s cunning, deceitful, intelligent, and treacherous.  Lloyd has been known for a wide range of eclectic characters, but here, he delivers an excellent, calculated performance with a fine operatic screen presence.  Essentially, all Klingon actors followed in his footsteps as he laid the foundation and template for them right here.  I also enjoyed Kruge motives, which could have been the basis for fleshing the character out.  Like with Khan, Kruge sees the potential for Genesis as a weapon, but instead of using it as an instrument of revenge or tyranny, the Klingon Commander seeks it to protect his people.  He will not let the Federation have sole claim to something that could be used to commit genocide on his people, and he will stop at nothing to learn its secrets.  It could almost be an allegory to the nuclear arms race if Genesis was created as a weapon instead of as a terraforming device.  Kruge is calculating, and accepts nothing but the absolute best from his crew, lest they be met with fatal punishment.  Lloyd as Kruge was also the first to use the fully realized Klingon language.  It was great having the alien race’s culture more fleshed out and developed for this film to give the actors something solid and powerful to work off of.  The always impressive John Larroquette is here as one of Kruge’s subordinates, Maltz.  It’s a minor role, but he embraces it with his usual full commitment and high quality.  This film also introduced one of my favorite Star Trek starships – the Klingon Bird of Prey.  It’s an amazing design that is fierce and dangerous.  The green paint job was a smart departure from all the dull grey ships we had seen until then.  It gives the Klingons more personality from the moment the ship de-cloaks.  It is given an imposing, threatening introduction that serves the Klingons thoroughly.

I have always held Mark Lenard as Sarek in high regard.  You never get to meet the parents of the other Enterprise crew members, but for Spock, it has always been important to his character to see his family.  Lenard has always been able to portray Sarek’s wisdom and logic with a touch of heart.  While it’s hard to link emotional terms with the performance of a Vulcan, I would say that Sarek shows his soul in this film.  Losing his son is like losing a part of himself, as is the same with Kirk.  So, they share a rare moment which only Spock’s death could compel from them.  While Sarek & Spock’s father-son relationship has had its conflicts, Sarek is still a fine father that cares for his son more than he can ever allow himself to express.  No parent should see their child’s life end before their own, and Sarek sees a chance to reverse that tragedy.  Any parent would take that chance, no matter the odds.  Mark Lenard gave Sarek his wisdom, grace, conviction, and noble depth of character.  He was an incredible, inspiring actor that forged a legacy in this franchise that will stand for all time.

A possible issue of contention with this movie is the recasting of Saavik.  The role was originated by Kirstie Alley in The Wrath of Khan, but financial demands from her agent prevented her reprisal.  Instead, it went to Robin Curtis.  Both actresses play the role differently, but it was necessary to keep Saavik to maintain the character and story threads from the previous movie.  Both Alley and Curtis offer unique and admirable performances.  Alley’s Saavik was decently Vulcan with a subtle emotive quality.  She was a very untested Starfleet cadet with promise.  She came to grow over the course of the adventure, earning her keep.  Curtis’ Saavik is more confident and capable with a stronger Vulcan characterization and a sensitive nature that proves to be a strength.  She has a stronger will and sharper intellect to create a more complex character.  With the guidance of director Leonard Nimoy, she was given the freedom to make the character her own without the baggage of Kirstie Alley’s portrayal.  In the Vulcan legacy of Spock and Sarek, she adds great depth to Saavik beneath the surface.  Alley’s version entirely served the needs of The Wrath of Khan while Curtis’ portrayal suits the demands of The Search For Spock just as perfectly.

The visual effects are solidly up to the levels of the first two Star Trek films, as handled by Industrial Light & Magic.  They are definite proud achievements that hold up excellently today.  Model work and optical effects, when done by the master craftsman of the era, entirely stood the test of time, and should always remain available as milestones in cinematic history.  What doesn’t quite stand up over time are the scenes on planet Genesis.  The limitations of the budget are painfully evident with the obvious soundstage sets and painted backdrops.  Because of the limited budget, the filmmakers obviously couldn’t fly their actors to exotic locales around the world to feature all the diverse climates of this manufactured planet.  I can’t say that there was a feasible way to do this better at the time this movie was made, but even if it was the best solution, it’s still a detractor to the film’s production quality.  This is not a constant for every scene on Genesis, but the evidence is frequently apparent, regularly reminding you of this fact.

Another thing that I don’t care for here is James Horner’s score.  I’ve always been underwhelmed by his music for Star Trek.  For me, Jerry Goldsmith will always be the one and only master when it comes to cinematic Trek.  What John Williams is to Star Wars, Jerry Goldsmith was to Star Trek, in my view.  He ultimately defined the vast, sprawling, epic musical landscape of the franchise for me on the big screen.  Horner’s themes and cues are fine work, but they never became signature, identifiable themes for Star Trek.  Evidence of this is that Goldsmith’s theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture became the theme music for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Jerry was brought in to score five total films in the series over thirty-four years.  Horner was kept around for a total of three films, but I never cared all that much for the music he produced.  It was never outright bad, but it just never lived up to the musical potential of what Star Trek demanded.  It’s nicely arranged and gives the film some character, but it simply never does enough for me.  In this film, I seriously miss one of my favorite Goldsmith themes – the Klingon theme.  I can only imagine how awesome it would’ve been to see that Bird of Prey swooping around for the kill with that glorious fanfare in full orchestral breadth.  Kruge surely deserved a verbose and powerful theme to accompany his commanding presence, but James Horner makes no attempt to give the Klingons any presence in the film’s score.

The screenplay was written by producer Harve Bennett who was more akin to writing for television (such as The Mod Squad and The Bionic Woman) which, at the time, didn’t explore big thematic storylines with strong emotional resonance.  So, the scope of the film feels small for that reason.  As I said before, the limits were not pushed here to be ambitious and reach for something bigger or deeper.  That doesn’t mean the script is bad.  It certainly has its moments.  I truly like the part where the Excelsior’s Captain Styles tells Kirk that if he goes ahead with stealing the Enterprise, “You’ll never sit in the Captain’s seat again.”  Kirk doesn’t even flinch as he  just orders, “Warp speed.”  The first two films made a definite point that Kirk’s worth in life is directly tied to being a starship captain, but there’s something far more important at stake here.  He’d rather lose everything in his career if there’s a chance to bring Spock back to life, and restore McCoy’s mind to peace.  The dialogue is good and entertaining while encapsulating the characters perfectly.  The action scenes are nicely conceived, especially with the fight between the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey.  Seeing how the old NCC-1701 is overmatched because it is wounded and undermanned being run on automation was a fine touch.  It is entirely realistic that she can’t take the pounding.  While it would have been a glorious moment to see Admiral Morrow proven wrong with his statements of how old and outdated the ship is by seeing it triumph against such steep odds, I think it better fuels how much Kirk has to sacrifice to get his friend back.

While, clearly, I’ve said much about what is sacrificed on Spock’s behalf, but McCoy is at risk as well.  Jim Kirk has one friend dead and another in turmoil.  These two men – Leonard McCoy & Spock – are pieces to the whole that is James T. Kirk.  I always enjoyed the moment in Star Trek: The Motion Picture where Kirk drafts Bones back into service because he can’t do what he has to do alone.  “Dammit, Bones!  I need you!” says Kirk to McCoy.  Only after he has the wisdom, perspective, heart, and soul of these two men at his side can he succeed.  They bring balance to his ego, passion, guile, and intellect.  They re-enforce and focus his confidence.  They help him reflect upon himself.  Leonard McCoy is a vital piece of that formula bringing passion and humanity to the table.  Kirk can’t allow to see his friend’s mental state deteriorate, and lose him as well.

Regardless of anything else, ultimately, I have to praise Leonard Nimoy on his feature film directorial debut.  It was both a tough and enviable position for him to be in.  On one hand, he was unproven as a movie director, and had scrutinous limitations and supervision put on him in the shadow of a critically and commercially successful film.  However, he was working largely with a cast he had known for over fifteen years who knew their characters thoroughly, and that could allow Nimoy to direct with a built-in sense of respect.  I’m sure he had his difficulties, but his talent is clear to me.  He surely was allowed to soar with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home based on his success here.  It is a serious cinematic disservice that his career as a feature film director ended before it had a chance to soar.  He started out with solid hits including Three Men and a Baby.  However, he faced a crushing defeat, both critically and commercially, in 1994 with the comedy film Holy Matrimony which grossed less than $800,000 (less than 20% of its production budget).  Leonard really appeared to be a wonderful filmmaker with a great handle on action, drama, and humor.  I believe he would’ve had a lot to offer in a lengthy career had he gotten the right projects to his credit as a director.  Here, he delivered a very consistently paced and well balanced film that keeps is story elements in focus.  While there are likely plot holes in the reasoning of some characters here and there, they are minor bits and pieces that are relatively inconsequential.

At the end of this, I feel Star Trek III: The Search For Spock should not be viewed as a “bad movie.”  It doesn’t live up to the thoroughly solid thematic work of the previous film or the fun adventurous spirit of its follow-up, but it’s a nicely enjoyable film that had potential to be more than it was.  It has plenty of action, drama, and humorous moments to make it a consistent, satisfying and entertaining film.  The screenplay could’ve benefited from getting in deeper to the soul of the story.  It certainly touches upon it several times, but doesn’t stay there long enough to really develop the underlying themes in the story.  As it is, there is no reason to rank it poorly in the franchise.  It was commercially successful, and remains a fine classic Trek adventure for the original cast.  It merely in contrast to the exceptional and vastly superior films it is sandwiched between that give it a perceived smaller stature, and that I can understand.  But sometimes, you need to take things a little out of context to give them their proper due respect.