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.