I had thought I had reviewed all of the past Star Trek films I was going to review, but I figured, “Why the hell not?” I’m not going to run through all the back story of the production of this movie because it’s been documented in great detail already elsewhere. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is definitely very far from being the best of the franchise, and is rightfully ranked low on the scale. However, there are some elements of it that I have always liked, and have never heard anyone else give credit to. So, here I am to provide you my perspective on this misstep in taking this 1960’s television series into a feature film franchise.
When a destructive space entity is spotted approaching Earth, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returns to the newly retrofitted U.S.S. Enterprise to take command away from the young and driven Will Decker (Stephen Collins). Kirk’s entire trusted crew is reunited with the addition of the alien navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), and the surprise return of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who seeks deep, soul searching answers from the mysterious intruder. Now, the crew of the Enterprise must intercept and find a way to stop this alien intelligence before it destroys every human life on Earth.
Okay, let’s get the obvious critiques out of the way. This movie is especially dated in so many ways. Even though this was made because Star Wars was a big success, this is distinctly a science fiction film more akin to those made before Star Wars existed. The grindingly slow pace and the very cerebral focus fall more into a 2001: A Space Odyssey or Logan’s Run mentality. The costuming and general look of the film are quite 1970’s like Battlestar Galactica. The one piece jumpsuits with their muted color palettes don’t have much of a progressive feel from the vibrant, yet simple uniforms of the television series. There’s a definite reason why these uniforms never reappeared anywhere in Star Trek – they’re instantly dated, impractical, and unappealing. The cast utterly hated wearing them. There’s so much in this film that feels like a step backwards for its time. Amidst films like Star Wars, Alien, and even Superman: The Movie, which all made large leaps forward with the science fiction and fantasy genres with special effects, exciting storytelling, and progressive filmmaking innovations, Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was lagging behind the times on all fronts.
The more immediate problem here is how little resemblance this bares to the television series. Star Trek was an exciting piece of episodic science fiction. It was usually quite intelligently written, and it had action, peril, consequence, and danger making for thrilling entertainment. This film has almost none of that. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been called The Slow Motion Picture and The Motionless Picture by many people. I do enjoy a slow burn, methodically paced film, but this is slow pacing simply for indulgence sake. For example, this film takes almost an hour before the crew of the Enterprise actually encounters V’Ger at all, and every plot element is almost agonizingly drawn out with next to no impact. Instead, this film concerns itself with a drawn out briefing scene, a malfunctioning transporter, a malfunctioning warp drive, and many graceful, yet frivolously time sucking visual effects sequences. So much of this content could be chopped out entirely for an exceedingly tighter story structure, and leave room for building more substance and momentum into its intended story.
While there are character dynamics at play, the film takes no real time to develop a particular story to be engrossed in. While Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta put in good performances as Decker and Ilia, respectively, not enough effort is put into developing them to the point where an audience is invested in their plight. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, just self-contained within this film alone, are infinitely more fascinating than Decker and Ilia. This is firstly a script problem, and secondly, a directorial issue. Robert Wise had a very highly acclaimed career, but nothing in his filmography says he was the right man to direct a feature film version of Star Trek. This is the director who did several musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and methodically paced thrillers like Run Silent, Run Deep. He could do critically acclaimed science fiction such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain, but none of his work aligns with the exciting, innovative style that was Star Trek. Apparently, Wise really only directed this film because his wife was a fan of the television series.
Circa 1983, George Lucas did a very intelligent interview that coincidentally details the problem of this film, and unfortunately, makes you wonder where that George Lucas disappeared to. He said, and I quote, “One of the fatal mistakes that almost every science fiction film makes is that they spend so much time on the settings, creating the environment, that they spend film time on it. And you don’t have to spend too much film time creating an environment. What they are doing is showing off the amount of work that they generated, and it slows the pace of the film down. The story is not the settings. The story is the story, the plot.” Star Trek: The Motion Picture spends so much film time gushing over the exquisite detail of its models and visual effects that it forgets to actually tell an engaging, thrilling story. I will admit that the models are excellent, but due to a rushed production schedule to meet an unrealistic release date, many of the film’s visual effects were less than what they were supposed to be. The director’s cut released in 2001 went a long way to rectify that, but the fact still remains that this film is better suited as a dazzling visual effects reel than a well constructed and smartly conceived narrative movie. However, while the script is terribly misguided, and the choice of director was way off the mark, there is one great element that flows through both the good and the bad first six Star Trek films – the core cast.
The one actual strength of this film are the character interactions. The foundation of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is retained as solidly as ever. When Bones first beams on board the Enterprise, I really love the exchange between him and Kirk. How McCoy is still as fiery and cranky as ever is great, and how Kirk pleads with his friend because of how desperately he needs him on this mission has always been a favorite moment of mine. It shows that the characters that we know are intact and the actors know exactly who they are inside and out. Jim Kirk knows he can’t do it alone. He’s already without Spock at this point, and so, he has to draft Dr. McCoy back into service. Spock and McCoy balance out Kirk’s ego, passions, humanity, rationale, and decisiveness. You can see this in the first minute that McCoy steps foot on the bridge, and once Spock joins them, the equation is complete. DeForest Kelley did get all the best dialogue, and constantly proved to be an excellent talent in this role. He doesn’t have a great deal to do in this movie, but the moments he does have are pitch perfectly filled with passion, depth, emotion, and wit. Kelley is actually one of the few to inject a humorous, smart quip every now and then, which this film greatly needed to break up its monotonous tone. It’s amazing that the entire original series cast did not miss a single beat slipping back into these classic characters after so many years, and that comfortable, sharp chemistry is part of what always made them work so greatly in any medium.
What I really like about James T. Kirk is that he is a man with an ego, but he’s not so consumed with it to not be aware of it. He’s able to correct himself when he realizes he’s in the wrong, and that becomes clear when dealing with Decker. When Kirk learns that his objection to Decker countermanding his phaser order was justified, he retracts his stance and acknowledges his error. Later on, he catches himself quicker when Decker offers an alternative course of action in defending the ship, and it shows that he’s tempering his actions. William Shatner really does a lot to enhance Kirk in this story as a man who is a little older and a little out of touch with his own ship. He stumbles here and there, but is able to stay on his feet, on his toes. The sort of ticking clock of V’Ger coming closer and closer to Earth forces him to make brash, impulsive decisions. They may not be the wisest ones, but they are the chances he has to take as a Starfleet Captain.
The finest performance in this film, by far, is from Leonard Nimoy. While other characters lack a through line arc, Spock is given one that is prominently at play throughout the movie. In the midst of a Vulcan ritual that would purge all emotion from him, Spock telepathically connects with V’Ger, and begins to question if logic is enough. He then abandons the Kolinahr ritual to seek out V’Ger in hopes of finding answers to his questions. Early on, you can see Spock is troubled and distant. Nimoy utilizes such subtlety in these moments, and it is very compelling seeing that unfold behind his masterful facial expressions. Yet, we gradually see the more comfortable and familiar Spock take stage on the bridge. The intelligent insight and perceptiveness of Spock is hit perfectly on the mark showing us exactly what value this character brings to this crew. Spock progresses and develops as he explores V’Ger in depth, and he once again becomes whole through a introspective, soul searching journey. What story there is in this film is really Spock’s in relation to V’Ger, but it certainly feels like a subplot that is almost drowned out by the constantly dull banality of the weak main plot.
What you have to give credit to is that despite all the blatantly obvious flaws of this movie, it does treat its characters with respect, and features some good character development. At the beginning, Kirk is restless as an Admiral pushing the proverbial paper work around, and Spock is empty, incomplete, and searching. By the end, Kirk has found his home and his purpose again as the commander of a starship, and Spock has embraced more than just logic. And it is clear to me that there was supposed to be more going on with Decker. He starts out ambitious and driven, a man who wanted this command, but had it robbed form him by the very man who endorsed him for the position. In the end, he finds another purpose and path for himself. While the film doesn’t convincingly drive him down that road at all, you can see there was an intention there for it. The fact of the matter is, even if the movie is bad and ill-conceived, as long as the characters are treated with respect and the actors are solid in their portrayals, I can find some enjoyment and a little admiration for any Star Trek film with the original cast.
Now, I firmly believe that Jerry Goldsmith was the quintessential feature film composer for Star Trek. I only find it unfortunate that he just happened to end up scoring some of the worst regarded films in the franchise. While this film has its excessively long, drawn out sequences, they translate into some very inspired and wonderful compositions by Goldsmith. Beyond the new main title theme, I have always loved his Klingon theme as it just encapsulates the feel of them perfectly. Overall, Goldsmith sets the right tone with his score adding in cues that evoke danger, mystery, and the unknown. Even if you can’t bare to sit through this film, listening to Goldsmith’s score is a pleasure. I own the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition CD, and it is one of the late maestro’s finest epic scores.
While the film has visual spectacle, is fairly well directed, and is technically sound, it was a severely misguided attempt plagued with problems. Nobody was happy with this movie during production or upon release. There were constant creative disputes amongst Gene Roddenberry, the screenwriter, Nimoy and Shatner, and the studio to where rewrites happened daily with the ending being conceived essentially on the spot. Today, a movie like this would kill any chance for a franchise, but Paramount was willing to revamp the creative team and it resulted in what is widely regarded as the absolute best of this film franchise – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. With this first movie, I suppose if, by some slim chance, this film does engage your interest and attention, it could be fairly thought provoking about your place in the universe, but there’s a long way it could go to improve upon that material by simply adding more substance into its proceedings. Star Trek: The Motion Picture simply does not have enough meat on the bone to satisfy, and instead, fills itself out with a lot of pointless fat in the form of mind numbingly long visual effects sequences. There are certainly fan edits out there which trim this movie down to under ninety minutes, and it’s likely a little better off for it. I think it is important to say that this is not so much a bad movie as it is a mostly unexciting and dull one. I can’t really urge anyone to go see it if you haven’t already, but if you have seen it, I hope that what I’ve had to say here at least opens you up to seeing that it does have some merits, even if they are lost in a vast sea of stillness.
This is a film that I didn’t love, but also, I didn’t hate. It is a very entertaining, exciting movie, but has a number of downfalls mainly stemming from the rehashing of old ideas and characters while doing nothing to make them fresh or new. For a franchise that was just rebooted with the last movie, this seems like filmmakers with a dry well of ideas when they should be going warp speed ahead into bold, new directions.
When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has brought the fear of war and destruction to the Federation. With a personal score to settle and sanctioned by the resilient Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.
Now, I did not like the 2009 reboot movie. I thought it was shoddily written with a lot of plot holes, big holes in logic, a weak villain with narrow-minded motivations, a style over substance approach, and a tone that did more to poke fun at these classic characters than show serious, due respect to them. If the marketing campaign for this film wasn’t so good, I likely would not have been ensnared into seeing it. However, despite my best resolve, I was compelled to check out spoilers after a spoiler-free review hinted strongly enough at a certain aspect of this film that I was not agreeable to in rumors. There will be a spoiler section later to address that, but simply said, if I went into this film clean, without spoilers, I’m sure I would have at least been angry with the movie. Instead, having foreknowledge of many pertinent aspects of the film allowed me to enjoy it more, and go into it with an open mind instead of a resistant one. I was willing to let the movie change my mind, and to an extent, it did in how well the general plot is written. However, there are several problems with story, characters, and concepts that I will address shortly.
On the upside of things, firstly, Star Trek Into Darkness has some stellar and exciting action sequences. While the physical action with chase scenes and fights is not very traditional Trek, it is still very enjoyable stuff done with remarkable talent evident in all aspects. It is a little hard to accept Spock running around in an action centric role during the climax since that’s always been Kirk’s role, but Quinto is at least more than capable of the task. I did especially like the encounter with the Klingons where Harrison unleashes a one man barrage. We see only one unmasked Klingon, but he does resemble the forehead ridged versions with a slightly different sleekness. The starship battles are few, but feature excellent visual effects and rousing, perilous action. The whole sequence with the Enterprise spiraling out of control, and Kirk and Scotty are running through the corridors as the gravity is spinning them all around is also fantastic. J.J. Abrams, beyond anything else, knows how to create an exciting, action-filled movie aimed to entertain.
Now, the hardest part of assessing Chris Pine’s portrayal of James Kirk is that his version has so many changes to his back story that he’s ultimately not Shatner’s Kirk. You don’t get that wit, cunning, and confidence that defined Shatner’s performance early on. Instead, we have a young, brash, impulsive Kirk who does let his emotions get the better of him. I do like that the film addresses one thing I didn’t like about the first movie. Fresh from Starfleet Academy, off of one successful mission saving Earth, Kirk is given the Captain’s chair without having earned it through years of exemplary service and hard earned experience. At one point here, his command is taken away from him due to his lack of respect for the Captain’s chair and Starfleet regulations. He had the Enterprise given to him without having earned it, and now, he’s sort of put into the position where he has to make tough decisions and earn his command. He has to challenge authority instead of dismissing it, and I think this element is handled rather well. On the whole, I think Pine is a good actor, but I don’t think the writing and development of Kirk has yet to match his strengths. His fiery emotions don’t resonate as strongly as Cumberbatch’s chilling, menacing presence. Once again, Kirk does feel a little weak to me in this Abrams universe. It’s that essential element of maturity and confidence of Kirk that’s missing which always made him interesting, and I hope that’s where these filmmakers are pushing him towards. His arc in this film seems to suggest that, but I do feel it doesn’t get the forefront time it deserved to be properly poignant.
Zachary Quinto is given a rather meaty chunk of material in developing his Spock. There’s a good weight of emotional insight we are given into him as he explores the ideas and fears of death. Quinto reflects that depth immensely well, and the building of the Kirk-Spock relationship towards something more familiar is excellent in my view. However, I do feel the whole Uhura relationship is still unappealing to me. I’m glad they gave her more to do than operating the communications station, but I don’t see any major potential for that relationship. In general, all of the regular crew members are given a stronger role here. Sulu is given a taste of command, which I really loved as a subtle hint at him becoming Captain of the Excelsior in the original continuity. Even Chekov, who I’m still unsold on the portrayal of, is given the run of engineering having to keep the ship intact in the absence of Mr. Scott.
This time out, I feel Simon Pegg did a far more faithful and solid Montgomery Scott. In nearly every instance, he felt genuine from James Doohan’s original series portrayal. He had more dramatic weight to carry, and had a bit of a subplot of his own to deal with. He has justifiable conflicts with Kirk’s mission, and smartly weaves his way back into the thick of the plot by the third act. I was far more satisfied with everything Pegg did here which still had moments of humor, but felt respectable overall. With this character, it thrived from smart writing and a really good acting job by Pegg.
And continuing to prove my insistence that he’s one of the most solid and reliable actors around today, Karl Urban beautifully channels DeForest Kelly as Dr. McCoy. He feels so authentic to the character while still feeling natural and passionate in his own right. As with Kelley, Urban gets some of the best lines in the movie to the point where I’d love to just see a Dr. McCoy movie. I really, wholeheartedly believe that Karl Urban is just on the verge of a major career breakthrough. I’ve yet to see him do anything less than excellence in every role he’s taken on. Urban just needs that one high profile leading role, and I cannot wait for that day. He is the perfect successor to Leonard “Bones” McCoy.
Even Peter Weller does an excellent job as Admiral Marcus, who sanctions Kirk’s mission to take out Harrison, but the plot methodically reveals a lot of subversive dealings in Starfleet. There’s even a great Deep Space Nine reference in regards to that. What Weller delivers when those revelations occur is damn good, and fills a very solid part in this plot. Also, Alice Eve does a nice job as Carol Marcus, the Admiral’s daughter, and strikes a small spark of chemistry with Chris Pine. However, it doesn’t amount to much at all. Also, I was rather confused as to why Carol Marcus now has a British accent when her Wrath of Khan counterpart did not, and nor does her father. It was a distracting arbitrary choice that doesn’t really enhance the character in anyway. It’s just peculiar.
Now, what really compelled me the most leading up to this film was indeed Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. That chilling deep voice with his intimidating, foreboding presence is so captivating. His villainous character is intriguing with an air of mystique. He has his secrets to keep and strategically reveal as his own agendas and plots unfold. He’s written very intelligently, and we even get moments of emotional depth and pain in one scene. His John Harrison character is certainly more than what he seems to be at first, and has many surprises in store for the crew of the Enterprise and Starfleet. I really think, on a performance level, he’s one of the best villains this franchise has ever had. He’s certainly the best movie villain since General Chang in Star Trek VI. Cumberbatch is clearly an immensely talented actor, and he really owns this movie with a complex and rich portrayal. However, there is a very important aspect of this character that I have to take issue with that can only be done in the spoiler section of this review. Many loyal Star Trek fans may indeed find this to be intensely objectionable.
However, before we get to that, the problems of this movie are that it feels like a modern day remake of a vastly superior film. How it rehashes old ideas that come off as second rate carbon copies that do more to remind you of how they were done better thirty or forty-five years ago are exactly reminiscent of creatively devoid remakes from unoriginal filmmakers. Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to have original ideas such as Kirk dealing with failure and humility, but they are rapidly overshadowed by the plots involving Harrison and Admiral Marcus. This theme with Chris Pine’s Kirk is never given enough time to flourish and take a solid foothold in the film when put in opposition to all of these retreaded characters, dialogues, and concepts. These were likely intended as homages, but they come off as lazy, unoriginal writing. The screenwriters couldn’t put together a wholly original screenplay with unique concepts, or at least, utilize smart enough writing to take solid ownership of what it does with these revisited elements. Considering the majority critical opinions of them, I’m not sure what most should expect from the co-writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the screenwriter of Cowboys & Aliens and Prometheus. Frankly, I thought the purpose of rebooting the franchise with an altered timeline was to take these classic characters into bold, new directions with fresh ideas. Instead, they just do the same old thing only not done remotely as well. They are free and open to do whatever they choose, and they choose to do next to nothing new at all. This makes it seem like they’ve already hit a dry well of ideas, and that doesn’t bode well for the future of this franchise.
Now we come to the SPOILER paragraphs. So, if you don’t want to get a full disclosure of plot turns and revelations, please, jump beyond the next two paragraphs to remain free of such knowledge. You have been given fair warning to avert your eyes. Your temptation is your own, and I know the temptation of spoilers is indeed intense. So, here we go.
What has been rumored over the last several months that I ultimately took issue with is this. The villain of this film, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is actually revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh. Now, the screenwriters integrate him well into the story, weaving all the motivations around him very soundly, and the explanation of his presence absolutely makes sense. It all ties into the themes of war and Admiral Marcus’ motivations in regards to that by having Khan help Starfleet develop new weapons of war including the Dreadnaught class warship that nearly kills the Enterprise and her crew. However, we have already had our definitive Khan story with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the original series episode Space Seed is still a stellar piece of work. I don’t discount the possibility that another great Khan story could be made, but this one falls behind both of those previous outings. Furthermore, making Cumberbatch be Khan actually diminishes the quality and potential of what Cumberbatch does here. Instead of being viewed as a strong, amazing performance of a brand new, fresh villain, he is going to be eternally compared back to Ricardo Montalban, which is a gross disservice to Cumberbatch. Also, the fact is that his performance bares no resemblance to the Khan we knew. Khan was a man of passion and regal self-image. He viewed himself as a Prince bringing order to humanity. This new Khan comes off like an ice cold, menacing shark of a murderer, a man almost devoid of passion. The original Khan was a conqueror, a ruler and leader of men. This Khan is more of the terrorist persuasion acting alone, and really succumbing to the will of others to strike out from underneath their oppression. Straight up, Khan would never bow to another person’s will, no matter the level of force that opposed him. In Space Seed, Khan frees his people almost single-handedly, and takes over the Enterprise nearly killing the entire crew in the process. I could never see Khan acting the way he does in this film. He was never a lone wolf seeking to terrorize. He was a proud, cultured man seeking power and stature. Surely, he wasn’t hesitant to bloody his hands, but him becoming a terrorist against Starfleet doesn’t fit for Khan. He wanted more to be respected than simply feared. He was also a man quick to exercise his superiority over others, especially Kirk. The story works, and the motivation is sound, but the personality is simply not Khan. Not to mention, Cumberbatch bares no physical resemblance to Khan with his Caucasian complexion and English accent. I cannot see the character that Montalban originated in Space Seed fitting into the context, personality, and methods of the Khan we see in this film, regardless of how differently events unfolded in this new future timeline. Everything that Khan was before his resuscitation from cryo-sleep remains the same as it was in the original continuity, and so, he wakes up as the same man in this continuity as in Space Seed. Thus, I don’t feel there’s enough leeway to allow for Khan’s personality and methods to change so drastically.
Also, the film quotes lines verbatim from The Wrath of Khan, and in the climax, there is a reversal on Spock’s death scene where it is Kirk who rushes into the radiation chamber to restart the engines to save the ship and her crew. It becomes distracting when Pine and Quinto speak practically the same dialogue that Shatner and Nimoy did back in 1982 only with the roles reversed. The scene is well acted, but you lose every bit of emotional investment and poignancy of the scene because it is such a blatant carbon copy with no fresh life of its own. Again, you can’t help but remember how brilliant and powerful it was in The Wrath of Khan when you see this lazy, plagiarist writing realized on screen. And of course, in poor, unearned fashion, the scene is punctuated with Zachary Quinto’s Spock yelling the infamous line of “KHAN!!!” to very weak effect. It was done perfectly once, but since then, any other use has always been done in comedic context. Here, it feels borderline lame because it’s not an original idea for a genuine reaction. Ultimately, Kirk is revived because Khan’s blood now has some entirely unexplained regenerative properties. It is setup twice in the film, but it could still be a contentious issue for many. And literally, it is never explained at all. It’s just there as a plot convenience, and factors into nothing purposeful enough but to bring Kirk back from death.
Veering towards the technical side of the film, the cinematography of Dan Mindel is very, very good. He really knows how to use that wide frame to give you a strong cinematic visual with the use of great color schemes, and the action sequences are competently done. There might be a couple shots that I wasn’t all that keen about due to the more rugged camera work during the space battles or the like, but they were fleeting. The lens flares are toned down a hell of a lot from the previous movie, possibly due to the intended post-conversion 3D effect. From a few sources, they say the post-conversion is very good. And the score by Michael Giacchino is also quite good, but I really would’ve liked to have heard that Alexander Courage theme before the last minute of the film. Just a hint of it somewhere would have gone a long way.
Overall, I did feel like the story here was a little less than what it could have been despite being well conceived and executed. It felt like a setup of ideas and scenarios for another film, which would likely deal with a Federation-Klingon war. It’s setting up this climate of inevitable war from the Klingons encroaching through space and perceived heightening tensions. Everything is built on that fear of war, and while it is a very good idea which builds upon the events of the previous movie, it didn’t feel like an idea that was used to boost the strength and foundation of this film. It all felt like the setup for something larger, and in doing so, it partly dismisses this story as a stepping stone. If the focus was on this story, and doing everything possible with it, including injecting original ideas and dialogue into it fully, this would be a stronger movie.
In short, I think Star Trek Into Darkness will please general audiences, but the loyal Trek fan might have more than a few negative things to say about it. My apprehension about J.J. Abrams helming the next Star Wars movie is evident here in that he does favor style over substance, and even what substance he has is fairly minimal and not well conceived. Maybe working with a new screenwriter will resolve these issues, but the last thing that franchise needs, as well as Star Trek, is more creatively disjointed outings that favor flashy visuals over a good, solid story. Neither franchise will have vibrant, flourishing futures based on work like this. Again, I did enjoy this movie, especially more than the 2009 film, but I was a long way from loving it. I was really hoping for fresh, new ideas and an original villain that could stand on his own, but unfortunately, I really didn’t get either. I do recommend seeing it if you are not apprehensive about some contentious issues with revisited characters and ideas from far superior Trek stories.
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.