Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
(SPOILERS) It’s a somewhat over-optimistic suggestion by defenders of the third big screen Star Trek that it doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the curse of the odd-numbered Trek movies. What they’re getting at is that The Search for Spock isn’t actually bad. Which it isn’t, but it is blighted by being so non-descript in its ambition that it rather gets lost between the surrounding sequels that actually do vie for attention, in whatever manner. The truth is, there’s a more than solid – even maybe really good – picture lurking within The Search for Spock, but it’s flattened into the very obvious studio floor that is Genesis by the utterly unimaginative TV direction of first time movie helmer Leonard Nimoy.
Although, accusing Spock of TV direction is a bit of a slur on some perfectly good TV directors; indeed, the original series, if rarely ground-breaking stylistically, is still often striking in the way TV of that era, taking full advantage of the glories of the advent of full colour and an increasingly psychotropic sensibility, can be. Spock doesn’t even have that. It limps along visually, somewhat apologetically, which helps ensure it comes across as a woefully Khan-lite continuation. A Khan-lite villain, the return of the thematic elements of loss and friendship, but Khan-lite-r, and a Khan-lite score from James Horner. The picture is rarely an outright dud (although some of the costumes are really so) but it’s rarely outright good either. You can feel the absence of Nimoy the actor, because Nimoy the director doesn’t make the Spock-shaped hole in the plot mean something, and writer Harve Bennett fails to plug the gap with strong character work for the remainders. In the latter respect especially, it’s an extraordinary wasted opportunity, but then Generations didn’t make the most of its pared-down crew either.
I’m not particularly out to knock Nimoy, who had four TV credits as a director prior to this, including calling the shots on the Shat on a T.J. Hooker the year before, but a firm vision was never his strong suit, which is most definitely what a Trek movie needs. Unless… well, easily his best work as a director is his subsequent Trek movie, The Voyage Home, because it requires an entirely different sensibility. The lightness of touch, the unobtrusive lens, the capacity for comedy, are what make Voyage Home work (some would include 3 Men and a Baby as effectively serviced by those skillsets, although I wouldn’t want to push it; at very least, Nimoy’s approach didn’t hurt that picture’s success).
Here, though, armed with a Bennett screenplay that hits all the right beats but needs a Nicholas Meyer to mould it into something more, he flounders. Say what you will about The Final Frontier, and there’s a lot to be said about it that isn’t very positive, it shows that the Shat has an eye. Two of them even. Nimoy’s on the myopic side. Not only is he unable to rouse us into excitement at any point, he does little with the simple character drama. After Khan, you can feel all those moments where Meyer would have taken the essence of a scene and let it breathe or resonate. Nimoy points the camera flatly and nods. Genesis goes from that wonderfully evocative final shot (and I know Meyer wasn’t responsible for it, but it’s a further reminder, with the number of scenes here repeated from Khan, of how much better Star Trek II is) to a painfully-evident studio set.
Pauline Kael, who was in raptures over Khan, nailed it again when she said this was one for Trekkies, while others would find it “tolerable but yawny”. I wouldn’t claim energy is everything, or I wouldn’t like The Motion Picture, but it can certainly help. She’s wrong when she asserts Spock’s predecessor is “self-mocking”, but right that what was witty and vibrant there too often becomes po-faced and inert here. And that’s all about the moderation of the director.
Kirk: It seems I left the best part of myself back there, on that new-born planet.
There’s so much potential here, in a picture demonstrating the reversal of the “needs of the many” Spock enacted at the end of Khan, that it’s a great pity it becomes merely “okay”. Bennett immediately jettisons the character development of the principals when he leaves out David’s mum and separates Kirk from his son for the entire picture. The ruminations on aging and purpose are consigned to a bin, as well as maybe since the Admiral had been last left feeling young, but they’re replaced with not very much at all. Why is Carol absent? Probably because it would have been too much hard work to include her, but it’s a bit of a rude excision, and David (Merritt Butrick looks about 10 years older in the space of two) and Saavik (a decidedly underwhelming Robin Givens, who seems set on suggesting some emotional capacity in her Vulcan at every turn; most unbecoming) lead a less than scintillating expedition to that generic, studio-bound world I mentioned, where they discover ever-growing Spock. What fuels this growth? Clearly proto-matter is a substitute nutrient.
On one level the reveal of an unstable world could be interpreted as a kneejerk agreement with McCoy’s outrage over power unchecked in Khan, that assuming Godlike capacities is dangerously hubristic. Mostly, though, it’s seamlessly astute reasoning on the part of Bennett that gets us to a place where we can get Spock back. If it’s unstable, so can Spock’s physical shell be. And many of his further inspirations are strong ones. The idea that, in Roddenberry’s soon-to-be lethargically pure future, people screw up, and the all-high Federation isn’t so holy after all, is much more appealing, as it takes advantage of one of science fiction’s better capacities, reflecting the flawed humanity of here and now in the supposedly advanced (see also Gallifrey in Robert Holmes’ vision of Doctor Who).
So Genesis creating a “galactic controversy”, and a conspiratorial environment forming to silence wagging tongues, and especially the Enterprise crew, concerning “A quarantined planet and a forbidden subject” is a natural and astute element, particularly as it puts our heroes under surveillance. A more engaged production team would have made more of this, with the escape from Federation harbour played all-too casually (they should be casual about it, but the escape itself should be intense).
So parts of Spock feel germane, where it is rightly inspired by the quality of its predecessor, while others suggest it is merely living off Khan’s carcass. There’s nothing special for the Klingons to do, despite Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) having a very clear point when he levels the charge that the Federation is creating an ultimate weapon and has become a “gang of intergalactic criminals”.
The problem is, the Klingons’ inclusion is a lazy, crowd-pleasing gesture in a screenplay that doesn’t need them, but does need a motivating antagonistic force. There’s the occasional nice touch, since Valkris (Cathie Shirriff) is essentially guided by the same impulse as Spock when her knowing too much leads to her willing to demise for the common good; here, however, we’re encouraged to see it as a negative, unjustified act.
But unfortunately Lloyd is no great shakes as a villain; he’s simply not intimidating, and worse, he has so little to work with. His most engaging feature is his pet muppet lizard. And, while he has some gloriously stupid stooges, by the time he’s demanding the secret of Genesis on a disintegrating planet, he looks just as stupid himself.
Saavik: Admiral, David is dead.
There are other problems too. The continuation of the Kirk-David story almost seems to be there purely to draw a line under it, such that David’s death is almost an embarrassment. Not because of Kirk’s “You Klingon bastard” triple-stinger, which I remembered being more poorly judged than it is (it’s actual just lacking in terms of emotional weight), but because it’s immediately followed by the destruction of the Enterprise.
The latter is a great gambit from Bennett, and Kirk’s quick thinking in a tight spot is an example of strong structuring almost on a level with Khan, but it’s the right scenario at the wrong moment. Kirk’s “My God, Bones, what have I done?” as his beloved ship disintegrates occurs when his mind should be full of the loss of his beloved son. Even if it is emotionally telling (as in, their relationship may be more honestly portrayed through this response), it’s awkward and misjudged given the intent.
David is at least a vaguely-sketched (if purely functional) character here, though. Which is better than the rest of the stalwarts get. Most incredible is the disservice to Uhura, who gets a single scene where she shows her mettle before she is banished from the screen with the promise she will see them at the rendezvous (it’s like a missing sequence from The Empire Strikes Back, but that was actually off-screen, post-movie). Scotty (“Mr Scott, have you always multiplied your repair estimates by a factor of four?”), Chekov (he speaks Russian instead of having anything worthwhile to offer and dresses like Little Lord Fauntleroy; the casualwear in this movie is a century-long fashion disaster) and Sulu (lusting after the Excelsior, which is hideous, like an egg-bound duck with nowhere to lay) are less hard-done by, but it’s all relative.
McCoy: You left me on Genesis. Why did you do that?
The exception to this, and I’m including Kirk in that, who, while the Shat is and always will be the Shat, isn’t nearly as inimitable here as he is in other appearances, is McCoy. By default, this is probably DeForest Kelley’s best showing in a big screen Trek effort. His half-struck-with-Spock performance gives rise to some amusing moments, and a winning display of classic irascibility, as he gives a CIA/Federation snoop a nerve pinch in a sub-Star Wars cantina (complete with Tribble – except the bar scene in that episode was much more memorable). The movie provided a good chance to explore the Kirk-McCoy relationship on the big screen, but while there are some decent exchanges, it is probably better served in The Undiscovered Country (from Meyer… funny, that).
And what of Kirk, then? Caught like a toupee in the unflattering head lighting of a TV cinematographer (it really does look that way, and he really is), the Shat is showing signs of wear and tear, that rug and paunch expanding without respite. And without a director with a keen ear and eye for pacing, moments that should be gold, if they don’t quite wither on the vine, become merely serviceable.
There’s the reintroduction of Vulcan mysticism (memorably suffusing through the opening passages of The Motion Picture) but Nimoy, who should be its greatest purveyor, rather lets it hang; “But if ever there’s a chance that Spock has an eternal soul, then it’s my responsibility”, is a fine line, but it feels unnourished, just another moment as the director plods form set up to set up without wherewithal, or a desire to really evoke the spiritual aspect it’s endorsing.
It’s nice to see Mark Lenard as Sarek again (“Spock entrusted you with his very essence”) and the scenes with Kirk are as close as the picture gets to a dramatically-invested pulse, but none of it is as revelatory or entrancing as it should be. So too the material concerning pon farr. The Motion Picture will always have its detractors, but that vignette on Vulcan succeeded in making the religion both arcane and intriguing. Spock doesn’t even have the crazy-eerie ‘60s series music to spice it up.
Maltz: You said you would kill me.
Kirk: I lied.
Kirk has some decent lines, then (“The word is no. I am therefore going anyway” and, pre-empting the Voyage Home’s mangled 20th century colloquialisms “I think he’s as fruity as a nutcase”) while Scotty gets a vulgarism (“Up your shaft”) befitting one who makes Kirk look svelte. There’s an early appearance from Miguel Ferrer as the Excelsior’s First Officer, and his Captain (James Sikking) is a suitably cocksure type, just waiting to be taken down a peg or two. Lloyd manages to pop some alien death worms (off-screen; what kind of crap is this? I get it with David, but we want to see giant maggots’ heads explode – an occasion where the comic adaptation delivered) and then we’re back to Vulcan for some mind-body reintegration, Spock having luckily ceased aging in the nick of time (and just as the studio technicians got heartily sick of hoisting up bits of set to simulate a planet falling apart).
Spock: Your name is… Jim.
That final moment, as Nimoy raises an eyebrow while friends gather round (let’s face it, Spock was always a bit snotty to anyone who wasn’t Kirk and Bones) is a cheesetopia worthy of the end of an original series episode, which for the most TV-esque movie outside of Generations is, I guess, something of a backwards accolade.
The Search for Spock was one of the Top 10 US movies of 1984, so on that score it ranks as one of the series’ bigger hits (inflation-adjusted, it comes in sixth). It’s sad to say that, for a move focussing on Spock, and directed by Spock, with Spock in the title (you can’t really imagine even Kirk warranting that), what hurts it most is the man who played Spock, whose dramatic touch is sorely lacking (Nimoy said he wanted it to be operatic in scope, which it is, if you film an opera in a TV studio), and who gives the audience enough to sustain them and no more than that. It is an insult in this case to say The Search for Spock is merely okay, as it could easily have been in the top tier of Treks. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with its bones (which you couldn’t say about V, VII, IX), but the flesh is weak.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.