Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
(SPOILERS) Perhaps Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’s greatest achievement is that it makes it all look so easy. Almost (and I do mean this as a compliment) as if they aren’t even really bothering, and the cast reunited on the understanding they could all just have a laugh. This was the most successful movie with the original line-up (although, inflation-adjusted, it trails The Motion Picture), so it’s additionally telling that no one is attempting to repeat its success as a formula the way they have with The Wrath of Khan. That’s partly because the plot is pretty much a one-of-a-kind you’d be foolhardy to go near, but mostly because you can’t replicate the sense of humour, lightness of touch and camaraderie on display with actors who haven’t spent the best part of two decades working together (The Next Generation was never really “fun”, excepted in a gritted teeth kind of way).
I listened to some of (one of) The Voyage Home’s commentary track, from the much derided Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, recorded prior to Star Trek ’09, and they definitely get the reasons for its success, so it’s ironic that they went off and rehashed Khan as soon as they got a chance. They should have known better. One aspect they fixate upon is that this is something of a controversial sequel among fans, some of whom apparently take issue with its humorous content. Which is baffling, but maybe derives from a concern that those who like Police Academy IV might also find this accessible. I don’t know whether it is, as they speculate, because it’s sometimes seen as laughing at the crew rather than with them (it clearly isn’t, and even if it were, it’s still a sign that they’re pretty much dab hands in terms of comedy chops) but I can only see the upside. It’s a movie that works as a comedy and works as drama. It sustains a feature length plot without a villain while lumbered with an eco-theme that, one or two lines aside, never feels like it’s shoving its message down the viewer’s throat.
Adding to the nigh-on miraculous achievements is Spock’s step up in comparison to his previous directorial outing. Perhaps it’s Donald Peterman’s replacing Charles Correll as cinematographer (Peterman lensed Cocoon the year before, and went on to shoot Point Break with Kathryn Bigelow). Perhaps it’s the extensive location work (there’s nary an exterior shot in The Search for Spock), although the sets are actually filmed with an eye for authenticity. You’re not constantly conscious that they’re just sets. The movie isn’t horribly overlit, and even though it’s light-hearted, there’s a tangible atmosphere; the future Earth in peril, the slingshot sequence, the whale tank within the bird of prey.
Peter E Berger provides a safe pair of editing hands (he’d go on to claim three more Trek movie credits: V, VII and IX), rather than anything showy, but that’s what’s called for here. Sufficient energy to keep the picture moving, but free-wheeling enough to allow the comedy to spark naturally. It’s the greatest compliment that Nimoy and Berger make it look so effortless.
Of course, none of this would look effortless if the script wasn’t there; the cast can’t work wonders with duff material (and even then, Harve Bennett’s screenplay for III was more than competent, but the results were disappointingly flat). This one has five different credited writers, with Nimoy (a keen environmentalist, he introduced that element) and Bennett conceiving the story, Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes providing a fleshed-out screenplay, and then Bennett and Meyer coming in and ignoring the Meerson/Krikes draft (Bennet worked on the space material, Meyer on the Earth). That the best part of the movie is the 1986 section, with the most relishable interactions, and that Meyer has his paws all over it, is surely not coincidental.
Somehow, Voyage Home feels seamless, yet you can sense how easily it might have gone horribly wrong. An alien probe threatening Earth again (The Motion Picture), requires the crew to go back in time (by going round the Sun!) and bring back a whale to communicate with said probe. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. Instead, the exposition stuff is apportioned with the minimum amount of fuss and we’re quickly onto the juicy fish-out-of-water clashes of 23rd and 20th century cultures. It’s a smart move to split the crew the way they do (Star Trek Beyond tries something similar with considerably less mastery, but its heart is in the right place), and the result is a string of frequent delights.
As noted, everyone here seems to be having a really good time. The lion’s share of fun stuff is obviously between the Shat and Nimoy, variously exchanging straight man and comic roles as Kirk and Spock reacquaint themselves with each other. From the colourful metaphors (“Double dumb ass on you”; “The hell she does”), to their improv as they discuss dinner with Gillian (Catherine Hicks), to Spock nerve pinching the punk on the bus (the scene that, par excellence, surely persuaded more people to see the picture than anything else), to Shat’s magnificent double-taking as Spock swims with the whales, their rapport is never bettered, as well as being quite sincere and affecting as Spock recovers his sense of humanity/Vulcanity.
Scotty: I find it hard to believe I have come millions of miles-
Scotty: Thousands of miles…
DeForest Kelley and James Doohan are similarly productively paired as they seek out transparent aluminium (presumably some 23rd century variant on aluminium), the highlight being Scotty attempting to communicate with an unresponsive computer (“Computer. Oh, computer”). McCoy’s disgust and dismissiveness at 20th century primitiveness is also a delight (throughout, the comments on the limitations of “progress” are offhand but all the more effective for it, from reliance on nuclear energy – although it does make me wonder about the radiation Spock was dosed with in Khan – to opting for invasive surgery (“My God. What is this, the Dark Ages?”) to Spock confirming the time period from the amount of pollution in the atmosphere.
There are also chortles to be had as Uhura and Chekov go about asking where the nuclear wessels are (the Russian crewman’s subsequent interrogation is priceless), and if George Takei doesn’t get any huge laughs, Sulu does fly a helicopter. The only real shortcoming is that Hicks’ “romantic lead” lacks rapport with her co-stars and offers a rather static delivery. Her key dialogue is rendered as undiluted, preachy speeches, and she tries too hard to emphasise the laughs rather than rolling with them.
Gillian: Don’t tell me, you from outer space.
Kirk: No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.
That said, any deficiencies on her part (and it’s difficult to countenance that Eddie Murphy was earmarked for effectively her role in the movie, as he’d have completely unbalanced it; perhaps wiser heads prevailed, noting that earlier sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster Superman III, saddled with a stand-up comedy legend co-star, wasn’t all it could have been) pale in comparison to the damage done by composer Leonard Rosenman.
About the best I can say is that his score isn’t as horrific as the one he perpetrated on Robocop 2, but it’s still absolutely nothing to crow about. How it got a Best Score Oscar nomination is beyond me; because he’d won (twice) before, so it must have been competent? If he’s not over signposting (the wacky comedy music during the hospital chase), Rosenman is overlaying a weirdly festive element onto a god-awful rendition of the classic theme (I realise this was released in November in the US – it didn’t arrive in the UK, where it was called The Voyage Home: Star Trek IV, which did nothing to persuade additional international audiences to go see it, until April the following year – but that’s no good reason). I’d like to say this was something that could simply be ignored, but it does affect enjoyment; a score can make or break a movie (Khan undeniably benefits from James Horner’s contribution).
Pretty much everything else is first rate, though. The effects are top notch, particularly moments like the Bird of Prey materialising over a whaling ship. The evacuation of said Klingon vessel in the future is a little on the frivolous side (we don’t really need to see the crew pulling each other in and getting splooshy, and poor Doohan does not look comfortable), but by that point the battle has been won.
It’s impressive that the stony-faced seriousness of the framing device should fit so well with the meat in the sandwich, given how they are, on the surface, tonally at odds, and that the ongoing elements of the trilogy – Spock, making the best guess he can, Kirk’s admiral/captaincy, the trial of the crew, the other Enterprise on 1986 earth – should be resolved so satisfyingly. Talking of meat, I’ve never been quite able to countenance that the alien probe resembles the contents of a tin of Pedigree Chum, but it does make for a quite delicious looking threat to all life on Earth.
Spock: Weren’t they a birthday present from Dr McCoy.
Kirk: And they will be again. That’s the beauty of it.
And it’s a movie that isn’t just playful in dialogue; it has fun with Trek tropes too. I love the little paradoxes, not getting hung up on Prime Directives but aware of them (“Why? How do you know he didn’t invent the thing?” Scotty suggests flippantly after divulging the scientific formula for transparent aluminum). It’s a sly nod to pretty much all time travel plots falling apart when you get down to it, but the skill of The Voyage Home is that it doesn’t draw attention to its broader temporal contradictions (playing out the urgency of getting back from 1986 to 2286 in real time may be a conceit – there’s no “actual” ticking clock – but it works dramatically).
It might be suggested that Kirk’s demotion is a little on the pat side (particularly the round of applause) but it feels earned given what has gone before. Spock’s message for his mum (“Tell her I feel fine” he suggests to Mark Lenard’s Sarek, in follow-up to a lovely establishing scene with Jane Wyatt) is perhaps the clearest sign of where the series is at this point; it’s never been in more robust fettle, with everything where it should be.
The problem is, it didn’t really know where to go from here, the trilogy completed. It can’t have helped that the Shat wanted dibs on directing (he was apparently going to helm this one before T J Hooker got in the way, although prior to that it seems he had nixed returning at all, hence the first feeling out of Star Fleet Academy), but I think the problem with V is more a conflation of elements than a single factor. Star Trek IV: Voyage Home’s only major black mark is that score, which still isn’t nearly enough to prevent it from being the second best of the original series movies.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.