Star Trek The Marathon: Desperately Seeking Spock
Our Star Trek marathon warps on with our third film, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Katey remains a total Trek noob and Josh is, as always, a huge nerd. Follow along with our entire marathon by going right here.
KATEY: Despite the increasingly pungent smell of Cheetohs and Josh's insistence on shouting "Khaaan!" every five minutes, I was totally ready to stick around for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, figuring that any story that picked up where Wrath of Khan left off couldn't be all bad. I told Josh excitedly about all the things I was looking forward to about the new movie-- expanding Kirk's relationship with Carol! More Kirstie Alley as a Vulcan!-- and either he was too busy looking up the technical definition of a warp drive to hear me, or I missed his warning to lower my expectations. But if Josh was afraid I'd be disappointed and finally abandon Trek to go resume my social life, he forgot one crucial thing-- I already sat through Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and after Khan, I'm attached to these characters. So long as there's a corporeal villain and Kirk doesn't go anywhere, I'm still stuck with a stack of DVDs and a Star Trek nerd by my side. And honestly, all things considered, this wasn't all that bad a way to get to that movie with the whales that everyone tells me I'll love.
JOSH: So you're saying I didn't need to change into my Starfleet onesie? But look, the communicator badge really works! Alright roll the movie.
KATEY: The beginning of Search for Spock gave me a lovely reminder of Back to the Future, as the end of Khan overlapped with the beginning of this movie as Kirk tries to move on from Spock's death. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be the last time in the movie I'd be reminded of Back to the Future, but we'll get to that later. The best thing about Search for Spock is how it's driven by characters, both Kirk's determination to recover Spock's body from Genesis and McCoys' desperation to get Spock's Vulcan mind out of his brain. Then, of course, there's the whole jailbreak sequence that brings together all the leads, and even gives Uhura a chance to be awesome (though way too briefly!) It was immensely satisfying seeing Scotty, Chekov, Bones, Kirk and Sulu all working together to steal back the Enterprise, and then later, watching Scotty and McCoy adjust to their new jobs on the bridge. And they called themselves the Kobayashi Maru!
Had the whole movie been that kind of Great Escape-meets-Saving Private Ryan caper, it might have been as light and enjoyable as, say, a Back to the Future movie. But then enters none other than Doc Brown done up as a Klingon, and from there the movie just becomes this rote battle against a generic evil force, plus some time spent with the super-bland Saavik and David on Genesis. The movie needs more moments like Kirk's brilliant decision to blow up the Enterprise, and fewer moments of Klingons shouting at each other and Saavik staring strangely at morphing baby Spock (what was going on there, anyway?) By the time we get to Vulcan and Spock's dad restarts his son's brain like jumping a car battery, the story just feels exhausted-- and at 100 minutes, Search for Spock is the shortest Trek I've seen yet.
JOSH: I agree with you about the jail break portion of the film and everything leading up to them getting to Genesis, but I love the rest too. It just works for me. If there's any real problem with the story here, it's that they seem so dead set on fitting it within the confines of that PG rating all of these Trek movies were saddled with. There's a gritty PG-13 movie inside Star Trek III: The Search for Spock screaming to get out. Instead sometimes they're forced to cut away when they probably shouldn't and pull their punches when they probably should have let fly. Still I love what Nimoy brings to the table here as a director and the movie's willingness to at least attempt to go to a darker place. This is the first time Trek really abandoned the stiff, regimented trappings of Starfleet to go somewhere else. It's basically a pirate movie, with Kirk and the crew going rogue and flipping off the man to doing whatever the hell they want. It works on an emotional level too. For me David's death really hurts, not because I care about David but because I care about Kirk, and two movies in to him having a son it's pretty clear how important David is to him. The death of the Enterprise hurts too, because after decades of following her around in space to fans, she'd almost become a person. Nimoy handles all of that, nearly perfectly. When the Enterprise dies, it's almost as if Star Trek is dying with her. It's like being shot through the heart. That shot of her burning through the sky while the crew watches from below is seared into my little Trekkie brain forever. Where they went with the series in Search for Spock was the right move. If they'd stuck to the naval formula for all six movies, they'd have run out of road pretty quick. Fortunately where they're going, they don't need roads.
JOSH: I'm going to say it. I've been waiting to say it since we started this marathon and the time to say it is right now: William Shatner is not a bad actor. He proves it here, giving what is without a doubt, the finest performance of his entire career. Ok, ok, the scene at the end where he kicks Kruge in the face and send him into the planet's molten core may be a little over the top, but any minor quibbles there should be erased by the rest of his reaction to the death of David. For my money, that moment when he finds out David is dead, and stumbles backward to fall on the floor in front of his command chair in shock, is one of the greatest moments of acting every caught on film. Or maybe acting happenstance. Rumor is that having Kirk fall down wasn't exactly planned, but that Shatner really tripped during one of the takes, and just went with it. However he came up with it, it's brilliant. You'd think a Trek movie with almost no Spock in it would suffer when it comes to characters, but William Shatner and DeForest Kelly more than make up for it as they fight their personal demons. I love that scene with Bones in the bar, attempting to charter a space ship. It's such a weird mix of McCoy and Spock personalities going on inside his head, and Kelly pulls it off, even though he doesn't quite pull off a proper Vulcan nerve pinch. Wait… Katey you do know what a Vulcan nerve pinch is, don't you? Star Trek III isn't a perfect movie, but I think the Trek familiars nail it perfectly, starting with Shatner and working their way on down through George “don't call him tiny” Takei.
Scratch that. There is one small exception to my universal good guy praise. No I'm not talking about Chekov's weird, Russian schoolboy outfit. I never really warmed up to Robin Curtis as the replacement Lt. Saavik. Kirstie Alley ran off to do Cheers and I'm glad they didn't abandon the character when she jumped ship, but Alley's performance is infinitely preferable to the stiff, somewhat awkward work done by Curtis. Unfortunately, Star Trek III isn't the last time we'll see her.
KATEY: Like I said, the frat boy ambience between the five male leads is my favorite part about this movie, and I was beyond thrilled to see Sulu work in some badass moves and Scotty get a promotion up to the bridge. And DeForest Kelly really does kill it as the McCoy-Spock hybrid, particularly in that bar scene. It's the first time in the movies we've really seen McCoy struggle with any kind of emotions or demons, and as interesting as he's been as a foil to Kirk, he's just as fascinating on his own. But I'm not sure I'll agree that Shatner is at his best here-- his death scene with Spock at the end of Khan beats the David moment for me, mostly because we don't really know who David is, and neither does Kirk. The moment isn't given proper emotional weight by the story, and as hard as Shatner may try, his distress doesn't quite sell. And yes, the final conflict with Doc Brown -- "I... have had... enough of... YOU!"-- is best left alone. Shatner is better in the beginning, as the swaggering Kirk who says things like "The word is no. I am therefore going anyway." But what he, Kelly and eventually Nimoy all do so well here is express the depths of the characters' devotion to each other-- the movie is basically about Kirk and McCoy realizing how much they love each other and Spock and how they'll do anything to keep that bond intact. That moment at the end where everyone greets Spock, but he has eyes only for Kirk, is especially touching, a depiction of a deep male friendship the likes of which you don't often see onscreen.
As for Saavik, I agree 100%. She and David both could have been abandoned after Khan with no complaint for me, and you're killing me here, telling me Saavik will be back. At least Doc Brown has been eradicated for good.
KATEY: OK, I'm probably annoying you Trekkies (please don't make me call you Trekkers! Please!) by calling Christopher Lloyd's character Doc Brown instead of his given Klingon name, Kruge. But that's the whole problem-- I couldn't get Doc Brown out of my head the entire time I was watching this movie, both because Christopher Lloyd's voice is so distinct and because, well, the Klingons just struck me as goofy. Bear in mind this is their first major appearance in any Trek movies, so there was a lot to get used to here-- the ridged brows, the guttural Klingon language, the alien-cat-monster that Doc Brown actually cradles when it dies during the Enterprise's attack. They basically struck me as Space Orcs, which I realize is completely unfair, but what can I say. Add that to their completely uncompelling motivation-- we are evil monsters!-- and overall stupidity, and I found myself screaming "Khaaaaan!" in hopes he would return and spit his last breath at me for hate's sake.
JOSH: I really feel bad for Christopher Lloyd. You've basically typecast him as a wild-eyed mad scientist and as a result I don't think you're giving him a fair shot. It's not his fault you identify him with Doc Brown, and it's not like he's giving an even remotely similar performance. Fuck, he's playing as far against type as he possibly can, and has even slathered his face in ten pounds of makeup to hide the Doc Brown! What else do you want from the man? I think he's great here; a big shouting, growling brute. Space Orcs is dead on, and what the hell is wrong with that? Maybe Orcs are really Ground Klingons, since Star Trek III came before the Lord of the Rings movies. Klingons are supposed to be crazed, brutal warriors and that's why they're so fun. It's a welcome change after the nuanced, complex villain in the previous movie. Instead of trying to duplicate Khan they went the other direction and served up a brutish thug who succeeds only because Kirk is driving around in an undermanned, underpowered ship on the lam. They're simple thugs, but they do have motivation. It's not like they're running around shooting people just for the hell of it. They're after the Genesis device, the most powerful weapon in the universe! What self-respecting Space Orc wouldn't want that?
KATEY: I think the movies are playing a joke on me at this point, giving a grand, bombastically scored scene of the Enterprise leaving dock every single time. But at least this time there was some actual drama involved, and seeing the banged-up ship heading back out into space was kind of dramatic. Plus there was some great cinematography back on earth, especially in that scene where Spock's dad comes to Vulcan mind meld with Kirk. And while the effects work pretty well the rest of the time-- the Klingon phaser disappearing effect, the brilliant Enterprise explosion-- I can't justify the final scene of Genesis' self-destruction. It was like the bad practical effects version of the bad CGI lava scene at the end of Revenge of the Sith, except instead of fighting on lavabergs like Obi-Wan and Anakin, Kirk and Doc Brown just wrestled on the ground. Genesis' death was as ugly as its birth was beautiful.
JOSH: Well good news, this is the last time you'll see Enterprise leaving space dock. Plus this time it was a much cooler space dock. I really like the look of Star Trek III it's darker than the other movies and little more rough around the edges. This is the first time we see a Klingon Bird of Prey and you've got to admit, even if you hate the Klingons themselves, their ship is pretty damn cool. I like the sandy mystical look of Vulcan and some of the shots on Genesis, like the one I mentioned earlier of the Enterprise burning across the sky, are actually quite stunning. I'm with you on the Genesis destruction itself though. It works for the most part, but it does seem like they were trying to accomplish something a bit beyond their budget. There are moments when you can't help but think “soundstage!” It's not for lack of trying. That final shot for instance, with the camera looking down through the cracks into the planet's molten core is ambitious and creative even if it doesn't work.
JOSH: Nothing all that different to report here. They stuck with what worked in Wrath of Khan and just kept doing it. James Horner did the music both on this and Wrath of Khan so it makes sense that they've got the same things going on. Appropriate since the two films are really part of one, longer story.
KATEY: Agreed on all counts. But can we count Shatner's awful line reading when he kicks Doc Brown into the lava pit as sound? No? OK, moving on.
KATEY: What in the world was going on with rapid-aging Spock and the occasional intense pains that made him look like he was going into labor?
JOSH: He's rapidly aging with the planet. He's tied to the planet's aging. And aging that fast, well you gotta figure it's going to hurt.
KATEY: And what was Saavik doing to stop it?
JOSH: Saavik wasn't doing anything to stop with it. His aging is tied to the planet, so there's nothing to be done about it. She's dealing with a side effect of the process, which you probably heard her call Pon farr. For Vulcans, one of the side effects of spending generations repressing your emotions is that eventually, they come out. The thing's got to have a tail pipe. So every seven years Vulcans get super-crazy horny and they either have to mate or they go mad with lust and generally end up dead. Since Spock is aging 40 years in ten hours, then biologically he's going through the mating cycle several times. Had this been the PG-13 movie it's supposed to be, then I suspect you would have seen Saavik and Spock having stiff, awkward, Vulcan sex.
KATEY: Who is the guy McCoy meets with in the bar to try and charter a ship? And does he intentionally kinda talk like Yoda?
JOSH: Guy at the bar is just a random dude, a shady character McCoy is trying to hire to fly him back to Genesis. Actually I think he talks more like Jar Jar Binks.
JOSH: Before Star Trek: Nemesis ruined it, the standard Trekkie axiom used to be that all odd numbered Star Trek's suck. I think it's time we tossed that truism out the window and gave Star Trek III: The Search for Spock another shot. Sure it's not as good as Wrath of Khan, but it deserves better than to be lumped in with The Motion Picture or, shudder, The Final Frontier. It simply had the misfortune to be the next movie after Khan, which meant being saddled with unreasonable expectations. Leonard Nimoy, as it turns out, is a pretty damn good director. This is a good film, with great performances and a script with balls. Hell they blow up the Enterprise and brutally murder Kirk's son all in one film! Balls. Star Trek III has them, in a way no other Trek movie has since. Like The Two Towers or Back to the Future II, Star Trek III is a bridge movie (in this case between 2 & 4), and so often bridge movies never get the credit they deserve. This is the middle of the story, but it's a solid middle. Rethink The Search for Spock. It's the best of the odd numbered movies and in retrospect holds up a lot better than a couple of the generally more well accepted even numbered ones (Star Trek VI I'm looking at you).
KATEY: I agree that this film is miles ahead of The Motion Picture, and is willing to go to some dark places to create some much-needed drama. But just as often it bungles those key moments, putting David's heroic death offscreen and reducing Kirk's final confrontation with Doc Brown to a wrestling match in the dirt. What Nimoy really seemed to bring as director is an affection for the characters, recognition that Sulu and Uhura and Scotty deserve their big moments too, and that seeing the Enterprise crew reunited again is what the audience wanted to see for the end of this film. But I'm not sure I want Nimoy handling my action sequences, which is a shame, because it seems he's directing the next one as well. I guess I'll stick around for the next one, Josh, but only if you bring in some Tostitos-- and leave Back to the Future II out of this!
What do you think of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock?
Follow along with our complete marathon, every step of the way, by clicking here.
Subscribe To Topics You're Interested In
Back to top