In which we examine a film unduly judged by it's neighbours.
There’s an old adage – I don’t know where it came from, or when – that says that odd numbered Star Trek movies will be terrible. But like quite a lot of “conventional” wisdom, the closer you look at it, the less true it really is (and is apparently completely reversed in the reboot series, as the odd numbered films are the only good ones). It is especially untrue of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which does not deserve to be lumped into the same group as the overly boring Motion Picture or the ambitiously terrible Final Frontier. The Search for Spock has garnered an unfair status within the franchise, and in its defence, I intend to examine those aspects that make it a proud addition to the series.
It is not hard, even at a brief glance, why Star Trek III has gathered the reputation it has. From a distance, it seems burdened with disadvantage. Following The Wrath of Khan, anything would. It is never enviable to succeed a superior product, and a lesser franchise might have been tempted to replicate the elements of the predecessor in hopes of another success (I’m looking at you, Ghostbusters 2). To the credit of director Leonard Nimoy, it is very obvious that they didn’t even try to match Khan. They, in fact, opted to go in an entirely different direction, a notion that is heresy in the modern filmmaking world. Looking at it from an even greater distance, Search for Spock has the distinction of being the second film in a trilogy that is otherwise comprised of the best Star Trek film and the second best (Voyage Home, aka the one with the whales). There, Nimoy distanced himself even further from Khan by not even having a villain.
But Spock remains sandwiched between, suffering a cinematic middle sibling syndrome. Even from a financial perspective, the film made $2 million less then Khan, and $25 million less then Voyage. It also had the distinction of being the film that followed the death of the series’ (arguably) most popular character. Plainly, there is a lot working against it. However, it overcomes these handicaps by being a rousing adventure, and the sort of philosophical discussion that Star Trek is renowned for. And a lot of the credit for that goes to Leonard Nimoy. Spock was his first venture behind the camera, but hardly his first job directing, having worked in stage and television for years before. The combination of his theatric minimalism and deep understanding of Trek, which he took quite personally and seriously, made him an admiral choice to lead the story of the aftermath of his own character’s demise.
Khan is an examination of getting older, wrapped in a revenge story. Metaphorical homicidal super soldiers aside, Khan explores what happens when the decisions of your youth come back to haunt you in your later years. David Marcus is a far more relatable effect of a misguided youth than Khan’s thirst for vengeance, as few people are hunted to the brink of destruction by those they’ve wronged, but having a son you never knew from a youthful dalliance – that’s a real world experience. Spock then is the examination of the grieving process, or an examination of living with the consequences of your actions. The film begins where Khan left off, with the Enterprise hobbling back to Earth. The ship, never so much a character as a setting, but an intrinsic part of the show, is treated in parallel with Spock. Kirk is forced to leave his best friend behind in a place he can never visit (the quarantined Genesis standing in as a metaphor for the Great Beyond). And no sooner does he arrive home when he’s told that his ship, maybe his greatest love, is beyond her years and is being taken away from him.
The reactions of the crew all mimic the various reactions one might have after being abandoned, or suffering a death. McCoy goes batty. Scotty (self) sabotages in a state of wistful denial. Sulu and Uhrua begrudgingly accept things and move on. But Kirk refuses to accept anything. He fights against the reality of the situation. His ship is taken, so he steals it back. His best friend is dead, but he contrives a method to bring him back from the dead. Kirk embodies those things that all people wish they could do after loosing someone close, except he’s James T. Kirk and he can actually do them; he’s Orpheus, blazing into the Underworld because the natural order be damned. But like all stories where the natural order is turned on its head, a sacrifice is demanded. Kirk has to give the Enterprise to the universe in order to get Spock back. Which is also a bit of romantic symmetry: Spock died saving the Enterprise, so the Enterprise dies bringing him back to life.
Meanwhile, you have the David/Saavik storyline, in which the Genesis device is proved to be unstable. David, in his rashness, created a destructive force rather than a creative one. A purposeful juxtaposition though, as his life-giving process is used as a weapon in Khan, and its self destruction results in Spock’s rebirth here. Genesis is never what anyone wants of it, representative of grand ambition that drives a person to achieve something they are ill-prepared to handle. Everyone who wants it ends up dead or stripped of the things they value most. David’s death is far more about the complimentary completion of his story – he was “born” with the Genesis device, when his character was introduced, and could not out-survive his own creation. Marcus is an interstellar Dr. Frankenstein, tied to the fate of his monster. David’s death also obviously serves as a reminder to Kirk not to get too pushy with his demands upon the universe. Kirk plays no role in David’s death; he is a passive observer. He has no agency in it, which makes it all the more jarring. Like Spock’s death in the previous movie, it is a choice made without Kirk’s input, a sign that the universe does not bow to his will and whim.
But beyond the philosophical interpretations of the content, the movie is well put together. As I mentioned earlier, the bulk of Nimoy’s directing experience was in theatre, and as such the film has a very static but personal feel. While some would deride this as weakness, rather than flood the screen with wild set pieces, his camera instead is most comfortable close to the actors, making certain that their emotions are in full view. The film is largely restricted to a handful of locations, none of them extravagant (which is for the best, as the Genesis sets undermine the story by being dodgy and notably fake). Bridges of ships and small rooms, for the most part here. And it works. The result is probably the most personal of all the Trek films. Because the camera leaves no space between you and the character, you feel all the more for them. Because it sits still beside them, lingering on the effects of the situation, you as the audience become affected in a much less passive way than if there were a chaotic fight sequence filmed from the third person and at a distance. Even the climatic fight between Kirk and his Klingon enemy is muted, tangible, even a little sad. This is no moment of super heroics. This is two old men, each at their end of their rope, hoping with their wheezing last to land a lucky punch.
Speaking of Kruge, let us all take a moment to appreciate Christopher Lloyd’s performance. Lloyd was in the middle of one of the truly great runs when he played what turned out to be the standard for all Klingon performances after him. This is the same era which saw him play Doc Brown, Judge Doom, and Professor Plum. His Kruge is honourable and direct, a far cry from the overly emotional Khan of the previous film. Kruge has no grudge against Kirk. In fact, even after the death of his entire crew on the Enterprise, Kruge never lowers himself to making his conflict with Kirk personal. He killed his son, intends to kill everyone else, and go home having accomplished his mission (“I give two minutes, to you and your gallant crew”). It is hard looking back to remember that this was the first time in Trek history that vast amounts of now iconic Klingon imagery was introduced. The crinkly foreheads had been seen briefly in the Motion Picture, but this was the first time since the series in the 60’s that the Great Enemy returned. The elaborate armour, the low lighting of the ships, the callous lack of patience with failure. This was also the first appearance of the distinctive Klingon Bird of Prey and cloaking device (a mistaken hold over from when the script originally involved Romulans).
Whereas much of the film is static and character driven, this does not mean that it is without powerful and exciting visual moments. The theft of the Enterprise and the chase of the Excelsior is tense, at least by 1984 standards, and the destruction of the Enterprise is a sombre and distressing sequence. Let us not make light also that this movies sees the death of the Enterprise. While it is now taken for granted that things explode and are replaced to manufacture drama, this was a big moment when it happened. This was not Murtaugh’s wife’s car in Lethal Weapon 2. This was not some disposable, anonymous vehicle thrown away as fodder. This was the Enterprise. This was an icon ripped apart and burned away. This was a big deal. It was expected that the Enterprise would come out, limping but prevailing, as it had in the past. That it could be destroyed, or that they would allow it destroyed, spoke to the seriousness of the moment, the desperation of the characters, and the lengths to which Kirk would go to “turn death into a fighting chance to live.”
As they watch the Enterprise burn up in the atmosphere, Kirk’s “my god Bones, what have I done,” might sound a little forced. Likewise, his later “I have had… enough… of you!” is a satisfactory culmination of their brief tussle, but hardly Shatner’s finest line reading. But nestled within the heart of this film may well be William Shatner’s best acting ever. I mean it, with no sarcasm. In the moment that he learns that David has been killed, the film is silent, and Nimoy’s camera is trained directly on Shatner. He does not speak. He steps back towards his chair, his steady rock from which he preaches and he stumbles, slipping to the floor at the base of his thrones. It was an accident, apparently. Shatner really did stumble. If so or if not, it is an amazingly human and tortuously honest moment. He delivers the first utterance of “you Klingon bastard, you killed my son,” barely above a whisper, as if he were making the reality permanent by naming it. His second, louder reading doesn’t carry the same gravitas, but for a moment the Trek audience got a glimpse of the classically trained Shakespearian actor that Shatner began his career as.
Search for Spock is a necessary evil, if nothing else. Spock needed to be brought back. The franchise would not have succeeded without him, even if Nimoy was behind the camera. And likely one reason for its financial back-step was the foregone conclusion that the Search for Spock would end with the Discovery of Spock. If the end is expected, than the journey had better exceed expectations. And perhaps that is Spock’s greatest fault, because the story that leads us to the forgone conclusion is actually quite straight forward and less dramatic than time travel or assassination plots or even giant killer robot planets. It’s really no more complex than Kirk returning to his friend’s grave to say goodbye, and when getting there realizing he’s able to say hello again. That makes it emotionally satisfying, but not viscerally appealing, and I suspect that is why people have a lower opinion of it. But instead of looking for and not finding a grand adventure, they should he happy to find a private tale of grief, and joy, as the Search for Spock becomes a journey into the heart and soul of his crewmates.