These heroes have no way of knowing that Grissom has been destroyed, that the Genesis Effect has regenerated Spock's body, and that a Klingon Bird of Prey hides in planetary orbit...
As many of us know only too well, grief can be quite severe an emotion, and that's exactly what is depicted to a large degree in The Search for Spock.
In moving past the death of Spock, the film playfully inverts the main thematic arc of The Wrath of Khan. There, Spock relinquished control of the Enterprise to Kirk in a crisis because Kirk was a better captain (that's his first best destiny, after all). Spock undertook this act with no regards to his ego and established the axiom that "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
And Kirk added "Or the One," hoping to get a rise out of the dispassionate half-Vulcan.
Of course, in this case -- because this is science fiction and not reality -- it is easy indeed to move on because the "dead man" returns to life (though not entirely whole), and Kirk's specific loss of Spock is mitigated.
But the events of the film (the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of Kirk's son, David Marcus) assure that Star Trek remains in a universe where mortality is a certainty. Kirk has traded one instance of grief for another. In other words, Spock may live...but there are costs for that life. Kirk has paid a high price indeed.
The man who "cheated" and who "doesn't believe in the no-win scenario" has again had to face loss and personal pain.
At that point in American history, the oldest man ever elected to the Presidency, Ronald Reagan, was seeking re-election...and his age was actually an important election issue. In a debate with candidate Walter Mondale, Reagan memorably joked "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Similarly, Hollywood was realizing the potential of the youth audience for perhaps the first time, consequently skewing blockbuster films younger and younger. MTV had premiered on cable TV the previous year to high ratings. And in the very summer of Star Trek III, a new MPAA rating was "engineered" called PG-13. It was designed exclusively so that younger audiences could access more mature, violent films (meaning the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg). Indeed, the summer of 1984 was dominated by the youth market, in fact, who flocked to (great, classic) films such as Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Purple Rain.
But critically-speaking, mainstream movie reviewers had begun to develop an adversarial relationship with the 20-year old Star Trek franchise. More and more the tone of criticism was "the Over-the-Hill gang" returns. The age of the stars very much became the elephant in the room. It wasn't the specific merits of the movie being reviewed, so much as the wrinkles, waist-lines and expanding girth of the actors.
The unstable Genesis Planet, just recently born, ages and dies in the short span of the film, of course, but more than that, the film seems to depict a Star Trek universe in burgeoning middle-age, where our beloved crew is facing a turning point, a mid-life crisis of sorts.
After all, "rapid aging" (the ailment of the Genesis Planet) is the order of the day in the self-consuming pop culture, for franchises like Star Trek, isn't it?
Here today; Twilight tomorrow...
The Enterprise herself feels like a "house with all the children gone," per Kirk's own haunting description...making the cherished vessel sound like a person firmly in middle-age: a parent who is missing his or her kids. And the glorious starship looks worse than we've ever seen her before too; her hull pitted and scarred from Khan's devastating phaser attacks.
There's another word for that. Retirement.
Scotty has what is perhaps the best and most cantankerous response to all of this ageism and derision from younger officers; the 23rd century equivalent of "Get off my lawn," but uttered to an insufferably cheery computer voice in an Excelsior turbo lift.
"Up your shaft..."
But as the film so ably depicts, this diverse collection of middle-aged officers succeed against all the odds (through the old fashioned virtue of team-work, specifically...). They steal a starship from Federation headquarters, get in the first licks against a heavily-armed bird of prey (while it is cloaked, even...), capture a Klingon vessel, and, in the end, save their friend's life.
How do you like that...Tiny?
Being a cast member of Star Trek himself, Leonard Nimoy shoots his team -- Shatner, Kelley, Nichols, Takei, Doohan, and Koenig -- with an authentic, deep sense of love and devotion. He heavily (and I mean heavily) accentuates close-shots of their middle-aged but never-less-than interesting (and beautiful...) faces. Some critics and Trekkies see this approach as a detriment to the film, overall. You''ll encounter plenty of reviews that note Nimoy's background in television, and his TV-style approach to the film (focusing heavily on close and two-shots) at the expense of an epic scale.
Yet, I'd say this approach not only works, it reinforces, ultimately, the themes of the film.
These men are not young (like poor Mr. Adventure)...but they are certainly experienced. And in their own way -- and in the full blossom of maturity -- they are still engaging, charismatic personalities. Nimoy doesn't romanticize their middle-aged looks; but he repeatedly shows us their experienced faces in close-up, in their middle-aged glory. We have known all these characters (and actors) for twenty years, and perhaps their hair has greyed or thinned...but we still love them. In part for past glory, in part because we still love what they're doing now, in the moment. We want them to live forever...but we know they won't.
Nimoy's loving close-ups represent an affectionate and authentic approach to depicting the aging actors (and characters), and somehow registers to the audience as extremely intimate. Yes, these characters are -- as always -- larger than life, but in this film they feel more human, more recognizably flawed, more vulnerable then ever before in Star Trek's storied history.
That's why I state the film is an emotional roller-coaster ride. Oft-times, we are just left gazing at these glorious, fifty-year old faces as they react movingly to grief and loss, pain and ridicule And suddenly -- firmly -- we're on their side as never before.
Every time we see their expressive, older faces magnified on the big screen, we bring twenty years of history to this current storyline. For lack of a better word, it's extremely...powerful. Just look at Doohan's affecting reaction shot after Scotty sees Kirk stumble and fall from his chair (at news of David's death). Watch Nichols' expressive, open face as she says to Admiral Kirk, "all my hopes" or greets him with a saddened hug on Vulcan. Look at Koenig's face stiffen and then freeze for a second as Kirk initiates the Enterprise's destruct sequence. Watch Shatner's eyes go to another place all together, as Kirk hatches a plan...even as Morrow hectors him.
Quite simply, this is some of the best acting this group has ever done. And it comes not in huge, mind-blowing action scenes, but in these gorgeous character close-ups, these little grace-notes that Nimoy has assiduously set-up for his co-stars. As a director, Nimoy knows exactly where to look; where to place the camera so that he captures his cast mates at their best.
So (in this case, anyway) screw "young minds, fresh ideas." Screw "be tolerant."
With age comes wisdom and experience...and those are the tools, ultimately, which carry the day for the crew in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. From Scotty's rigging of the Enterprise to work on automation ("a chimpanzee and two trainees could run her") to Kirk's daring gambit against Kruge (destroying the Enterprise), to Uhura getting Mr. Adventure to "eat out of her hands," this Star Trek movie is about a team of men and women -- with some age and wisdom behind them -- operating at peak performance, in the best interest of their friend, with enemies surrounding them.
I remember watching CBS's Dennis Cunningham describe the crew of Star Trek III as "lugubrious" in his negative review of the film back in 1984, but that's not the case at all here. I have never connected more personally or fully with the Enterprise crew than in The Search for Spock. Kirk may not be as handsome, dashing and fit as he once was; Uhura may not be as drop-dead sexy, either...but again, just look at those weathered, emotional faces on that big screen bracing disappointment, failure and hope.
Other Star Trek movies may feature more epic or more engaging stories, but ask yourself this pertinent question: does any other film in the series really get to the nature of these people (and their bond with one another) more ably, more intimately, or more compassionately than Search for Spock does?
If the price of this intimacy is a few grand establishing shots; a few amazing "cinematic" moments or big special effects sequences, so be it.
And oddly enough, I remember that this was precisely the response of the audiences I saw the film with back in 1984. I remember vividly that when Sulu announced "we have cleared space doors" (while stealing the Enterprise), people in the audience whooped and hollered as one. And, as I discussed with a friend and reader, Tom Pederson, on Facebook this morning, you could have heard a pin drop in the theaters during Kirk's confrontation with the Klingons and his decision to destroy the beloved starship Enterprise.
I remember that so vividly. A hush descended over the audience as we all waited, desperately, for the resourceful Kirk to pull another rabbit out of his hat, to save his friends and his crew one more time. When he had to resort to destroying the Enterprise -- the love of his life -- it was a victory, to be sure...but one of great price.
The Enterprise is herself a character in Star Trek, of course, and perhaps the most beloved of all of 'em. The moment that gets me and leaves me with a lump in my throat -- and that I've never seen remarked upon anywhere -- involves Kirk and crew's final beam out from the transporter room before the ship explodes.
Watch closely the blue beam effect. Kirk and his friends de-materialize on the platform, and then -- for the merest of seconds -- they re-appear one last time...as if the Enterprise is reluctant to let them go; knowing that this is the last time they will all be together.
In my opening to this review, I noted that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is good in terms of cinema, and great in terms of Star Trek.
If Spock's katra is not returned to Vulcan, then all that he was; all that he was...is lost. Well, that's a tragedy, but that's exactly what happens to humans when we die, isn't it? Our souls don't live on at Mount Seleya, able to undergo the "Fal Tor Pan" (the re-fusion) if the body lives. When we die...all that we know is lost, right?
Well, not exactly, states Star Trek III. Ultimately, our human immortality, the disposition of our "souls" if you will, shall be decided by our actions in life and how they are remembered. Kirk could have followed orders...and Spock would have lived. Instead, he risks everything for a friend...and his soul is secure. Likewise poor David. He will be remembered for giving his life to save Saavik and Spock, not his misguided use of protomatter in the Genesis matrix.
That's the human being's mission every day, living this life on Earth, isn't it? Death is inevitable and always around the corner, but every day we try to live life to its best; to turn death into a fighting chance to live...and live well.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock may not be the most action-packed move in the franchise. It may not feature the best special effects. Some people may even find it slow. Perhaps other entries do indeed deserve to be thought of as better than Nimoy's directorial debut.
But this third (and odd-numbered) adventure is in no way a bad film.
Of all the Star Trek movies I have encountered in my travels -- and in many profound ways -- The Search for Spock is the most...human.