Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Week: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), directed by Leonard Nimoy, proved such a sensation at the box office in the mid-1980s that its success led directly to the development of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) in syndication. 

At the time, the fourth Star Trek film won rave reviews from general audiences and mainstream critics, both of whom praised the film’s fish-out-of-water humor and the inventive time-travel narrative.  Hardcore Star Trek fans admired the film’s droll sense of humor too, as well as the jovial character interaction, though some percentage of this demographic also felt that the movie did not adequately tie-up all the loose ends of the Wrath of Khan/Search for Spock story-arc.

Some quarter century later, The Voyage Home remains an enjoyably “light” installment of the franchise, though it seems to have lost a bit of its luster.  For one thing, The Voyage Home is more flatly-directed than its unsung predecessor, The Search for Spock. 

Similarly, some sequences -- particularly those involving the alien probe “talking” to the rescued whales in San Francisco Bay -- would benefit from some judicious trimming.  This dialogue between whale probe and whale goes on and on, to such great and unnecessary length that it feels like the audience is being excluded from an important conversation.

But where it ultimately counts, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home re-captures the magic of the Star Trek TV series.  This Harve Bennett production showcases the camaraderie between the characters to touching and comedic effect, and perhaps more importantly, serves as a response to the burgeoning “death” culture emerging in the punk movement of the 1980s. 

In the film, the beloved Star Trek characters encounter a 20th century culture of wanton cussing (or “colorful metaphors”), meet gentle life-forms hunted to “the brink of extinction” and tangle with Mohawk-adorned rockers singing “we’re all bloody worthless” and answers such challenges, simply, with the reminder that mankind will outgrow this violent and emotional adolescence, correct its mistakes, and -- at long last -- reach for the stars…

“They say the sea is cold but the sea contains the hottest blood of all.”

Set sometime after Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), The Voyage Home (1986) commences with Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew (DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig) electing to return to Earth from Vulcan in their captured Klingon bird of prey, which McCoy has renamed the Bounty.

Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is still recovering his memories after the trauma of Fal-Tor-Pan, elects to return to the Federation Council with his former shipmates so that he can testify on their behalf regarding the controversial Genesis Planet matter.

En route, however, the former Enterprise teams learn that a strange but extremely powerful alien probe is nearing Earth.  It has “neutralized” starships in its path, and is transmitting a strange signal.  Spock detects that the signal resembles the songs of Earth’s humpback whales, an extinct species, and that the probe specifically seeks a response. 

Realizing that only humpback whales can answer the probe, Kirk attempts time travel in the Bird of Prey.  He returns to the 20th century, circa 1986, and attempts to locate and recruit two humpback whales, George and Gracie, to bring back to the future. 

Along the way, Kirk also meets a cetacean biologist, Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), who doesn’t know quite what to make of the out-of-their-element crew of the Enterprise…

“The only choice we’re given is how many megatons!”

At its core, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is very much about one important idea: the sins of the father being passed on to the children. 

Here, 20th and 21st century man is responsible for destroying the humpback whale, an act which, in the 23rd century, imperils the very future of the human race.  The script acknowledges this fact when Kirk notes it that it is “ironic” that by destroying these creatures of the Earth, man has imperiled his own future there as well. 
Perhaps the most remarkable and disturbing footage in the film is a documentary of whale slaughter that Kirk and Spock view at the Cetacean Institute.  Here, we watch -- without gimmickry or fakery -- as men wantonly massacre whales, rip-apart their bodies, and stand in a veritable sea of blood. It’s grotesque and gruesome behavior, and yet the real-life footage establishes well that we are, in fact, hunting an inoffensive species to extinction for, essentially, no reason at this juncture.

When this documentary footage of whale slaughter is considered in tandem with some of the other examples of mankind’s behavior in the 20th century portions of the film, it isn’t a very pretty picture of human nature. 

A garbage man likes how his wife “fights.” 

A driver calls a pedestrian “a dumb ass.” 

Newspaper headlines in San Francisco reveal the world on the edge of a nuclear precipice.  “It’s a miracle these people ever got out of the 20th century,” Bones quips.

And last but not least, a punk on a bus rudely and aggressively plays his loud, nihilistic music, without thought or regard for his fellow riders.

The lyrics of the song the punk plays go:

“Just where is our future?
The things we’ve done and said!
Let’s just push the button, we’d be better off dead!”
‘Cause I hate you.”
And I berate you.”
And I can’t wait to get to you!”

“The sins of all our fathers, being dumped on us – the sons.
The only choice we’re given is how many megatons?”
And I eschew you!
And I say screw you!”
And I hope you’re blue too!”

This scene with the punk rocker on the bus is especially important in regards to The Voyage Home’s ultimate message and social commentary.  The lyrics even mention the “sins of all the fathers” being “dumped on us,” the sons.”  More trenchantly, it espouses a belief that the world is going to tend in self-destruction, and that this destruction, in fact, may be the best thing for mankind…and the planet. 

I wrote about this historical context some in my review of Highlander (1986) last week, but it bears re-posting because the same context is at work in The Voyage Home:

“The 1980s represented the ascent of the Death Metal movement in rock music, and the punk aesthetic and resurgence in popular fashion. In terms of the latter, think combat boots, studded belts, mohawk hair-cuts, and body art (or self-mutilation?) in the shape of tattoos and piercings.

In terms of the former, middle-class American parents worried about their troubled 1980s teens listening to Death Metal music and gleaning Satanic messages out of it (consider the suicide of two teens in 1985 after purportedly hearing subliminal Satanic messages in a Judas Priest album played backwards.)

What was the source of the tremendous nihilism and cynicism in the American culture that gave rise to this particular branch of pop-culture?

Well, even people in authority apparently felt that the end of the world was nigh.

America in the early span of the 1980s was enmeshed in a deep economic recession, locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and our elected government saw Armageddon around every corner.

On the campaign trail in 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan had noted (to televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker) that ours "might be the generation" that sees the Biblical Judgment Day. His belief was reinforced in a People Magazine interview in December 1983 when the Gipper noted that the eighties were "the first time in history" that so many Biblical prophecies were coming true.

Even President Reagan's appointed Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, didn't believe the world was going to last. On February 5, 1981, he said that America's natural resources didn't necessarily need to be safeguarded by government because he did not know "how many more future generations" could be counted on before "the Lord Returns."

Again, these were elected government officials making claims about the pending end of the world.

So throw in TV movies such as The Day After (1984), Reagan's joke about bombing Russia in "five minutes" and bluster about Russia as the “Evil Empire,” and it is no wonder that America's pop culture (especially genre films) became virtually-obsessed with the End of Life as We Know it.

The great thing about Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is that it gazes into this cultural darkness and responds not by going “into darkness” in kind.  Instead, the film responds…with lightness. 

With humor and humanity. 

Kirk, Spock and McCoy reflect (with amazement and surprise) on this “primitive” time period in human history and remind us that -- 20th century behavior to the contrary -- we will survive and endure.  We will grow up.  We will do great things.  The world is not going to end in this generation. No, the human adventure is just beginning…

This is the great optimistic spirit of Star Trek, and the very factor that differentiates from many other movie and TV franchises.  It doesn’t tell us that the future is going to be a dystopia.  Rather it says that our present dystopia now is simply a result of our species’ “growing pains” and that the future is a day worth living for. 

The Voyage Home vividly and humorously makes this argument, and indeed there’s something quite inspiring about the whole enterprise.  The film ends on a high-note of uplift and satisfaction as Kirk once again takes the center seat of the starship Enterprise (to the nostalgic sound of 1960s sound effects “chirping”…) and once more sets out for the great unknown, to expand the frontiers of human knowledge.

Regarding the whale probe and its final scene over San Francisco Bay, I credit the filmmakers for not wanting to “spoon feed” us information about the whales’ conversation.  Subtitles would have reduced the conversation to a joke, even.  But still, the scene goes on far too long, and the sight of the probe leaving orbit doesn’t seem like resolution enough for the crisis. 

Was the probe just checking in?  Visiting?  I would have loved for instance, if special effects were affordable, to see the probe land in the bay and humpback whales spill out…colonizing the Earth all over again.  That would have been a beautiful statement that mankind is now grown up,  ready and willing to share his world with other peaceful creatures.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home also gets a little carried away with it sense of humor in my opinion.  It’s as if everyone – including the writers – is so caught up in the spirit of fun that some corners get cut.  For instance, Scotty and McCoy share the futuristic formula of transparent aluminum with a 20th century engineer without knowing for certain that he is the actual, historical inventor.

At another point, the Bird of Prey goes to warp speed while still in Earth’s sky, which seems abrupt at best and dangerous at worst.  There are a number of moments like this in the film where it feels like the Star Trek world has been set aside for getting an easy laugh, or for moving the plot-line along.

And again, I just have to state that the film is directed almost listlessly.  There are fewer close-ups here (in direct opposition to Nimoy’s technique apparent in Search for Spock) and many wide-shots that, while capturing great locations like the Golden Gate Bridge, somehow distance us from the characters and their situation this time around.  There’s something about the editing and selection of shots that make the film feel almost unfinished, or half-complete.

Despite such drawbacks, Star Trek: The Voyage Home overall oozes a sense of joy, fun and optimism.  It’s a happy, forward-looking movie in the Trek canon, and there’s not a super-villain or terrorist in sight to motivate the action or the relationships.  

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