Saturday, June 01, 2024

40 Years Ago: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Forty years later Star Trek III: The Search for Spock remains one of the most intimate and emotional of all the Star Trek movie dramas: a tale of loss and friendship, and most importantly, of aging gracefully in a culture that seems not to value experience and wisdom. The film's narrative involves the main characters grappling with mortality; first Spock's and then, finally, their own.

Although Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) also explicitly concern spiritual matters at least to some degree, Star Trek III does so in what is perhaps a more human fashion.  

In recovering Spock's soul, Kirk also saves his own. And in saving his  own soul, the audience comes to understand that it's not only Vulcans who possess a "living spirit," but human beings too. Maybe that "spirit" or soul is born in the crucible of friendship. Or perhaps in duty and loyalty. But it is there, the movie implies, if not as easily detectable in humans as in a Vulcan "katra."

The Word is No.  I am Therefore Going Anyway...

Soon Captain.  Quite Soon...

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock picks up not long after the events of The Wrath of Khan.  

The battle-damaged U.S.S. Enterprise is on her way home to Earth, following the heroic death of Spock (Nimoy).  

Dr. David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) and Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis) are transferred to the U.S.S. Grissom to investigate the newly formed Genesis Planet, leaving Enterprise understaffed.  

Meanwhile, a rogue Klingon commander, Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) wants to capture the "secrets of Genesis" for the Empire and -- using a cloaking-device-equipped Bird of Prey -- probes deep into Federation space, undetected.

Aboard the Enterprise, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner)  grieves for his lost friend, and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) begins to exhibit unusual behavior...speaking in Spock's voice and demonstrating a keen if uncharacteristic knowledge of Vulcan landmarks (like Mount Seleya).  

Once back at Space dock in Earth orbit, Kirk learns that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned, and Mr. Scott (James Doohan) is transferred to the new Excelsior as Captain of Engineering.  An era of space exploration is over, and a new one has begun.

Spock's father, Sarek (Mark Lenard) visits Kirk in San Francisco, and informs him that he must bring Spock's immortal soul -- his "katra" -- back to Vulcan, along with  his body...which was left on Genesis.  Kirk realizes that McCoy is the keeper of Spock's soul, and requests permission of Starfleet to return to Genesis with the Enterprise.

When Starfleet Commander Morrow (Robert Hooks) refuses permission, Kirk, Chekov, Scotty, Bones, Uhura and Sulu hatch a plan to steal the Enterprise from space dock...and get to Genesis anyway.  

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...

This Entire Crew Seems on the Verge of Obsessive Behavior Concerning Mr. Spock: Grieving Aboard the Starship Enterprise

The Needs of the One...Outweighed the Needs of the Many.

Grief, for lack of a better definition, is the human response to the death of a loved one.  

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.  

Early in the film, Captain Kirk notes that the Enterprise crew seems on the verge of "obsessive" behavior about Mr. Spock.  He further notes that the death of his friend feels "like an open wound."

What Kirk and also McCoy experience, in some way, is actually known as complicated grief.  McCoy "hallucinates" that he is Spock himself (the result, actually of a Vulcan mind meld), and Kirk -- in keeping with the psychological condition of bereavement -- is forced to go over the story of his loss, again and again.  He just can't get past that final moment with his dear friend.  It returns over and over to haunt him.  He can't escape it.

If the crew of the Enterprise exhibits "obsessive behavior" concerning Mr. Spock, then the same might be said for the film's director, the late, great Leonard Nimoy, who, throughout the film, visually expresses Kirk's on-going grief by -- in fetishistic detail -- taking us repeatedly through the final moments of Spock's life.  

The film opens, for instance, with a small black-and-white image in frame center. It is a two-shot of Kirk and Spock -- separated by glass barrier -- as these longtime friends say farewell. "Ship, out of danger?" Spock asks, his voice hoarse. Kirk nods, and Spock tells him not to grieve; that his sacrifice was logical. 

As the scene develops and Spock slumps...dying, the image in frame center grows larger to fill the entire wide-screen, as though Spock's death is looming larger and larger in the imagination; coming to the forefront of thought (both Kirk's and the audience's). The black-and-white visual slowly bleeds into full color, and the traumatic event of the past metaphorically becomes the living present...the day of grief.  

This is the movie's opening note.

Later, Bennett's screenplay and Nimoy's direction force Kirk to endure Spock's death a second time-- again word for word -- during the admiral's intimate mind-meld with Sarek.  

Here, Nimoy deploys extreme close-ups of Shatner's expressive face to capture the emotional undertone of the scene, displaying Kirk's extreme grief and pain at the loss of his friend.  One shot is so close, in fact, it's just a view of Shatner's left eye and eyebrow.  And yet -- as the eye opens wider and wider with pain, and starts to moisten -- it carries a devastating effect. We know exactly what Kirk is visualizing in his "mind's eye" at that moment, and the scene ends on an even darker note. If Spock died without transferring his katra, then "all that he was, all that he lost."

Not even half-way through the film, Spock's death in the engineering section of the Enterprise is repeated once more, this third time utilizing a "flight recorder visual" that, oppositely, distances us (and Kirk) from the pain and grief he is feeling, and allows the good captain to look for clues in the moment of trauma. Here, we see Spock's mind-meld with McCoy, and the mystery is resolved. Now it is time for action, and that is often how we, as human beings, overcome our grief. By acting; by doing something constructive so that the pain of the tragedy does not overcome or paralyze us.

Finally, during the climax of the film at Mount Seleya on Vulcan the final conversation between Kirk and Spock in engineering --  the death scene from The Wrath of Khan -- is repeated a fourth time, but with a re-constituted Spock and Kirk going through the motions of the past...and finally moving past the grief into new territory. 

These two men recite the same familiar dialogue ("Ship out of danger?") -- again, rather obsessively -- and then the movie really gets clever.  

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.

Well, in Star Trek III, Kirk tells the revived Spock, that "the needs of the one...outweighed the needs of the many." Meaning that Kirk and his crew have sacrificed everything (his ship, his son...their careers...) on the off-chance that Spock's life could be saved. Sometimes, one friend in need must take priority.

Yet in dramatizing Spock's death scene (in four sequences; in four separate and evolving contexts), The Search for Spock handily explores the human grief cycle in a unique and intelligent fashion, leading the viewer from the initial pain and denial (and perhaps even anger), up through some form of acceptance and catharsis  

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.

This Planet is Aging in Surges.  And Spock With It. Or Maybe That's Okay...for Someone whose Career is Winding Down: Battling Ageism on the Final Frontier

Sir...someone is stealing the Enterprise!

If the theme of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is grappling with mortality...with the aging process and the loss that ultimately goes with it, then it is fascinating to witness how the entire film "obsesses" (there's that word again...) on the cycle of life and death, with aging.

And this isn't just the thematic drive of the movie, it's an expression of where Star Trek the franchise had positioned itself in the fast-moving, MTV pop culture of the mid-1980s.  

At that point in American history, the oldest man ever elected to the Presidency, Ronald Reagan up to that point, 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 cast 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 girth of the actors.  

In some ways, the third Star Trek film anticipates, reflects and comments on all of this cultural noise.

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?   

Specifically, in Star Trek III, Admiral Morrow explains that after 20 years in the limelight, the Enterprise's "day is over" and that a slick, ready-made replacement, the Excelsior stands by...ready to break her "speed records" with the spanking new "trans-warp drive." The accomplishments of the past mean nothing in the fast-moving, high-tech future.

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.

More importantly, our beloved crew members and heir much-decorated history are treated rather shabbily by the forces in power at Starfleet, as if -- like the Enterprise herself -- their day is over too.  

Uhura is told her career is "winding down" by an obnoxious and callow transporter officer, derisively dubbed Mr. Adventure (Scott McGinnis) in the credits.  

Mr. Sulu is dismissed as "Tiny" by a hulking Federation prison guard.  

McCoy is bound for the "Federation funny farm" by another guard's cruel terminology, after Bones has already been told he is going to rest for a "good, long time" by a security agent.  

There's another word for that.  Retirement.

And Kirk is relentlessly hectored by Morrow about his place -- his legacy -- in the history books.  "Jim, your life and your career stands for rationality, not intellectual chaos.  You keep up this emotional behavior, you'll lose everything.  You'll destroy yourself..."

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. All so gloriously....human.

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, 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 if the Enterprise is reluctant to let them go; knowing that this is the last time they will all be together.

You Don't Have To Believe.  I'm Not Even Sure I Believe: Vulcan Mysticism, Klingon Honor, Destruct Sequences..and Tribbles.


Where Star Trek III: The Search for Spock falls down, in terms of cinematic presentation, is in the editing.  It's just downright sloppy.  In one moment featuring Lt. Saavik on the Genesis Planet, a Klingon warrior can plainly (incongruously...) be seen for a few seconds, dealing with an exploding tree. Why this shot was inserted here is a mystery...but it's noticeable even to the untrained eye. 

At another critical moment, the rock precipice upon which Commander Kruge dramatically teeters over can be seen to awkwardly -- and mechanically -- slide down (or be dragged down...) the mountainside; a clunky, on-set effect that fails to convince,  and which ruins the dramatic effect of the moment.  

Some of the studio-sets (depicting a forest of cacti in the snow, for instance) also do not hold up particularly well. But again, you could go over every Star Trek movie and pinpoint such flaws in execution.What The Search for Spock gets right is far more important the relatively unimportant moments it gets wrong.

And, as a Star Trek film, the Search for Spock exceeds all expectations. The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan each have plenty of merit, but neither one seems to take advantage of the vast background material established by the series.

The Search for Spock rectifies that omission, and does so in spades.  This film delves deeply into series lore, featuring, word-for-word the destruct sequence as featured in the third season episode, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield."   Themovie brings up the concept of Pon Farr (from "Amok Time"), provides a cameo for a tribble ("The Trouble with Tribbles"), suggests the Vulcan physiologiy's capacity to separate from corporeality ("Return to Tomorrow"), re-introduces the concept of the cloaking device ("Balance of Terror," "The Enterprise Incident") and even brings back Sarek, Spock's father ("Journey to Babel.")

In its intimations of "galactic controversy," the discussion of "The Federation Council" and great special-effects depiction of Space dock (along with other Federation ships such as Excelsior and Grissom), The Search for Spock suggests the larger background universe that the earlier movies did least not to such a degree.

And, one can also look at The Search for Spock as the foundation for the modern interpretation of the Klingon Empire (later depicted in Next Gen, DS9, Enterprise, etc.) This is the first Star Trek effort to mention honor in specific conjunction with this warrior race.  Kruge tells Valkris before she dies that she will be remembered with honor for her part in acquiring the Genesis secret.

Well, before Search for Spock, Klingons were known for their lack of honor. The Klingons were originally described this way in The Making of Star Trek, co-authored by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry: "Their only rule in life is that rules are meant to be broken by shrewdness, deceit or power. Cruelty is something admirable, honor is a despicable trait." (page 257).  The Search for Spock gave the Klingons their new template vis-a-vis honor, and that's what later Treks adopted.

In terms of characterizations, The Search for Spock delves deeper than the other movies as well. In a quiet moment aboard the Bird of Prey, for instance, McCoy recognizes -- perhaps for the first time -- the depth of his friendship with Spock.  And Kirk really goes through the wringer here, losing his ship and his son, in addition to his best friend.  

You wonder, how does Kirk survive in the face of such losses? The answer (as spoken to Sarek...) is simple.  If he hadn't tried "the cost" would have been Kirk's soul.

When you get down to it, Star Trek has always been at its best when it describes some important aspect of the human condition; when it reflects something beyond "the final frontier" and about our lives here on Earth, now.  Here, the context isn't political (as it is in the superb Undiscovered Country), but spiritual. There's a cost to our psyches (if not our souls) when we don't do what we know is right.

If Spock's katra is not returned to Vulcan, then all that he was; all that he 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.   

Star Trek III is filled with great Star Trek moments about these virtues...about the human condition.  The most beautiful -- and highly cinematic -- finds Kirk and his crew standing on a mountaintop on Genesis, watching as the beloved Enterprise becomes a shooting star...and burns up in the atmosphere, her life over.

"My god Bones, what have I done?"  asks Kirk, gazing skyward.  

"What you had to do.  What you always do," replies Bones (or is it Spock talking through Bones...?) "Turn death into a fighting chance to live."

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.

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