Director: Leonard Nimoy
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Christopher Lloyd
Runtime: 105 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Trekkies adhere to the bogus theory that only the even-numbered Star Trek films are good, whereas the odd-numbered are not. Upon closer examination this truism falls apart. Granted, everyone’s favorites The Wrath of Khan and First Contact are even, whereas everyone’s least favorite The Final Frontier is odd. It’s not that the odd-numbered films are poor, though indeed one or two are, but rather they contain less actionized plots, and thus are less likely to serve up a blustering crowd-pleaser.
Consider Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which follows the transmigration of an Enterprise crewmember’s soul, or “katra” in the original Vulcan. A spiritual journey is hardly typical material for a massive blockbuster, which is probably why writer-producer Harve Bennett included some Klingon hijinks for good measure. And yet, the story is what Time critic Richard Schickel called, “the first space opera to deserve that term in its grandest sense.” What Paramount Pictures released was not another space swashbuckler like the film’s immediate predecessor, but a weighty drama filled with themes of rebirth.
Picking up where The Wrath of Khan left off, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is dead, having sacrificed himself to save the Enterprise and her crew, his body jettisoned onto a planet being terraformed by the Genesis Device. This doohickey creates life where there is none, sprouting unchecked vegetation and atmosphere in abundance. With Spock’s body on the planet with this device, he begins to regenerate. Meanwhile, the Enterprise has returned to Earth and docked, and Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) has noticed that Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is acting a little strange. When Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard) arrives and learns of McCoy’s behavior, he claims it’s probable that Spock transferred his katra into McCoy just before he died.
Back on the Genesis Planet, dastardly Klingon Captain Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) wants to get his hands on the life-bringing device and reformat it into a weapon. On the surface below, Vulcan lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis) and Kirk’s son David (Merritt Butrick), both characters introduced in The Wrath of Khan, find a young Vulcan boy aging at an alarming rate, slowly growing into everyone’s favorite pointy-eared science officer: Spock. Luckily, Kirk sneaks away with the Enterprise, for the ever-discussed last mission, to stop the Klingons, save the Genesis planet and Device, and reinstate Spock’s katra from McCoy’s body to its newly reborn and rightful host on the Vulcan home planet.
Some awkward casting is evident when Kirstie Alley does not appear again as the Vulcan lieutenant Saavik, here played by Curtis. Alley purportedly wanted too much money to reprise her first screen role from the previous film. What an odd notion that anyone would ever want Kirstie Alley to appear on film, but alas, the decision was made and the inconsistent choice feels unnatural, as Curtis’ acting is rigid, too much so even for a logic-obsessed Vulcan. Furthermore, as much as the Kruge character is needed to supply some space action, his motivation is oversimplified, although Lloyd does wonders in the role.
Though Spock is largely absent from the film in Nimoy form, his floating head appears on the poster and his name on the director’s chair. Leonard Nimoy jumped at directing duties for The Search for Spock after his positive experience on The Wrath of Khan, a film he said would be his last space voyage. More than any other Star Trek film director, Nimoy renders all the characters with humanistic traits more entertaining and affecting than any photon torpedo battle could offer. He captures how the actors and characters alike play off one another in a fixed rhythm, thus solidifying their permanent status in film and pop-culture history as icons of science-fiction. Doing this with sensitivity and consideration for the dramatic depth of the story is what makes Nimoy’s direction exceptional.
And yet, there are creative choices that feel unnatural to a motion picture and better suited for a two-part episode. Prior to the opening credits, for example, audiences are subject to a recap of what happened in the preceding film. Such a generic intro hardly helps distinguish the film series from its television roots, but the visual splendor (save for some cheap-looking sets) and impressive effects make up for that. The aforementioned rigid acting and seemingly forced Klingon conflict also present unnecessary comparisons to the show. Though undoubtedly the studio pushed for a villain, as saving Spock would hardly be enough to draw audiences, since of course that would happen in this sequel. They couldn’t just let a main character die… Can they ever?
So once again the question arises of this supposed way to chart the Star Trek films by their sequence, even-numbered being good, odd-numbered being bad. Since The Search for Spock is the third film in the series, many wave off its imposing dramatic merits solely in support of this superstition, ignoring how the film elevates this franchise from mere adventure in the stars to a full-fledged theatrical experience, complete with a narrative that has us emotionally invested in familiar and lovable characters and their fates. Here audiences discover what kind of Star Trek viewer they are. Either they’re the kind who allows themselves to become emotionally involved in the story, or they’re the casual viewer watching just to see spaceships explode and the occasional alien vaporized by phaser blast.
More from this series:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)