"My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me."
"You would've done the same for me."
"Why would you do this?"
"Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many."
And there you have the underlying message of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Star Trek III is like a parallel, mirrored version of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Both films are about life and death, sacrifice and renewal. If Spock made the ultimate sacrifice in Star Trek II, then Star Trek III is about how Kirk and his crew — making their own sacrifices — try to repay that debt in order to save Spock.
The Search for Spock is the companion to but not the equal of The Wrath of Khan. It grows logically, emotionally, even philosophically from the events and themes of the previous film, so much so that the themes and the way they line up with the previous film are almost more respectable than this film in and by itself. That's not to say The Search for Spock isn't a good film. It is a good film, although it does not strike us in the way its predecessor did, perhaps because the underlying events are not always quite so immediate, convincing, or unexpected.
Although Trek III's storyline wasn't planned at the time of Trek II's conclusion, there was a single, brief, vague seed intentionally planted near the end of Trek II — where Spock mind-melds with McCoy and says only, "Remember." Crafty filmmakers keep their options open, and screenwriter/producer Harve Bennett did exactly that with the conclusion of Trek II. He picks right up from there to tell the story of Trek III, which takes place only a matter of weeks (I believe) after the previous film, as Enterprise limps home with a skeleton crew. Kirk's personal log is marvelous in setting an initial somber tone — establishing the quiet following the storm that was Trek II's costly showdown with Khan. Says Kirk's narration: "The Enterprise feels like a house with all the children gone. No — more empty even than that. The death of Spock is like an open wound."
The death of Spock will not for one minute be lost upon the audience, and the filmmakers make it clear to us that life aboard the Enterprise is anything but normal. The early scenes reveal that the Enterprise itself has apparently reached the end of its life; the wheels of Starfleet's bureaucracy are in full motion, having reached not only the conclusion that Genesis is an off-limits place and forbidden topic of discussion, but that the Enterprise herself is no longer worth refitting and should be decommissioned. "Jim, the Enterprise is 20 years old," says Admiral Morrow. "We feel her day is over."
And then a somewhat emotional Sarek appears and reveals to Kirk that Spock's knowledge and experience, his "living spirit" — his Katra — is at risk of being lost forever since Spock's body has been abandoned on Genesis. McCoy is now carrying Spock's Katra in his mind, which explains his new mental problems. Says Sarek of Spock's essence floating around in Bones' head: "One alive, one not, yet both in pain." Bones' reaction upon hearing this news is much funnier, in the spirit of classic Spock/Bones verbal sparring, even now that Spock is absent: "That green-blooded son of a bitch. It's his revenge for all those arguments he lost."
And hence begins the search for Spock, to retrieve his body from the recently quarantined Genesis Planet — against Starfleet's explicit directives to the contrary — and return it to Vulcan for final resting and to remove Spock's Katra from McCoy's mind. Kirk relays to his crew Admiral Morrow's non-granted permission: "The word is no. I am therefore going anyway." In saving Spock, Kirk and his crew will have to defy Starfleet, risk their careers, and put themselves in the middle of a dangerous showdown with a Klingon crew, who see the Genesis experiment as a test of a new weapon of mass destruction.
As a matter of premise, I sometimes wonder about the suspense issue, and what audiences in 1984 really thought about all this; could any Star Trek film be called The Search for Spock and not end with the crew of the Enterprise finding and saving Spock? I somehow think not.
Of course, success in capturing an audience is often a matter of timing and execution even more so than subject. In that regard, I've often thought of this film as the set-piece Trek film. There's certainly a story being told here, both on and below the surface, but for me the film lives and is remembered more for its big moments — the theft of the Enterprise, the space battle with the Klingons, the trickery and destruction of the Enterprise, the fistfight against the apocalyptic background, and ultimately the mystical resurrection of Spock on Vulcan.
On the new DVD commentary track, Leonard Nimoy says one of his goals in directing the picture was to make grand, "operatic" emotional gestures throughout the film. Even before having heard that on the commentary track, that's exactly how I had planned to describe the sequence where Kirk and his crew steal the Enterprise.
The theft of the Enterprise is one of my favorite sequences in the Trek canon. The theater for this caper is a huge orbital space station, still one of the most striking images of futuristic human construction the franchise has brought us. The music and the visuals say about everything that needs to be said. The dialog, while useful in adding some detail, is minimal and in many ways unnecessary. This is a sequence sold on special effects that are grand yet simple, slow and elegant, telling an exciting story in a peaceful way. James Horner's score is unforgettable, and the whole scene becomes, yes, operatic. It's a virtuoso sequence that communicates the joyful aspects of Kirk's renegade-like escape while also showing the lengths he and his crew are going and the risks they are taking. And while the Excelsior is bigger and better and faster than the Enterprise, in the end it simply comes down to our crew's ingenuity.
I've always enjoyed how the supporting characters get their little highlight moments in the Enterprise theft sequence. Working as a team, everyone is essential, whether it's Uhura making sure "Mr. Adventure" stays out of the way, Sulu getting the upper hand on the big guard that calls him "Tiny," or Scotty sabotaging the Excelsior's new and much-ballyhooed transwarp drive.
In between the big moments is perhaps where the film occasionally stalls. There is much time spent following David and Saavik around on the Genesis Planet, and sometimes these scenes grow repetitive. Such scenes communicate the information they need to get across, but not always with great fascination or insight. David and Saavik are not inherently interesting characters and serve mostly to advance the plot. (It's hard in particular to make much of Saavik; Robin Curtis performs the Vulcan dispassion to a dour, flat extreme.)
The pseudo-science involving Spock's body's resurrection and how he's linked to the Genesis Planet falls probably just outside the realm of conventional sci-fi wisdom; we must simply accept the device at face value. (To hope for some sort of revelation regarding life and death would, I concede, be an absurd expectation on the viewer's behalf.) We learn that David's research to develop the Genesis experiment included use of protomatter — dangerous and unstable — in order to cut scientific corners. This is causing the planet's own self-destruction. The movie seems only as convinced about its science as it absolutely has to be, and no more. It works because the film is not about science but about characters and what they have at stake. Much of the blame for Genesis' deterioration falls at David's feet and the story sets him up for a moment where he must redeem himself.
That moment is, of course, the moment where he puts his life on the line to save Spock and Saavik from the Klingons, while Kirk and his crew, after an orbital battle with the Klingons (which the Enterprise was not equipped to fight), find themselves in a tragic stalemate. David is killed. It's at this moment in the film (as Kirk collapses to the floor before then pulling himself together) that we realize this is the mirrored version of Trek II. In Trek II Kirk regained his son alongside the loss of Spock. Here he can regain Spock but only after losing his son.
And, on top of that, also his ship.
The film's next noteworthy action set-piece is Kirk's clever plan to trap the Klingons and set the Enterprise's auto-destruct, to "give death a fighting chance to live," as Bones eloquently phrases it. It's a visceral moment as the Enterprise is violently blown to bits, and then a moment of mourning as the ship burns in the planet's atmosphere, leaving a fiery trail behind it as our characters watch from the planet surface. This cinematic gesture is the conclusion of a trap that is a cross between the hugely satisfying and the patently absurd. These Klingons, let's face it, are slow-witted fools. As delicious as Kirk's trap to blow up the Klingons is, these guys must be pretty close to brain dead to watch a countdown to zero with such complete and utter cluelessness.
The sole exception is Christopher Lloyd's commanding Klingon villain, Kruge. He's not exactly the smartest Klingon ever to live, either, but Kruge provides a reasonable adversary for Kirk that's usually watchable. He's in absolutely no danger of outdoing Khan in the effective-villain category, but as Trek villains go, he's not bad. He's motivated by an unbending desire to get his hands on the Genesis secret ("Genesis! I want it!"), and at the very least he's content to die trying.
The final fistfight between Kirk and Kruge is in the old tradition of Westerns and, for that matter, the original Star Trek TV episodes. It greatly benefits by being set against an apocalyptic background of noise, fire, wind, volcanoes, lightning, and other assorted furies. Everything that takes place on the Genesis Planet, up to and including the final fight, was shot on a single massive soundstage set rigged for artificial weather, crumbling rocks, and flames. This is a marvelously versatile set that I'd say the producers got their money's worth out of, even if the cacti in the snow look fake. (But then, how could cacti in snow not look fake?)
The film's final sequence, in which the Katra is transferred from McCoy back into Spock's reincarnated body, involves much Vulcan mysticism, depicted with a great deal of gravity and conviction. Vulcan mysticism can come off as conveniently magical, but it's a part of the Star Trek universe we accept. That the film takes this all so seriously is a crucial fact; it carries us along through Spock's revival, where we're reassured that the universe has in some way been set right.
The last conversation between Kirk and Spock, right down to its dialog about the needs of the one outweighing the needs of the many, is an appropriate mirror image of the scene where Spock dies in the previous film; it's all about people making sacrifices to set things right. Spock's decision in Trek II grew out of perfectly reasoned logic, whereas Kirk and his crew in Trek III are motivated by needs that are essentially contrary to logic and yet no less valid.
There's also something reassuring about The Search for Spock because, like Star Trek II before it (as well as Star Trek IV after it), it buys into the concept of an ongoing arc for the characters of the Enterprise. It is not simply an episodic movie adventure, but also a piece of a larger canvas. And most importantly, just like its predecessor, it realizes that in real drama you do not get something without paying the price.