Jammer's Review

"Star Trek III: The Search for Spock"

***

Theatrical release: 6/1/1984
DVD special edition release: 10/22/2002
PG; 1 hr. 45 min.
Written and produced by Harve Bennett
Directed by Leonard Nimoy

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

November 13, 2002

"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.

Previous: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Next: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

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22 comments on this review

Jake - Wed, Dec 5, 2007 - 1:33pm (USA Central)
What I've always loved about this film, even when I first saw it in the theater at age 8, was that, even though our heroes accomplish their main objective of bringing Spock back, the film still ends of the same bittersweet note as number 2.
Think about it, Kirk has lost both his son and his starship, and, on top of that, he and his crew are now wanted fugitives by the Federation.
I suspected they'd get a new ship in the next one, but, for the next two years, whenever I came across an episode or one of the previous 2 films, I was always a bit saddened knowing that they'd eventually be forced to hide on their pal's home planet, having basically become persona non grata with their employers.
Alex - Fri, Mar 7, 2008 - 12:02pm (USA Central)
Kruge was a great Klingon.
robgnow - Sun, Aug 3, 2008 - 7:08pm (USA Central)
I have a love-hate relationship with this movie. I think the ambivalence mostly comes from the hang-over of feeling betrayed when Spock was magically resurrected. After sitting in a theatre and crying that he died, it really struck me as a slap in the face that he'd be brought back (especially as himself... maybe if they'd rescued a young Spock from the Genesis planet it would have felt less 'Conveeeenient').
With time, I've been able to appreciate the movie divorced from those feelings however. I still find the movie somewhat lacking in emotional involvement (David was too new a character for us to be wrapped up in and the death of Enterprise, while powerful, is still about a ship and not a person), I find much about it to enjoy. Number One among the good things is Lloyd's Kruge. He's an enjoyably hiss-able villain.
And I think I'm in the minority, but I like Curtis' restrained Vulcan far more than Alley's weepy one.
I also like Shatner's performance when he finds out David is dead. You can tell he's taken a cruel hit, but he also responds as a Starfleet officer by quickly pushing his sorrow (and guilt?) away to focus on rescuing the other hostages and getting away alive.
Will Grigg - Wed, Jul 8, 2009 - 11:56pm (USA Central)
I might be alone in this opinion, but I honestly think that Shatner's performance in TSFS was the best he ever gave in the role of Kirk - even better than the one in TWOK, for which he quite properly received numerous accolades (and even a Saturn award).

There wasn't a single moment in this film in which Shatner could be accused of chewing scenery, or going all Virginia-cured on the audience. Two or three deeply emotional scenes were played with remarkable restraint that really underscored the moments far better than histrionics would have.

I think Nimoy deserves credit for directing his friend and co-star very effectively. But, hey -- let's give Shatner some credit, too: When he works with a director he knows and trusts, he's capable of turning in remarkably good work.
robgnow - Fri, Jul 10, 2009 - 5:20pm (USA Central)
I agree Will. I think Shatner's body of work will point to the fact that he tends to - uh - over-emote. But if he has a director who know exactly how he wants a scene played out and restrains him, then Bill can actually act without chewing the scenery too much.
Nic - Wed, Sep 23, 2009 - 3:37pm (USA Central)
In response to your comment about the stupid Klingons, remember that they DON'T USE ARABIC NUMERALS! If you beamed aboard a Klingon ship and heard a computer voice speaking, with Klingon characters changing on the screen, would you be able to guess it was a countdown?

I do think bringing Spock back to life is cheating the audience. As Nicholas Meyer said when he refused to direct this picture "I know how to kill people. I don't know how to bring people back to life." But then again, I understand why they did it. Thanks to III, we got IV and VI, not to mention "Unification" and 2009's "Star Trek."
David - Tue, Mar 9, 2010 - 8:14am (USA Central)
Never really like this movie -- I always thought it was merely a segway. I wish they had not killed Spock at the end of TWOK -- and had done The Voyage Home on another basis. To me, this movie was unnecessary, and nothing more than a way of saying, "Oh, I guess we are going to do more Star Trek movies, so we'd better bring Spock back to life."
Eric - Fri, Feb 4, 2011 - 8:33pm (USA Central)
I actually prefer this movie over The Voyage Home because, like Trek II, it had huge repercussions for the characters, especially Kirk. I agree with your assessment of the film's flaws. It makes both the Klingons and the burocratic starfleet (and the Grissom commander) very unlikable, but it tells a good story and my opinion of it has improved with time.
Latex Zebra - Wed, May 4, 2011 - 6:30am (USA Central)
Always loved this. Clearly not the equal of TWOK, but equal in terms of enjoyment to TVH in my opinion, though obviously played very different.
I loved Kruge, thought he was a right bastard.
Like the below exchange when Kirk is trying to get Spock released.

'Why not?'
'Because you wish it.'

That is a great line for a baddie.

Trying to remember my cinema experience of this but I'm pretty sure I cried when the Enterprise exploded, as much as I cried when Spock carked it in the previous movie.
I think this is on Film4 soon so I will check it out again.
Jay - Sat, Oct 1, 2011 - 7:38pm (USA Central)
Very convenient that they were beamed off the Genesis Planet right at the time Spock had aged back into Leonard Nimoy.
Nico - Sun, Oct 16, 2011 - 3:42am (USA Central)
My favourite of the feature films. The music is just grand! As are the performances of all actors.
It is quiet simply epic, only a lack of a love story - which could easily have been written for Saavik and David (an so being a metaphore for the love (friendship) between Spock and Kirk).
Latex Zebra - Wed, Jun 20, 2012 - 5:27am (USA Central)
This film does raise an interesting question about how humanity has evolved and now works to better itself.
You have Captain Kirk, Captain of a Starship and on a constant mission to seek out new life yadda yadda yadda.
Boothby, keen gardener and grounds keeper, a fine fulfilling job.
On the other hand you have the guy doing the hoovering as they steal the Enterprise.
At which point in a Utopian society does someone say 'I know, cleaning up after everyone is the way I will better humanity and myself'

Not seeing it myself and also can't understand why they wouldn't have an automaton to do that kind of crap.


I did watch this again recently and apart from making me question the cleaner I did love the film and Kruge is such a badd ass.
Rosario - Sat, Nov 10, 2012 - 11:15pm (USA Central)
Nice to see so see much Kluge appreciation. I've always thought Christopher Lloyd did an excellent job in this role.

On rewatching I enjoy this movie much more. The stealing of the Enterprise is definitely a classic and a secret joy of mine is the scene where Kluge crushes the evolved worm with his bare hand.

But the end with all the pomp surrounding the Vulcan ceremonies was quite a bit draggy. I didn't really enjoy Saavik either. I much prefered Kirstie Alley who played a Vulcan with range, just like Spock. Too many other Vulcans have portrayed them as wooden robots - this woman is just flat. It also helps that at this time Kirstie Alley was just absolutely gorgeous. Especially with pointed ears.
Jack - Mon, Dec 24, 2012 - 12:16pm (USA Central)
It was weird that Kirk rerecorded word for word Carol's Genesis pitch to Starfleet when the Klingons reviewed it here...were they not allowed to use Bibi Besch's voice in this film?
Jay - Mon, Dec 24, 2012 - 1:27pm (USA Central)
Sarek seemed sure that Spock would deposit his katra into somebody, as if it were standard procedure, but then the Vulcan priestess says this hasn't been done in like forever...
Paul - Mon, Jan 21, 2013 - 3:28pm (USA Central)
I've always thought ST3 didn't get enough love. The movie's biggest conceit is that Spock's death would be undone, but by the time I saw this -- probably at around 10 years old in the early '90s -- that was a given, anyway.

I have wondered, though: Why didn't Starfleet send another ship after the Enterprise -- and how did the Klingon ship get all the way to Vulcan without encountering Starfleet? It doesn't appear that they used the cloaking device.
Latex Zebra - Sun, Feb 24, 2013 - 6:58am (USA Central)
Erm, I do seem to comment on this rather a lot. Watched it again last night.

I think this film disproves the whole odd number film bullshit because this is an excellent film. As I said previously to match TWOK is impossible as the original series crew never could again.
I think I rate this of TVH, which is still very good. This is 3.5 for me.
T'Paul - Tue, Sep 10, 2013 - 5:13pm (USA Central)
I agree with Nic's comment above... this isn't Voyager or DS9 Star Trek... the Klingons wouldn't necessarily know that they were hearing and listening to a countdown.

I think this movie is great. When I watched it when I was younger I thought it was boring, but now I think it is fantastic. Loved Lloyd as a Klingon, and the Klingon language as it is here... For me this was one of the heights of Klingon culture on Trek (along with STVI of course), before all it got too self righteous with the honour-based culture.

Plus I don't really get the complaints about Spock's rebirth... I mean were on a terraformed planet for Pete's sake, we're talking about Vulcans, not humans, it really doesn't require that much suspension of belief that Spock could regenerate. Plus that was set up in STII with Spock's remember comment. Finally, who could complain about Spock being reborn? Did anyone really want him to stay dead forever? What would old-school Trek be without Spock? I find it difficult to believe that anyone could feel betrayed by this.
Moonie - Sun, Sep 15, 2013 - 9:49am (USA Central)
This is maybe my favorite of all the movies because it contains my favorite scene - the theft of the Enterprise. And then having to sacrifice it. Two outstandingly fantastic scenes.
Latex Zebra - Wed, Mar 19, 2014 - 10:24am (USA Central)
Me again!

The security guard who called Sulu 'Tiny' just in response to a bit of banter was a prick. Obviously done just so Sulu could beat him up and come out looking good, but you wouldn't expect that kind of behaviour from a member of Federation security.
Could have easily had Sulu beat the guy up and just be apologetic at the end.
dgalvan - Tue, Jul 22, 2014 - 1:18pm (USA Central)
Christopher Lloyd was awesome in this.

Also, what was his dog/pet on the bridge of the bird of prey? It was not a Targ, was it?
Grumpy - Fri, Oct 10, 2014 - 4:17pm (USA Central)
Apart from the "Mr. Adventure" scene, what did Uhura do in any of the movies? That didn't make her look foolish, that is. Even in this movie, she's sidelined from the action, unlike the male characters. In 1 & 2, she has little to say except how communications are broken and she can't do her job. In 4 she's paired with Chekov, but he gets all the interesting business. In 5, she has the embarrassing dance scene and the demeaning seduction scene (demeaning because she was, like the others, so easily brainwashed). And 6 has the final indignity of giving her an actual communications-related task... but shows her as incompetent. No wonder the reboot beefed up her character.

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