STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)

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Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Rated PG 
(for violence and some language)
Released: June 1, 1984
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Starring: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Christopher Lloyd, Merritt Butrick, Robin Curtis, Nichelle Nichols, Mark Lenard, Leonard Nimoy

Star Trek: Original Cast Movies – A Look Back

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  • “If there’s even a chance that Spock has an eternal soul, then it’s my responsibility. As surely as if it were my very own.” – Admiral James T. Kirk

Star Trek I was philosophical. Star Trek II mythic. But Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was deeply personal.

The Wrath of Khan ended with Spock living out that honorable Vulcan virtue in the most heartbreaking way: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Yet in Star Trek III, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise showed us that choosing to live out the inverse of that proverb can be even more powerful. It’s an elegy to friendship and loyalty, and to the bonds forged through the gauntlet of sacrifice.

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From start to finish, The Search for Spock is the most emotionally raw chapter of the Star Trek franchise. One scene after the next is weighted to some degree or other with the immeasurable loss of Mr. Spock (to the point where even the humor is layered with sentiment and pathos). The opening sequences alone – from Kirk’s Captain’s Log lament, to the somber return of the battered Enterprise, to the reveal of who has broken into Spock’s sealed quarters (and why) – all play out, as Kirk puts it, “like an open wound.”

How this wound gets healed is the film’s master stroke, conceived by the franchise’s head producing guru (and this story’s screenwriter) Harve Bennett. The “Remember” gesture by Spock to McCoy at the end of Star Trek II was an insert shot improvised at the last minute, just in case they wanted to give themselves a possible out for Spock to return. But it wasn’t until Paramount greenlit the sequel that the filmmakers began to ask themselves what the implications of that “Remember” could possibly be.

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Re-energized by the experience of filming Khan, Leonard Nimoy asked to direct the follow-up, particularly since his involvement as an actor would likely be limited. When Paramount agreed (what a marketing hook: Spock directs his own search!), Nimoy and Bennett started talking about possibilities. That led them to the concept of the Katra, the very essence of a Vulcan’s being (as the film puts it, “Everything that is not of the body.”), passed on to McCoy in that crucial “Remember” moment.

(For his part, DeForest Kelley takes full advantage of his most substantial turn as McCoy, who’s forced to confront his own conflicted relationship with Spock in the most intensely psychological way possible.)

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Now with Spock’s destiny inextricably tied to Bones, the emotional stakes were raised several fold. Ingeniously, Bennett’s script does not even make resurrection a hope (let alone a possibility). The crew does not know the effect of the Genesis planet (i.e. the terraforming “life from lifelessness” scientific planetoid experiment) on Spock’s remains, so when they decide to defy direct orders and multiple Starfleet regulations – in effect, to commit mutiny against the Federation itself – they’re throwing away their entire careers to be court martialed and imprisoned at best for the sake of a corpse. Not so that their friend might live, but simply that he may rest in peace.

This “lower stakes” basis, if you will (marked by a mission codename that even carries with it a wistful, reverent symbolism), makes the treasonous acts of Kirk and crew all the more noble.

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That leads to the centerpiece of this whole defiant endeavor (which, at the film’s halfway point, is fittingly the central axis of the entire Original Cast six film saga): the stealing of the Enterprise. I can’t overstate how brilliantly constructed and executed this whole sequence is; the way it’s set up, builds, and pays off.

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In terms of plotting alone it has palpable suspense (the beat-up Enterprise trying to escape from the elite Excelsior in a claustrophobic space dock with code-locked bay doors), but then it’s augmented emotionally – and exponentially – with how much is on the line (underscored by the Excelsior Captain’s final ultimatum before Kirk attempts warp speed).

I’ve seen this countless times and the scene still gives me chills (thanks in part, too, to another rousing cue from composer James Horner). Sure, the drama of it all is effectively thrilling, but then that drama is given weight and power by what it all means, and stands for.

This is what Star Trek is all about.

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Of course, by the time they get to the Genesis planet the personal sacrifices only mount – twofold for Kirk – as Star Trek’s ultimate bad guys finally take center stage as the movie’s villains: the Klingons.

Seeing the Genesis device as a weapon of ultimate power (mirroring the heightened Cold War nuclear race of the 1980s, a theme that would carry over three movies later), Klingon Commander Kruge becomes a formidable, ruthless obstacle in Kirk’s path to reach Spock, as well as to save Lt. Saavik (the Vulcan scientist) and David Marcus (Kirk’s son) from the surface of the steadily imploding planet.

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The standoff between Kirk and Kruge becomes an effective microcosm of the standoff between Kirk and Khan, but without even a whiff of smelling like a rehash. It affords William Shatner more moments to shine as an actor (just as the previous film did), far better and more nuanced than his reputation grants, including how he’s crippled by a figurative but debilitating gut punch by Kruge that comes out of nowhere.

Reeling and cornered, Kirk then makes a shocking decision that fans at the time likely deemed unthinkable (much in the same way that rumors of Star Trek II’s ending were perceived with outrage prior to its release). Star Trek III was faced with the quandary of “How do you top the death of Spock?” Well you don’t, but this twist (which I won’t spoil) is about as close as you could hope to get. It was another bold choice for writer/producer Harve Bennett, who had to compensate for moderate budgets with risk-taking narrative turns. The end result was another seminal moment in the history of Star Trek.

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And speaking of low budgets, Leonard Nimoy makes the most of his directorial debut. There’s a lot of emotional complexity (and density) that he perfectly meters, sequences that are keenly staged (such as the aforementioned Enterprise theft), and occasional moments of inspired instinct that amplify a desired effect (the extreme close-ups, for example, in Sarek’s mindmeld with Kirk – Sarek’s lips whispering Spock’s final words, Kirk’s tear-filled eye reliving the grief – was packed with potent intimacy).

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Despite being hampered by things like obviously artificial soundstages for the Genesis planet (the budget didn’t allow for enhancing actual location shoots) or a low-rent cantina compared to their Star Wars rival, Nimoy makes the most of what he’s given by crafting a visual language that intensifies conflict, character, and emotion.

It’s amazing, too, how large Spock’s presence looms over the film’s entire landscape, despite not appearing on-screen until the final act (again, credit to Nimoy’s style). It speaks to the power of that character and his singular impact that he had on the crew. And, more broadly, to his impact on popular culture.

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It boggles the mind, really, how this movie was ever perceived at any time as “lesser than”. It defies at every turn the completely bogus axiom that all odd-numbered Star Trek films are bad. Every last bit – to the tiniest, most specific detail – was thought through and played out to maximum emotional effect.

If the entire franchise had ended with this movie, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock would’ve served as an immensely satisfying final chapter (if also an intriguingly bittersweet one; they’re still fugitives at movie’s end). Within itself, this adventure provided a fitting thematic closure to the lives (and deaths) of these beloved characters.

But as we all now know, this series was far from over – and had a lot more to offer.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (Currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • Contrary to the saying “odd numbered Treks are bad”, nothing about this film’s initial release and reception could be deemed as anything other than an unqualified success. It opened to solid reviews, it had the biggest opening weekend haul yet for the series, and its total box office nearly matched that of hugely profitable Star Trek II, falling just $3 million short of the previous film’s mark. If Star Trek III were a dud, they wouldn’t have re-hired Nimoy to direct Star Trek IV.
  • Since Nimoy had absolutely no experience as a film or television director, he asked William Shatner if he could shadow and observe episode shoots of Shatner’s TV series at the time, J. Hooker. Shatner, of course, agreed, and this is how Nimoy said he began to figure out how to use a camera to tell a story.
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  • In the opening credits, there is an extra long gap between William Shatner’s and DeForest Kelley’s names, done so as a subtle memorial to honor the fact that Spock had passed and would not be physically present in this journey. Nimoy’s name only appears for the Director credit.
  • Two Klingons were played by sitcom stars of the day: Kruge’s Christopher Lloyd from Taxi, and John Larroquette of Night Court.
  • Robin Curtis replaced Kristie Alley as Lt. Saavik because of the oldest reason in the industry: Alley’s excessively high salary demands.
  • After the security breach in Spock’s quarters is detected, Chekov says something in Russian to Scotty as they look at the monitor. Translated, it means, “I’m not crazy! There it is!”
  • Dame Judith Anderson, he plays the Vulcan mystic in the final scene, was an old Hollywood legend whose most notable roles included her Oscar-nominated role as the creepy Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchock’s 1940 Best Picture winner Rebecca, and Nefretiri’s scheming maidservant Memnet in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments.
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  • A tribble, the infamous little replicating creature from the popular TV episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”, makes a cameo appearance in McCoy’s bar scene.

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