Movie Nostalgia: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for SpockIn this installment of our Nostalgia series, we’re looking at Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Klingons, the return of the Genesis Project, some poignant moments for the Enterprise, and Spock, oh my…

When I first saw this film, in my early teens and at the height of my Trek-mania, I thought it was the best thing ever. After all, it all revolved around Spock! I read the novel adaptation, too, which fleshed out character relationships and motivations more than the film version allowed. But I never went back and watched it again until just recently…and now I remember why.

(Spoilers follow, of course.)

Here’s the thing. The Search for Spock could easily have been a great movie. There’s lots of good stuff in it.

Why It Should Have Been Good

As the story starts, our heroes have lost one of their own – no, make that two, since the Enterprise has been decommissioned – and they’re struggling to move on. They’ve been reassigned, separated. Kirk can’t even depend on Bones, because Bones has gone mad. The trio has been torn apart.

Then – there’s hope! Between Sarek’s asking Kirk about Spock’s katra (soul) and the news of the Genesis planet, they realize all may not be lost. They work together – even Uhura gets to do some ass-kicking – and steal the Enterprise out from under the nose of Scotty’s annoying new commander. But when they reach Genesis, everything goes wrong again. The scientists are missing, the Klingons are present, Kirk’s son is killed, and before long the Enterprise is literally going down in flames.

From this low point, our heroes claw their way back up. They defeat the Klingons, escape the disintegrating planet, rescue Spock – or at least his body – and take him back to Vulcan, where his katra is taken out of McCoy’s head and put back where it belongs. And they even end up back together on a brand-new Enterprise.

That all sounds fine, right? It’s got a good structure, a good plot arc, a couple of good character arcs, and some very poignant moments.

Which is why watching it was so frustrating.

Major problem #1: The Direction

This was Leonard Nimoy’s debut film as a director, and it shows. There’s always the sense that our characters are just starting to move when the camera turns on them; that they don’t exist outside of the story. The dialogue is far too pat to be real. The comedy falls flat. Even the music is too heavy-handed.

Major problem #2: Mary Sues

It’s sometimes a fine line between telling a story about a character who’s doing the most interesting thing in his story-verse, captain of the finest starship, possessor of the coolest powers and the greatest loyalty to a friend, and telling a story about a Mary Sue. Yes, those can be two different things. Viewers (and readers) want a cool character to follow, and they want her or him to triumph in the end. What they don’t want is a cool character whose storyteller is making things too easy.

Let me explain. All the way through, I got the sense that the universe (in the form of Nimoy) was on our heroes’ side. The people who try to stop them in their quest are often made to look like incompetent, shortsighted fools – or else downright evil. (Christopher Lloyd makes a fine evil villain, but he’s no Khan. Khan has not only motivation, but style. For more on Star Trek II, see my post here.)

Even when they’re watching the Enterprise streak across the sky in the form of a meteor, Kirk asks “My God, Bones, what have I done?”, and Bones answers, “What you had to do.” It sounds like Kirk is questioning himself, but the story thinks Kirk is right. This happens again and again. Of course, at the end he does turn out to be right, as a hero should…but you don’t want to know that until the end.

Major problem #3: the absence of Spock

Of course, Spock is there, but only as a MacGuffin and not in his right mind (ahem). Sadly, with Spock-as-we-know-him missing in action through most of the movie, an indelible part of the crew’s chemistry is gone. The last five minutes of the film, even with Spock not yet himself again, have more life in them than the preceding two hours.

…Or is that just my enduring crush talking?

Your turn. What did you think of The Search for Spock? Which bad movie do you wish had been done better so it lived up to the story’s potential? (Here’s another from me: Seven Years in Tibet.) 

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7 responses to “Movie Nostalgia: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

  1. Siri – I loved your review of Star Trek 3. Like you, I enjoyed the movie, but I didn’t know quite what it was I was missing. I absolutely loved the return of Spock in #4, because not only did he return, he returned with a pure Vulcan mind set, no longer tempered by years of being with humans.
    And thanks for that “Mary Sue”. I’m glad someone has defined that character!

  2. Suzanne, I agree, Spock in #4 was a lot of fun! I’ll have to blog about that soon. Glad you felt the same way as I did about #3!

  3. Cool analysis! I’m the world’s worst movie fan, so I don’t remember if I saw this one or not. Now I can’t decide if I should watch it with your notes in hand or not…
    😉

  4. Liv, glad you enjoyed the analysis even if your memory is short! I don’t have trouble remembering what I’ve seen/read, because I keep a list. Plots are another story. I re-watched this late last year and was lucky I remembered enough to blog about….

  5. I feel like I should direct you to “I Am Spock”, by Leonard Nimoy now.

    Your second gripe seems both valid and not valid–not valid in the sense of the Kirk/McCoy exchange always seemed to me to be a simply statement from McCoy, affirming faith in his friend that he’s done the only thing he could, that he made the correct decision.

    But you are right; the story needs to hinder them, which I can agree that STIII:TSFS didn’t always. The exception to this is a story where everything DOES go right. Like Ferris Bueller’s Day Out. It’s been a while since I saw that movie, but as I recall, most everything turns out just fine for Ferris. (Because he’s a figment of Cameron’s imagination, perhaps?)

  6. Hmm, I haven’t seen that so I can’t comment, but I have nothing against movies where everything turns out right in the end…but for that to be most effective, the audience has to believe there’s a chance it won’t. (At least on some level. If you go in knowing you’re watching a romantic comedy, or an action movie, of course you expect the heroes will prevail. But there has to be a plausible attempt to convince you otherwise.)

    You’re right, there’s nothing wrong with that bit of dialogue in itself — it’s a nice bit of friendship. It only bugged me because it was part of a pattern. 🙂

  7. Pingback: Echoes of Dust » Monkey Wrench vs Immediate Patch Up

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