Star Trek III forms the second part of a trilogy that began with Star Trek II and culminated with Star Trek IV. Star Trek III is generally considered to be one of the weaker films in the original pantheon of Star Trek movies. In many ways, this is unfair, for whilst it does have some weaknesses that we shall examine shortly, the film is arguably the closest in terms of story structure and characterisation to the original television show.
As the film is called ‘The Search for Spock’, a story précis seems unnecessary, and that might be the first of the problems to afflict this movie. With the ending in little doubt, the journey the characters embark on must be as involving as possible for the film to work.
Star Trek III focuses on the relationships and characters of the big three – Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Kirk in particular is well-defined and motivated in this movie, willing to take enormous risks to save his closest friend. Director Leonard Nimoy extracts a powerhouse performance from William Shatner, from his meeting with Sarek to his collapse on the bridge after learning of his son’s death and then later, watching the Enterprise burn in the atmosphere. Shatner is both moving and convincing in his portrayal of Kirk.
Leonard Nimoy directs with a sure hand and avoids the pitfalls that can plague first time directors. Camera movements are economical, all gentle pans and static one shots. The film is nicely lit and has a gritty Indiana Jones style cinematography to it. If I were to be critical, I would say that Nimoy’s direction is a little ‘workman’ like and does not show particular flair.
The musical score is very good, though not ground-breaking like The Motion Picture soundtrack, nor as pulse-quickening as the music for The Wrath of Khan. Having said that, I do love the music accompanying Kirk’s stealing of the Enterprise, particularly the musical chord that is given to Captain Styles as he rises from his bed.
Star Trek III also has more levelling humour in it than the previous two instalments. Although there are constructed jokes, such as Scotty’s ‘up your shaft’ retort to the elevator computers ‘thank you’, the best comedy is the subtle stuff that comes from the characters and their situation. For example, Kirks ‘how many fingers am I holding up’ whilst flashing a Vulcan salute to McCoy in the brig or McCoy’s nervy ‘are you just gonna walk through them’ comment to Kirk, who is staring impassively at the huge (closed) doors of the Spacedock. The easy going camaraderie, that is so (seemingly) unforced and natural really suckers the audience into believing that these characters are long serving colleagues. For an example of quite terrible line delivery in Star Trek, just watch a few minutes of early TNG, specifically Encounter at Farpoint – it’s cringe worthy.
I’ll tell you something about these old Trek movies, some of the dialog is genuinely gold standard and is one of the few areas in which I thought that the recent (2009) Star Trek film was lacking in. Star Trek III is not quite as quotable as Star Trek II, but there is some great dialog.
Ambassador Sarek: You must bring them to Mt. Seleyah, on Vulcan. Only there can both find peace.
Kirk: What you ask… is difficult.
Ambassador Sarek: You will find a way, Kirk. If you honor them both, you must.
Kirk: I will. I swear it.
The special effects are marvellous, more money was available for this film after the success of Star Trek II and it’s all visible up there on the screen. The beautiful and iconic Klingon Bird of Prey, the Grissom, the stately Excelsior and the massive Starbase – were all new additions to the series and would be extensively used in other Star Trek productions over the following 20 years.
The Starbase brings us on nicely to the part of the review that looks at the films flaws. Here, Star Trek suffers from the same problem that Star Wars suffered with the ‘super-star destroyer’ seen in Return of the Jedi. The Starbase is just implausibly big, why would the Federation build such a massive structure, one that can accommodate entire starships within its superstructure no less! It doesn’t make any sense really, it just looks cool.
I much prefer the design of Deep Space Nine, with its docking pylons, that seem more practical and far safer to use. It’s like the Death Star (and it’s ludicrous weakness) in Star Wars, it’s very cool and makes for an excellent visual, but has little founding in reality. It’s OK for Star Wars, which is essentially a modern fairy-tale, but for Star Trek, it takes this viewer out of the suspension of disbelief that one needs to have when watching a Science Fiction film.
I know it’s a particularly geeky nit-pick, but Kirk orders one quarter impulse power as he seeks to exit the Starbase, now this is a fantastic speed and would blast the Enterprise out through those troublesome Starbase doors in the blink of an eye. This is why, as Lieutenant Valeris states in Star Trek VI, ‘regulations specify thrusters only while in Spacedock.’ It’s a very minor pick, but it does disconnect with the series established logic.
There are further problems with the internal logic of this film, for example, why if the Genesis planet is quarantined, why is it not guarded by a combat capable starship? The Grissom is a science vessel, with very limited armament and could not even defend itself against one scout class Klingon ship, not a very effective quarantine is it? Once Kirk has stolen the Enterprise, he can just warp over to Genesis without any obstacles.
Christopher Lloyd plays the Klingon Commander Kruge with broad stokes, his character is not as memorable or as well scripted as Khan. Indeed, his motivations could and should have been better articulated. Nonetheless, the depiction of Klingons in this film would form lay the foundations for the Klingon culture, that would be explored in great detail in Star Trek the Next Generation.
Star Trek III moves along at a nice pace until the destruction of the Genesis planet. This is followed by a nicely played scene with McCoy and a comatose Spock. This quiet little scene ranks amongst my favourite moments in the original movie series as it serves to underscore the unbreakable link between the three main characters. The scenes set on Vulcan at the end of the film are quite dull however, despite some excellent matte paintings that make for some spectacular visuals.
We are never in doubt that Spock’s soul is going to be returned to him and that he will be resurrected. It is in these sequences that Nimoy as director should have either been a little more inventive with the camera work or edited the scenes to make them shorter.
In summary though, Star Trek III has a myth building quality to it that would be picked up again in Star Trek VI. Kirk is shown as a shrewd tactical commander who triumphs despite unbeatable odds, Spock is literally resurrected and there is an epic sweep to the story arc. If it’s a cliché that no one really dies in Science Fiction then it’s partly down to this film. Despite the niggles, I have a soft spot for the movie and really enjoy the performances and characterisation in the story.
Rating: My heart says ‘give it a 7’, so we shall – but my head says ‘6’.