Now three decades old, the Search For Spock – the third Star Trek feature film – has been long regarded largely in the shadow of its spectacular predecessor The Wrath of Khan.
Now, in the thirtieth anniversary year of that film, is a good moment to remember just how good Star Trek III actually was; and how underrated it still is.
Admittedly, yes, Wrath of Khan is a better movie (but then Wrath of Khan is a better film than almost anything); but actually I’ve always viewed Star Trek II and III as two instalments of the same film, or at least same story, and therefore always consider the films as one.
Taken as one, they are as close to perfection as the Star Trek film franchise has ever reached in its long, cross-generational history.
They are, to my mind, not only the best Star Trek films, but are among the class of around six or seven movies that I find myself watching at least once a year and without ever tiring of them. Both films, aside from being substantial spectacles and thought-provoking science fiction, are centered on themes and properties that lend themselves to a deeply personal connection or affinity.
They have their own timeless, almost hallowed, atmosphere and sense of mythology to them, which is really a shared property of these two films in particular and isn’t (in my opinion) attained by the rest of the various Star Trek feature films, good or bad.
The Search For Spock carried on so much of what was great about Wrath of Khan. Thematically it continued those forever resonating central motifs of friendship and ageing, life and death. Directed by Leonard Nimoy, there are memorable moments throughout; from Kirk’s reaction to his son’s murder to the sight of the Enterprise burning up in the atmosphere of the Genesis planet as Kirk and the others look on (“My God, Bones, what have I done?”).
And every character gets their moment (not always the case in Star Trek films), from Sulu taking out the guard (“Don’t call me tiny”) to Uhura and “Mr Adventure”. Even Mark Lenard gets a terrific scene as Sarek, when he melds with Kirk and talks tenderly of his son’s immortal (and lost) soul.
This was a very character-based film; so was The Wrath of Khan, which, despite its huge action sequences and effects, was essentially an emotional drama about relationships.
You can’t have watched films like this when you were a child and not developed a long-term affinity; with their evocative, dual scientific and spiritual motifs, the refrained emotionality and emotive heroism, these films become a permanent part of your consciousness, seeded in childhood and growing with you as you age. And particularly as you start to experience some of those themes in your own life experience; at which point these films start to resonate even more.
These characters and their epic struggles are to us what the Epic of Gilgamesh must’ve been to young Babylonian men as they grew up or what the Greek demi-gods or Roman myths must’ve been to their respective enthusiasts within those cultures.
Every culture, every generation, needs its heroes, especially flawed ones, and needs its mythologies.
That climatic confrontation between Kirk and Christopher Lloyd’s Commander Kruge (“I… have had.. enough.. of you!!”) as the Genesis planet falls apart all around them is one of the great confrontations/climaxes of epic cinema. The planet that was “life from lifelessness” is destroying itself in a fire-and-brimstone apocalypse right out of the Book of Revelations and there’s Kirk, still fighting with every last breath, turning “death into a fighting chance”.
It’s as good an epitomy of what makes James Tiberius Kirk the ultimate SF hero as anything in the vast annals of Star Trek; and far more so than Kirk’s infamous death scene a decade later in the underwhelming Star Trek: Generations.
Star Trek II and III taken together are the best representation of Kirk as the great hero, at least to my mind; across the two movies he is complex, brooding, troubled by issues of age and perceived ‘usefulness’, coming to terms with life and death, discovering he has a son, losing that son, losing his best friend and getting him back again.
It’s a hell of a character study, but Kirk ultimately comes out of it all an even better, more rounded character. Even at the end of Search For Spock, he is still wounded, tortured; he has accomplished his goal, honoured his friends, yet again has lost so much. We sense he will never, ever be happy; a far cry from the cocky, trigger-happy younger Kirk of the current Abrams franchise or the Original Star Trek TV series.
The Kirk of Star Trek II and III is a scarred and tired old horse; “What am I feeling?” he says to Carol Marcus in TWOK, “I feel old. Worn out.”
Yet for all that, he is still the hero, still the Kirk of his legend, with that little rogue spark left in him; which we happily see when he defies direct orders, steals the decommissioned Enterprise, sabotages a fellow Starfleet vessel (the Excelsior, no less) and goes back to Genesis. He does all this for loyalty and friendship and nothing else.
This is no career-oriented climber; he knows it will cost him his career, but to James Kirk his duties to friendship and brotherly love are first priority.
That’s why he’s a hero. And more than in any other film, it’s in Star Trek III that this is exemplified. And it’s why I’d take Kirk over Picard any day.
There was no way really to follow up something as spectacular as The Wrath of Khan; other than exactly what Search For Spock did, which was to continue the story in the same tone and with the same themes and not try to match it for bombast or spectacle.
Star Trek III manages to be stirring and emotionally involving while also remaining somewhat understated; it has action and panache in places, but it’s not about those things (though the destruction of the Enterprise is evocative even now and are more so than the equivalent Generations destruction of the Enterprise-D) .
There’s a genuine ‘Biblical’ feel to Star Trek III; not in any evangelical way of course, but in its spiritual, slightly apocalyptic, but ultimately life-affirming undercurrents.
“I wanted the emotions to be very large, very broad, life and death themes,” said Leonard Nimoy about the underlying motifs of the production.
There’s almost a tenderness to the film, which feels strange for any kind of big-budget blockbuster type of enterprise.
Yet as ever there’s winning humour scattered throughout, with Shatner and DeForest Kelly getting most of the best dialogue (as usual; God, how we miss Kelly’s ‘Bones’). And we get our most visually enchanting look at the Vulcan homeworld; and the then-novel sight of Kirk and co arriving on a stolen Klingon Bird of Prey.
We may take it for granted now, but this film, more than ST:TPM, also reestablished the Klingons in the form that we’ve come to know them by (as opposed to the traditional version we knew from the sixties’ TOS); the Klingons that would be so prominent in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine came to the fore first in The Search For Spock, as embodied by the bellicose Commander Kruge. It might even be argued that Christopher Lloyd’s take on Kruge set the standard all future characterisation of Klingons – something for which Lloyd should be given a lot of credit.
Curiously, the earliest ideas for the film had the Romulans and not the Klingons as the main villains, which would’ve been interesting; although it would’ve also had us miss out on a memorable performance.
Additionally, one of the most powerful links between the two films was the soundtrack; musically, just like emotionally, the two films have shared themes. And James Horner’s scores for the two films are utterly breathtaking, evocative and stirring (Jerry Goldsmith did most of the soundtrack work for other Star Trek films).
When we think of these two movies, the music is one of the primary elements that comes to mind; James Horner’s themes are the heartbeat, the pulse, of these films.
There are a few shortcomings; it was a shame Kirsty Alley couldn’t return as Saavik, even though Merritt Buttrick was reprised as Kirk’s son David. And it would’ve been good to have had Carol Marcus remain in the story. But we did get Christopher Lloyd’s entertaining Kruge; perhaps not as memorable as Ricardo Montalban’s Khan or Christopher Plummer’s later General Chang, but engaging nonetheless.
Sadly Merritt Buttrick died a few years later (at the age of 29); which makes watching David Marcus being singled out for death by the Klingons in the movie all the more poignant.
Star Trek III is generally considered less popular than both its predecessor and its follow-up film The Voyage Home; and also less commercially successful. However, it was competing with releases on the scale of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Ghostbusters at its time of release, and additionally any sci-fi release at that time was viewed in the shadow of the original Star Wars trilogy, with Return of the Jedi still fresh in cinema-goers memories.
I often wish I’d been older at the time those films were coming out; the sheer quality and longevity of some of the films being put out in those years is remarkable with hindsight. The Search For Spock is up there with the best of them, in my opinion.
Star Trek III was a potent entry in the vast Star Trek library.
I would personally place it after Star Trek II as the second best Star Trek movie; though, as I said, it’s difficult to separate the two films from one another.
The movie still tends to get overlooked though when people talk about the Star Trek film franchise; hence this post – time for it to be properly included in the debate.