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REVIEW: At the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Mr. Spock sacrificed himself to save the Enterprise by fixing the warp core by hand, a procedure that ultimately kills him. He then laid to rest in a torpedo shell and fired into space where it lands on the Genesis Planet. At the beginning of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, we watch again as Mr. Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise by fixing the warp core, and the crew’s emotional farewell, but this time discover exactly where the casket has landed.
Here, in the middle of the Genesis planet, a once dead orb that, because of the Genesis Probe, invented Dr. Carol Marcus, a completely matter-reorganized ecosystem that teems with new life is sprouting up all over the planet. And so powerful is this device, it is able to regenerate Mr. Spock from the cellular level and allow him to basically be born again. Meanwhile, out in a different part of space, a Klingon warrior Named Kruge has acquired a copy of the Genesis probe files and believes it to be a weapon of mass destruction to be used against his empire.
The Enterprise returns home from the previous mission and docks with the space station by entering through its giant open bay. Once inside, they get a look at the new flagship, a massive starship called the USS Excelsior, which is said to have trans-warp drive. As the Enterprise docks, onlookers get an eyeful of the damage received in the ship’s battle with Khan.
Back on board, a life sign is detected in Spock’s quarters, which has been sealed off after the Vulcan’s death. Kirk runs down and discovers Bones, the ships medical officer, sitting in the dark. Seems the doctor has got something on his mind, or rather in his mind. And that thing is Spock. Just before the Vulcan saved the ship in the previous movie, he mind-meld with Bones, transferring his katra to the chief physician. These are Spock’s spiritual elements and now they reside in Bones. Spock’s father, Sarek, tells Kirk to get the doctor to Vulcan soon or else he will die. But they need Spock’s body as well. He is angry that Kirk abandoned his son in space. It’s a race now to rescue Spock and stop the Klingons.
Directed by Leonard Nimoy (Spock himself), the third installment in the franchise is a strange mix of comedy and action with good and bad special effects and some dialog ranging from very hollow to rather deep, all interspersed with a few genuinely fun and sometimes emotional moments. It teeters a bit from silly to sincere, which sometimes makes it difficult to know what it intended. The biggest problem are the Klingons, especially Christopher Lloyd as Kruge. The actor, best known for comedy, is miscast at best, not nearly menacing enough to fill the role of a brutal Klingon commander. That’s no shot at Lloyd, who is a fine actor, but a Klingon warlord he is not. A mad scientist inventing flux-capacitors? Yes. But when he squares off against Kirk, it’s just awkward. And I won’t mention the hellbeast pet he keeps on the bridge, which looks like something Jim Henson rejected as a character in The Dark Crystal. What’s good about this film is the relationships, which has always been the strongest parts of any Star Trek story. The dynamic between Kirk, Bones and Spock is as fun and interesting to watch as any in the series. Here, Deforest Kelley (Bones) again is the real bond holding this crew together. His presence and performance is one of the best in the franchise as he plays a man literally possessed by the life spirit of another man. It is leagues better than the material it is supporting. Overall, there is a vapidness to the experience, a feeling that it should and could have been better given the proper budget and story, which had potential but gets worn down needlessly by the Klingons. Still, it serves well as a filler for the superior Trek II and the coming Voyage Home.
Scene Setup: Commander Kruge of the Klingon fleet is hoping to taking control of the Genesis device, which he sees as the ultimate weapon the Federation has against his people. It can literally wipe out an entire planet in a few minutes so he’s pretty set on getting on his side. In doing so, he’s killed the entire crew of the USS Grissum, a science vessel in orbit around the Genesis planet and found Saavik and David Marcus on the surface with Spock. When Kirk arrives, Kruge is back on his ship, but he’s got his three prisoners still below and uses them as tool to show his strength. He tells his lackey to kill one of the captives, who turns out to be Kirk’s son, David. It falls on Saavik to radio the bad news to Kirk. He collapses in grief.
The Scene: (Time stamp 1:10:00) David Marcus never knew his father until they met inside the Genesis planet in the previous film. He knew Kirk by reputation, which wasn’t good, but in their short time together, developed a new respect, admiration, and even love for each other. He fought the Klingon valiantly before succumbing to the warrior’s blade, dying to defend Saavik and Spock. With his death, Kirk is naturally shocked, hardly able to speak. but when he recovers, things take a turn.
Kirk rises from his stupor and twists his agony into rage, berating Kruge, calling him a Klingon bastard, but the enemy commander still has Saavik and Spock, so Kirk accepts Kruge’s demands to hand over the Enterprise. Thing is, Kruge has no idea that the Enterprise is actually only flying with Kirk, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov aboard. Kirk uses this opportunity to gain the advantage, telling Kruge they may beam aboard and take the ship, but needs a minute to inform the crew. Kruge gives him two, and Kirk wastes no time. Fueled by fury, he makes a sudden, frightful and terrible decision: destroy the Enterprise.
Up to here, the movie has been an adventure of sorts, with plenty of good humor and fun TV-like sci-fi action. David’s death marks an abrupt shift away from this experience, with a rare, dark moment for Kirk on his bridge, punctuated by the moody lighting, soft hum of the ship’s engine and the eerie absence of music. It’s actually powerful and Shatner does a good job balancing the emotions. We feel sorrow but can’t help but know this will be the catalyst for something big. When he moves to the computer console with Scotty and Chevok, we are sure he has a plan. He always does. We are conditioned to expect it. When he calls for the destruct code though, it shakes that expectation. Surely this is some kind of trick. Watch Scotty as he looks to his Captain, slowly realizing that it is not.
The idea of destroying the Enterprise comes from producer Harve Bennett, who knew the story would already be predictable (heck the title alone pretty much gives away the ending) so he thought this would give the audience a jolt. It did. And while the destruct sequence would eventually become a joke for its over use later in films and on TV, it is here where it has its start. Truly, there is hardly a more satisfying moment in the series as when the boarding Klingons realize they’re about to become all explody. But then the Enterprise burning up in atmosphere brings us jarringly back to the sadness. What has Kirk done?
Nimoy (directing) paces the moment of Kirk’s grief extremely well, keeping the shots of Kirk in despair at a deserved distance, even having Kirk turn so we cannot see his face, the back of his Captain’s Chair shielding him from the viewer. So often, we are invited to witness very closely the agony of a character’s suffering (think Sean Penn in Mystic River for example). Here we are asked to keep our distance and give the man a moment. This minor action is surprisingly effective, continuing to give the aging character depth and humanity. The stumble Kirk takes after hearing the news is enough to choke us up, but when he swivels away and rests his head, we know this sadness is more than the loss of David, but the end of opportunities, and perhaps even more, the death of a legacy. His son was all he had. That thought is assuredly on his mind as he reaches for Bones, gripping the doctor’s arm. Rightfully so, there is no dialog, just this brief silent release. It is a powerful moment. After all, James Kirk is an icon, an unbreakable hero for millions who follow him, but moments like this challenge that expectation and allow the man to be vulnerable. With Spock’s death in Wrath of Khan, and now his son’s murder, the armor begins to weaken and we grow even more attached to the character.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is good cheesy fun with some deeper themes that elevate it just enough to be enjoyable. While the relationships between the main characters are the real draw, the weak special effects, poor casting choices, and heavy-handed resurrection plot keep this from becoming anything more than “that one with Doc Brown in it.” Still, it is a murdered son and the grief of a proud father that leave a lasting impact.
It’s why when we talk movies, we love That Moment In . . . Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.