Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Star Trekking: The Search for Spock

Coming off the heels of a great film like Wrath of Khan is no easy feat, and I believe the creative team behind the Trek films had two options: 1.) continue the story right where the last one left off and bring back Spock or 2.) continue the adventures of the Enterprise crew without Spock.  That second option was not happening, and thank God it didn't.  "But Spock is dead!" you say.  "How can he come back? And why bring him back when he had such a great death?" You can take it as a cop-out, or as fan service, but I just can't imagine more Star Trek stories without the pointy-eared bastard.

The crew of the Enterprise returns to Earth after their battle with Khan.  The Genesis Project seems to be a success, tera forming an entire planet within a matter of moments.  Information about this new technology comes into the hands of Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), a Klingon commander who believes that Genesis may have been created as a weapon.  Meanwhile, Dr. McCoy is behaving strangely, occasionally acting and speaking like Spock.

Spock's father Sarek (Mark Lenard) approaches Kirk, who is still grieving the loss of his friend. Sarek asks Kirk confusing questions about where Spock's katra (essentially, his soul) is.  Sarek explains that a Vulcan can transfer their thoughts and memories to a loved one near the end of their life, but Kirk has no idea where it is.  It doesn't take him long to realize that the katra is within McCoy, and they need to get him to the planet Vulcan so that Spock can be properly put to rest.  If they don't do it soon, McCoy won't be able to handle the katra inside him and he will die.

While all this goes on, David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), Kirk's son, along with Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis, replacing Kirstie Alley and doing a better job playing a Vulcan) are researching the Genesis planet and find something peculiar; due to the Genesis device's regenerative effects, Spock's dead body recomposed and caused him to be reborn.  They find him as a child and learn that he his growing at a rapid rate.  In addition, the planet is aging too quickly to remain stable, and will destroy itself within hours.

All of this action keeps the film feeling busy without being particularly engaging, which unfortunately makes it a far less satisfying film than its predecessor.  Being a direct sequel is great and all until you realize that this film only exists to be a follow-up to Wrath of Khan.  The story about the Enterprise crew commandeering the ship from Starfleet, and the ensuing battles, are only there as time fillers for the true reason the film was made; to bring back Spock.  However, the film is not without its merits.

The cast has a lot of fun with their parts, feeling truly like a family for the first time since the original series.  William Shatner and Deforest Kelly do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the acting, and they pull it off very nicely (like they have for all three films so far).  They share moments that one could imagine coming straight out of the TV show, and it makes me think how great a sequel TV series featuring the original characters might have been.

In fact, from (obvious) set design to the dialogue, Search for Spock feels like a movie version of the show, but in a tongue-in-cheek way that doesn't really emulate Wrath of Khan's more serious tone.  Wrath of Khan made Star Trek cinematic. Search for Spock makes Star Trek feel like it was "made for TV" again.  Though this direction adds a bit of charm, I like Star Trek when it takes itself a bit more seriously, even when the subject matter is painfully silly.

Silly is actually the perfect word to describe Search for Spock.  If you take this movie too seriously, you will probably lose your mind;  Spock reforming as a child is the most ridiculous yet brilliant way to explain his resurrection, and I'm honestly still making up my mind as to whether or not I like the concept.  It works a lot better than something like Captain Barbossa's resurrection explanation in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but that's a topic for another day.  Just think about it; Spock melting into a gelatinous ooze... morphing into a fetus... eventually growing into Spock again... it's just weird.  Though I typically like weird, this might be a bit too much for me to swallow.  It's also just a bit too convenient.

Leonard Nimoy, who at the time had been tired of playing Spock, initially only did Wrath of Khan because his character would die at the end.  However, he liked that film so much that not only did he want to come back as the character, he was willing to direct the next film.  For a first-time director, he does a great job of getting emotion from the actors and directing the action set pieces.   However, the story needed work to make it feel more like its own film and less like an epilogue, which it often does.

Christopher Lloyd plays Kruge well, though he was a bit more restrained than I was expecting. His portrayal of Doc Brown is one of my favorite screen characters of all time, so it's odd to see Lloyd playing a relatively standard Klingon general here.  His backstory and motivations are muddled, and nothing about him resonates as being more than just your standard, heartless villain.  Still, the make-up on the Klingons is pretty great, and remains iconic.

James Horner is back to do the score, reusing themes and leitmotifs from Wrath of Khan, and once again, it just sounds great.  Being a direct sequel, it seems fitting that the music and art design should match the predecessor, unlike the transition between the first and second films, where I felt that a major remodel to just about everything was beneficiary.  Designs like the Klingon's Bird of Prey ship are pretty great, and even though some of the visual effects look a bit wobbly (the destruction of the Genesis planet), much of the film is pleasing to look at.  Was I ever wowed?  I don't recall.

By the end of Search for Spock, I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. While I wasn't struck with the awful boredom that The Motion Picture left me with, I wasn't as impressed as I was at the end of Wrath of Khan.  Of course, I knew it wasn't going to be that good, but I was still expecting more than a movie's whose purpose was to do nothing more than to bring Spock back.  Is it even really Spock?  It's Spock's body, with a copy of his memories, but the Spock we all know is DEAD.  Or is his katra really his soul? Not really knowing is a bit disturbing.

What elevates it above being disposable is the cast's interactions, entertaining space battles, and an effective moment from Kirk when something pretty awful, perhaps more awful than when Spock died, happens to him.  For all its faults, it did intrigue me enough to continue with the series, and see what lies ahead for the Enterprise crew now that it's been fully reassembled.