Friday, August 29, 2014

Star Trekking: The Voyage Home

I had actually seen the fourth Star Trek film way back in the day before I'd seen a single episode of the TV show, and even without context, I thought it was a pretty good movie.  There's a lightheartedness about the story, characters, and dialogue that really gives Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home a distinctiveness that separates it from the other films in the series.  If Wrath of Khan was the best Star Trek drama, then The Voyage Home is the best Star Trek comedy.

The Enterprise Crew, now exiled on Vulcan without an Enterprise, are getting ready to make the trip back to Earth using the Klingon Bird of Prey ship, where they will have to face the consequences of their actions in the previous film (if you want a recap, click here).  When they get back to Earth, there is an enormous probe emitting a strange, whale-like sound.  Its presence threatens to destroy the planet if it doesn't get a response.  Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Sulu (George Takei), Scotty (James Doohan), Chekov (Walter Koenig), and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) conclude that they must travel back in time to find and bring back a humpback whale in order to communicate with the probe before it destroys the Earth.

 Once there, in our present day (you know, 1986), their ship has a major engine problem.  Because of course it does. While the rest of the crew fix the issue and get the ship prepared for the whales, Kirk and Spock set out to find them.  They encounter a woman named Dr. Gillian Taylor at the Cetacean Institute in San Francisco, who is in charge of taking care of two humpback whales that were rescued at sea and are now being temporarily sheltered there.  Gillian wants the best for the whales since the institute is going to be releasing them into the wild soon, and she worries that they will be hunted by poachers.  Kirk and Spock have the difficult task of convincing Gillian that they should be the ones to take the whales;  meanwhile the rest of the crew get into trouble of their own.

What I found I liked most about The Voyage Home was the sense of fun the script and cast bring to the forefront. Everyone is so comfortable in their characters that I truly believe the actors could have improvised the entire movie if they had a basic story outline and the result would be just fine.  Bits such as Kirk trying to explain to Gillian that Spock did "a little too much LDS" back in the 60s to explain his weird behavior, or Chekov asking a cop where the naval base is so that can find the "nuclear wessels" are hilarious.  Cold war humor and environmentalism aside, it's a lot great moments featuring the characters just being people, which has been more and more consistent as this series has progressed.  It all makes sense, too: these people were in exile for a few years together and have known each other for over 20 years; it's likely that they've become more comfortable with each other and regard each other more so as friends rather than co-workers.

I liked Gillian, but her character brings about some of my biggest problems with the film.  Much of her dialogue is about the whales and how she feels about them, not so much about her life and what she does besides take care of them.  (SPOILER AHEAD FOR ANYONE WHO DOESN'T WANT A THIRTY-YEAR-OLD MOVIE SPOILED) I suppose it makes her decision to come back to the future with the crew at the end seem more plausable, seeing as how there's NOBODY in her life that she loves or cares about (however unlikely that may seem), but it still would have been nice to see her be sad that she was leaving something behind.  We don't see her really react to being in the future either, which is kind of a letdown since a major theme of the film (and it's greatest source of comedy) is culture clash; we experience the fun of seeing futuristic people in the past, why not let us see some of Gillian's reaction to the future world?  In addition, some of her "save the whales" monologues are just a little too heavy-handed, which took me out of the film once or twice. For Christ's sake, she has an "I Heart Whales" sign on the back of her car. Don't you ever do anything else?

While I loved the character interactions, something else that caught my attention was the stunning visual effects.  I'm not talking flashy space battles or breakthroughs in CGI; I'm talking about those gorgeously-realized, animatronic humpback whales.  Whether it's 1986 or 2086, those whales look fantastic, and hats off to the effects team for pulling it off.  ILM's effects of ocean water evaporating? Less impressive, but it's not distractingly bad.  Meanwhile, Leonard Rosenman gives the film a whimsical orchestral score, but doesn't come close to providing a really great theme the way that Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner did with the earlier films.

Leonard Nimoy returns to direct, and he seems much more comfortable in the position than he did when he directed The Search for Spock.  While that film had a silly premise that tended to take itself seriously with bits of humor injected,  The Voyage Home knows what it wants to be (a comedy), and sticks to that idea throughout.  There's no big bad villain and no forced dramatic moments that might drag the film down; it's light and well paced, making its two-hour runtime feel like half that length.  What Nimoy (and the screenwriters) are great at doing is incorporating the whole cast into the films as opposed to limiting the cast members besides Shatner, McCoy, and Nimoy to background roles, like they had the tendency to be in the first two films.  In addition, while the script may be a bit self-referential, it never goes into full-on parody (which would have most likely ruined the film).

Even though the original series had several episodes where the Enterprise travelled back in time, I was never really thrilled with the results.  The Voyage Home fulfills that desire that I think most fans of anything have deep down; to see their fantasy or sci-fi heros in the "real" world.  The idea was great and the execution was even better; a comedic Star Trek that's legitimately funny, despite a few heavy-handed messages.  Not only a good Star Trek movie, The Voyage Home is accessible to any casual filmgoer who's in the mood for a light-hearted comedy, and that's not something a lot of sci-fi film franchises (let alone their fourth installments) can claim.