Lest we think that angry fan culture impacting a work of art is something limited to the 21st century, let us recall the circumstances surrounding the making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Long before the film was released, word leaked out that the filmmakers were planning to kill off Spock (Leonard Nimoy, The Pagemaster), arguably the most beloved character in the Star Trek franchise. The fans weren't happy: letters of protest were written, a full-page “change the plot!” ad was published in Variety and Nimoy's family received threatening phone calls. Worried that Star Trek fans would revolt, Paramount adjusted the film's ending to set up a sequel in which Spock would be brought back to life.
While The Wrath of Khan remains one of the great Star Trek movies, The Search for Spock is less a movie than the contrived fulfillment of a contract made with Trekkers. There's a story, but one that only exists for the purpose of getting a beloved character back so more stories can be told. Still... there's something oddly compelling about this movie; a blend of strangeness and sweetness that seems rooted in the film's emotional synchronicity with its viewers. Spock himself is only in the film for a few minutes, but the movie is primarily about how much the world of Star Trek needs him.
The film opens with footage from The Wrath of Khan, in which Spock sacrifices himself to save the rest of the crew and is memorably eulogized by Captain Kirk. What Kirk didn't know at the time was that Spock had transferred his katra (living spirit) to Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley, Waco) just before making his fateful decision. Now, McCoy is acting strangely, and from time to time he seems to be channeling Spock's spirit directly (which leads to behavior that eventually lands McCoy in detention). Spock-via-McCoy informs Kirk that he cannot rest in peace until his katra has been returned and his body has been taken to Vulcan.
Unfortunately, getting Spock's body back won't be easy. His casket was launched into space and eventually landed on a rapidly-evolving planet created by the Genesis device (a piece of advanced technology capable of filling a barren planet with life)... a planet the Federation has declared forbidden territory until further notice. Without much hesitation (and against direct orders from Starfleet), Kirk and his crew liberate Bones from detention, climb aboard the Enterprise and head off in search of their old pal. Soon, they'll discover that the mysterious Genesis planet has a few surprises up its sleeve.
While the film has a standard-issue villain – a sinister Klingon played by Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) – the elements of conflict largely feel like tacked-on bits of storytelling designed to make The Search for Spock feel more like a conventional adventure. In truth, this is an unusual, surprisingly tender and frequently reflective film. If the end of The Wrath of Khan was a decision of pure logic (“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... or the one”), then The Search for Spock is a film built on a decision of pure feeling (“the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many”).
On the planet, we examine a reborn Spock who is aging at a shockingly rapid rate: one week he's a baby, the next he's going through the Vulcan equivalent of puberty. Turns out the planet is experiencing growth at a similar rate, and is quickly becoming unstable as a result. The planet is one of the most genuinely unique locations the film series has explored, and its constantly-shifting environment is a considerably more interesting source of tension than the Klingons.
The film feels low-key in contrast to its immediate predecessor, but it's never a dull watch. There are some fun moments involving Bones' identity crisis (Kelley seems to enjoy getting to play these), a couple of exciting action sequences (the “stealing the Enterprise” scene is a blast, and a clever attempt to outmaneuver the Klingons is nearly as good) and a touching (if undeniably corny and predictable) series of closing scenes. On the one hand, it's a little disappointing that it takes an entire movie just to hit the reset button. On the other hand... c'mon. What would the 23rd century be without Spock? These characters need him. We need him. This movie finds a mostly-enjoyable way to give him back to us.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 1984