The Star Trek movies that I’ve seen have mostly been like the Star Trek episodes in one key respect: they each tell a complete story, in and of themselves. While there is a sense of ongoing continuity between them, they stand on their own without relying on previous installments. Indeed, I watched Star Trek IV long before seeing any of the others, and enjoyed and understood it without difficulty (though I plan on revisiting it to see it in its “proper place”).
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, however, is a bit of an exception, in that it’s a direct follow-up to the previous film, The Wrath of Khan. It starts where that film leaves off, and while I’ll refrain from saying too much on that front for anybody who has managed to avoid both that film and spoilers thereof, the nature of the plot is obvious from the title. Spock has been lost, separated from the rest of the crew of the Enterprise, and they must embark on a quest to find him.
Kirk would later institute a microchip tracking system for all vital crew.
With Spock effectively out of the picture for much of the film, it would be logical (if you’ll pardon the expression) to expect Leonard Nimoy’s role to be small. This is true as far as the acting is concerned, but Nimoy took on the role of director in the film, so he’s still important, just in a different way. On screen, it’s William Shatner and DeForest Kelley who carry the bulk of the film. Bones’ role seemed a bit smaller in the previous film, which largely focused on Kirk and Spock, so it was nice to see him get a bit more of the focus here. The other regular cast members, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei, also get moments to shine; while none of them are particularly large roles in the film, fans of their characters will appreciate the fact that they get scenes in which they can show their strengths (Chekhov, sadly, doesn’t get much of one.)
As the film continues the Genesis planet plot from Wrath of Khan, the characters of Saavik and David also return. David is still played by Merritt Butrick, but Kirstie Alley has been replaced in the role of Saavik by Robin Curtis. Frankly, one would be hard pressed to notice, as the role is still a bit on the flat side. The characters have important roles to play in explaining what’s going on, but their scenes drag in comparison to the scenes with the Enterprise crew.
No space opera would be complete without some conflict, and here The Search For Spock has a minor problem. It continues from The Wrath of Khan, which had a great villain, but Khan is no longer part of the equation, for obvious reasons. So it brings in a rogue Klingon called Kruge, played (surprisingly) by Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd is good in the role, but it’s not a particularly good role; I would have liked to have seen what he could have done with a better-developed villain. The way Kruge is written, he’s essentially Khan-lite. He has the same primary goal, to gain the Genesis device and use it as a weapon, but he doesn’t have any of the motivation. He’s a much flatter character as a result, and while Lloyd makes good use of his lines to attempt to make Kruge a larger-than-life threat, it’s impossible to avoid the comparisons to the previous villain. And aside from a few scenes, Kruge just isn’t written to measure up.
Besides, “Kruuuuuuuuuuuuge!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
There are a few other issues as well with the film. The first is that Shatner’s acting is more of a mixed bag in this film. Sometimes he’s in perfect form, acting subdued when necessary or hammy when it suits the scene. Other times, it feels as though his tone or his timing is off. As the previous director apparently made him reshoot scenes to the point of exhaustion, this unevenness might possibly be laid at Nimoy’s feet; though the bulk of it still has to be put on Shatner himself.
The other thing that weighs down the film a little — and only a little, as allowances must be made — is that the special effects show their age. I don’t remember it being as much of a problem in the previous film; perhaps it is simply that Star Trek III uses special effects more heavily. Some scenes are visually striking, but others fall short of believability. It’s nothing that couldn’t be forgiven if the rest of the film were great, but the rest is merely adequate. The villain is a lesser imitation of his predecessor, the lead acting is a bit uneven, and the plot is necessarily light on suspense — we know from the beginning that they aren’t going to fail to find Spock, after all. Still, it does manage to throw a few good curveballs to provide a first-time viewer with some surprises, and the action scenes are definitely fun.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock doesn’t have a lot going for it, especially compared to its immediate predecessor. But it has a good emotional core to it; while other Star Trek movies are about a mission, this is an inherently personal quest for the crew of the Enterprise. Coupled with the action, it keeps the film entertaining despite its flaws. It could never be called a great film, but it could only be considered a bad film in comparison to better entries in the series, and then only in a mild criticism.