August 20, 2016

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

With Spock (Leonard Nimoy) restored to life, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew prepare to return to Earth and face the consequences of their actions. Their return coincides with the arrival in Earth's orbit of a mysterious alien probe, one whose signals are destroying the Earth's atmosphere. It is seeking to communicate with humpback whales - a species that has been extinct for centuries. In a last-ditch attempt to save the planet, the former Enterprise crew travel back in time to retrieve two whales and bring them back to the 23rd century.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home effectively rounds off a trilogy of films that started with The Wrath of Khan and continued with The Search for Spock. It is easily the most distinctive and unusual of all the Star Trek films produced to date, as it deliberately sets itself to be as mainstream a crowd pleaser as possible, pushes for comedy ahead of drama, and - in something that always impresses me when a filmmaker pulls it off - lacks any kind of villain or antagonist. There is a probe threatening to destroy the Earth, certainly, but it is seemingly doing it out of ignorance rather than malice. The enemy of the film is instead simply the task at hand: travelling back to 1986, finding two humpbacks whales, and getting them transported back to the 23rd century in one piece. At the time of its release The Voyage Home was an unexpected smash hit, becoming the highest-grossing Star Trek film since the original in 1979. Its box office gross was not beaten until J.J. Abrams' Star Trek in 2009.

I think the film hits a chord with a general audience - as well as dedicated fans - because it is not afraid to poke holes in the mystique. 'You're not exactly catching us at our best,' admits Kirk at one point. He and his crew are in an unfamiliar century coping with difficult circumstances, and the manner in which they awkwardly navigate 1986 San Francisco is fodder for some of the best jokes Star Trek ever had. Whether it is Chekov asking random pedestrians where he can find nuclear vessels, or Spock wandering the streets in a dressing gown and headband, or Scotty trying to use a computer by talking at it, the film gently pokes fun at its fish-out-of-water characters.

It is beautifully warm humour as well, and it ribs Kirk and his friends without ever properly mocking them. It also gives plenty of opportunities for them to rib back, whether it is the way Spock so bluntly critiques the idea of hunting whales to extinction, or how Scotty gives away the secret to transparent aluminium years before it is ever invented, and particularly Spock's pitch-perfect takedown of an anti-social punk on a bus. The film gives a lot of time to Spock actually, in a wonderful way. He has returned to life but his memories are scrambled. He struggles to regain his old friendships with Kirk and McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and to get to grips with the human half of his identity. By the film's conclusion he has not only managed to largely get himself back to normal, but to properly accept his human half for the first time. It's a wonderful trajectory.

Not that the regular cast are lacking in things to do. I do not think there is another film featuring the classic series cast that balances their screen time so well. Everybody has a task, and every task has an obstacle to overcome. Everyone has a chance to shine, and to be funny. This film is the best chance these actors have had to finally be a proper balance ensemble. It is wonderful to watch.

At the film's conclusion they are finally brought home: not just to the 23rd century, but to a new Enterprise (labelled NCC-1701-A) and a new exploratory mission. It puts a beautiful conclusion to a wonderful movie trilogy. The Wrath of Khan started with Kirk wanting to get back out into the galaxy. The Voyage Home concludes with him finally achieving that dream. Who doesn't love a happy ending?

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