Friday, November 22, 2019
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)
I fear that we will never look upon the likes of STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME again. Remember that this fourth entry in the venerable franchise was a radical departure from what came before it. Where STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was a bloated attempt to turn Trek into a Kubrickian LSD trip, and WRATH OF KHAN was a submarine picture, and SEARCH FOR SPOCK was a heist movie crossed with a religious epic, THE VOYAGE HOME is, of all things, a gentle comedy.
Curiously, of all the Start Trek feature films, it is the one that most closely resembles the original series. People remember it as "the one with the whales" because the plot centers around a return to the past (ie. the then present, 1986) to retrieve a couple of humpback whales in the hopes that the extinct leviathans can communicate with a probe that is destroying the earth. The time travel plot (and its twin sibling, the "let's go to a planet that resembles an era in Earth's past" plot) was a mainstay of the original series. But so was the comedy episode. Something like "A Piece of the Action," in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a planet that has patterned itself after the gangsterism of 1920s Chicago, combines both the time travel plot and the comedy approach. STAR TREK IV, in some ways, owes more to those kinds of episodes than it does to TREKs 1, 2, and 3.
(This is where I should point out that THE VOYAGE HOME does complete the Genesis Trilogy, that trilogy within the series that begins with the introduction of the Genesis device and the death of Spock in WRATH, follows Spock's resurrection on the Genesis planet in SEARCH, and culminates with the return to Earth in VOYAGE.)
Because THE VOYAGE HOME was the most successful film in the franchise until the 2009 reboot, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the initial decision to make the film a comedy was a potentially disastrous decision. Parts 2 and 3 had blacked-hatted villains, disgusting desert slugs oozing out of people's ears, battles in space, exploding planets. Part 4 features word play and fish-out-of-water (no pun intended) slapstick. It all could have gone so wrong.
(Another aside: it almost all did go wrong. An early idea for the movie featured Eddie Murphy as a whale expert who gets involved with the crew. This version of the story was given very real consideration, and Murphy was briefly attached to the project, before the idea was abandoned and the character was changed to a love interest for Kirk. One can respect Eddie Murphy was as a comedy legend while still suspecting that stunt casting him in a Star Trek movie in 1986 would have been bad for everyone involved.)
Instead, what the filmmakers gave us was a perfect kind of Star Trek episode, one that relies on sharply drawn personalities and witty dialogue for its effects. Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley were always a great comedy team, but here the rest of the cast get to flex their comedy muscles as well.
It's all kind of perfect. Yes, THE WRATH OF KHAN is a pop sci-fi masterpiece and the best of the Trek films. It's the one that will have the longest life. Just recently a theater here in Chicago played KHAN as part of their "Nerdy November" late night movie series. When I saw that (which is what prompted this little blog post), I thought. "That's wrong. If you want to be nerdy, show THE VOYAGE HOME." In a way, it's the most Trek of the Trek movies.
Which brings me back around to my original point. We'll probably never see another Trek movie like this again. It's too big of a risk today. VOYAGE cost 21 million dollars to make. The last reboot film, STAR TREK BEYOND, cost a whopping 186 million. The new films use humor, but the idea of giving an entire installment in the series over to characters, conversation, and laughter (with the requite sci-fi bookends, of course) would never fly today. Today Trek has to, in theory at least, compete with Star Wars installments and Marvel movies. It has to be big. VOYAGE, by contrast, had scope when it needed it, but was mostly content to be intimate.
Even more radical, VOYAGE doesn't have an enemy. Think about that for a moment. There's no violence, just suspense and comedy. One of my bones of contention with the direction that Star Trek has taken since the original cast retired is its slavish devotion to the revenge plot. This is an unfortunate legacy of KHAN. The main driver of the last four (!) Trek films--starting with the series nadir NEMESIS in 2002 and extending through all three of the reboot films--has been the revenge plot. Someone returns from the past to get revenge. One wants to tell the filmmakers, for god's sake stop trying to remake KHAN. Is is beyond tiresome at this point. It's malpractice. One can only hope that Noah Hawley will watch STAR TREK IV again. I don't expect the next Trek film to be a comedy about whales, nor would I want it to be. I'm not asking for another rehash. What I am suggesting is that Star Trek has durable characters and a tradition of being open to risky ideas. Trying boldly going in that direction?