The Search for Spock was the movie that first suggested the whole “even movies good, odd movies not so much” pattern, but give the poor sequel some credit. It was following on the heels of The Wrath of Khan, arguably the best of the Trek films, and one of the best science fiction movies of all times. That’s a lot to live up to, so I can’t hate on it too much for not rising to the occasion. But while it’s not nearly as bad as, say, Star Trek V, it is pretty forgettable.
Picking up hot on the heels of Star Trek II, The Search for Spock finds the Enterprise returning to Earth so they can hammer out all the dents Khan put in the ship. They can forget about enjoying a little shoreleave, however, because they soon discover Bones is walking around with a bit of Spock crammed in his noggin. Kirk realizes they must recover Spock’s corpse and take it to Vulcan, where they might be able to reverse that pointy-eared bastard’s noble death. Unfortunately, the Genesis planet is now a hot-button political issue and has been quarantined except for approved scientific researchers. So Kirk does what any self-respecting maverick starship captain would do: he steals the friggin’ Enterprise.
This whole sequence is fun, but it feels like it could have been “bigger.” That’s not saying I need a Michael Bay setpiece or anything, but the whole scam just seems a little too easy. If nothing else it suggests that Starfleet security may be trained by the same people who instruct Stormtroopers. I’m pretty sure Starfleet security would have got their asses kicked by ewoks too. There’s also a scene where a Spock-possessed Bones tries to hire a ship to take him back to Genesis, which involves him negotiating with an annoying alien who talks in Yoda cadence. It’s like somebody decided to drop McCoy briefly into the Star Wars universe, but it’s not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. The bit where Scotty sabotages the snazzy new ship Starfleet sends to pursue them, however, is worth a laugh.
Once they escape Starfleet, it’s on to Genesis. Unfortunately a Klingon vessel has heard about the Genesis device and wants it for use as a weapon. The captain of that vessel is Doc Brown in Klingon makeup — okay, his name is actually “Kruge,” but with all due respect to Christopher Lloyd, he’s a pretty lousy villain. Again, it doesn’t help that he’s inevitably compared to Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, but Kruge is very much the stereotypical, mustache-twirling capital-B capital-G Bad Guy. You know the sort. He kills officers at the drop of hat (do Klingons even wear hats?), but for no good reason. At least when Darth Vader force-chokes a dude to death, it’s because they seriously screwed up. Kruge will vaporize a guy just because he might suggest that perhaps Kruge’s plan isn’t the most thought-out. And that’s a pretty damn valid point, given that Kruge will need scientists who know about the Genesis device to help him recover/rebuild it, and he promptly blows up an entire ship full of them immediately upon arriving at the planet. It’s sheer blind luck that Saavik and Kirk’s son, David, are on the surface with a rapidly maturing resurrected Spock. What would Kruge have done if they weren’t down there? My guess? Start shooting his crew one at a time until they mutiny and toss him out an airlock.
You can tell that The Search for Spock desperately wants to reach the high bar set by The Wrath of Khan, and every time, it fails. Instead of Khan, we get Kruge. Instead of Spock’s heroic sacrifice, David dies attacking one of his Klingon captors. Even though Shatner’s performance upon learning about David’s death is decent, there’s no way it can live up to the gut-punch of that final scene between Kirk and Spock in the reactor room. Theoretically the emotional spine of the movie should rest on the fact that we get Spock back, but for the vast majority of the movie, Spock is played by a progression of kids, and it’s hard to have that same connection to the character when he isn’t being played by the masterful Leonard Nimoy.
The one truly effective and memorable moment from The Search for Spock is when Kirk auto-destructs the Enterprise, followed by an emotional moment where he watches his ship burn through the atmosphere and asks, “What have I done?” Bones’ response is actually one of my favorite lines from the series: “What you had to do. What you always do. Turn death into a fighting chance to live.”
Star Trek III is an awkward middle child of the loose pseudo-trilogy begun in the epic Wrath of Khan and concluded with the sheer fun of The Voyage Home. Rather than focusing on telling its own tale, it too often tries to follow the previous movie’s bullet-points, to its detriment. In the end, The Search for Spock is noteworthy primarily for restoring the status quo so that Leonard Nimoy could make me bust a gut laughing during The Voyage Home. Does that make it worthwhile? The hell it does.