Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Release Date: November 26, 1986
Directed by Leonard Nimoy


After a second strong box office performance in a row, Paramount again green-lit a Trek sequel. This film takes up the story of our stalwart crew on Vulcan, following on the heels of their resurrection of Spock on Mount Seleya. Now, the crew must atone for their insubordination, and face stern justice upon their return to Earth. They are waylaid, however, by a mysterious probe that is heading for Earth (Earth seems to have the worst luck with mysterious probes), and disrupting all life along its path. The probe is looking for the intelligent whales it visited far in Earth's dim prehistory. The problem: these whales are extinct, hunted to death by human avarice. Kirk, faced yet again with a no-win scenario, pulls a rabbit out his TOS hat - time travel via gravitational slingshot in order to find some whales in the past.

I think our convention limo driver has made an error...


Matthew: The writing in this film appears to be striving towards two goals. 1. It is a topical "message" story in the tradition of some of the great TOS allegories. 2. It is a comedy, in the tradition of, well, "The Trouble With Tribbles" I suppose. On this level, the film succeeds. The message is delivered in a way which isn't too oppressive but still preserves the overall message (hunting species to extinction = bad). There isn't a whole lot of the "in the 23rd century, we're beyond all that crap" language, which would become epidemic by TNG. The comedy is aided by great actors, but also by the "fish out of water" concept. Most of the "it's 1986!" jokes work, only a few fall flat (specifically, the one about Harold Robbins and Jaclyn Suzanne). I will say this - there was apparently no temptation to include awful period cameos, a la Joe Piscopo. Whew!

Kevin: Watching this film with a more critical eye, I was pleased that both the comedic elements and the theme stand up to increased scrutiny. Maybe it's because they were filming in 1986, they didn't have to try to replicate 1986 so exactly, but there are dozens of little touches like "I Quit Smoking" pins and boom boxes and the like lend the film veracity and a charming time capsule quality that makes any issues of it feeling dated an asset to the film rather than a liability. As for the environmental theme, "extinction is bad" is a fairly straightforward idea, and one even a Tea Partier could probably acknowledge is not a plot of the liberal media elite. And unlike other allegorical outings, I'm not beaten to death with it. The message served the story rather than the story serving the message.

Matthew: Despite the message aspect, the themes of this film aren't as heavy as 1-3. We don't get a whole lot of "I'm getting old." If anything, we get the reverse. Kirk is at his charming best, with an insouciant veneer that covers a deep concern for the situation. The plot, which separates the crew into "teams," perhaps a bit artificially, nonetheless does a good job of giving everyone something to do. It is fun to see the supporting cast get to shine. It is worth noting that the script saw a good deal of writing work in the 80's scenes by Nicholas Meyer.

Kevin: The ensemble nature of the movie is definitely its strongest asset. These actors know each other and the roles, and when they aren't all together fighting for attention, or under attack, there's a charming ease to their interaction. As a devout West Wing fan, there is little that makes me happy as witty banter, and this movie has it in spades. Scotty at the computer, Chekov and Uhura looking for the naval base, McCoy at the hospital, the list goes on. Each scene progressed the story while reminding us why we became so attached to these characters 20 years ago.

Matthew: Time travel. It really is a double-edged sword. Some of Trek's best tales revolve around it, but some of its worst do, as well. It's all too easy to use it as a crutch for lazy writing, and not really think out the alternatives. In this story, we do have a bit of tortured logic - why do they have to return to precisely the same time as they left? Kevin and I discuss potential paradoxes with regard to this. Why are they in a big hurry? It's not as though George and Gracie are the last whales around. Why not hang out in the Eighties for a few years, have a relationship with Gillian, and find two whales at sea who fit the bill? Why not travel to 10,000 B.C. and have none of the dangers of potential discovery?

Kevin: For all the pitfalls of time travel, I think this story does an able job of avoiding them. The dilithium problem is a tad artificial in adding tension to the story, but it's by no means fatal. Time travel is seen to be sufficiently difficult and dangerous to preclude any people trying for next week's lottery numbers. I'm fine with them having to return when they leave to prevent themselves from coming too late to be of help but not too early to risk causing a paradox that prevents them from coming in the first place. A line to that effect would have been nice, but eh...the movie had me at "double dumb ass on you!"

Matthew: The probe is quite under-developed. Although an air of mystery is a good thing, and served things like 2001's monolith well, I've got lots of questions. It sure seems to be travelling pretty slowly, so it seems as though it takes a lot of effort to travel this far. Why, after such a journey, does the probe only hang around for a 30 second conversation with the whales? How did it know the whales were out of contact? Do whales have subspace radio organs? How did the time-traveling whales transmit the "All Is Well" signal from underwater, through atmosphere, and into the near-vacuum of space?

Kevin: This is definitely the weak part of the film, but in the end, I kind of don't care. All the probe needed to supply was a source of dramatic tension, which it did. If it were the focal point of the movie or we had to endure a twenty minute journey to its center, that would be a different story.


Matthew: I see this as an ensemble more than any other TOS Trek film. And in this ensemble, all the actors get a chance to flex their comedic muscles. Shatner and Nimoy improv off of each other to perfection. Koenig and Nichols have a hilarious scene with extras on the street (nuclear wessels in Alameda...) and in interrogation. Doohan and Kelly have a very funny scene with a Macintosh at Plexicorp. Even George Takei gets to fiddle with the knobs and dials of a helicopter. My point is, you can write anything you want, but if the actors can't do it, you're still sunk.  These actors absolutely nail it. They are funny but still serious and dramatic when need be.

Kevin: As we discussed back in our review of Trouble With Tribbles, there is an argument to be made that good comedy is harder to execute than good drama. Not a single joke falls flat because of a botched delivery and no character steps out of character for the sake of the joke. Nimoy is clearly an actors' director; he knows how get the perfect performance how of the cast. It shows here because there is the perfect marriage of the joke on the page with acting on the screen.

Matthew: Catherine Hicks was great as Gillian. She was very believable as a cetacean biologist, and played the critical role of "average person interacting with space people" quite well. All of the extras and bit actors were perfectly cast and played. No one stuck out as not being "real." No one played it for laughs against the Trek actors. They were the perfect "straight men" against the fish-out-of-water comic momentum of the main characters.

Kevin: Gillian portrayed the perfect balance of wanting to believe Kirk but knowing she shouldn't. It would have been easy for her character to slip into simple love interest or two-dimensional foil for Kirk, but Hicks gave the character a lot of depth. The mix of optimism and kindness and weariness makes perfect sense for a woman devoting her life to a valuable but difficult cause and it explains both her desire to believe Kirk and her hesitance to do so. I particularly liked her scenes with her boss. I was left with the unmistakable impression that they were both playing it like they had a failed office romance, and the fact they conveyed that without dialogue is a credit to them both.

Production Values

Matthew: The redone Klingon bridge is nice. The Vulcan scenes benefit from some very nice  matte work. I for one felt a little bit of a lack of imagination with the Enterprise A. Wait a minute - isn't this the same 20 year old design that Starfleet was mothballing last movie? The Federation command center was very cool. This movie marks the beginning of Mike Okuda's tenure on the franchise, and the quality is evident immediately. Graphs, charts, and control panels all look snazzy and "real."

Kevin: There's a reason the Klingon bridge, or variants of it endure well into DS9. It's an awesome, theatrical bridge. I liked the Council Chamber as well. I also loved a lot of the alien designs in the crowd. Costumes were neat this time around too. The Klingon ambassador's outfit was a home run for the costume department. Another feather in the costume people's caps is the lack of absurd Pilgrim collar for Chekov. Well done.

Matthew: The film stock is very eighties, which is to say, very grainy and rather dim. I'm not saying it ruined the film, but it stands out in contrast to the other 5 TOS flicks. It also makes for a bad Blu-Ray - Paramount really went overboard with DNR in an attempt to tame the grain - their computer program scrubbed away both film grain and image detail, all at once. Sigh. The actors sometimes look more like animatronic wax dummies than 50-something human beings. If you want to see what I mean, compare the moving images of the film proper to the stills shown during the credits.

Kevin: As I've said before, this is less of a problem for me than for Matt, but even I noticed scenes where the digital alteration was obvious. Mark Lenard in 1986 might be many things, but 27 years old was not one of them. Eeesh.


Matthew: This was my first real Trek memory. This movie got me excited about the franchise, and TNG, which was to appear about a year later. In looking back, it's not as tight story-wise as it might have seemed to a 9 or 10 year old. But that doesn't diminish the fun, which is all the more appreciated as I get older. Now I know how hard it is to be funny, and I appreciate as an uber-nerd-fan how they kept the small details consistent and worked to fit the story into the other movies and the canon in general. So I think it just scrapes into 5 territory, i.e. the upper decile of all Trek. This movie just can't be denied. It is big fun, and remains big fun on repeat viewings. Not every story has to be as weighty as ST2.

Kevin: Something we are going to discuss in TNG is how joyous and enthusiastic the series is, and how integral it is to the show's appeal. It makes sense that the movie that spurred the will to create it was this one. You'll hear this in the podcast, but we spent most of the movie laughing our asses off. The fact that character, story, and continuity were so well served by the comedy only heightened our enjoyment. I agree with Matt that this is a 5, for a total of 10. To the extent that the such comparisons are useful, TWOK is a "better" movie, but it's apples and oranges. This movie has a different goal than TWOK, and it achieves it beautifully.


1 comment:

  1. So the podcast was great. I really enjoyed some of the nerding out. Matthew is right that the carrier is not the Enterprise(different superstructure). It is the USS Ranger a non nuclear "wessel".