Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
It’s the ongoing battle. What I’ve known for years versus what I’m still trying to explore. Sometimes you need to crawl back into something you used to watch like a security blanket. Sometimes you try to push forward like a shark, exploring new areas, seeing new films, writing about things that you fear are above your fighting weight. And besides, what the hell do I have to say about Star Trek anymore? What the hell does anyone have to say about it?
I seriously doubt anyone cares, but when STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS was released earlier this year for reasons I’m not going to go into here I basically made the decision to stay out of whatever arguments were going on and not say anything. You want to know what I think about it buy me a drink at the Dresden after midnight and I’ll answer in hushed tones but while I’m still going to stay silent otherwise I think there is a conversation to be had at this point in time about what is Star Trek and what isn’t, what is deemed acceptable by geeks and what comes off as fake, what the nature of giant franchises have become in this day and age and what all this does to the nature of storytelling. Maybe I’m just getting old but I think there’s been a lot of nonsense spouted on both sides of the fence and I’ll go on record as saying the last few Next Generation films as well as much of what I saw of the last several years of televised Trek was at best pretty dull at best and at worst, well, pretty lousy. So without saying more I’ll just say that I don’t believe that INTO DARKNESS is the worst example of Star Trek ever. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
Like most sci-fi spectaculars these days it seems that Star Trek films have to be action films, which may be part of the problem. I don’t see that ending any time soon. Even if this wasn’t the case I wonder if any Trek film made today would have to contain a villain that must be vanquished and because of the iconic nature any such bad guy is going to be compared to Ricardo Montalban’s Khan—probably a losing battle, but that’s just how it is. It seems interesting that the two Trek films which didn’t contain any sort of human (or humanoid) antagonist did however feature instigators of the immediate drama which are decidedly similar—a mysterious threat to Earth which is ultimately not villainous by nature at all. One is STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE which remains fascinating and problematic. The other is STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME which was a huge hit when it opened on the day before Thanksgiving, 1986 and became one of those times when Star Trek was somehow totally embraced by the mainstream. I’ve probably seen it enough times in my life that I don’t need to see it ever again and it’s possible that the very nature of the film, allowing it to feel more like a product of the 80s, means that it hasn’t aged as well as a few others. The second feature directed by Leonard Nimoy it has a somewhat unique feel of this utopian future mixed with its comedy which looked at now is somewhat…quaint. Through the years I’ve had experiences with certain Trek films where on one viewing I won’t think very much of it then the next time I’ll think, hey, what’s not to like? STAR TREK IV kind of stays the same. Not as entertaining as it was way back when (at least four times in the theater for me plus countless viewings on video) but a pleasant enough way to spend some time, a chance to hang out with some characters you love or, in the case of non-Trek fans, are at least going to like. Of course, these movies when they’re made now aren’t supposed to be pleasant anymore. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME still is.
Picking up the pieces from STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK which had the main crew of the Enterprise let by Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) steal the ship, the destruction of the faulty Genesis planet and the ultimate resurrection of Spock (Leonard Nimoy), THE VOYAGE HOME begins several months later as the seven crew members get ready to travel back to Earth via the Klingon Bird of Prey they appropriated the last time around to face the consequences of their actions. While at the same time a mysterious probe in orbit around Earth is creating planetwide havoc. After the Federation sends out a planetary distress signal the newly reborn Spock takes the time to analyze the probe’s signal and determines them to be identical to whale songs. Since whales are extinct in the twenty-third century, Kirk quickly makes the decision to travel to the past via slingshot around the sun to retrieve some whales so the probe can be answered. The Bird of Prey soon arrives in 1986 San Francisco to an Earth completely different from the one the crew (of course also including DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols) knows. Even when they discover a few of the creatures at a nearby Sausalito institute being cared for by whale biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks) they quickly learn for multiple reasons that the window for them to actually retrieve the whales and bring them back to the future (for lack of a better term) is closing faster than they expected.
Like each TREK film, the story of its making has been told often only adding to the overall myth of the franchise. Much as such a thing may sound like just a rumor now, the project (Story by Leonard Nimoy & Harve Bennett, Screenplay by Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes and Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer), was originally going to feature Eddie Murphy as the main guest star. When this ceased to be part of the plan for a myriad of reasons (just being a bad idea probably wasn’t enough) the script was heavily rewritten—by all accounts, Nicholas Meyer took the San Francisco stuff in the middle (his contribution begins with, “Judging by the pollution content of the atmosphere, I believe we have arrived at the latter half of the twentieth century,” and I hope to someday write a line half as good) which is hardly a surprise to anyone familiar with his 1979 film TIME AFTER TIME, another time travel movie set in San Francisco and it makes this film a much more benign version of that narrative while also being essentially a ‘funny’ episode of Star Trek along the lines of “I, Mudd” and “A Piece of the Action” from the original series. To balance out the joviality Nimoy as director brings a sensitive approach to every bit of behavior and as much was made at the time of how funny the film was trying to be, it plays now as not so much as a hysterically funny comedy as it is a chance to just make a lark and allow everybody to loosen up for a little while after the destruction of the Genesis planet.
In laying the groundwork of the plot everything is clearly spelled out in the first act, much as I never will understand how that whole slingshot around the sun thing works (let alone why the resulting hallucinations result in audio snatches of dialogue from later in the film) and Nimoy’s directing style here is almost deceptively relaxed—his work on THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK relies way too much on close-ups, giving it more of a TV feel than the other entries, but here he’s confident enough to pull his camera back and let his actors play out a scene for several minutes at a time. It’s a film where the characters seem to be having as much fun as the actors presumably are, even if the future of their world is at stake, so everyone seems cheerful and animated for the most part—a little too much in the case of some extras, if you ask me. The friendly vibes continue throughout even if on occasion the film decides to come to a stop for a bit of sci-fi gestalt during the time travel stuff or to allow for a lecture courtesy of Catherine Hicks’ marine biologist on how humpback whales are near extinction. The humor brought to it by the work Nicholas Meyer did on his section of the screenplay, filled with Kirk & Co. encountering twentieth century elements like exact change, boom boxes and cab drivers yelling at you in the middle of the street, never gets too crazy and instead makes the movie one big smile. Meyer’s dialogue brings an engagingly loose feel to the characters that few others have ever achieved and is willingly playful but never so irreverent that it messes with the tone. It makes the whole thing breezy particularly in how it differs from what’s come before in previous films, resulting in what I imagine is the most quotable TREK film of all.
Viewing the films back to back (yes, I attended a marathon screening of them years ago, you want to make something of it?) makes you feel the sharp left turn this entry takes even more and looking at it now I’m surprised by a number of things including how the crew doesn’t even hit downtown San Francisco until about forty minutes in. For a film which was touted as being accessible for everyone and accepted as such there are a great many things affecting Trek history here from the growing threat of the Klingons to the discarding of the Saavik character (which still seems like a shame) to how everything is ultimately settled. The fish out of water nature of the time travel plot is of course very 80s looking back at it now, which I suppose makes sense considering when it’s set, and even the ‘Enterprise Crew Arrives in San Francisco’ funky music heard on entering the city isn’t all that different from the ‘Crocodile Dundee Arrives in New York’ music from that huge fish out of water hit also released by Paramount just a few months earlier in ’86. Appropriate for that decade, some of the comedy is grounded in certain complications like having Walter Koenig’s Chekov around (“He’s a Russkie”) and in the 80s the very concept of a Save the Whales movie was itself a punchline asking for it and this movie somehow gets away with it, it gets us to understand that this particular mission really does matter. Not all of the comedy has that much snap as if Nimoy was directing everyone to be nice more than funny which I suppose is an understandable byproduct of a franchise where characters freely quote Shakespeare and D.H. Lawrence, but the look of the utopian 23rd century as presented here during the bookends shows an Earth that is genuinely multi-national without making a big deal out of it as well as seeming completely earnest in what it’s presenting. Even the characterization of the film’s one Klingon played by John Schuck is presented as more intelligent than we had probably ever seen at that point even in the original series. The film plays as humanist in addition to being nice and jaunty, right down to the Leonard Rosenman score which isn’t quite up to Jerry Goldsmith-James Horner standards but feels totally fitting for a piece of hopeful science fiction designed to play for the whole family during the holiday season.
Each member of the crew gets something to do this time out (maybe George Takei as Sulu gets a little short shrift but watching it now Sulu seems to be enjoying himself in ’86 more than anyone) and more than any other time it really does seem to be about the seven crew members. In its own hangout vibe along with the portrayal of professionals doing their job well I suppose it’s about as close to a Howard Hawks film as Star Trek will ever get. For such a tight ticking clock the film also never seems to be in that much of a rush which still makes sense--Nimoy seems as fine with taking ten seconds here or there just to observe the whales just as he is willing to let two characters like Kirk and Gillian Taylor sit down for a lengthy dinner sequence to just hash things out (scenes involving only twentieth century humans don’t fare so well but never mind). Paying strict attention to Trek continuity involving the characters seems secondary in this context which is also ok—in playing Spock this time Nimoy seems to love getting the chance to play things for laughs like he never has before and between Kirk-Spock and McCoy-Scotty it’s a film that basically gives us two Laurel and Hardy pairings with all four actors in particular clearly relishing the chance to make the most of every single little gesture.
The dialogue-free resolution of the whales and the probe, apparently a big sticking point between the studio and the makers of the film, seems absolutely right since the idea of whatever question that was clearly being asked was enough. And the implied message behind the whole conceit is enough as well. The film tells its story clearly, visually and without an explosion at the end too. Even the statement at the end by the Federation President that the crew has ‘saved the planet from its own short-sightedness’ sadly has more relevance now. We also don’t need further elaboration on Spock’s actions in his character arc and the resolution of the ‘How do you feel?’ plotline, coming off as simple as these things go but clear and well-executed. And, in the context of everything that surrounds it, hopeful.
The final scene between Spock and his father Sarek excellently played by Mark Lenard lends a sense of completion to a story thread which began on a television episode decades earlier and at the end basically resets the status quo, making a trilogy out of what was never intended to be. The film ultimately is about coming home, accepting where you should be and the people you’re at your best with. Maybe that’s a little too neat and clean but this is STAR TREK IV. When Irving Thalberg brought the Marx Brothers over to MGM to make A NIGHT AT THE OPERA he fashioned it into the most palatable version of the Marx Brothers for mass consumption imaginable. Basically, THE VOYAGE HOME is the STAR TREK equivalent of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. For once, it pleased almost everybody. That’s not a bad thing. Sometimes you just decide to make as many people as possible happy and it all turns out that way in the end.
It’s fun to just watch everyone in the cast enjoy themselves this time out along with trying to figure out who’s most relishing the chance to get laughs out of certain moments—probably Shatner, particularly during the hospital sequence, which would be no surprise. (“One little mistake…”) If TREK II was about Kirk fully embracing who he really is, this film shows him as someone completely comfortable in that role, getting the world to accept it as well. Shatner plays this with total confidence and warmth—when he casually says, “Goodbye old friend,” to Spock while heading out to dinner it feels genuine in an offhand way. Nimoy balances out the various pieces of the recently reborn Spock very nicely—when he’s in the twentieth century the way it’s played could be partly excused because he’s not completely Spock but mostly this is just a very enjoyable way to go. At times Catherine Hicks, who I’ve always liked, comes off as little too much of a straight arrow for a role that I could imagine having been written for more of a hippie type but it makes sense to also play her as an audience surrogate. It sort of works. I still like her.
One thing STAR TREK IV does do is something completely different from the previous entries—complete with a Newsweek cover, at the time it seemed to get people excited about Trek again leading the way to The Next Generation which premiered the following year and all the other things that followed. It makes me wonder—what if one of today’s franchises like this broke away from what the expected formula is? Would that even be allowed? The relaxed vibe of THE VOYAGE HOME makes it still comforting even now, all these years after that Bird of Prey left ’86 in the dust. Since it’s about coming home, ultimately accepting the people that you care about the most, the Thanksgiving release date made perfect sense and still does. I don’t expect my opinion to change as the years go on. The film will always be the film. And now that I’ve returned it for the first time in a while, I don’t need to see it again anytime soon. There are still other films to discover. But it’s nice that it’s there.