Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’

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Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home may not be the best Star Trek movie but it hews closer to the adventure aspect of the franchise than almost any other. The movie manages to tackle climate change and time travel, all through a philosophical lens that questions why humans believe it’s the only species on Earth anyone cares about. Oh, and it’s fun, fun, fun.

Directed by Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, The Voyage Home wastes little time in setting everything up. Nimoy is no stranger to the director’s chair, as he had directed the previous film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Nimoy would go on to direct the highest-grossing movie of the following year, Three Men and a Baby.

But Voyage Home is by far the most philosophically intriguing and audience-pleasing of his efforts. Despite the script being written by a veritable congress of writers including Nicholas Myer, who penned two other Star Trek movies, the movie moves along at a brisk pace and never really feels disjointed. The crux is that an alien probe has made its way to Earth and is inadvertently causing Armageddon by sending out a signal that seems to cause chaos in our atmosphere.

Luckily for us, our heroes aren’t on Earth. They are still recovering on Vulcan from the last movie. The Voyage Home does a nice job neatly catching the audience up on where everyone is at, just in case this is their first Trek rodeo. Nimoy, an actor himself, gives his actors room to play, such as letting the great character actor John Schuck indulge in a terrific piece of scene-chewing as a Klingon Ambassador as he rants about the Klingon’s litany of grievances against Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner).

The Enterprise, as we learn, has been destroyed, again. The crew is coming home on a commandeered Klingon Bird of Prey, with a newly resurrected Spock who isn’t quite himself. On their way home, they get a message from Earth warning all ships to stay clear. Kirk, never one for leaving things alone, looks into the situation and with the help of Spock and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), figures out the probe is using whale songs to communicate. Specifically Humpback whales, except whales went extinct centuries ago.

The Voyage Home, more than any other Star Trek film at the time, is the most overt socially conscious entry of the franchise. The subtext is text, as they say. Nimoy is not shy about making this Trek adventure deeply political, having the movie staunchly argue against exploitation of whales, with actual footage of whale hunting shown and the characters actively disgusted at early man’s treatment of the animals.

Not only that but it’s a unique way of tackling the subject of climate change. Often, movies that deal with environmental disasters make it the result of human hubris. But The Voyage Home goes a slightly different route and shows how our short-sighted actions will damn us in the future. Not in the next fifty years but in centuries to come, and it happens because we believe ourselves to be the only thing on the planet worth saving.

Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is the audience’s mouthpiece, as he doesn’t understand why an alien probe would have a transmission signal so hostile to humans if it’s not hostile itself. Spock argues, “There are other forms of intelligent life on Earth, Doctor. Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man.” It’s this idea that separates The Voyage Home from other similar climate disaster movies.

Had it been merely an aside or theory that never came to fruition it would still be novel. But Nimoy and the script carry it through, even going so far as asking the whales George and Grace themselves if they wouldn’t mind coming back to the 23rd century. “Admiral if we were to assume that these whales are ours to do with as we please we would be as guilty as those who caused their extinction.” Giving the whales agency of their own marks The Voyage Home as unique for a Hollywood blockbuster. 

The film goes a step further when Kirk asks Spock what the whales told them. Spock informs Kirk how angry they are at how humans treat them, Kirk agrees and even says, “They have a right to be. Will they help us?”

I’ve skipped over the time travel part. But in truth, the movie hardly concerns itself with it. Part of the fun of The Voyage Home is how it doesn’t dawdle. The Earth is in danger, billions may die, we need whales, whales are extinct, so we’ll time travel to when there are whales and bring them back. Modern blockbusters spend scene after scene dragging things like these out, usually, while name-dropping other movies that had similar plot elements. The Voyage Home does so without the need to name-drop other movies to try and prove their bona fides.

The Voyage Home has a scene in which McCoy and Kirk walk from one end of the ship to the other. The scene is just under thirty seconds. In that time the notion of time travel, the mechanics of it, and the basic plot of the movie are laid bare in a succinct yet entertaining back and forth. It is a masterpiece of screenwriting that some modern movies could learn a thing or two from.

The visualization of time travel itself remains one of my favorite depictions in all of cinema. Nimoy, a photographer himself, along with Donald Peterman’s camerawork, employs CGI imagery mixed with visual montages that result in a sort of hallucinatory aspect. This gives an overall feeling of being slingshotted around the sun and flung through space and time. It’s meant to represent the emotional and psychological effects inside the crew’s head, the internal result of time travel, and one that is rarely considered in these types of stories.

Much of the comedy in the film stems from our heroes being from the 23rd century trying to acclimate to the far and distant past of 1986. Fish out of water routines along the lines of understanding that people cuss but not quite understanding how to cuss. Moments such as a cab driver calling Kirk a dumbass and having Kirk yell back with, “Double dumbass on you!”

After they land in 20th century San Francisco, they immediately set about looking for whales and the materials they’ll need to haul back two extinct mammals the size of several football fields. Luckily for our heroes, they find two whales at the Cetacean Institute, the aforementioned George and Gracie. There they meet Dr. Gillian Tayor (Catherine Hicks), who takes a shine to Kirk and his weird friend Spock with the headband that covers his ears and pointy eyebrows. 

One of the pleasures of The Voyage Home is how it gives every member of the crew a scene or two of their own. Star Trek is oftentimes the Kirk, McCoy, and Spock show, with little regard for the other characters outside of contractual obligations. But here Uhura and Chekov (Walter Koening) get a few scenes trying to find nuclear power to re-energize the dying dilithium crystals. Resulting in a line reading, a fan favorite, of Koening with his thick Russian accent as he asks about the whereabouts of “nuclear wessels.” For myself, I can’t help but be tickled by how both Nichols and Koening say “Alameda,” pronouncing it like some strange and far off land, which to them it is.

Even Scotty (James Doohan) gets a side adventure, along with Bones, as they try to find material to build a whale tank for a Klingon Bird of Prey. They even talk their way around the plot nuisance of paradoxes as they trade the formula for future technology for materials they need now. Bones pulls Scotty aside and wonders if this could screw up the timeline. Scotty replies, “How do we know he didn’t invent the thing?”

The only character to get the short end of the stick is George Takei’s Sulu. Though we do get a few short scenes with him and a Huey helicopter, he does not get the same screentime the others are given. It is a shame as what little time he does have Takei is his usual charming, flirtatious self.

Nimoy is playing much of The Voyage Home with his tongue firmly in his cheek. From the fun he has with cursing to letting McCoy roast the practices of late 20th century hospitals, Nimoy gives the feeling that he’s behind the camera chuckling. 

More than any Star Trek film, The Voyage Home feels like a kid let loose in a toy store. Nimoy infuses a sense of playfulness that the movies sometimes lack. It engages with heady themes, yes, but it finds time to stop and let the characters have a fun bit of back and forth before getting back to business.

Everything works out fine in the end, this is Star Trek after all. The whales are rescued, the probe has its answer, the Earth is saved, and Kirk is demoted and as punishment is given command of a newly rebuilt Enterprise. All’s well that ends well. 

The stakes in The Voyage Home are never more than the fate of the entire world. Nimoy gives the film a feeling of a lark rather than a mega-budget spectacle. There is urgency but it’s never dire. Underneath it all, there is a sort of melancholy at how humanity’s choices have consequences that reach far beyond many of our lifetimes.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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