Enterprise feels like a house with all the children gone. No, more empty even then that. The death of Spock is like an open wound. It seem that I have left the most noblest part of myself back there on that newborn planet.
One of my favorite moments in this film is actually in the opening credits at the beginning of a film. This was a time when most films, instead of jumping right into the action, ramped up the spectacle by featuring the primary actors, writers, composers, directors, and so on in very large text. After a flashback recap, the viewer is greeted with the opening credits as normal, but then something unique happens. After seeing “Starring William Shatner,” you instinctively expect to see Leonard Nimoy’s name, as is the case for both of the previous two movies. But this time, after Shatner’s name disappears, there is… nothing. For an noticeably long time nothing appears — just a gap — before proceeding to DeForest Kelley’s name. The audience, still reeling from the death of Spock, is forced right off the bat into a moment where the character’s absence is noticed.
Such then is life, where opportunities come up, one after another, to notice when something is missing. And that’s the genius of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the darkest and most underrated of the Original Series films.
Spoilers ahead! Abort now if those irk you.
I understand that this film has its flaws. The film can be, for lack of a better term, a bit messy. No, it’s never going to be the technical near-perfection that Wrath of Khan was. I get it: it’s kind of slow, the original script was a much cooler concept, Robin Curtis’s portrayal of Saviik wasn’t that great, the Enterprise destruction could have (arguably) used more build-up, and the film spends too much time on the Genesis planet itself. The film is a feast for nitpickers unable to look beyond a need for narrative optimization.
However, I say that the mistakes of the film are justifiable, perhaps even symbolic, and I’m not here to review like a film critic. Besides, it’s not like this film is even remotely bad:
- James Horner strikes gold again with the impressive soundtrack.
- The scenes in spacedock and the Excelsior are visually impressive even today.
- Christopher Lloyd plays an incredibly nuanced Klingon villain.
- Nimoy’s directing is pretty good, though I do prefer how he handled Star Trek IV.
- Shatner, and especially Kelley, turn in some of the best performances of their careers.
- As always, this film carries with it some amazing atmosphere.
It’s impossible to speak of this film without talking about death, as it is a theme in this film perhaps even more than Wrath of Khan. The Search for Spock is a companion piece — a brooding rumination of what it’s like to deal with the pain of loss. Dealing with death is necessarily a messy proposition, therefore this film comes down to it’s ever-so-powerful little moments. This film is a hike through the deep woods near a mountain lake. Much of it is spent feeling a bit closed in, but fairly often the trees open up, revealing a gap in the underbrush, and you get to see beautiful scenery. You get to feel the powerful sense of awe that something eventful, weighty, and remarkable is happening. Like staring down off a cliff below, seeing the still waters reflecting a tall peak, the audience experiences intangible feelings not often associated with any movie.
You feel that special excitement when seeing the crew take back their old ship for one last mission. You wrestle with conflict seeing McCoy desperately trying to understand what it’s like to handle the consciousness of his friend. Your heart breaks as you empathize with Kirk, stumbling literally and physically at the death of his son — only to be heartbroken yourself as the Enterprise you’ve grown to love explodes and burns out in the atmosphere above.
The film knows when to give you time to process your complex emotions, but it also knows when to take that time away and make things happen quickly. This, again, is indicative of real life. Loss causes things to happen, often quickly and all at once. People expect a lot out of the unfortunate soul dealing with death or a great loss, with acquaintances often showing interest only in the times which would be trouble enough in relative solitude. But even when things settle down and the mourning becomes more manageable, there still exists that gap. The gap represents itself as the moment where the individual you want to help you through a difficult moment is the one person not here to be that stabilizing figure. In Star Trek III, that person is absolutely Spock. I’m sure we all that person in our own life — even if it’s not a death, relationship or financial loss can be dreadfully painful.
The science fiction genre grants us the luxury of resurrecting people from the dead. The Search for Spock thankfully spares us the dark pitfalls of modern film-writing by showing a revived Spock, albeit not fully mentally recovered. Still, the film carries with it the strong implication that things will never be the same.
However, perhaps over the course of many years, things might get better. There is a strong sense of hope. Indeed, over the course of the next three films, Next Generation appearances, and the reboot movies, we see that Spock begins to achieve a strong sense of wisdom. Dark experiences have made Spock an overall more complete, fulfilled, and valuable individual. My hope is that, whatever loss you’re forced to reconcile with, in time the process of healing can lead you down a path of eventual adaptation, closure, and maybe even deep fulfillment — a time where you can remember that the gaps in your life are an opportunity to commemorate what you’ve lost and be better in spite of it.
What did you think of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock? Is it a film that misses its marks as some think, or a rare emotional exploration as I believe. If you’d care to, I’d love to talk about loss and how it portrays itself in your own life. I respond to comments, so don’t be shy! Next up on my movie list is the wonderful Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home! See you then!