Thursday, November 11, 2010

You Can't Go Home Again

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, directed by Leonard Nimoy) has long been a favorite of fans, but I've never really liked it. This puts me in the position of questioning the paradigm that it's the even numbered Star Trek movies that are good, but there it is. It's a film of dramatic tonal shifts and goofy images. I'm thinking specifically of the weird, psychedelic sequence that plays during the time warp scene, prehistoric computer graphics and all. I'm thinking of the goofball presentation of Spock, recovering from his ordeal over the previous two films, as some kind of hippie. I'm thinking of the grim trial scene that opens the movie, in which the Klingon deliver their grievances against Kirk to the Federation, complete with footage from the previous installment. I'm thinking about James Horner's opening fanfare that sounds vaguely like Christmas music.

It's a goofy movie.

Trek IV is basically a comedy. The plot follows the crew of the Enterprise as they pilot the Klingon Bird of Prey they commandeered in the previous movie back in time to contemporary (in 1986) San Francisco in order to find a pair of humpback whales. The whales are needed to answer one of the series' patented unfathomably powerful probes that is in the process of destroying 23rd Century Earth, where whales are extinct. The thrust of this is to put the familiar characters in a fish out of water, stranger in a strange land setting in which the jokes are predicated on the subsequent anachronisms. It's pretty middlebrow stuff, without any real tooth as social commentary. It's undercut a bit by the earnestness of its save the whales message. It's undercut, too, by an uncomfortable cluelessness on the part of a few our crew mates. Elements of the plot are predicated on the characters' ignorance of history. This is particularly true of Chekov's jaunt at the naval base, looking for "nuclear wessels." Surely, the Cold War hasn't been forgotten in the 23rd century.

I have to admit: it's a little bit odd to see a film as late as 1986 still vilifying punk rock, but I guess this is at the cusp right before rap and hip hop would assume the role of obnoxious noise for middle class white America. I wish Catherine Hicks's character, Gillian, would have made the jump that Kirk and Spock are gay--a not-unreasonable conclusion given the film's setting. You can totally see the wheels turning in the mind of the actress even if they aren't in the minds of the screenwriters, but it's an undiscovered country here. It leaves a lot of comedy potential on the table by ignoring this option, which is too bad.

The movie goes out of its way to spotlight each of the crew members with some variety of shtick. Some of these fall flat. Most of these fall flat, actually. A lot of it is tailored to Star Trek fans and is the sort of thing that winds up on buttons sold at sci fi cons ("Gillian: Don't tell me, you're from outer space. Kirk: No, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space," is a perennial favorite). Some of this is funny, most of it is...awkward.

That's probably the best word for my relationship with this movie. "Awkward." Yeah. That's pretty much it.

1 comment:

Véro B said...

I'm not sure that I ever saw Trek IV a second time, so I'm probably relying on memories of 1986 -- a dangerous proposition. As I recall, I enjoyed the film, but it didn't feel very substantial. It was clearly being played for laughs, or at least amusement. Sort of like, hey, lighten up, Trekkers, let's have fun. It was fun. But as I said, it's not one I've gone back to.