Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is pure, joyful cinema
Entertainment Geekly's 'Star Trek' series looks at the best whale movie ever made
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise – and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek’s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week from now till Beyond. This week: The only Trek film that feels like a Howard Hawks comedy. Last week: The Trek film about the clashing egos of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Next week: Shatner unleashed.
In 1965, Leonard Nimoy said the first words ever uttered in the Star Trek universe. “Check the circuit!” says Spock at the start of “The Cage,” the original pilot for Star Trek and the first time Star Trek was boring. To modern eyes, Spock doesn’t look like Spock: Eyebrows too big, hair too mussed, a noose-collar atop a too-baggy uniform, flanking an un-Kirk Captain who looks too much like Jay Leno’s chin chest-bursting out of Ray Liotta’s face.
NBC didn’t like Star Trek, didn’t like Spock. A year later, Gene Roddenberry filmed a new pilot. He fired everybody — he fired his mistress! — but he kept Nimoy.
Twenty years later, Roddenberry was gone — to Next Generation, not for long — and Nimoy was in control. Tricky thing, applying words like “control” or “authorship” to anything Star Trek. Nimoy directed Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and received a “Story By” credit. So did Harve Bennett, the producer of Movie Two through Movie Five, making him another Man Who Saved Star Trek and another Man Who Almost Destroyed Star Trek. Bennett shares screenplay credit alongside three other men. One of those writers later wrote Double Impact, the movie where Jean-Claude Van Damme headbutts Jean-Claude Van Damme.
And one of those writers was Nicholas Meyer, the man who made Wrath of Khan. Meyer’s generally credited with writing the film’s 20th Century-set Act 2. Perhaps not coincidentally, The Voyage Home has one of the greatest and daffiest Act 2’s of any film ever. Here is a movie that begins as A Race Against Time To Save The Earth and then takes a sharp detour into aquarium etiquette and Bay Area geography; a movie where the stakes are global, and there’s plenty of time for Kirk to take a marine biologist out for an Italian dinner; a movie where Kirk is a noble romantic protagonist who makes his date foot the bill. There’s a wonderful lack of seriousness powering The Voyage Home, recalling Howard Hawks’ loopy genre exercises To Have and Have Not or The Big Sleep. It is the kind of movie where characters spend the whole movie taking a break from the movie.
So it was a team effort, in front of the camera and behind the scenes. But it was a team effort with a leader. And the leader wanted to make a different kind of film. Nimoy later explained the core concept: “No dying, no fighting, no shooting, no photon torpedoes, no phaser blasts, no stereotypical bad guy.” His previous Star Trek film had all those things, and outer space, and aliens, and sets. Nimoy wanted to make a movie about Earth, right now, shot on location, with human people.
Nimoy was an actor, a director, a photographer, a memoirist, a musician, a cameo cartoon voice, a face in advertisements that baited your nostalgia and dared you not to smile. In all things he was Spock. Sometimes that bothered him: He wrote I Am Spock, but also I Am Not Spock. Nimoy was never a dilettante, a preening highbrow — never the Alan Rickman character from Galaxy Quest, that self-loathing Shakespearean slumming for fanboy dollars and residual fame. Nimoy liked Spock, truthfully. He liked the work, occasionally. He liked the money, naturally: $2.5 million for Trek IV. (That’s more than Hemsworth made on Avengers — and that’s mid-’80s dollars, unadjusted.) Nimoy was frustrated with Spock, but it wasn’t merely the frustration of typecasting or of repetition. It was the internal struggle, the human condition: Nimoy struggled with Spock the way Hamlet struggles with Hamlet.
And Nimoy loved people. That sounds like a simple thing to say, until you watch The Voyage Home, one of the loveliest and strangest and lightest comedies ever made, and you realize that “loving people” can be something tangible, like an added filter on the camera. Nimoy loved the supporting players, and his film bestows each of them with a Hall of Fame moment. Scotty: “A keyboard. How quaint.” Chekov: “Nuclear wessels.” Uhura: “But where is Alameda?” McCoy, undercover as a surgeon, asks an old lady in a hospital what’s wrong with her. Kidney dialysis, she says. “Dialysis!” McCoy sputters — an actual honest-to-god sputter, DeForest Kelley’s voice like an old engine cackling. “What is this, the Dark Ages?”
Sulu was supposed to get a showcase scene meeting his own great-great-great-grand-something. It didn’t work out — the kid got scared — and Nimoy was still bummed about it a decade later when he wrote I Am Spock. But oh, how I treasure Takei, in his baritone voice, narrating the Enterprise’s warpspeed run into the center of our solar system: “Nine point five! Nine point six! Nine point seven! NINE POINT EIGHT!” (And The Voyage Home continues one of the great embedded subplots in Trek history: The love story between Sulu and the Excelsior.)
Did I mention that they’re warping straight into the sun so they can travel through time? There’s an energy-sapping probe destroying Earth, apparently because no one can respond to the probe’s message. Is the probe saying “hello” to humanity? “Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man,” Spock chastises.
It’s been said there are no villains in Star Trek IV. In the future, the probe hails from some unknown intelligence that almost destroys Earth by accident. In the past, every hint of antagonism is quickly undercut. At one point, Chekov is captured by the FBI, and there’s a much simpler, more on-the-nose version of this movie where the FBI becomes the bad guys. Maybe that wouldn’t be terrible; maybe it would be sharp, playing the utopian sensibility of the Federation against Cold War paranoia. But in The Voyage Home, it’s an opportunity for a “Who’s On First” routine:
FBI AGENT: Let’s take it from the top.
CHEKOV: The top of what?
FBI AGENT: Name?
CHEKOV: My name?
FBI AGENT: No, my name.
CHEKOV: I do not know your name!
FBI AGENT: You play games with me, mister, and you’re through.
CHEKOV: I am? Can I go now?
At this point, the FBI agent — who looks like the uncanny valley between Paul Rudd and Armie Hammer — whispers to his partner, “What do you think?” His partner says, “He’s a Russkie.” The FBI agent, completely deadpan, missing a beat: “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard in my life.” Every one-scene character in The Voyage Home is smarter than they should be, wittier than they have to be. Chekov grabs his phaser and tries to fire it, but it’s run low on batteries. He tosses it to the FBI agent, and watch closely here.
The actor is Jeff Lester — who naturally played both “Lane Brody” and “Lance Jarvis” on Baywatch — and he catches the phaser with a look of weary amusement. Here’s a film where the shady FBI guys feel tired, and a bit embarrassed, about being shady FBI guys.
The Voyage Home reminds me of something Dan Harmon told Vulture regarding Cheers: “The characters were so distinct. As with Peanuts, you could put them in outer space and still know which one was Charlie Brown.” The Voyage Home is the inverse of that theorem: It takes its characters from outer space and sets them down on the streets of San Francisco, in the halls of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in the front seat of a truck. And here’s something strange. You’ve seen Kirk and Spock on alien planets production designed like pop art comic strips, in cosmic mountain ranges battling aliens beyond our ken; you’ve seen them battle gods and monsters.
Yet I don’t think there is any single moment in Star Trek history where Kirk and Spock look better — at once grander and more approachable, like statues of the Founding Fathers buying rounds at sports bar — than the moment when they walk along Marina Boulevard. Behind them: The bay, the Bridge, the fog.
Kirk’s still wearing his magenta-maroon disco suit, looking like the communist dictator of Studio 54; Spock’s wearing a karate bathrobe. You can giggle at the buried joke of the movie — they fit right into pre-digital San Francisco — but you can also appreciate how the movie makes them seem so much bigger by bringing them down to Earth.
No other Star Trek film has done location shooting like this; maybe The Voyage Home is Trek as neo-realism. Legend holds that the “nuclear wessels” scene was shot in secret, with Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols talking to random passers-by. That’s maybe not true — counter-legend holds that those are all paid extras — but in the most memorable part of the scene, Russian Chekov asks a nearby policeman for directions to the closest nuclear reactor. The cop says nothing, doesn’t even move; he was an actual San Francisco, working with the production crew in an official capacity. So, actually, hang the neo-realism: The Voyage Home is as close as Trek ever gets to the start of “Duck Amuck,” when Daffy walks off his own film strip.
The humor of The Voyage Home is playful without ever becoming sarcastic, self-aware without ever feeling like self-loathing. The characters feel engaged — watch how Takei is constantly looking around San Francisco, a great grin on his face. Think of how this movie shifts from Act One to Act Two: Spock says they need to save the whales; Kirk says “Let’s time travel!”; and then they aim their ship right into the sun. Think, too, of Catherine Hicks, in a tricky role. She plays Gillian, the whale-loving marine biologist. She thinks Kirk and Spock are crazy, but intriguing; she doesn’t really believe they’re from the future, but she intuitively understands that they’re people she should hang out with.
A lesser film might try to architect this interaction somehow. (Maybe Gillian is an FBI agent; maybe the wrong thing for America circa 1986 is the right thing for the world.) Hell, one of the greatest hours of television ever is a Star Trek time travel episode where Kirk goes to the past and falls in love with the most important woman in history. The Voyage Home has no time for such pretensions. Gillian’s an obvious love interest, but they never really have a “romantic” scene. Gillian thinks Kirk is interesting; Kirk likes how much she cares. And Gillian is allowed to come to the future — where she promptly says goodbye to Kirk, because there’s just so much more to see.
Their final scene together is one of the most graceful light-comedic romance moments in any movie I can think of. “How will I find you?” he asks her — kidding but not quite, Shatner’s laugh a bit too forced. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll find you.” Nimoy holds his camera for two long moments, first of Gillian saying farewell:
Then of Kirk, astonished. What do you think is going through his mind?
Is he amazed that, for once, he’s the one left behind? Is he bemused at the grand divine comedy of existence? Maybe I’m a shameless romantic, but I can’t help but imagine his thought bubble in Shatnerian overspeak: “My god, Bones! I think I’m in love!”
Shatner! My god, Shatner! Another one of the graceful jokes powering The Voyage Home is that, here in the past, Captain Kirk remains the most confident man in the galaxy, despite all indications that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. Needing money, he pawns McCoy’s birthday glasses at an antique shop. The owner will pay a hundred dollars for them. “Is that a lot?” Kirk asks, smiling wide like a con man.
Later, at the aquarium, Kirk spots Spock swimming with the whales, and his wild overreactions belong in a silent movie museum:
Of course, Kirk is a con man in The Voyage Home. To his crew, he pretends to know everything about the past. (“Double dumb ass on you!”) To people in the past, he offers one BS line after another. (“I think he had a little too much LDS.”) The joke of his brimming confidence paired against Spock’s Holy Fool confusion reaches Chico-and-Harpo levels:
But the film isn’t some shallow self-parody of Kirk, or Star Trek. It has heart, and passion — Save the Whales! — and a tremendous sense of fun. When the crew crash-lands into the Bay, they need to climb out of their sinking ship. The whales start singing; the probe is vanquished. Another film might cut away, but Nimoy’s camera lingers, and we watch the crew of the Enterprise cheerfully jump into the water. The line between character and actor falls away, phasered into nonexistence. James Doohan does a bellyflopping dive into the water; Nichelle Nichols splashes water toward DeForest Kelley. At one point, Kirk pulls Spock into the water — or maybe that’s Shatner and Nimoy, fooling around.
And yet, there is a seriousness to the wonderful, exuberant silliness of The Voyage Home. At the film’s beginning, the resurrected Spock is asked a question: “How do you feel?” At the end of the film, Spock has traveled across space and time, has rescued a dead great species from the dustbin of existence, has saved the Earth one more time. And none of that plot stuff matters half so much as Spock saying, nonchalant: “I feel fine.” To feel “fine” is not to feel “perfect” or even “happy,” does not imply tremendous success nor some massive personal change.
To feel “fine” in The Voyage Home is to be aware of your place in the great scheme of existence, content in your place among your fellow creatures. There is such optimism in this movie, and perhaps that optimism is residual from Roddenberry — but Roddenberry preferred grand statements, not whimsy. The Voyage Home needed Nimoy, a thoughtful man with a sense of humor, a leader who loved his people, and loved people in general, and damn it, who loved the whales, and Earth, and the Golden Gate Bridge, and the nightmare intersection where Columbus and Kearny and Jackson hit each other right in front of the Zoetrope Building.
Nimoy died last year, age 82: A long life, and prosperous. Spock will live forever, of course — and The Voyage Home is his magnum opus. Quickly, listen to the theme music for Voyage Home by Leonard Rosenman.
Can you hear the festive melody? Aren’t those bells ringing vaguely yuletidal? There’s no obvious comparison in movie history for Star Trek: the Voyage Home, not many time travel message movies about family and friends and the fear that we’re all doomed because of sins in the past, and how that fear will always crash like waves against the shore of the eternal human hope that it’s not too late, that we can change.
But there is that famous story about heavenly visitors and time travel, a myth about how any person can change a dark-sad future into a happy-better one, a parable that argues that the great heroic act of existence is being an engaged part of a community. So maybe The Voyage Home is our new A Christmas Carol. Maybe Ebenezer Scrooge can save Tiny Tim; maybe the Earth isn’t doomed; maybe, in 2286, whales will still be swimming through oceans unrisen; maybe our descendants will be here, too, in this world someone saved for them. Probe bless us, every one.
THE WHOLE MOVIE IN ONE SHOT: