Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

As a kid, I loved loved loved The Voyage Home, to the point where I may have watched it more often on cable and home video than I did Wrath of Khan. It was just so much fun to see my beloved Enterprise crew doing all this 20th century culture clash comedy, I thought I would never get tired of it. Then came the embarrassment that was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, where William Shatner as director seemed determined to one-up all of Voyage Home's humor, and it retroactively ruined the earlier movie for me. I began thinking of Voyage Home as a film that continually sold out these beloved characters for the sake of easy gags, and I'm not sure I watched it again after that.

But with the family viewing success of Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock came the inevitable viewing of the third part of what's basically a trilogy within the film series. I was worried I would spend the two hours cringing at the jokes, and counting the minutes til we could jump ahead to Star Trek VI. (I will not be showing them Star Trek V.)

Instead, I mostly found myself laughing once again, over and over.

There are absolutely jokes that come at the expense of these characters and/or the rules of the Star Trek universe. Kirk, for instance, knows enough about the late 20th century to tell Gillian Taylor that Spock was part of the free speech movement at Berkeley, yet it doesn't occur to him that it's a bad idea to send his one Russian crewmember looking for "nuclear wessels"? And the "How do we know he didn't invent the thing?" punchline about transparent aluminum and Scotty's rewriting of history feels a bit cheap. (In the novelization, Scotty realizes that this IS the man who invented it, which is why he's so comfortable giving him the formula.)

But the thing is, Leonard Nimoy turned out to be a very good comedy director (he would follow this with Three Men and a Baby), and one who had worked with his co-stars for so long that he understood implicitly what was funny about each of them. Yes, if you stop and think about all the havoc the crew is wreaking through the timestream, or how utterly incompetent they seem at times through this mission to save the planet, it can rankle. But in the moment, these various comic set pieces are really well constructed, and played with such joy by the whole cast. Yes, it's dumb that Chekov gets sent on that part of the mission, but Walter Koenig is so game for that sequence, and Nimoy and Peter E. Berger cut it together so sharply, that any resistance to laughter was futile. Ditto for the lilt in James Doohan's voice when Scotty is trying to use the computer mouse to talk to the computer, or DeForest Kelley committing to the hospital segment where McCoy's concern for helping people overwhelms any worries about screwing up history. Laughter forgives a lot, you know?

In particular, Shatner and Nimoy are a fantastic comedy duo in the section of the movie where Kirk and Spock split off from the others to go find the humpback whales. I never fail to break up at their overlapping, conflicting responses to Gillian's question of whether they like Italian food. You get the sense that this may not be too far from their real-life dynamic, since both had reputations for keeping things light on the set of the original series. (I wish this movie had been the springboard for them to do a bunch of non-Star Trek buddy comedies together.) And because Spock begins the movie not entirely in his right mind after the events of his resurrection, it feels like there's greater license for him to be a clown than the others.

The setting also creates more license for this degree and amount of goofy humor than when the crew is back on the Enterprise in the following movie, but the level of execution is ultimately what matters. It's a funny movie that still manages to more or less feel like a Star Trek movie(*).

(*) As you may know, the script was originally written as a combined Star Trek/Eddie Murphy vehicle, since Murphy was a huge Trekkie and the biggest star Paramount had at the time. Murphy passed — he was going to play an astrophysicist, a character who was essentially turned into Gillian — which is probably for the best. This is a much better script than the one for Superman III that tried incorporating Richard Pryor into a superhero film, but it's not hard to imagine Murphy's presence overwhelming this one to the point where it felt like a parody.

It also helps that the opening third of the movie plays things so seriously. The plot with the probe is something of a rehash of V'ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but it's effectively told and creepy. The core cast's response to the dire situation on Earth as they approach really sells the danger of it, and in turn makes the comedy of the San Francisco scenes come as a release valve. While the story was inspired by the Save the Whales movement of the 70s and 80s, in many ways it feels more like something out of a Star Trek TV episode than anything most of the suspense-heavy other films did, even if it feels a bit odd now to sit through a climax that's 5-10 minutes of whale song.

Absence from this movie, it turned out, made my heart grow more susceptible to laughter. "Gracie is pregnant" is a perfect line delivery by Nimoy.

Some other thoughts:

* Watching III and IV back to back makes it particularly blatant that the production team redesigned the bridge of the stolen Klingon ship to make it look more like the Enterprise's.

* Speaking of which, even though I knew it was coming, the shot of the Enterprise-A coming into view in Spacedock still thrilled me after all these years. After two movies of intense hardship and tragedy (as we're reminded by Kirk and Saavik's farewell conversation, Jim is still grieving the death of his son), our heroes have earned this gleaming recreation of their old ship.

* The early scene where Sarek debates the Klingon ambassador is a good one. I'd forgotten that Sarek brings up the many crimes that Kruge committed in Search for Spock, including blowing up an entire Federation starship. The ambassador is mainly trying to blame Kirk for Project: Genesis, though in Wrath of Khan, Genesis is presented as something he knew about as a Starfleet admiral, but not something he really had anything to do with, given his estrangement from Carol and David.

* Also utterly forgotten: the clunky dream-like sequence when the ship travels back to the 80s. I'm just glad Nimoy opted not to do it a second time for the trip back to the 23rd century.

* Finally, Gillian justifies hitching a ride with Kirk by pointing out that his era will need at least one humpback whale expert to help care for George, Gracie, and their offspring. Yet when she and Kirk say their goodbyes, she explains that she's heading off on a science vessel to help catch up on the 300 years of history she missed. It's an odd note. But then, it's probably best not to think deeply at all about the culture shock she'd be dealing with for the rest of her life.