There is a myth among many fans about the "odd and even" curse concerning the Star Trek motion pictures, positing that the good films are all even numbered with the reverse being true of the odd. While my personal favorite is an "even" (Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan), I really believe that this film is a strong argument against that superstition.
The Enterprise and its crew have returned to Earth after the encounter with Khan that claimed the life of Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), only to find their precious ship about to be retired (the Enterprise is only 20 years old and is considered obsolete... the airline companies should take note). It’s discovered that Spock transferred his Katra-or life essence-into Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) before he died. Spock’s father, Sarek (Mark Lenard, playing a role he originated in the original TV series) petitions Kirk (William Shatner) to regain Spock’s body and go to Vulcan where his essence might be reunited with his flesh and find life once again. Spock’s body was interred on Genesis, the once dead planet that found new life as a result of an experiment that Kirk’s son, David (Merritt Butrick) was integral in developing. But because of the controversy surrounding Genesis the planet is off limits. So, of course, Kirk and his loyal crew steal the Enterprise and head off toward the planet anyway.
On the surface of Genesis, David and Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis) discover a child Spock, the result of the planet’s regenerating power. The problem (and there’s always a problem with these regenerating planets, isn’t there?) is that David used an unpredictable substance called "protomatter" to facilitate the experiment and now the planet’s growth is being accelerated, resulting in the new Spock growing older by the hour.
Into the mix comes Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), a rogue Klingon who is hell bent on obtaining the power of Genesis. He and Kirk pitch wits (didn’t see that coming, did you?), and Kirk is forced to make a monumental decision regarding the ultimate fate of the Enterprise.
The "internal" conflict of having Spock’s essence contained in McCoy’s mind seems perfect, on the surface. It certainly provides DeForest Kelley with some of his best moments in the Star Trek chronicles, giving him the opportunity to show real acting range as he struggles with impulses that are, literally, alien to him. But this is a two-edged sword, as what makes for a fascinating conflict also provides the film with its major flaw: the absence of Leonard Nimoy’s physical presence as the inscrutable Spock for the majority of the picture. It’s not a fatal flaw; the film is definitely worthwhile dramatically, particularly for Trek fans, providing some tense drama, good interplay and advancement of familiar characters. But the relationship between members of the Spock-Kirk-McCoy triptych is the dramatic foundation on which is built so many of the best Star Trek stories, and it’s the presence of the actors who bring these to life. Having Spock’s essence just doesn’t quite cut it-even with the occasional voice over. His presence is sorely missed and we realize how much so when he finally does make his appearance.
This is a more contemplative episode of Star Trek; less about battles in space (though there are some brief moments of melee) than about philosophical issues of life, rebirth, sacrifice and loss. Kirk, in fact, suffers two major losses during the film, one by choice. The reverberations of these events lend gravity to the film, particularly to loyal fans who’ve invested emotionally in the series.
All the usual suspects have reprised their roles, each getting their few moments to shine, though in the end always in support of the major characters. In doing this review, the surprise for me is Christopher Lloyd as Kruge. When I saw the film in its initial run I remember being disappointed...after Ricardo Montalban’s commanding performance as Khan, I felt his character was too "cartoony". Perhaps I was still associating his voice with that of "Reverend Jim" in Taxi and not really giving him a chance, because this time around I found his character quite focused and ruthless...fine opposition for the resourceful Kirk.
As director, Leonard Nimoy does a worthy if unremarkable job, serving the story without overwhelming it with flashiness. It plays very much like a particularly good episode from the series, with the requisite close-ups and emblematic remarks for each character. There are some beautiful shots of alien landscapes, some of which lend genuine depth to the sense of geography by their framing. The highlight of the film comes with a visit to Vulcan; beautiful desolate vistas painted in amber tones evoke a wonderfully mystical, alien planet.
There are no real extras on this disk, aside from a short trailer and a French soundtrack (which, to increasingly jaded DVD enthusiasts seems more and more standard issue). This is a shame only because the fan base for this series is legion, and I can’t imagine there wasn’t something laying around in the Paramount vaults or in someone’s personal collection that would have shed some interesting or fun light on the making of the movie. I would have loved to see them release these films in their original order, perhaps with something like a running documentary called... dare I say it?... "The Captain’s Log" that would progress with each movie.
When all is said and done, though, it’s the film itself that is most significant, and here Paramount has done a superb job. The source print used for this transfer is flawless, and the transfer is very clean, with an enhanced 16x9 widescreen presentation. No artifacting is evident in the compression and the colors show no bleeding. It’s beautiful, the resolution hardly breaking up even when Zoomed in at 3x magnification. I will say that I found the color scheme and lighting a bit too muted for my taste; effective on Vulcan but distracting elsewhere. I believe this was the choice of both director and cinematographer, though, so the disk does a very good job of showing us the filmmakers’ vision.
The soundtrack is another area that really shines, having been re-mixed in Dolby 5.1 Surround. The sound stage is employed very effectively: dialogue is clear; bass extension is subtle, though with good punch when appropriate; ambient sounds fill the area around the listener, adding movement, depth, and the occasionally well-timed jolt.
There is also a Pro-Logic Surround track for both English and French language versions that is very nice, though not as full and encompassing when compared to the 5.1. The film did not even sound this good when it first played in theaters.
Given the loyalty of fans around the world for this venerable series, Paramount could have sold many of these DVDs if they’d merely given us an adequate presentation. Although extras would have been appreciated, given the beautiful transfer and improved sound, this disk comes recommended.