One universal truth of the Star Trek movies I forgot to mention in my earlier review of Wrath of Kahn is that only the even movies need be watched. This might have something to do with Nicholas Meyer, writer of II, IV, and VI and director of II and VI, being involved with only the even sequels. Following my own advice I’ll be reviewing the second watchable movie in the Star Trek movie franchise and a somewhat offbeat one at that. For those non-Trekkies out there this is the one with the whales.
The fourth Star Trek movie is probably the oddest of the bunch for its silliness and attempt at trying to capture at the time a current social movement. Most Star Trek films are quite serious and some may even call it hard science fiction in that it attempts to use real science to explain how processes work. This time around they decided to add some levity to a rather serious problem at the same time: the possible extinction of humpback whales.
The film starts with a long probe flying through space disabling spacecraft no matter the race or affiliation. As it gets closer to Earth, where Starfleet HQ is located, Starfleet command starts assembling the fleet to defend the planet from the probe. Once the probe reaches Earth though it of course disables all the ships and the planet’s defenses leaving the human race defenseless. The probe then starts vaporizing the oceans.
While the probe is wreaking havoc on Earth the crew of the Enterprise is trying to fix the Klingon Bird of Prey on the planet Vulcan that they absconded from the third film. The third and fourth film in the franchise are the only films that aren’t actually purely episodic which can be confusing when you heed my advice and only watch the even films. Well, if you must know what happened in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock they stole the Klingon Bird of Prey from the Klingons that were trying to kill them on the Genesis planet that was created at the end of the second film.
Another holdover from the third film is that Spock is resurrected from his death on the second film. That causes some tension, and humor, with the rest of the crew as they try humanize him once again from his rigged Vulcan ways. It has always been enjoyable for me to watch Leonard Nimoy be the foil for William Shatner’s Kirk which of course is why they were such a great and memorable team. This personality difference is exacerbated by Spock’s rebirth.
After the crew says its goodbyes and leaves Vulcan to return to Earth they get the distress call from Starfleet command. Spock deduces the probe is trying to communicate with the now extinct humpback whale. This is one of many poetic licenses the movie takes with logic and verisimilitude. The only logical move is to go back in time and get some whales and bring them back to answer the probe so they can save Earth.
The most entertaining part of the film is the crew of the Enterprise galavanting around 1980’s San Francisco looking for nuclear material to repair their energy source, trying to find some suitable humpback whales to travel back with, and trying to find materials to construct a holding pen for one of the Earth’s largest mammals. Some of the most funny bits and best remembered scenes from Star Trek lore are Chekov asking for directions to nuclear “wessels” and Scotty trying to communicate with an Apple II by saying “Hello computer…”.
The whole fish out of water feel of the film adds some welcome diversion to the silly quest they’re on. Spock trying to fit into an even more foreign environment outside of his human crew members and Kirk trying to schmooze while dropping malapropisms keeps the movie afloat for most of its running time. Even McCoy adds some spice by visiting a “medieval” late 20th century hospital to rescue Chekov from a botched escape attempt from the FBI.
Of course they eventually get all the pieces together: the whales, nuclear material, and whale pen, and travel back to their time. They crash land into San Francisco Bay in the future and release the whales and hope they can answer the malevolent probe. The whales seem to and the probe finally ceases its “attacks” and returns to whence it came, successfully answered.
Most people remember the fourth film because it is probably the most accessible for non-Trek fans and it is quite an engaging and fun romp with the Enterprise crew. I wouldn’t suggest it as a starting point in the Star Trek universe, that’s the second film’s job, but it’s a fun movie all by its own. I would recommend queueing this up on lazy Sunday and enjoy 80’s San Francisco with the crew of the Enterprise.