Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Sometimes, cheesy can mature in the shadow of a great film. Saturday Night Fever is, allegedly, a well-made film about the tough realities facing Brooklyn area youths in the 1970s. Its sequel is a monument to the star and director’s hubris. Similarly, Grease 2 lives in the shadow of its much more popular predecessor. That both these cheesy sequels come from Paramount Pictures may be no accident as this weekend’s cheesy movie, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, also comes from that storied film factory on Melrose Avenue.
The plot concerns the crew of the U.S.S Enterprise some months following the events of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Still running on limited power, the ship is nearing the end of its long journey back to Earth. Most of the trainee crew has been reassigned to other ships while Kirk’s son David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) and Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis) remained in the Mutara sector to study the end result of David’s Genesis Device: a newborn planet made from the matter in the Mutara Nebula. As Kirk puts it, the Enterprise “feels like a house with all the children gone.” But that sense of emptiness within Kirk and among the remaining crew also stems from the loss of Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who sacrificed himself to save the ship in the previous film.
Once they arrive at the Spacedock in orbit around Earth — a scene composed of spectacular special effects but unearned pomp — Kirk and the others learn the Enterprise will be decommissioned. Also, Kirk’s request to return to Genesis has been flatly denied. Meanwhile, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly) has fallen ill with a disease only Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Leonard) can diagnose: he has Spock’s katra (the remaining Vulcan essence when the body expires) rattling around in his head.
Meanwhile, on Genesis, David and Saavik discover the genesis wave has regenerated Spock’s body. And in a further meanwhile, Klingon Captain Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) learns about the Genesis Experiment and declares its radical terraforming effect is “the ultimate weapon.” Being Klingon, he decides it is his right to posses it.
And if all of this feels like a typical episode of Star Trek, that’s part of the charm. During the production of Star Trek II, the studio and Nimoy expected the film to be the final chapter in the Star Trek saga. Having had a difficult time playing the part in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Nimoy gamely signed on to see his character die in the film. But then a remarkable thing happened: producer Harve Bennett, taking over for Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, hired Time After Time‘s Nicholas Meyer to direct the film. He took elements from a number of drafts written for the film and gave Star Trek II a rare quality not seen in the franchise since its second season back in 1967. Nimoy was actually sad to let go of Spock by the end of production, and when the film turned out to be a hit, Paramount reversed course and commissioned a third film. But by demanding Spock return, the studio lost Meyer; who wanted nothing to do with resurrecting the character. Nimoy, meanwhile, saw his chance to extend his career and become a feature film director.
Now, this is vitally important to understanding the underlying cheesiness of the film because Paramount agreed to Nimoy’s terms, but kept tight creative and financials controls on him. The end result is a film which feels more like an extended episode of The Original Series than a theatrical feature; particular when compared to the cinematic bravura Meyer brought to Star Trek II on a slightly smaller budget than III.
Despite the slightly larger budget, Bennett and Nimoy chose to pour the extra cash into special effects. They recycled as much of the previous productions as possible and Bennett took it upon himself to write the script. He must have assumed he could write like Meyer, but alas, Bennett’s scripting also features certain deficits from his quick-and-dirty TV training. Bennett’s ear for dialogue cultivates much of the cheese in Star Trek III. Lines like the excerpt of Kirk’s log entry quoted above permeate the film. Within a breath of comparing the Enterprise to an empty nest, Kirk continues, “the death of Spock is like an open wound. It seems I have left the noblest part of myself back there on that newborn planet.” That friends, is overwriting. Where Shatner’s performance is fairly subdued, Bennett’s writing plays to the cheap seats. During a subsequent scene in which Kirk tries to get permission from the Starfleet Commander-in-Chief to go back to Genesis, the top ranking official tells him, “Your life and your career stand for rationality, not intellectual chaos. Keep up this emotional behavior and you’ll loose everything. You’ll destroy yourself.”
The plotting also lacks a certain precision. In the initial log, Kirk tells the audience David and Saavik are studying Genesis. But when we finally catch up with them after the Enterprise returns to Earth, they are just arriving in Genesis orbit aboard the U.S.S. Grissom. Similarly, Kirk’s trip to Genesis is presumably predicated on the Grissom‘s captain sending a coded message to Starfleet about the resurrected Spock, but at no point does the movie make it clear Kirk knows about developments with the Genesis science team.
Which isn’t to say Bennett and Nimoy entirely fail. They create a number of thrilling scenes and find the right sort of pathos when Kirk faces one of the greatest losses of his life. It’s still slightly overwritten, but Nimoy gets a fantastic and dramatic performance from Shatner. Additionally, because Bennett was a savvy producer and allocated the extra funds to paying for Industrial Light & Magic’s A Team, the effects work in the film is uniformly fantastic. The Enterprise arrival at the space dock is remarkably well done. Thanks to modern technology, it is a little easier to see the seams, but at the time it was a marvel of the optical printing techniques available to ILM. The subsequent scene in which Kirk and the crew steal the Enterprise is also well-made with two starships leaving Spacedock and preparing for a chase.
But those successes cannot hide a certain lack of ambition within the film. It needs to accomplish exactly one objective: put Spock back where he belongs. In doing so, Bennett concocted a plot based on half-remembered scraps of Star Trek episodes and the understanding that it still needed some sort of theatrical ballyhoo. As a consequence, Lloyd’s Kruge is broader than he should be — though some of that falls on Nimoy, who wanted a theatrical antagonist — David is discarded for another dramatic flair and the Enterprise itself is destroyed to give the film some weight. But thanks to Bennett’s script and the studios tight reins on Nimoy, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock never feels heavier than a cheese-filled confection. It lacks both the literary quality of Khan and the cinematic majesty of The Motion Picture. The result is a strangely grounded sci-fi picture working with the understanding that it is, ultimately, connective tissue to get the audience back to the sort of Star Trek movies they crave. Curiously enough, Nimoy (freed from intense studio oversight), Bennett and Meyer would all return for that film. Not that we’ll ever talk about it here, though; it is a creative and financial success. But the success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home underscores how cheese can grow in the crevices of long-running franchises and reveal just how nimble they can be in the storytelling.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is available for rent at the usual streaming platforms. It is also available on Blu-ray.