Like most folks my age, I was introduced to the original Star Trek series when I was a kid, via reruns on UHF (a statement that lends insight into what my age might be), and I did the typical Kid Trek stuff: I went out as Kirk for Halloween (with one of those surely-flammable plastic masks with the elastic string in the back and the lousy holes in the nose); I figured out how to make the “Live Long and Prosper” sign with my hand; I pretended to give my friends the Spock Shock (or whatever that neck grab thing is called); and I think I might have had a toy phaser that I set to stun. I wasn’t a rabid fan, but it was a notable part of my youth.
So when the original series moved to the big screen and barreled into the ‘80s, I rolled with it, but not for too long. I don’t remember exactly why I lost interest, but it was probably a combination of girls and Duran Duran and a bit of odd-bad/even-good fatigue. But I left the franchise behind on a high note, with an excellent film that transplants the characters from my childhood into the decade of my teens.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home opens with the continuation of events that occurred in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. But those events are quickly superseded by the threat caused by a mysterious and monolithic cylinder that is simultaneously wreaking havoc on Earth’s atmosphere and sending a loud signal that no one recognizes. The crew of the Enterprise, living in exile on the planet Vulcan, takes flight in their stolen Klingon ship and springs into action. When Spock (Leonard Nimoy) determines that the signal is identical to the song of the humpback whale, a species that has long been extinct, Kirk (William Shatner) and company travel back in time to 1986, where they plan to capture a pair of whales and bring them back to their present day to save Earth.
There are several things that make Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home such an enjoyable film, and the first is probably the one you would least expect: its humor. By recognizing its own cult status and the contrast of that against the decade in which the film was produced, the film maximizes the usually tired, fish-out-of-water premise to great effect. The crew finds itself on an Earth of centuries earlier, but without the heavy drama of other time-travel scenarios (The City on the Edge of Forever, for example), which ultimately sets it up for many humorous situations. And while the film doesn’t have endlessly quotable lines like other successful films of the ‘80s, and while not every joke gets a laugh…well, for a franchise that, up until this point, had taken itself pretty seriously (with exceptions of course…Tribbles, anyone?) the change in levity is quite refreshing.
And although the film recognizes the difference between 2286 and 1986, it doesn’t play too much into the superficial trappings of the decade. There are no endless montages of Valley Girls in shopping malls, nor is there a power ballad to be heard. It does, however, take up an ‘80s-ish cause with its save-the-whales message, it has a little fun with ‘80s xenophobia (Chekov, you know, the Russian, is the one who asks the cop where to find the military base with the nuclear wessels, um, vessels), and there’s a scene on a city bus where Spock draws applause from strangers for subduing a punk rocker who has been blasting his boom box.
Something else the film does that is also very ‘80s (but not in a spandex or mullet kind of way) is the tribute it pays.
The 1940s had Pearl Harbor. The 1960s had the assassination of JFK. The 2000s had 9/11. Every generation has had a “where were you when” moment, and the 1980s were no different; that generation had the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Again, being of a certain age, this was my first significant “where were you when” moment, and the film, which began principal photography less than a month after the tragedy and was released less than year after, opens with the following:
“The cast and crew of Star Trek wish to dedicate this film to the men and women of the spaceship Challenger whose courageous spirit shall live to the 23rd century and beyond.”
It is heartwarming, even 25+ years later, to read that. It shows that the filmmakers don’t take what they do so seriously as to lose sight of the fact that all they do is play in pretend outer space. It’s a statement perfect in reverence, given the context.
But the most interesting thing about Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is something that never occurred to me until I watched this film for this review, which (more importantly) was after I had seen the J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot.
Starring Chris Pine as Kirk, Star Trek delves into the origins of the primary characters, but also explores Kirk’s hotheaded and impetuous and insubordinate ways. But when these seemingly negative attributes are compared to the “older” Kirk we know, you can clearly see that hotheadedness and impetuousness and insubordination matures into ridiculous self-confidence. Kirk’s decision on how to solve the problem at hand is to travel through time to the past, pluck a pair of 40-ton whales from San Francisco, and bring them back to the present. You know, just like that. He doesn’t hesitate, and more importantly, he doesn’t worry. He simply knows that he can do it. With the pretext of the Pine Kirk established, the Shatner Kirk seems less a caricature and more a bona fide hero.
This, of course, is more of a testament to the reboot than it is to the older film, but it is a treat to be reminded, when watching the older film, that the filmmakers of today fully understand Kirk in a way that stays true to the history of the character.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home might not be the favorite film of Star Trek purists, but for casual fans of the franchise, and fans of ‘80s movies in general, it is an excellent entry.