Summary: An underratted movie that deserves more praise.
*spoilers* *this post has spoilers*
The general opinion is that, for most of the Star Trek movies, the even numbered movies are very good, and the odd number movies are very bad. (see: Star Trek Movie Curse). I've tended to agree: Wrath of Khan, Voyage Home, Undiscovered Country, and First Contact are all movies I like. I recently rewatched Star Trek III two times in the span of a month - and I liked it more than I thought I would. I think it's evidence that the Curse isn't real.
The movie opens shortly after the previous one ended. The Enterprise is returning to Earth to recover from its recent battle with Khan. Kirk is miserable about Spock's death, and McCoy seems to have coped by going crazy. To make things worse, upon arrival at Earth, they learn the Enterprise is going to be decomissioned - so soon after Spock sacrificed himself to save it.
A surprise visit from Spock's father, Sarek, reveals that Vulcans can dump their memories (or "katra") into nearby living beings before they die. Sarek appears about as angry a Vulcan can be, because he believes Kirk shouldn't have abandoned Spock's body on the Genesis Planet. To see if Spock might have dumped his memory into Kirk, the two mindmeld, and we're treated to a great scene in which Kirk relives Spock's final moments. Kirk's whimpering "No..." as he relives his helplessness is something we never get to see our heroes do in traditional action movies. Usally such pain would be accompanied by anger and frustration - so that the hero appears powerful instead of weak. But between Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock, we get to see Kirk showing the rawest, purest kind of pain, multiple times - and Kirk becomes a more compelling character for it. Shatner is really good at pulling these scenes off - he really deserves more credit as an actor.
It turns out Spock's katra isn't in Kirk at all. Instead McCoy's bizzarre behavior is due to having to keep all of Spock in his head. And so we have our story: to honor their friend's memory and customs, Kirk and McCoy must go to the Genesis Planet to fetch Spock's body and return it to planet Vulcan, along with his katra. Standing in their way is the Federation, who incompetently is restricting access to the Genesis planet to everyone other than a helpless science vessel commanded by a sheepish captain. There's also Kruge, a (rogue?) Klingon captain who wants to learn the secret of the Genesis missile.
Kirk and crew steal the Enterprise to get to the Genesis Planet in a sequence that exemplifies what makes the original movies so much fun to watch. As an audience, we know they'll be successful getting the ship out - so the film chooses to make the escape funny and casual instead of working off of manufactured tension and suspense.
Meanwhile, on Genesis, Saavik and David Marcus (Kirk's son) beam down to investigate an unexpected life sign, and discover Genesis has regenerated Spock, but he's an empty shell - a rapidly aging young clone of Spock with none of his memories. They also learn that the Genesis Planet isn't going to be around much longer. Soon after this discovery, Kruge arrives at the Genesis Planet (before Kirk does), destroying the poor science vessel the Federation left to fend for itself.
Kirk and Kruge face off. Kirk wins. But in the process he loses the Enterprise, and he loses his son. By 2013, blowing up the Enterprise is practically a Star Trek movie tradition. But here, this is the original Enterprise - the one we watched in The Original Series. (NCC one seven O one. No bloody A, B, C, or D*) It's a big deal, and effectively done. And the special effects for the explosion are apporopriately dramatic. Kirk, McCoy, the crew, and the audience watch as the Enterprise crashes into the dying Genesis Planet. And while David was never a character I was attached to, his death is lent power by the way it's filmed and by Shatner's performance. When David dies we hear no music - just the brutal sound of his being stabbed and his dying grunt. There is no music either as Kirk learns David died, and falls to the ground, shattered, crying, and impotently repeating "Klingon bastards, you killed my son."
In the finale, Spock's empty clone - now conveniently the same age as the original Spock was when he died - is returned to Vulcan, and a Vulcan ritual (influenced by the TOS episode Amok Time) is performed that puts Spock back together. The movie ends as Spock is reunited with his fellow crew members, and there's just a lot of love and joy in the reunion.
At the end of all this we end up with Spock, alive, and mostly well. If anything, THIS is the movie's flaw. Bringing Spock back cheapens the impact of his sacrifice in the previous movie, even if the contrivance to get it done was well executed and mostly fit into the Star Trek Universe.
As to the contrivance itself - the Vulcan katra: how is it that humans didn't know about it by the time the movie takes place? Also, why would the Vulcans be interested in retreiving the dead body of Spock - you would think only the katra itself would have mattered..
Finally, it's also worth noting that Search for Spock is responsible for introducing a lot of things into the Star Trek canon. Including:
- The Excelsior class vessel, which seems to be the workhorse ship of Star Fleet in TNG
- The Klingon Bird of Prey - the most commonly seen Klingon ship therafter
- It's the first time we see Earth Space Dock, the model for all other Space Stations
- While the Klingon language was introduced in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," this is the first time it gets a formal grammar and a very rich vocabulary.
NOTE: this is the first time I've ever written a movie review. In the future, I don't know that I'd write a synopsis as I did in this one. It's a lot easier to just write a review assuming whoever is reading it knows the movie well, and just jump into it. In fact, I would have spent more time with analysis had I skipped the synopsis, but I exhausted myself....