The Enterprise, in desperate need of repairs following its battle with Khan, heads home to Earth after the crew has said their final goodbyes to Spock, whose body now rests on the brand-new Genesis planet. McCoy, having been on the receiving end of Spock's final mind-meld, is acting like a man possessed, and is taken into custody once the ship arrives home. Kirk is informed that the Enterprise has seen its final voyage, and will be decommissioned. In the meantime, a rogue(?) Klingon, Commander Kruge, is trying to discover the secret of Project Genesis, coveting it as a weapon for the Klingon Empire. Spock's father Sarek asks Kirk to brings Spock's body back home, to be reunited with the piece of him left in McCoy and laid to rest on Vulcan. Since the Genesis planet is currently under quarantine, Kirk steals the Enterprise and flies it to Genesis where he, Kruge, and a science team led by his son David and Lieutenant Saavik, converge on the planet. Spock, brought back to life by the Genesis effect, is rapidly aging along with the planet itself. After a space battle that cripples both the Enterprise and his ship, Commander Kruge, recognizing that Kirk knows something about Genesis, demands the device in exchange for the lives of Saavik and Spock, after killing David to show he is serious. Kirk surrenders the Enterprise but sets it to self-destruct and beams down to the planet just as the Klingon boarding party beams aboard the ship and are killed as the Enterprise self-destructs. Kirk bests Kruge in combat and hijacks the Klingon ship to Vulcan, where Spock's now-adult body is reunited with his mind.
Leonard Nimoy was given an out during the filming of Star Trek II, the chance to walk away from the series on his own terms, Spock having died to save the Enterprise with the final act of the film dedicated to giving him a proper send-off. But he liked making the film so much that he decided to stick around, and so we get a direct sequel to Wrath of Khan whose job it is to find a way to bring Spock back to life. And, as a bonus for Nimoy, he turned his considerable leverage into an opportunity to direct the movie, which certainly made practical sense since he doesn't appear in the film until the very end, and could focus on directing.
I don't want to overstate just how over his head Nimoy is as a director on this film. It is certainly not an incompetently made picture, and one scene flows into another well enough. But it is not a well-made movie, with Nimoy exhibiting the sort of heavy hand that can sometimes plague first-time filmmakers - he too often feels the need to be doing something, when the movie would be better off with him sitting back and letting things play out simply. He's like the manager of a shitty baseball team who is constantly pushing buttons, a hit-and-run here, a squeeze there, and costing his team runs by trying too hard to appear to be in control.
The shitty team here is the script, and what a nightmare of subtext as text it is. This is a film that refuses to ever let the audience figure something out on its own, spoon-feeding them every emotional beat and thematic idea with all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the head. Harve Bennett is the credited scriptwriter, and he certainly deserves some of the blame, but another director, one who was perhaps more self-assured (read: experienced) probably could have done some on-the-fly re-writing work. Nimoy understandably was pre-occupied with how to present his visual language, and I'm guessing Bennett's script was used close to as-is, which is the thing that ultimately sinks the movie.
That's the big problem with the script. The small problem, but one that is a niggling annoyance all throughout the film, is how much it pushes against the boundaries of my "A wizard did it" policy (this is the policy of simply saying, whenever any science or tech comes up that doesn't immediately make sense, that it is a wizard's doing.) It's a good policy, and it's a necessary policy for a Star Trek film, but this movie so thoroughly revolves around the science of the Genesis planet, and none of what happens with that planet makes any logical or, more important, consistent sense, that it really started to try my patience and my policy. The planet "ages" rapidly which, first, is not a thing that planets do but is a thing that this planet does so that Spock can also age rapidly (it is exposited that David used "protomatter" in the Genesis device, which is a banned substance and is incredibly unstable, and I fear that if I try to understand any of what I just said I will collapse into a spiral of despair). Why does Spock restart his life as a little kid (or, presumably, a baby, or maybe a fetus) instead of simply emerging as a full-grown man? The mechanics of how the planet brought him back to life never coalesces at all. And then why, as the planet "ages" itself into oblivion, does Spock not do likewise? He gets to the exact age that he was when he died, and then he stops aging, even as the planet continues its death spiral. When "a wizard did it" collides with "Hollywood bullshit", well, you've got this movie. An entire movie based on bringing a character back to life through magic would have been a hard sell no matter what, but it's an even harder sell when no one attempts even a cursory explanation of the rules of that magic.
Bullet points follow:
Star Trek has, from the beginning, used the Captain's Log as a narrative crutch, shoehorning in exposition or character motivation in a pseudo-organic way when they couldn't figure out how to properly write it into the script. Kirk's opening Captain's Log infodump here is way on the nose, with Kirk basically laying out all his feelings about Spock and the Genesis planet in voiceover. Shortly after this, some random crewmember flat-out asks Kirk if there will be a ceremony for the Enterprise crew when they get back to Earth, allowing Kirk to opine further about the sacrifices they've made. Script, you are the worst.
The Klingon ship decloaking is a pretty cool effect. Kruge gets his hands on the Genesis Project proposal from Wrath of Khan from some sort of human double agent. For reasons that aren't clear Bibi Besch didn't come back for this movie to reprise her role as Carol Marcus, so the job of expositing the Genesis Project is handed over to Kirk, narrating the same video, in the same way, that Besch did in the last movie. The dude who is helping the Klingons steal the Genesis Project data actually uses the phrase, "When do I get paid off?" and I will stop pointing out specific ways that this script never uses a subtle line when it can use a big blinking landing strip of a line because it happens a lot and it is too sad to keep documenting it.
I'm guessing this is the first time we've ever seen a Space dock, because they make a big fucking deal about it with the music. It's a big miniature compared to the Enterprise, and probably would have been too expensive to do on a TV budget.
Blu-ray is not kind to Shatner's toupee.
When we get our first glimpse of the Genesis planet in its current state, flashed on the screen is the redundant "Genesis Planet" label and also a dumb stardate for some reason. Thanks Leonard, that stardate definitely puts the events of the film into the proper temporal frame for me.
Saavik is really kind of an enormous failure of a character. We've got a new actress now, Robin Curtis, and she is significantly worse than Kirstie Alley, but the problem is in the character. I don't care about Saavik. No one cares about Saavik. She's not one of our core 7, and she never does anything interesting enough to bump her into the vicinity of them.
Is it possible that I just don't understand Vulcans? Sarek is totally pissed off at Kirk for leaving Spock's body on the Genesis planet. Mark Lenard doesn't even attempt to disguise his actorly emotions, and I thought the whole shtick with Vulcans was that they had suppressed their emotions?
Nimoy goes with ultra close-ups of Lenard and Shatner when Sarek mind-melds with Kirk and speaks Spock's last words back to him. This is the sort of "let's call a suicide squeeze now!" thing that I'm talking about.
Dumb pet-peeves, but pet-peeves nonetheless - security footage that is edited like a film. Kirk uses security footage to find who Spock's final mind-meld was with (Sarek assumes it would have been Kirk, and Kirk has to discover that it was actually McCoy), and it's just footage from the last film (obviously), edited together perfectly.
"One alive, one not, yet both in pain." Okay, one more potshot at the script, couldn't help it.
Star Trek never, ever, ever seems to understand how evolution works. Down on the Genesis planet, when David and Saavik come across Spock's coffin, it is surrounded by these weird slime beings that David says have "evolved" from microbes that were on the coffin's surface. That is not a thing. (If you're curious, I also read The Agony Booth's recap of Threshold, a couple of years ago, which is what I'm basing my blanket statement here on.)
Kirk asks for permission to go to the Genesis planet and retrieve Spock's body from some Starfleet mucky-muck (which is impossible, because the planet has been quarantined for somewhat nebulous reasons, but I gather having to do with what a colossal mess the whole "Genesis is actually a doomsday device" situation is). Kirk relays the spiritual mumbo-jumbo that Sarek told him about reuniting Spock's body with his soul, and the mucky-muck tells Kirk to knock it off, that his life and career stand for "rationality" and not "intellectual chaos", because that guy lives in Opposite Town.
So Kirk and Co. put together their plan to steal the Enterprise, but first McCoy (who is not in his right mind and is acting like a lunatic) goes to the most intellectually bankrupt replica of the Star Wars cantina ever looking for a ride to Genesis. He even meets with some smuggler who talks kind of like Yoda. God this scene is awful, I can't do it justice. McCoy is busted and put in space jail, and Kirk and Sulu bust him out.
With Nimoy out of the picture, and guest stars being mostly absent in the first half, our regulars get a bit more to do than usual. Takei gets a (brief) scene during the space jail breakout to act like a badass, and Nichols gets her first showcase of the film series so far, putting some douchy young Starfleet dickwad in his place as she helps Kirk, Sulu and McCoy beam up to the Enterprise (she makes the most of it, and what an underutilized talent she's been to this point, and will continue to be for the rest of this film, since she disappears completely at this point and doesn't show up again until the very end.)
The Excelsior is the Enterprise's replacement, with some sort of newfangled warp drive powering it. James B. Sikking plays the captain of the Excelsior as basically a dull bureaucrat, to contrast him with our impulsive Captain Kirk who answers to no one.
Our crew pilots the Enterprise out of spacedock and the Excelsior chases after it. The Excelsior's fancy warp drive craps out because Scotty has sabotaged it, and it makes a really unfortunate "engine stalling" sound effect as it comes to a halt.
The snow on the Genesis planet is singularly unconvincing; I can practically taste the potato. There is clearly no location work in this film, with all of the scenes on the surface of the planet being shot on really ugly sound stages. Paramount is fucking cheap.
I want to accept Christopher Lloyd as the murderous Commander Kruge, I really do. I like Lloyd. I am trying very hard here. But I can't. It's just not possible. It's not just Doc Brown, it's Reverend Jim and Judge Doom and friggin' Uncle Fester, sure, throw him in there too. He has played too many iconic and sub-iconic oddballs, and he is too recognizable in his vocal cadences and in his features, even underneath the Klingon makeup.
John Larroquette, on the other hand, is mostly unrecognizable, granted that he does not have nearly the number of iconic characters or unique mannerisms and doesn't have many lines in this film.
Down on the planet, adolescent Spock is going through Pon Farr, which is some sort of Vulcan super-puberty that makes Vulcans murderously horny I guess? Saavik calms him by gently doing some kind of finger rub with him and if Pon Farr is what I think it is that seems like the exactly opposite of what she should be doing at the moment.
Merritt Butrick's performance as David is much improved, even if the relationship between him and Kirk continues to have no actual emotional weight behind it. Between the emotional distance of the relationship on screen, and Shatner's silly, hammy reaction to learning the news, David's death really doesn't register emotionally at all. He's a plot point, nothing more, something for Kirk to claim to have "sacrificed".
I don't want to accuse Nimoy of deliberately sabotaging Shatner during the infamous "You Klingon bastard" scene, a la Norman Mailer and Ryan O'Neal in Tough Guys Don't Dance, but it's hard not to at least consider the possibility.
There is a really great shot right after the Enterprise has self-destructed, with the crew seen in silhouette on the Genesis planet at dusk, watching the fireball of the destroyed ship streak across the sky. But then the shot immediately gets broken up by a closeup on everyone's face as they watch the ship, followed by another ham-handed bit of dialogue between Kirk and Bones explaining what we just witnessed and what it means to Kirk. Every damn time a nice thing happens, it is immediately ruined by the direction or the script or both.
The kid who plays teenage Spock never says anything and it's supposed to be because McCoy has Spock's essence buried inside his mind but it mostly makes Spock seem like he's Rain Man or something.
Kirk never had a face-to-face confrontation with Khan, and it didn't matter, because their battle was perfectly pitched and didn't need it. This movie twists itself in knots in order to put Kirk and Kruge into the same space, where they fight a hand-to-hand battle to the Klingon's death, and it is so much lamer than the Kirk/Khan battle. Kirk kicks Kruge into a volcano, where he explodes. Not even kidding.
Kirk takes over the Klingon ship by sheer animal magnetism (meaning he tricks the remaining Klingon crew into beaming him up by speaking like 2 words of Klingon and then hijacks the entire ship with just his phaser.)
The scene where Spock's mind gets fused back into his body is probably the one time that Nimoy's heavy-handed approach pays off, because it's a super-weird thing to have happen and needs a good bit of theatricality to the direction in order to sell it.
And then this is the second thing in this movie that I don't get. Why did Spock put his essence into McCoy? I gather that's something that Vulcans do before they die, but why would they do that? Why would they split their minds from their bodies, just to have to bring them back together again? It all seems very strange to me. It only really makes sense if you believe that resurrection is something the Vulcans have mastered, but that doesn't seem to be the case, it only happens in this movie for Spock because of Genesis. His mind and his body fuse back together, and we get our lame-ass emotional payoff as he recognizes Kirk again. This payoff was really muted by the fact that the actual big surprise of the film (that Spock was still fucking alive, thanks to the Genesis planet) was barely commented on, and just taken as a given. Putting his mind and body back together is claimed to be some majorly difficult thing but WE'VE ALREADY SEEN HIS BODY COME BACK TO LIFE AND WE KNOW THAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT THING OF ALL. The whole thing is totally botched from the beginning.
I'm not sure it's possible to talk about the way this film sabotaged the emotional ending of Wrath of Khan at this point. Spock came back here, and then he stayed back, and that is a longer period of Star Trek history than was the period before this film. Yes, it absolutely sabotages Spock's death scene given that we know he's coming back in the next movie. That genie's never going back in the bottle at this point, and Wrath of Khan is still a great movie even without the emotional payoff of Spock's death hitting with anything more than a dull thud.