After the critical and popular success of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN in the summer of 1982, Paramount wasted no time in greenlighting the next sequel, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, a very good space opera that emphasizes relationships over action.
NOTE: I previously covered STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.
The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is still hurting after the death of Mr. Spock (first-time feature director Leonard Nimoy) at the end of ST II. Limping back to a space station orbiting Earth, Admiral James Kirk (William Shatner) and crew are even further saddened to learn that the Enterprise, considered by the Federation to be old and obsolete, will be decommissioned.
Meanwhile, Dr. McCoy (scene-stealing DeForest Kelley) has been acting strangely, attempting to buy passage aboard an illegal spaceship and speaking in Spock's voice. A visit from Spock's father Sarek (Mark Lenard, reprising his role from the television series) convinces Kirk that McCoy is the keeper of Spock's katra--his essence, soul, spirit, knowledge, whatever you want to call it--and that his old friend can be resurrected in an ancient Vulcan ceremony that hasn't been performed in centuries.
Turning renegade after the Federation refuses his request to visit the Genesis Planet where Spock's corpse lies, Kirk recruits shipmates Scott (James Doohan), Sulu (George Takei), Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) to help him steal the Enterprise, kidnap Spock's body, and take it, along with McCoy, to Vulcan. However, Klingon commander Kruge (BACK TO THE FUTURE's Christopher Lloyd) has discovered the secret of Genesis, and has kidnapped Kirk's son David (Merritt Butrick), Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis, replacing STII's Kirstie Alley), and a young Vulcan lad on the planet's surface, holding them hostage in exchange for the Genesis formula.
Although ST III's story is self-contained, the film still plays like the middle chapter of a trilogy (which it is), bookending a couple of tense action sequences with scenes of great poetry and power. What Nimoy brings to the film as a director is a strong theatrical sense, directing his actors to not be afraid to go too far and cinematographer Charles Correll to paint dark shadows and dramatic lighting across the set. While this may have partially been done to mask the low budget (less than $20 million), it does give ST III more of an operatic feel than the other films in the series.
Themes of sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, and family float across the screen, as the Enterprise crew risks everything they have, including their very lives, to bring one of their own back from beyond. One scene near the end is a perfect example of STAR TREK's essential quality, a beautifully edited and scored (by James Horner) sequence involving dissolves from one familiar face to another as they await news of their fallen friend.
Pure action hasn't been neglected, however. The crisply edited scene in which the Enterprise goes against a bigger, newer, and better respected rival starship is a highlight, as is Kirk's hand-to-hand battle with Kruge as the planet cracks up around them (elaborate fight scenes, a staple of the original TV series, often featuring Captain Kirk's trademark two-legged kick to the chest, were absent from the films to this point).
Each of the supporting actors has a chance to briefly shine this time around, from Takei's "Don't call me 'Tiny'" to Nichols' repartee with a cocky young crewman. Shatner's emotional response to one character's death is among his best work. Lloyd, normally a comedic actor, brings operatic menace to his role.
Familiar faces dotting the supporting cast include John Larroquette (NIGHT COURT), James B. Sikking (HILL STREET BLUES), Robert Hooks (TROUBLE MAN), Miguel Ferrer, Dame Judith Anderson, Branscombe Richmond, Phil Morris (SEINFELD's Jackie Childs), Philip R. Allen, and Grace Lee Whitney, a semi-regular as Janice Rand on the STAR TREK series. Nimoy was not a directing neophyte prior to ST III; he had helmed episodes of NIGHT GALLERY, THE POWERS OF MATTHEW STAR, and Shatner's T.J. HOOKER series. Paramount must have liked what he did on ST III, because they let him direct the follow-up, STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME, which turned out to be the highest grossing TREK film until J.J. Abrams' 2009 remake.