Paramount // 1986 // 118 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 10th, 2000
The key to saving the future can be found only in the past.
The latest addition to the list of Star Trek movies on DVD from Paramount, this one was the most accessible to the non-Trek crowd, and one of the most popular overall. The second of the Trek films to be directed by Leonard Nimoy (Spock, for those who haven't been alive in the last century), the film came at a time when the cast and crew had hit its stride and felt familiar enough to indulge in some humor and self-irony. The humor of this "fish out of water" tale (pun intended) makes it one of the most beloved Trek films to Trekkers and non-Trekkers alike. My own opinion places it around the middle of my list of favorite Trek films, but this one is a welcome addition to my collection, thanks to a spanking new anamorphic transfer and even a couple extras from Paramount.
All right, I'm a geek. I know far too many bits of minute trivia having to do with the Star Trek series and films. To be fair, I know a fair amount of minutiae about a lot of things, being a trivia magnet. But I've been a Trek fan since the first series aired in 1966, and eagerly awaited each new film as they came out (right up until the disastrous Star Trek V, that is). Star Trek II, III, and IV make up a trilogy of sorts, and it is a shame that Paramount has decided to go in reverse order on getting the films into release. For those of us who already know the films, this isn't much of an obstacle to watch IV independently of the others.
For those who haven't seen the prior films, I'll give a short description that sets up the film. Star Trek IV takes up where the last film left off, after the crew of the Enterprise had hijacked their aging ship and taken it on a mission to rescue their friend Spock. The Enterprise destroyed, the crew is now on Vulcan after rescuing Spock and returning in a commandeered Klingon Bird of Prey. Here Spock goes through the recovery of mending his reconciled mind and body. The crew decides to return to Earth to face charges from Starfleet Command related to hijacking their own ship. Spock agrees to accompany them, still not fully healed. He has regained his Vulcan knowledge and logic, but has yet to come to grips with his human side.
But the journey to Earth is interrupted by a new threat to the planet itself. Some big probe that looks like a big log of beef jerky has arrived, and the signal it sends out has began vaporizing the oceans and shutting down all sources of power. Spock figures out the signal is really the song of humpback whales, after filtering the sound for how it would sound underwater. Unfortunately the humpbacks are extinct in the 23rd century, and there are none to answer the probe's message. So the crew falls back on one of the staple plot devices of the series: time travel. All they have to do is travel back in time, get some humpback whales, and bring them back to the future so they can tell the probe to go away. This may sound goofy, but works surprisingly well.
The real highlights of the film though are the scenes of our 23rd century heroes on the ground in 1986 San Francisco. From the "colorful metaphors" of Kirk ("And a double dumb-ass on you!") to Scotty trying to use a 1980s computer ("A keyboard? How quaint!") and Chekov finding a "nuclear wessel" (the Enterprise, natch) the film allows the cast to make fun of themselves and let the audience laugh with them. Even after repeated viewings and so many years these scenes still bring a smile to my lips. Catherine Hicks, better known now as the wise mother on TV's 7th Heaven, also puts in a very believable performance as a marine biologist who cares about the whale's plight.
Fortunately Paramount has given the transfer the attention it deserves. Only a bit of flecks on the film stock and an image a little soft at times keeps this from being reference quality. Unlike the poor aspect ratio and matting of the laserdisc transfer, this is a brand new anamorphic beauty. It will likely never look better.
The sound track is very nice as well, though not up to the very high quality of some of the later Trek films. This is still a brand-new Dolby Digital 5.1 track, with an expansive soundstage and a well imaged and surrounding score. There is a bit less use of directional ambient sound, but still several noticeable places where it is used accurately. The subwoofer only gets a workout in a few scenes, but when it does the walls shake.
This time there are even a couple extras! Paramount chose to include the director's feature from the laserdisc and the trailer. The feature is noteworthy, getting some nice insight about Nimoy and the shooting of the whale scenes. I only wish it had lasted longer. The trailer doesn't look nearly as good as the film, but is anamorphic with Dolby 2.0 sound.
Well, film wise, certainly there are some dated special effects, and the usual scientific inconsistencies (everything concerning nuclear power, and how Scotty can just whip up designs on a 1980s computer with nothing but fast keystrokes for example) that you've come to expect in all things Star Trek. Some would bemoan the obvious political correctness about saving the whales. The latter I wouldn't agree with though; Star Trek has always been a morality play, and highlighting our own short- sightedness about killing off species fits into that category.
Disc-wise, as usual with Paramount I have to complain about the extras. Certainly they have taken a baby step in the right direction by including the director's feature. But why not a commentary by Leonard Nimoy? How about an outtake reel, or any number of extras, such as cast and crew bios? Star Trek is arguably Paramount's most profitable and best-loved franchise, and they could do much better in this department. Hopefully The Search For Spock and The Wrath of Khan will be full blown special editions, as these two are among the best of the series.
This is a welcome addition to the series of Star Trek films on DVD. It is much better than some of the earlier released versions for picture quality, and even has an extra feature or two. It is a film I will watch again and again over the years, and this marks it as a prime candidate for purchase.
Leonard Nimoy is commended for being a very good director, and hopefully will not remain so underrated. The rest of the cast acquitted themselves well, and need no such ruling from me. Paramount is given a reprieve for the inclusion of a couple extras, along with their usual high quality transfer and sound. An official mention in the record is made, however, that this court expects more in the extra department in the future.
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Star Trek Link Page
* Official Star Trek Site