Now that Western popular cinema has entered the post-Marvel, post-LOTR age—where serialization is not just accepted, but expected, in our blockbusters—it's interesting to look back on an era when such things were still pretty new. The original Star Wars trilogy began the modern version of the trend, and, alongside the Indy trilogy, the Star Trek film franchise reinforced the trend, proving it to be a viable strategy and not a series-specific aberration.
Contrast this with the comparatively abrupt opening of Star Trek IV. The opening council scene with John Shuck's Klingon ambassador provides some indirect summary of the previous two movies, then Kirk's first captain's log says "We're in the third month of our Vulcan exile," never fully explaining why they're exiled, let alone why the planet Vulcan would be harboring them. Ironic that the most financially successful Trek film (up until 2009) opens in a fashion so impenetrable, almost hostile, to the uninitiated viewer. It's not as though they could have assumed that every audience member saw The Search for Spock. (Indeed, it seems they even tacked on a weird prologue for the foreign markets under the assumption that too few people overseas had seen III.)
And the movie ends with a trial concerning the events of II and III—this being, by the way, the only scene in IV where the leads wear their normal uniforms—and none of it would make any goddamn sense at all, in relation to the preceding time-travelling whale-catchers storyline, if you had just come into this franchise.
Nevertheless, the fact that Spock died in II was well-known to the moviegoing public at the time, as was the title of III, and for all I know the promotion campaign for IV was loaded with recap. (I remember seeing The Voyage Home in the theater, but I was young enough that I remember nothing about its buzz.) And when you put aside all the serial stuff, this is just a fun popcorn treat at its core, so maybe the resolution of the Genesis story didn't really matter in terms of accessibility. Or even in terms of the franchise—Genesis was never mentioned again, as far as I can recall, and protomatter (its Treknobabble basis) got only a subtle mention in an early DS9 episode.
One thing that has always struck me about IV, from my first viewing through my countless subsequent viewings, is how it's all over the map tonally. Its score is the most ebullient in all of Trek, yet its opening "whale probe" scenes are scary and creepy in an almost Kubrickian way. There's a tinge of melancholy coming from Kirk's difficulty relating to Spock, who was once his closest friend—but most of the running time is littered with wacky fish-out-of-water hijinks. Even if all the fun 20th-century stuff was absent, and this movie was about something far more conventional than time-travel, it'd still have arguably the most idiosyncratic feel of any Trek movie.
Yet it still feels like a Trek movie, despite all that and the near-total absence of the Enterprise. I suspect that has something to do with how the script manages to make time for real characterization. Today, most movies would cut the dinner scene's length in about half, and lose a lot in the process, especially in terms of Kirk's behavior. That scene had a lot to do with Young Me being able to develop an appreciation for the Kirk character. Similarly, though Spock is even more of a cipher here than usual, it not only makes narrative sense but results in affecting character moments during the penultimate Federation council scene.
The direction and editing is noticeably bolder here than in III, and feels slightly less old-fashioned than that of II. I doubt its comic approach would've worked any other way, so that was lucky. (Even more lucky: Eddie Murphy backed out of the project. I've never been super fond of the Gillian character, but from what Memory Alpha tells me about the original premise? Thank the Prophets for the Gillian-based premise.)
At times, though, the comedy went a little too far. The whole Chekov business, for example, took a never-significantly-defined tertiary character and turned him into not merely a flagrant violator of the Temporal Prime Directive, but kind of a doofus. The resulting hospital scenes don't really advance the narrative in any way, but they're fun and not overlong, so I guess it's forgivable.
I knock points off this movie really only for one reason, and that's the absurdity of its premise. "Weird probe wants to talk to whales, but can't, so: time travel" is the sort of thing they might well have laughed out of the writers' room of even 1st season TNG. I accept it as plausible in-universe, but in 1986 it had to have been (and likely remains) at least a slightly tough sell to any viewer who's not already a member of Greenpeace. To say nothing of Kirk's line about how when "man was killing these creatures, he was destroying his own future"…because naturally, audience, you should've expected a Whalish-speaking space probe to appear in a few hundred years to punish our species for whaling, so write your congressman today. I suspect The Voyage Home could have handled that whole thematic angle with a little more finesse. (But at least it was about SOMEthing.)
Still, brisk pacing, solid acting, and lots of fun, quotable dialogue make IV live up to its sequential status as one of the even-numbered ones. They should've let Nimoy direct more of them, seeing as he directed both this one and its predecessor, which was probably the best odd-numbered one.
Star Score: 3.5 out of 5