Paramount Pictures was last year's box-office champion even before ``Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home'' started raking in mountains of money. A major reason was the strength of ```Crocodile' Dundee,'' the studio's other smasheroo of the cool-weather season. At first glance, the two pictures couldn't be more unlike. One is a science-fiction epic sired by a TV series, the other an Australian comedy. Yet they have pretty much the same story to tell, and this indicates high audience interest in the subject they share: the clash of contrasting cultures and societies.
``Star Trek IV'' opens with a burst of action that may seem bewildering if you're new to the series. But a few scenes later, the plot becomes as clear as the dilithium crystal that powers the Starship Enterprise.
Returning home after the adventures of ``Star Trek III,'' the Enterprise crew runs into a nasty surprise: Earth is being destroyed by a mysterious ray from outer space. The trusty Mr. Spock identifies it as a ``probe'' from another planet that wants to strike up an interstellar conversation with humpback whales.
Since humpback whales are extinct in the 23rd century, the probe is getting no reply, and the distant planet doesn't realize the havoc it's causing. How to solve the problem? Our heroes must time-travel to the 20th century and filch a couple of whales to repopulate the species in their own era.
That's how the Enterprise gang finds itself on the streets of San Francisco in 1986, searching for whales but stymied by one 20th-century quirk after another. The crew has only a dim idea of how money works, for example. So when Admiral Kirk manages to pawn something for $100, he has to ask, ``Is that a lot?''
And then there's the language problem: Why does everyone use vulgarities all the time? Spock is troubled by this, but Kirk explains that it's just a 20th-century way of getting attention. He knows this, he adds, because he's read the literature of the period - the works of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins, in particular. ``Ah,'' Spock replies. ``The giants!''
As delivered by such seasoned performers as William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, the irony-laced dialogue of ``Star Trek IV'' is one of the year's unexpected treats. Wit gives spice to even the most ordinary scenes - as when a 1986 woman, struck by Kirk's odd behavior, asks him sarcastically if he's from outer space. ``I'm from Iowa,'' he answers. ``I only work in outer space.''
Just as engaging is the relaxed mood of the movie, except for a few obligatory action scenes. In his second outing as a ``Star Trek'' director, Nimoy gives the story a leisurely pace that's refreshingly different from anything you'll find in a ``Star Wars'' or Indiana Jones epic.
At times he pushes this amazingly far - stopping the action in its tracks, at one point, for a long ``save the whales'' lecture from a marine-biologist character. This is a risky maneuver for a mass-audience movie, but it's in a good cause, and it certainly isn't hampering the picture's success. With its fourth installment, the ``Star Trek'' film series takes its place as the most rewarding of Hollywood's current fantasy juggernauts. And director Nimoy consolidates the promise he showed in the similarly offbeat ``Star Trek III,'' with its wintry tones.
But what does this have to do with Crocodile Dundee and his adventures? Just about everything - since his yarn is a near-identical twin to that of ``Star Trek IV,'' although it's woven from more earthbound cloth.
This time the clashing cultures are separated by oceans instead of time. In the first half of the picture, a New York reporter visits Australia to do a story on a celebrated wilderness dweller. Although it turns out that Crocodile's macho image far surpasses his real accomplishments, he has plenty of opportunities to rescue his city-bred companion from Outback booby traps. Then they fly to Manhattan, where it's his turn to be the bumbling outsider.
Since audiences have been beaming aboard the ``Star Trek'' and Dundee films in droves, it's reasonable to infer that their theme - encounters between people of different backgrounds and habits - has taken on a strong resonance in our time, when the real world is shrinking by means of ever-faster travel and communications technology. Cultural collisions occur in other key films of 1986, too - such as ``Something Wild,'' in which a staid businessman is whisked into weirdness by a free-living woman, and even ``True Stories,'' with its tourist's-eye view of a Texas town.
Such movies can be seen as part of a larger trend including pictures from ``Blue Velvet'' to ``The Mosquito Coast,'' which also place more-or-less everyday characters in surroundings removed from the ordinary. Filmgoers are in an exploratory mood, it seems.