Thursday, May 16, 2013

Movies I Love: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I didn't become a huge Star Trek nerd until a few years ago, but I have always loved Wrath of Khan.

"I have been, and always shall be, your friend."

That line, spoken once near the beginning and once near the end of Star Trek II, summarizes everything that is great and beautiful about Star Trek II, my favorite of the Star Trek movies, one of my favorite movies of all time and probably the best thing Star Trek has ever produced. Better than "City on the Edge of Forever." Better even than "Space Seed," the episode that inspired it. Wrath of Khan is the best Star Trek of all the Star Treks.

Ever since Star Trek was revived in the 1970s by a groundswell of fan conventions and syndicated success, Paramount had tried for several years to get a big-screen version of the property made. All attempts stalled, and the studio instead decided they would just create another Star Trek television show. But then Star Wars and Close Encounters made a shit ton of money, and science fiction was suddenly viable again in movie theaters. Paramount reworked some of the many scripts they had (mostly for the Phase II television show) and rushed the movie into production, hiring Hollywood legend Robert Wise to direct. The result was a movie that that went over schedule, over three times its original budget and was met with mostly critical indifference. Luckily, it made enough money ($139 million in 1979 dollars) and had enough of a fanbase that Paramount commissioned a sequel, albeit on with a much lower budget.

Ignoring the turgid majesty that was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, director (and uncredited writer) Nicholas Meyer opted to go back to basics for the 1982 follow-up, combing back through the series and finding who he felt was one of the more interesting villains: Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically enhanced superman who Kirk strands on Ceti Alpha V following an unsuccessful coup in "Space Seed," a second-season episode of Star Trek from 1967. Wrath of Khan finds the villain still stranded on the planet years later, discovered (once again) only by accident. Shortly after being left on V by Kirk, Ceti Alpha VI exploded and the aftermath threw the ecosystem of V into chaos, turning the planet into a barren, inhospitable wasteland -- the conditions on which eventually kills all but a few of Khan's followers, including his wife. Using mind control on the Federation officers who discover him (including Chekov), Khan steals the U.S.S. Reliant and goes after Kirk -- not just to kill him, but to hurt him...and to go on hurting him...
Part of what makes Wrath of Khan so great is that the villain has a legitimate vendetta. Kirk had acted like an asshole, and no one from the Federation ever bothered to check in on the castaways; if they had, they might have learned of the fate of Ceti Alpha VI (and V as a result) and many, many lives could have been spared. Khan's hatred of Kirk is justifiable, and it makes their extended duel that much more interesting -- we don't want Khan to win, but we can at least understand his passion. And Khan is nothing if not passionate; Ricardo Montalban, often considered a bit of a punchline because of Fantasy Island and his "rich Corinthian leather," is SO GOOD in the role, going big but never broad, always staying this side of hammy. He plays the bad guy in a Star Trek sequel like it's fucking King Lear. He's one of the all-time great villains.

That would mean very little if he wasn't evenly matched against Kirk, whose finest outing is Wrath of Khan. Like Montalban, Shatner is often (rightly) accused of overacting. Meyer turns all that against him here, giving him plenty of moments of cocky bravado (his entrance into the film is THE BEST) but pulling it all out from under him. This is a Kirk that is getting older and knows it. A Kirk who finally has to face death. A Kirk who is afraid, not just of what Khan will do but of losing the people he cares about -- including new additions Dr. Carol Marcus and David, who turns out to be Kirk's own son. Shatner doesn't miss a step. Some of the credit goes to Meyer, who deliberately did a lot of takes so that Shatner would stop playing scenes as "the hero" and just start being the character. But the majority of the acclaim belongs to Shatner, a notoriously vain actor who plays the part without vanity. Anyone who suggests that William Shatner is a shitty actor should shut up and watch Wrath of Khan.

Wrath of Khan gets it all right. Gone is the cold, Kubrick-inspired aesthetic of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The Enterprise bridge is no longer the antiseptic place of the first movie, replaced by warmer earth tones. Even the uniforms have changed from sterile white to deep red -- the blood has been infused back into the franchise. That's because the movie has blood pumping through its veins; everything in Wrath of Khan is deeply felt, because it deals with the biggest, most powerful emotions -- love, anger, loss, revenge. That's not to say that the movie deals only in broad emotional strokes, though. It's part of the greatness of the film that it's told on such a grand operatic scale but manages to find the nuances. Its big emotions are explored through small moments.
I'm often lamenting in my Heavy Action columns that so few genre movies are made in which the action comes from the characters; more often, it is a function of a screenplay that dictates action beats as a necessity of the plot (or, as is become more and more the case, the marketing department). Die Hard is a great example of an action movie driven entirely by character. Point Break is another. Wrath of Khan is one of the best character-based pieces of science fiction ever. Of course, it has the luxury of using characters that were established 15 years earlier and had been kicking around various forms of media for a decade-plus. But even the longevity of the franchise doesn't automatically mean that the movie would put the emphasis on the characters; for proof of this, just take a look at Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is much more concerned with "big" visuals than the human beings that occupy the same frame. Even the 2009 reboot -- of which I am a big fan -- doesn't derive its action out of character. If it did, we would have never been stranded on the Ice Planet Coincidence.

For being an adventure movie -- and it's a terrific one -- there's actually very little "action." Think of the climactic battle between Kirk/Enterprise and Khan/Reliant: it's slow and quiet, inspired not by Star Wars but by submarine battles. The excitement comes not from flying spaceships or laser battles, but from character choices. It's not about whether Kirk's ship can outrun Khan's. It's about whether or not Kirk will outsmart Khan. See? Characters and the choices they make. Not special effects. Not second unit stunt work. Don't get me wrong -- I LOVE THOSE THINGS. But if you can make a movie that's just as tense and just as exciting and just as satisfying by focusing solely on character? I will have 10,000 of your babies.

The movie is funny without being jokey. This, too, is a quality that has slowly bled out of our genre movies. Even the big blockbusters that do humor right -- like Iron Man 3 -- will stop a sequence cold so the characters can do a joke. But with Khan, humor comes from the same place it always has -- from the relationships between the characters. It's in the way that Spock tells Kirk to be careful, and an annoyed McCoy responds "WE will." It's in the way that both Kirk and McCoy both notice Lt. Saavik looking foxy but manage to talk around it. The movie is filled with little pieces of business that inform the characters.

Perhaps my favorite of these -- and maybe my favorite moment in the movie -- comes during its tragic climax, after Spock has sacrificed himself to save the Enterprise and its crew. Kirk rushes down to the engine room to find Spock huddled on the ground, quickly dying of radiation sickness. He stands to talk to Kirk, but before he does, he adjusts his uniform and makes sure he looks his best.

Dignity in the face of death. Pride in the Federation uniform. Character. Always character.

Let's talk about that finale. It's what Wrath of Khan is best known for -- being the movie that kills Spock. Nimoy wasn't interested in playing the character again, but producer Harve Bennett was able to talk him into doing the movie with the agreement that Spock would die. His sacrifice is the stuff of legend, imitated by plenty of other genre properties (X2 and even a Next Generation movie, Star Trek: Nemesis, are among the movies that rip it off) but never duplicated. The final exchange between Spock and Kirk is beautiful and sad, made all the more moving because the characters have decades of history together. I can't imagine what it must have been like to see that moment in when the movie played in '82.
Because its impact is lessened now. We know Spock comes back in the next movie (Paramount told Nimoy he could direct if he donned the ears again), which makes the Kirk/Spock exchange more of a setback than a goodbye. It's still beautifully written and acted, but no longer carries the same weight. The scene still moves me, but it doesn't cause me to break down and sob the way I know it would if it were an actual goodbye to the best character in the Star Trek universe.

That last scene between Kirk and Spock? That's not a Captain talking to his second in command. That's one best friend talking to another. All of Wrath of Khan is like that -- the characters don't relate to one another as crew but as friends. Saavik seems to be on board the Enterprise just so we can see some residual chain of command, but also so that there can be new eyes on board the ship who doesn't understand the dynamic, who doesn't understand the history and who gets to experience it all in a short amount of time. Otherwise, after 15 years together, the crew are friends. They're our friends, too. We have been, and always shall be.

Star Trek II isn't just the best Star Trek, it's one of the best things ever produced. Even audience members who aren't necessarily Star Trek fans commented how well it worked for them when we showed it as part of our first F This Movie Fest. A great movie is a great movie is a great movie.

This piece is being published on the day that Star Trek Into Darkness opens in theaters. That's not a coincidence. If I'm right about what J.J. Abrams has in store for his sequel, it's even less of a coincidence.  It will be difficult not to measure it against Wrath of Khan, though I suspect the movie is going to bring a lot of that on itself. That's an impossible standard. Into Darkness doesn't need to be Wrath of Khan, but it does need to put the film's most important lesson into practice: no chase sequence, no space battle, no multimillion dollar set piece means anything if the characters aren't there.

I don't cry at the end of Star Trek II. Instead, I tend to well up during the movie's opening titles. Part of it is James Horner's score, my favorite of all the Star Trek scores. Part of it (most of it) is because I know what's in store for me over the next two hours. I cry tears of joy, because I'm happy to be seeing Wrath of Khan again. I love this movie.

21 comments:

  1. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I was lucky enough to see Wrath of Khan at the theatre when it was first released. When Kirk is facing off against Khan for the first time, and Kirk says "Here it comes..." you could feel the electricity in the audience. It's another example of why Kirk is one of the all-time greatest heroes in contemporary fiction. But one of the things that makes Kirk great is the support he gets from Spock and McCoy. Has there ever been another triumvirate as great as this one?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post. The only negative I can think of regarding Star Trek II is that as that as it has become so justifiably revered over the years, the franchise has tried harder and harder to replicate it, but instead of following its example of character relationships they focus its most obvious element: the big villain.

    All of the Next Generation films and now the Abrams films have focused on pitting the Enterprise crews against some larger-than-life opponent, usually bent on some form of revenge. While clearly action and adventure stories will often require some kind of antagonist, Khan's lineage seems apparent in most of these later adversaries. If Star Trek IV were made today, I suspect Kirk and crew would have spent much of the movie battling some obsessed Ahab character out to kill the whales.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree. I wonder if any of that has to do with the demands of a movie versus a TV show, though -- the stakes have to be higher for a standalone film. But as you pointed out, IV works without an obvious Big Bad, so there goes my theory.

      Interesting, too, that the best movie villain after Khan is The Borg in First Contact -- the only other villain to be taken from the TV show. Is there a lesson here?

      Delete
    2. I still have a nostalgic affection for Reverend Jim as a Klingon commander.

      Delete
    3. With Dan Fielding as an underling.

      Delete
    4. Yet funny how they managed to ruin the Borg whenever they showed up in one of the series' after that (I suggest those episodes of Enterprise for instance).
      First Contact was a fluke.
      You (meaning Rick Berman) make four films and only one is entertaining? And, IMHO, it's the most non-Trek picture until Abrams took over.
      Characters barely act like themselves in this.
      Picard's doing HIS impression of Ahab and having violent, raging bouts of post-traumatic stress all over the place - which you'd think that they'd have relieved him of his duty until he was over it? Or did they leave his counseling to "The Queen of the Fucking Obvious" and that's why he's still screwed up?
      And then, we've got Data throwing all his values away and becomes "Space Buffalo Bill" because the Borg Queen offers to make him a skin suit...which one can only surmise is being made of skin taken from shipmates being "absorbed" into the collective...
      And we were supposed to feel the same about these characters after this movie..?
      The problem with most Trek movies since TWoK is the studio's insistence that they have to "widen the base". So we've ending up with "Vaguely Star Trek Like Substance" instead of Roddenberry's vision.

      Oh, and in a way Voyage Home did deal with a villain they had to fight in the end...the whalers who were after George and Gracie.

      Delete
  3. I am not old enough to have seen it in the theater in it's original run, but I have had the pleasure of seeing Wrath of Khan in my local theater over a recent summer when they screen a series of classics. What's more, they're showing it again! I'm very excited for that.

    I love the 2009 Star Trek (and hopefully I will love its sequel just as much. I'm seeing it tonight), but Wrath of Khan is most definitely, without a doubt, the best Star Trek experience there is.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wow, great piece, Patrick, I have been remiss in not revisiting this movie since the F This Movie Fest which, as fun as it is, I'm sure you'd agree is not necessarily the optimal setting for a first-time viewing. I remember it being my favourite movie of the night, but other than some of the pivotal moments, my memory of it is a little fuzzy. You've made me want to give it another watch for sure.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Nice write-up! This makes me more pumped to see Wrath of Khan for the first time soon. For you Chicago peeps, Shatner is going to be in Woodridge screening the movie Memorial Day weekend.

    http://www.atriptothemovies.com/index.php?src=events&srctype=detail&refno=90&category=Film%20Festivals%20and%20Special%20Events

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, seeing Wrath for the first time? I wonder how much of our love of the film is tempered by nostalgia and whether it will play as well to you as a first timer.

      Either way, seeing it at such an event with Shatner will be pretty cool.

      Delete
    2. Wow, Adam, that will be quite an experience, I'm sure. I would absolutely love to read a column about your first experience with the movie, as well as anything interesting that Shatner may say or questions he may answer. Pretty please with sugar on top? :)

      Delete
    3. Adam...try to see "Space Seed" before you see the movie. Not necessary but it's a great episode.

      Delete
    4. Thanks for the suggestion Kathy :-)

      Murph! - I'll probably leave a comment or mention my Shatner-Khan experience in some way. Not sure if it will be a column though since I think Wrath of Khan has been covered very well by Patrick, Heath & Co. I'm way late to the party of most of the Trek movies (only seen the Abrams ones and First Contact...I have seen IV, V and Generations but that was a long, long time ago).

      Delete
    5. Good point. Well, I'll be eager to read about your experience in one way or another. Hopefully you'll report back with your thoughts. Also, you have me beat. I've only seen the Abrams movies (fun!), Star Trek: The Motion Picture ( ugh. Yawn...) and II (much better!)

      Delete
  6. Just got back from seeing it in IMAX.
    Look forward to your broadcast about Into Darkness.
    Assuming I get my hearing back by then....

    Funny you should bring up Kirk and Starfleet being dicks about Ceti Alpha V. Nitpickers always bring up that Khan couldn't have known Chekhov because he wasn't in "Space Seed" (even though not being on the bridge didn't mean he wasn't on board). When the real problem is why didn't anyone (on a science vessel, no less) notice that this system was missing a planet? Obviously it was charted. It already had a name, for pete's sake. And not even the ship's computer went, "Hey, Guys....I think something happened here."

    But, if it had then they start investigating and Chekhov has a chance to remember and they don't go down, get caught and we have no movie. So as an audience member you go, "Okay. I'll ignore that if you make it worth my while." Which TWoK more than made good. But, ironic how the best movie has to get the biggest "pass".

    BTW, I'm curious how many here who have seen Star Trek: The Motion Sickness saw the original cut released in theaters...or the first videotape released before they added the 15 minutes of story it had back into it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't keep straight the editions of "The Motion Picture" I have seen other than that even as a huge fan of the original Trek movies I have long considered "TMP" to be a yawn fest.

      That said I have really started to like it in the recent years mostly after seeing the 2001 DVD release called the Director's edition running 134 minutes. The film's director Robert Wise, was able to re-cut portions of the film and work out some special effects.

      My new found enjoyment for TMP leads me to believe that I have either grown to understand the film or it is simply a form of Stockholm syndrome.

      Delete
    2. Somebody had it up on YouTube once...

      Sometimes people who weren't even born then will go, "It's not THAT bad" and I wish I could direct them to watch that version.

      It's like watching an apple brown.

      Kirk's tone-deaf "Oh my God" after the transporter accident was good for a laugh (that was removed at some point).

      In fact, Kirk says "Oh my God" almost in every movie...and he never puts the right inflection into it in any of them.

      Delete
  7. I remember seeing STAR TREK II: the WRATH OF KHAN in the theater, and when the death scene came up I cried the whole way home, (I was just getting out of second grade), but the one thing about the end that always gets me is when Kirk's voice cracks when he says "human" during the eulogy.

    I love this movie, and to me, it is the quintesential Star Trek Movie, and it's because of the dynamics of the characters and how every thing just came together so well.

    And it had a score so good that James Horner used it again for Aliens and got an Oscar nomination for it. (Sorry but every time I watch Aliens that always pulls me out of the movie.)

    ReplyDelete
  8. "...the one thing about the end that always gets me is when Kirk's voice cracks when he says "human" during the eulogy."

    That's where I tear up.

    And btw, when you go to see Into Darkness, look at the pattern of the material of Peter Weller's uniform. Everyone else's is little Trek emblems...his is just like the pattern of the rug where Danny's playing with his trucks in The Shining...
    ...which we learned looks like the launching pad at Kennedy Space Center...
    ...which I've come to believe is Abrams' subliminal way of telling us that he IS a complete douche who wouldn't know an original idea if it bit him on his "Angela" parts.

    ReplyDelete