Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The Wrath of Khan is where I became a Star Trek fan. And all it took was Mr. Spock dying.

When you think about it, after the limp ponderousness of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it's a wonder a sequel materialized at all. But chalk it up to the undying optimism of loyal Trekkers, enough of whom convinced themselves it was a good movie, and enough of whom gave it enough repeat viewings, that by the time it ended its theatrical window, a movie series had been born (Star Wars fans went through a similar hopeful denial back in '99).

Following a helpful caption telling us that we are "In the 23rd Century," the story unfolds ten years of movie time after the human adventure began, with Admiral Kirk settled into a desk job far from the final frontier, and facing the unwelcome advance of years. While observing a training mission on the Enterprise, now captained by Mr. Spock and piloted by cadets (including Kirstie Alley, in her screen debut as the Vulcan Lt. Saavik), Kirk is forced back into command when an emergency arises at a nearby Starfleet science station.

The "emergency," it turns out, is the returned Khan Noonian Singh (the also-returned Ricardo Montalban), a genetically engineered superman last seen in first season Trek episode "Space Seed," now sporting a mad-on against Kirk for reasons various and sundry. In trying to outwit his cunning opponent, the ensuing cat-and-mouse game sees Kirk reunited with a lost love, meeting his estranged son (Merritt Butrick) for the first time, and in the end saying a final goodbye to his dearest friend.

Now that's more like it.

While the development history of the first film was defined by a burst of initial optimism followed by a rapid succession of poor creative choices, the exact opposite is true for the follow-up. By choosing to make a direct sequel to a TV episode, the filmmakers symbolically signaled their disavowal of the prior entry. Further, by fully embracing issues of love, loss, aging, regret, remorse, and revenge, they made Trek II everything Trek I wasn't. If The Motion Picture was the first gasp of life in a property that had lain comatose with no prospects for recovery, The Wrath of Khan applied the paddles and brought it back to health.

In examining the film and the myriad of ways in which it works, probably the best thing that could have happened for the property's longterm viability was Paramount's downgrading the budget back to "TV" levels and, even more importantly, removing Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry from the producer's perch he occupied previously, kicking him into the mostly toothless "Executive Consultant" role he would occupy for the remaining Trek features in his lifetime.

While there's no question that without his initial stewardship of the TV series there wouldn't be any Star Trek to talk about at all, much less movies and sequels to movies, the creative missteps of The Motion Picture nevertheless made clear that Roddenberry had long since parted ways with his original vision for the show. He would get a chance to redo Trek "his" way in 1987, and as far as how that turned out, we can talk about that a few movies down the road.

The first ingredient in the one-two punch reclamation of Star Trek was the hiring of Harve Bennett, fresh off stints shepherding televised sci-fi like The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, to produce. The second was the masterstroke of Nicholas Meyer being brought onboard to craft the script and direct. Meyer, an unusually literary, practiced hand equally comfortable behind the camera as the keyboard (and who previously graced the genre with 1979's twisty Time After Time) used his initial unfamiliarity with the concept to view it with fresh eyes and strip it down to its basics (a practical necessity, given the rampant budget cuts).

In a nod to his own literary background, Meyer peppered his script with allusions to Melville and Shakespeare, and it's bookended with the two most famous quotes from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Further, he made the decision early on to approach the film like a space age Horatio Hornblower adventure, down to the nautical-style Starfleet uniforms (a welcome replacement for the The Motion Picture's drab jumpsuits). Also helpful is the sweeping music score from then-unknown James Horner (stepping in for the terrific Jerry Goldsmith, who presumably got priced right out of the picture).

Another brilliant move was the selection of Khan as the film's primary antagonist. Montalban (who passed away only this year) was a magnetic presence, and lends even his villainous role with unquestionable charisma and even a hint of pathos. Though Montalban and Shatner never occupy the same stage, both actors give their confrontations a sense of immediacy, and the battle of wits and wills that propels the second and third acts underlines the stakes that were missing in the first film, even with "V'Ger" threatening the entire planet.

In the end, what's perhaps most extraordinary about Wrath of Khan, especially with nearly three decades of hindsight, is how thoroughly it chucks the "bigger is better" mentality that usually governs your typical blockbuster. Here, the budget cuts are consistently apparent at every turn, not limited to the gratuitous re-insertion of glossy effects shots from the first film, nor the reuse and redressing of the Enterprise bridge for that of the USS Reliant manned by Khan and his cronies, nor the curiously low-key nature of the movie's "epic" battles. And yet, none of it matters. In crafting their sequel, Bennett and Meyer zeroed in on the very human core of Star Trek that Roddenberry overlooked (or simply forgot).

Nowhere is this humanity made more clear than in the film's climactic space battle in the heart of a nebula, culminating in Mr. Spock's heroic sacrifice for the sake of his ship and his friends. For a creative decision that was necessitated by Nimoy's desire to get out of Trek-dom while the getting was good (made doubly ironic given his recent continued participation twenty-seven years later), the filmmakers and performers were able to pack this moment with considerable dramatic heft. Even now, fully knowing that the next film's titular "Search" would end successfully, Wrath of Khan's farewell between Kirk and Spock (including the requisite "Live long and prosper" handsign) remains a moving one.

Predictably, Star Trek II opened well. Unpredictably, thanks once again to the same fans who made the prior movie a success, it opened better than well, setting a then-record for opening day box office. More importantly, The Wrath of Khan signaled the transformation of Star Trek from "cult" into "franchise," providing a creative lease on life that would power the movie series for the next twenty years, not to mention allow for an eventual victorious return to the medium that was its spawning ground. But we'll get to that soon enough.

For the time being though, Star Trek II was a hit. And Mr. Spock was dead. Well, for a little while, anyway. A+


Ian Sokoliwski said...

You know, somewhere in my Best of Trek book collection, there's a review of the first and second movies that insists that the first one is the better film.

I'm just throwing that out there. :)

Zaki said...

Who ya gonna believe, them or me? :-)

Ian Sokoliwski said...


As I recall, there was a long diatribe on how the militaristic uniforms of II was totally at odds with the core concept of Trek, while the more relaxed outfits of TMP were closer to the source material.

Me, I prefer the one that is, I dunno, GOOD. Plus, really, those uniforms from TMP looked like cast-offs from The Love Boat :D

Zaki said...

Yeah, I agree. Personally I love the Starfleet uniforms from WOK on.

BTW, I'd love to hear your thoughts on my TMP write-up!