Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Movie Review: "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" by David Pretty

There's a very good reason as to why I'm so hard on the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot flicks: I saw The Wrath of Khan in theaters as a kid and it set an impossibly high standard for everything to follow. Possessed of a solid script, great character interplay and plenty of social commentary, STII:TWOK is superior to its shiny new rivals in just about every way. Well, except maybe in the category of special effects. But choosing special effects over substance is like Abe choosing Cleo over Joan in Clone High. Amitire?

Looking for a suitable testing ground for the mysterious Genesis project, the Federation starship U.S.S. Reliant investigates Ceti Alpha VI. When they reach orbit, Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) beams down with Commander Chekov (Walter Koenig) to ensure that the planetoid is completely devoid of life. Down on the surface they encounter a ramshackle shelter and signs of recent occupation.

When Chekov discovers a belt buckle referencing the Botany Bay, he realizes that they've made a grave mistake. Before they can make their getaway, the genetically-augmented super-villain Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán) shows up, captures them and puts them under his control with the help of the planet's only indigenous life form. Khan then takes control of the Reliant and sets off to unravel the mystery of Genesis and avenge himself upon his old rival, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner). 

Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrived in cinemas with such a thud three years earlier that the mere existence of TWOK is something of a minor miracle. Paramount laid most of the blame for the first film's failure squarely at the feet of series creator Gene Roddenberry, who was ousted from the producer's chair in favor of Harve Bennett. In order to get a sequel bankrolled, Bennett had to agree on a pretty hefty budget cut.  

Producer Harve Bennett surrounded by the cast of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

To make matters worse, Bennett had no real knowledge of Star Trek. After binge-watching the original series, the first season episode "Space Seed" jumped out at him, inspiring a brilliant idea. A common complaint about The Motion Picture was that it didn't feel like Star Trek. Bringing Khan would accomplish two things: provide a direct link to the original show and give Bennett and screenwriter Jack B. Sowards an opportunity to address the fifteen years that have since transpired. 

Another major complaint about the first film is that the characters were treated like untouchable, beatific paragons which is why the decision to hire Nicholas Meyer to direct was another stroke of genius. Like Bennett, Meyer hadn't seen a single episode of the television show, so he had no preconceived notions about the characters. As such, Meyer brought some much-needed irreverence to the show, making Kirk and company more human and less sanctified. It worked brilliantly.

The film kicks off with a quick auditory nod to the fans. Composer James Horner gives us a few bars of Alexander Courage's original opening theme but then segues into a new and thrilling composition. It's the perfect way to honor the spirit of the television series while promising to take things in exciting new directions.

James Horner's soundtrack for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is now widely regarded as a classic.

Costume designer Robert Fletcher deserves major props for getting rid of those hideous "space onesies" from The Motion Picture, opting for something a lot more tasteful and grown up instead. The new red uniforms with the exemplar and the tapunto collars are considerably more refined and formal, giving the impression that Starfleet truly is an intergalactic navy. This also serves to underscore science vs. the military unease which the script seeks to explore.

Just seconds after we're told that the film is set "in the 23'rd Century", we're treated to the gloriously- anachronistic sight of a "NO SMOKING" sign up in the background of the bridge. Smoking was so prevalent in society back in the early Eighties then that even sci-fi writers couldn't fathom the concept of it falling idea out of vogue, even hundreds of years into the future. In a sadly-related point DeForest Kelley died of cancer in 1999 and we lost Leonard Nimoy to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease just last month.

The entire "Kobayashi Maru" sequence is a great opening, harkening back to the "grabber"-style hooks that kicked off every episode of the original T.V. series. Director Nick Meyer gives us a tense and intriguing shocker that toys with rampant rumors about Spock's Janet Leigh-style early departure from the film. This iconic sequence is capped off by a memorably-Shatnerian entrance that Bill himself probably insisted on.

A part of me was surprised that there wasn't an accompanying phaser light show.

Not only is Joseph R. Jennings production design less dated than The Motion Picture, it also serves to underscore some of the film's themes. Kirk's apartment is decked out in antique naval trappings, embodying his internal struggle as an aging, galaxy-hopping Horatio Hornblower. Rumor has it that Shatner had major trepidations about addressing Kirk's age on-screen but I'm glad that the writers decided to tackle this elephant in the room head-on. Arguably the most interesting thing about Roddenberry's vision of the future is that, in spite of all the advancements, aging and death are still mankind's gravest enemy.

The other theme that the script wrestles with is the aforementioned, oft-contentious relationship between science and the military. On paper, Project Genesis is pretty friggin' sweet; granting the miraculous and clearly-beneficial power to reform dead moons into life-sustaining planets. But even before Khan enters the picture, project director Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and her hot-headed son David (Merritt Butrick) are clearly twitchy about being in bed with Starfleet. And deservedly so, since we witness Chekov and Terrell grouse about how those anal-retentive scientists won't let them risk wiping out indigenous life on a potential test-planet.

As a side note, it's great to see these characters finally experience some modicum of growth and progress. Fifteen years have gone by since the original five-year mission so it really doesn't make sense that the entire original crew was still be serving together. Kirk is a pencil-pushing Admiral, Spock is the new captain of the Enterprise and the ship itself has been relegated to the role of a training ship.

If you squint really hard you can just barely make out the "student driver" sign.

Chekov has also managed to score himself a new commission and it's great to see the focus on someone other than Kirk, Spock and McCoy for a change. Walter Koenig makes the most of his expanded screen time: rolling his eyes at those egg-headed poindexters, expressing barely-restrained horror during his "reunion" with Khan, breaking the fourth wall while playing host to a Ceti Eel, screaming shrilly in his characteristic fashion whenever he's given half the chance and then returning to form in the final act.

Much hay has also been made about Khan recognizing Chekov, but I think it's a non-issue. Yes, Chekov didn't join the bridge crew until seven episodes after "Space Seed" but who cares? I like to think that he was a junior officer at the time and lurking just off-screen somewhere. Khan, with his genetically-superior intellect, probably has a matching memory to boot. Koenig himself once jokingly speculated that Chekov probably made Khan wait an uncomfortably-long time to use the Enterprise's public lavatory. 

Khan's reveal is just as memorable as Kirk's. Dressed up in a fright wig and sporting mad pecs, Ricardo Montalbán oozes menace and mental instability. He goes from quiet to bombastic at the drop of a hat, often hissing and / or exhaling his lines with sibilant glee. When he faces off against Shatner, only via view-screen interestingly enough, it quickly turns into a battle over who can chew the most scenery. Say what you want about Montalbán and Shatner, they certainly make every scene interesting to watch. 

Once again Robert Fletcher comes through with some unique costume designs for Khan and his minions, a look that can best be described as Mad Max meets cannibalized 80's-era dance studio. Now if you think that the continuity between Chekov and Khan is wonky, then just have a look at Khan's follower's in the "Space Seed" episode:

And here's what they look like in Wrath of Khan:

Erm, ooookay. Khan's clearly aged over the past fifteen years, but his augmented followers look pretty durned youthful underneath all of that schmutz. But, hey, whatevs.

As I mentioned before, one of the major conditions for green-lighting Wrath of Khan was that it had to be done on the cheap and sometimes that really restriction is painfully evident. The Ceti Eel that Khan uses to control Chekov and Terrell is pretty nauseating but in a few shoots shots it looks like something that came out of a gumball machine. To make matters worse, the large-scale mock-up used to show the slimy thing entering and exiting Chekov's ear brings to mind a grade school kid's papier-mâché volcano diorama.

The visual effects fare considerably better. ILM didn't have a lot of time or money to complete the ambitious visual effects and occasionally this is self-evident; just witness the blatant ghosting of Regula I when it passes over the planet below. For the most part, however, ILM really delivered the goods. The shots of the Enterprise leaving space dock are truly beautiful without indulging in the sort of gratuitous model-porn on display in the first film.

At this point, something really odd happens which still doesn't make any sense to me. Spock gives Junior Grade Lieutenant Saavik (an impossibly-sultry Kirstie Alley) an opportunity to pilot the Enterprise out of space dock for the first time, a gesture that instantly gives Kirk heart palpitations. The first time I saw this I expected her to take the helm from Sulu (George Takei) but instead she just assumes the Captain's chair and starts giving orders. Everyone knows that Sulu is the best helmsmen in the fleet; does Kirk actually think that he's gonna risk chipping the paint just because Saavik gave the wrong order? Hey, McCoy, you might wanna slip a tranquilizer to yer intrepid skipper there.

Still, the departure of the Enterprise is a fine showcase of solid direction, great special effects, wonderful editing and of course, James Horner's rousing score. I've said it before and I'll say it again, this version of the Enterprise is still my favorite, with the possible exception of the Enterprise-C. And don't even mention that hideously-ugly, top-heavy abomination the Enterprise-D. Just look at that gaudy saucer section, talk about overcompensation. She's like the Federation's answer to a Sport Utility Vehicle.

As soon as Khan gets wind of the destructive potential of Genesis he goes nuts and attacks space station Regula I. And yes, once again, we get that timeless Star Trek cliché which dictates that the Enterprise is "the only ship in the quadrant" that can respond to this emergency. Back in 1982 this plot device hadn't been completely run into the ground just yet; it would take another ten years and a series of terrible Next Generation films to make me hypersensitive to this hoary, old trope.

The scene in which Kirk takes command of the ship is fantastic. It contrasts nicely with a similar scene in The Motion Picture when Kirk usurps the captain's chair from Deckard, who promptly throws a hissy fit. Indeed, Spock's reaction to this request couldn't be more different.

This scene between Shatner and Leonard Nimoy features both actors at the top of their game:

In my opinion, this is one of the best Star Trek moments ever.  The "commanding a starship is your first best destiny...anything else is a waste of material" quote can be applied to just about anything. All you need to do is take out the "commanding a starship" part. For example:

"Being a caretaker at a clothing-optional resort is your first best destiny...anything else is a waste of material."

See? Works like a charm!  

Seriously, the rapport on display here isn't fictional. It isn't an edifice. It isn't two actors "acting". It's two very old and dear friends, who've clearly been through the shit together, sharing a moment of genuine camaraderie and friendship. It just so happens to be in the middle of an eleven-million dollar sci-fi film. The characters of "Kirk" and "Spock" are merely the fictional conceits worn by these accomplished actors while immersed in this wonderful, speculative playground.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the galaxy, Khan is showing some distinctly Ahab-ian leanings. Even though he's escaped Ceti Alpha V, has the Reliant at his disposal and can go anywhere in the galaxy, he still wants Kirk's head on a space-platter:

I mean, c'mon, how awesome is that delivery? You can just feel the palpable rancor, the seething rage and the barely-concealed bat-shit nuttery lurking just below the surface.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan piles on one iconic scene after another. Via one of the earliest examples of computer generated special-effects, we get to see what Genesis is really capable of. This immediately sparks a fierce debate between Spock and McCoy:

McCoy: Dear Lord. You think we're intelligent enough to... suppose... what if this thing were used where life already exists?

Spock: It would destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.

McCoy: Its "new matrix"? Do you have any idea what you're saying?

Spock: I was not attempting to evaluate its moral implications, Doctor. As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create.

McCoy: Not anymore; now we can do both at the same time! According to myth, the Earth was created in six days. Now, watch out! Here comes Genesis! We'll do it for you in six minutes!

This dialogue-based distillation of a mondo-heavy issue is precisely what makes Star Trek unique. The original show always used its sci-fi veneer to tackle real-world, hot-button topics with impunity. In the case of Wrath of Khan: just because technology makes it possible for us to do something it doesn't necessarily mean that we should

Such interesting and weighty issues are completely absent from the J.J. Abrams flicks. They're like Spock after his brain was stolen by those interstellar go-go girls: geeky on the outside but devoid of any substance on the inside. 

Next up Khan "Pearl Harbors" the Enterprise in yet another memorably-thrilling scene. Now a case could probably be made that the whole "Prefix Code" thing is yet another script convenience but I beg to differ. After all, we live in an day and age when anti-theft devices can shut down a car's electrical system when it's stolen, so I'm more than willing to give this one a pass. Besides, the scene has some pretty awesome practical effects and is tense as all get-out.     

Kirk and company barely escape with their wits and hides intact and when they finally arrive at space station Regula I they discover just how wrathful Khan really is. As if the introduction of the Ceti Eel wasn't horrifying enough, director Nick Meyer takes us through a spooky exploration of the now-abandoned laboratory. This creepy scene is executed with considerable panache, ending with a jump scare that feels as if it belongs in a friggin' Alien movie.

Frankly, I think it's good to see Star Trek dragged kicking and screaming into more mature and decidedly un-geeky territory. The makeup department, led by Werner Keppler and James Lee McCoy, provides some pretty wince-inducing burn effects which actually caused my stomach to roll a bit as a squeamish kid. Some might argue that such things don't belong in a Star Trek film but I think it off-sets the cheese factor while showing that there are consequences to violence, even space-violence. 

The script does a great job convincing us that Khan has and always will have the upper hand. After stealing the Genesis torpedo and marooning Kirk and company in the supposedly-dead heart of Regula, we get one of the best moments in sci-fi, nay, cinema history:

The film finally lets up for a moment to give the audience a much-deserved breather. During this brief respite we see the positive application of Genesis, spend some quality time with the engaging Bibi Besch as Carol Marcus, witness some verbal sparring between Kirk and Saavik and learn some fun facts about David's lineage. This brief interlude comes at the perfect time, we have just enough time to catch our breath before moving on to the explosive finale.

And what a finale it is. Kirk goads the obsessive Khan into the Mutara Nebula, ensuring that the crippled Enterprise will be on the same combat footing as the Reliant. What follows is a brief but intense Run Silent, Run Deep cat-and-mouse game that sees the more experienced bridge crew of the Enterprise even the odds. ILM's visual effects provide plenty of spectacle but it's the scripts investment in the main characters that makes this final confrontation so meaningful. 

Defeated, Khan activates the Genesis wave in a last, desperate bid to murder his hated rival all the while quoting liberally from Moby Dick.

This leads to one of the most heroic, dramatically-appropriate character deaths in the history of cinema. In light of the earlier scene in which Spock casually hands the keys of the Enterprise over to Jim, their final exchange together is downright heart-rending.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the perfect storm. The cast is on-point, the stakes are high, the plot is propulsive and there's plenty of juicy sub-text to ponder. The thrilling special effects and actions beats are there to serve the story and not the other way around. This is in stark contrast to these two recent S.T.I.N.O. (Star Trek In Name Only) movies where the kinetic visuals end up being the bedazzled tail that wags the dog.

Even though the Star Trek films are justifiably episodic, Wrath of Khan is the first in the so-called "Spock trilogy" that continued with The Search for Spock and ended with The Voyage Home. Over the next little while I'll be taking a look at all of these films to see how they stack up with one another.

Spoiler (red) alert: Star Trek II was so good that it inadvertently had a detrimental effect on the series, adversely influencing the Next Generation flicks as well as the reboots. Soon smart ideas and social commentary gave way to a photon torpedo spread of mindless action, uninspired villains and endless digital eye candy.

Even in light of this, we really can't slight Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for its original achievements. The movie came from a place of creative sincerity and it single-handedly shot the venerable sci-fi franchise back into warp speed. 

Tilt: up.   

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