Sunday 23 May 2021

Wertzone Classics: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The Genesis Device: a machine of capable of terraforming a lifeless body into a terrestrial planet within hours. But it also has the potential to be used as a terrible weapon. The USS Reliant is assigned to help the Genesis science team find a planet to test the device, but inadvertently stumbles across the exiled home of genetically-engineered tyrant Khan Noonian Singh and the crew of the sleeper ship SS Botany Bay. Khan seizes control of the Reliant and develops a plan with two objectives: the capture of the Genesis Device, and the death of the man who sent him into exile for fifteen years, Admiral James T. Kirk.

If there's a list of "what not to do" when you make a popcorn-selling, blockbuster film, Star Trek II breaks every rule on it. You shouldn't make a film in which the hero and villain never come face-to-face; you should never make a film where the plot is a sequel to a single episode of television which aired fifteen years earlier (certainly not in 1982, when you can't even buy that episode on VHS); you should not have a film completely lacking in any kind of romance plot; you should not have your villain in an inferior spacecraft to the good guys; and you probably shouldn't pepper the film with quotes from literature and ensure the script is full of thematic richness.

It's by breaking every one of those rules that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan became not only the finest Star Trek movie ever made (a position it retains with near-contemptuous ease forty years on), but a genuinely great science fiction movie, one of the very best of the 1980s which marks a place on the podium alongside the likes of Aliens, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Predator, The Empire Strikes Back. It certainly saved the Star Trek franchise after the over-indulgence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture nearly sank it, and set the scene for everything that followed, including two direct sequels and a plethora of spin-off TV shows.

The Wrath of Khan works on every single level. Franchise newcomers Harve Bennett (writing) and Nicholas Meyer (directing) brought both a fresh viewpoint but also respect for the property when coming aboard. Bennett watched every single episode of Star Trek ever made to come up with ideas for the story, whilst Meyer engaged the actors in long conversations about their characters and motivations. The actors, who were generally not tested by the material in The Motion Picture, are given much richer material here. There seems to be more dialogue in the opening half-hour of this film than there is the entirety of its forebear, and it's great stuff. Kirk is struggling with a full-blown midlife crisis, moving between self-pity and frustration, and the oft-mocked Shatner sells that extremely well. Shatner in fact gives a career-best performance in this movie and its sequel, with the scripts calling on him to plumb emotional depths he is rarely asked to do elsewhere. DeForest Kelley also delivers impressively as McCoy tries to help his friend whilst calling him on his BS. Leonard Nimoy gives a terrific performance as Spock, as you'd expect, but goes above and beyond the call of duty, especially in his scenes at the end of the film.

The rest of the crew are under-serviced as normal, but do at least get a few good scenes: James Doohan's Scotty has to deal with the death of a family member in service and Walter Koenig's Chekov gets a promotion to first officer of the USS Reliant and more involved in the story. Nichelle Nichols and George Takei get relatively short shrift (Sulu had more material where it's revealed he's been promoted to Captain and is going out on one last hurrah, but it was cut in production). Newcomer Kirstie Alley gets a lot more great material as Lt. Saavik and is a very fine addition to the crew, and it's a shame she did not return in subsequent films. Oddly, a line referencing the fact that Saavik is actually half-Romulan, half-Vulcan was cut from the movie (and not restored in any one of the half-dozen or so different cuts and edits of the movie released over the years), whilst a later joke by McCoy referring to this fact is left in, somewhat confusingly, but it's not a major issue.

Towering over the film, however, is Ricardo Montalbán, reprising his role as Khan from the 1967 TV episode Space Seed. Montalbán was nervous at reprising the role after such a long break, especially since he'd been playing the moral Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island for five years and was concerned about his image. However, it only took a single re-viewing of the original episode to find the character again. Montalbán is a magnetic, charismatic presence who dominates the film but never overwhelms it. Whether it's quoting Moby Dick or plotting his vengeance on Kirk, he's a formidable opponent and comfortably earns his reputation as Star Trek's greatest single villain, with his defeat coming as a result of his own hubris and inexperience at commanding a starship rather than some deus ex machina moment.

The film was famously produced for a tiny budget (barely a quarter that of The Motion Picture), restricting most of the action to the Enterprise bridge (which pulls double duty as the bridge of the Reliant) and other sets inherited from the original movie, and the Regula I space station. Fortunately, a positive studio reception to early footage saw the effects footage expanded, and the visual effects in the space battles between the Enterprise and Reliant remain outstanding four decades on. The battles are well-handled, depicting the two ships as lumbering battleships able to both dish out and withstand tremendous amounts of punishment, but every hit still hurts and can still kill people. The Enterprise is a larger, more powerful ship but the Reliant gets the drop on it in the first fight, making for an evenly-matched climactic battle in the Mutara Nebula (impressively depicted with gas and fluid tanks). The battle is also tremendously visceral, with decks collapsing and crewmen getting crushed, burned or subjected to lethal radiation in a manner that hadn't been seen previously on Trek (and led to the movie getting a hitherto unthinkable "15" certificate in the UK).

Arguably the most influential, important scene in the movie in terms of technical legacy is the still-impressive sequence depicting the Genesis Device terraforming a planet. Completely generated in a computer in 1981, it is one of the first 100% computer-generated scenes to ever appear in a movie (certainly one that wasn't a simple wireframe). The team behind it went on to other things; they later rebranded themselves under the name "Pixar."

Particularly worthy of mention is James Horner's score, which re-uses a few elements from his earlier movies (particularly Battle for the Planets) but mostly consists of new material. His new overture, used for flybys of the Enterprise and the main title theme, is an instant classic. Of course, what really got people talking when the movie was released was the jaw-dropping ending, which in the pre-Internet age had successfully been kept secret in a manner unlikely to be replicated today (and rumours about it had been deflected by the opening scene of the film, which misled audiences). It's still an emotionally powerful moment played by the actors in a convincing and almost poetic manner. In fact, despite the sometimes hokey dialogue as related above, the movie has a number of iconic lines and quotes (mostly from A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick) which help give the movie a thematically satisfying through-line. This is a movie about not just revenge, but age, finding your right place in the world and the fact that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or indeed, the one). There's also satisfying attention paid to not copping out on the story. The writers couldn't conceive of a way that Khan and Kirk could meet without Kirk being killed, so they simply don't meet. And whilst victory is eventually won, it is only at a hard, hard cost.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (*****) is a great movie about revenge, family, the road not travelled and aging. It's also a terrific action movie, but one where the action is not allowed to outweigh the characterisation. It's simply a classic science fiction movie and represents the standard that Star Trek would occasionally, at its very best, match (in episodes like The Best of Both Worlds, The Inner Light, The Visitor and In the Pale Moonlight), but never exceed.

A note on versions: Star Trek II has been reissued and re-released more than any other Star Trek film, and three distinct versions now exist. The original, 113-minute theatrical cut remains very fine and can be found on the 2009 Blu-Ray collected edition of the first ten films. An extended or "TV" cut, three minutes longer, adds a few scenes that were cut from the theatrical version of the film (such as Kirk's shuttle approaching the Enterprise and Kirk meeting Peter Preston in Engineering). The Director's Cut, overseen by Nicholas Meyer and released on DVD in 2002 and Blu-Ray in 2016 (as a digitally-remastered version which rebuilds the movie from scratch from the original film elements), is now definitive. It recuts several scenes to incorporate more dialogue and characterisation and confirms that Preston is Scotty's nephew. The Blu-Ray version did accidentally omit a scene where Kirk tells McCoy and Saavik that David is his son. This version of the film has also been listed several times for 4K release, which for some reason has never appeared.

Note: I previously reviewed the film here.


shiznatikus said...

Respectfully, I disagree. In the interest of space (and time), I'll just share this:

It largely sums up my issues with the film.

Alex said...

Oddly enough, I watched this for the first time in perhaps 20+ years the other week. There were a couple of things that aged badly; the whole "let a woman take a starship out of space dock, are they mad?" moment with Kirk and McCoy, and Alley's character being uptight in a way that has nothing to do with her Vulcan heritage and everything to do with her being a woman. Still, other than that, it was pretty darn good.

Adam Whitehead said...

Most of the "criticisms" offered of TWoK in that article are dubious, at best:

"Fast-forward about 25 years, to a movie that depicts the Enterprise being used as a training vessel (yeah… for the most celebrated ship in the Federation fleet, and recently refit to-boot, that makes sense)" - The Wrath of Khan takes place 14 years after The Motion Picture (a necessary dodge to account for the cast's aging, despite TMP being said to take place only 18 months after the end of the 5-year-mission). The refit Enterprise has gone from being the hottest thing in Starfleet to a ship that's almost ready for decommissioning (as indicated in the following movie), so yes, it makes sense it's being used for training missions.

The Ceti Alpha V/VI mixup is odd, but explained by the inferior tech of the era. In TNG, the Enterprise-D can scan an entire system the second it arrives; in TOS and the movies the Enterprise usually has to be much closer to undertake such scans. The Ceti Alpha system has been charted before (just not in the last 15 years, obviously) so the Reliant had no reason for a full system standby. They just headed to the orbit of Ceti Alpha VI. This does mean that the explosion of Ceti Alpha VI causes Ceti Alpha V to move out to the orbit of Ceti Alpha VI, which seems ridiculous but bizarrely has some backing in recent planet formation discoveries (particularly the discovery that gas giants migrate to closer orbits unless they are pulled back by the presence of other planets in the outer reaches of the star system). This takes a bit of a swallow, and would have been improved by transposing VI for IV.

"Saavik has her part Romulan heritage left on the cutting room floor (yeah, didn’t know she was supposed to be half-Romulan… did ya?)" - Everyone knows this (it was in the novel and it's in the movie's Wikipedia article) but it's also irrelevant. Apart from making McCoy's Romulan Ale joke in the turbolift a bit of a non-sequitur and maybe explaining Saavik's slightly more emotional behaviour, it has no bearing on the rest of the film.

"Characters like Scotty’s nephew become nameless footnotes, lessening the impact of their later death scenes and wasting perfectly good pathos" - Both of the film's two re-releases add more characterisation to Scotty's nephew (the first adds his name, the second gives him a scene in the engine room with Kirk and his familial relationship to Scotty).

"Chekov and Terrell can’t just beam out of Khan’s world before Khan’s guys can cross a few dozen yards of sand to catch them;" - We don't see how Chekov and Terrell were captured because it happens offscreen. It may be that the Botany Bay or Khan's followers (who were left some survival equipment in Space Seed) still had the ability to jam their communications.

"Khan “remembers” Chekov, despite the fact that they never met in the original Trek episode;" - Explained (repeatedly) in various interviews and other material that Chekov was serving belowdecks on the Enterprise in Season 1 as a junior officer and met Khan offscreen during the original episode. Slightly cheesy retcon? Yes. But certainly not impossible, either.

"Khan, the man of “superior intellect,” apparently responded to the loss of his wife and the change in his planet by going insane with thoughts of revenge on Kirk… but none of his “superior” followers, including his son, have the stones to explain his obsession to him, or take steps to prevent their all being destroyed by the man;" - Khan's son, Joachim, remonstrates with Khan repeatedly about his obsession and going after Kirk.

Adam Whitehead said...

"“Superior intellect” Khan on the Reliant could have had earworm-controlled Captain Terrell greet Enterprise and bring them within transporter range; whereupon Khan could have beamed over with his crew, taken over a superior starship and killed Kirk and crew personally. Instead, he pulls a sneak attack with a science vessel against a heavy cruiser, which he doesn’t know isn’t staffed by a shipful of professionals." - Khan's followers number maybe 15-20 people in total. Enough, with Chekov and Terrell's help, to take over the Reliant (with a much smaller crew), but not enough to realistically challenge Enterprise's crew of over 450, even if a large number of them are inexperienced. Enterprise being on a training cruise might be noted in normal Starfleet communications, which Reliant would have access to.

"We discover Kirk had fathered a son and never met him, nor kept in touch with him or his mother… and we’re supposed to actually care;" - Agreed, David's presence is something of a non sequitur given it's not really built upon, but it does feed into Kirk's fear of aging. However, it does play a larger role in the following film.

"The scientists are smart enough to hide the Genesis device on what appears to be a lifeless moon. The scientists then demonstrate they are not smart enough to hide with the device." - They do hide with the device. However, several of the scientists remain behind to cover the escape of the others. There is an actual slight plot hole here: the scientists who stayed behind should have deactivated the transporter console to stop Khan following Carol and David, as Saavik indicates was a possibility. However, not an egregious one.

"One of the worms Khan dropped in Chekov’s ear could have been dropped into the ear of just one of the scientists in order to find the genesis device, preventing the need to torture the rest of them;" = The earworms killed Khan's wife, so I suspect he was not particularly minded to bring them along. They may have also only had the one female and once she produced grubs, it might have been some weeks or months (or years) before she could do so again, and Khan didn't want to waste time searching for more of them in the desert. To be honest, the grubs are enough of a DEM that we don't really need them taking over the whole movie.

"a nebula is depicted like a technicolor fog bank a few miles wide," - at one point in the battle Spock notes that the Reliant is doing an impulse turn, indicating that Enterprise and Reliant can pick up each other's wakes in the cloud formations even with compromised sensors. They just can't reliably scan one another. So they can stay in touch with one another but not much more than that.

"Star Trek: Generations is probably the best, in my opinion; followed by Star Trek: Insurrection" - at this point we should consider the possibility that the writer in question is taking the mick and indulging in a bit of a provocative hot take.