Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Guiltless Review: Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

Revenge is a dish best served cold; It is very cold in space

What a great time we live in where we can so completely recapture a piece of our childhood for about $20.

I have a fairly large DVD collection, about 120 or so movies. Since I liked them enough to buy them, these are usually films I end up re-watching a lot.

In some cases, a whole lot.

I usually shy away from calling something my favorite _________ of all time. I think it's kind of a presumptuous thing to say. I'm changing as a person all the time, what I might prefer today may not be the same as tomorrow. Mood and external stimuli can do much to alter my preferences. I don't like boxing myself in by making bold declarations.

That being said, if I can think of one movie in my collection that I would never want to lose, or the first movie that pops into my head when asked what's your favorite, it's usually Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (or TWOK for us lazy writers).

My last few reviews have featured movies that got a mix of good and bad responses from me. Be warned that the guiltless review that follows will likely degenerate to out and out gushing.

If you don't know the basics of Star Trek, you won't learn that here. Please refer your nearest video store, DVD mailing service, or fansite to catch up.

Wrath of Khan is a story of revenge and naval warfare told in the Star Trek Universe. It's plot is very simple: Khan Noonien Singh (played with scenery-destroying bravado by Ricardo Montalban) is a genetically engineered megalomaniac who was marooned on a desolate planet 15 years prior by one James T. Kirk (William Shatner in what is easily his best performance as Kirk), then captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. As you would assume, given the title of the movie, Khan finds his way off the planet and is out for revenge. Of course, there's much more to it then that, but I certainly wouldn't want to spoil it for those few unfortunate souls who have somehow missed out on this movie.

Investment: 10
As a kid in 1982, this movie was my introduction to the Star Trek universe. I was never a big follower of the original series ( I didn't dislike it, I just never followed it that closely). Unlike many other fans, going into this movie I had no history with these characters.

This movie doesn't need it.

In a lot of movies, we are expected to follow a hero's adventures and be thrilled by his or her exploits and be satisfied that they are triumphant. Many times, this level of investment just isn't earned and what should be empathy turns to indifference.

Watching the old star trek series now, as well the other original cast movies I've come to realize that they have never gotten these characters so right anywhere else. Nowhere else are Kirk, Spock, and McCoy more likable than they are here.

It's all in the details. In the little things that are said, the way the main characters have an obvious history and comfort zone with each other. Teamwork and trust just comes naturally by now; they are very easy to root for.


Take this exchange for example:

Kirk is now an Admiral, he is aboard the Enterprise only for a routine inspection. Spock is currently Captain. When they are notified that an emergency situation has presented itself. Spock defers to Kirk as his superior officer, offering him control of ship. Kirk, who has been regretting his promotion to admiral and mired in a mid-life crisis refuses at first, wishing not to upset his friend. That is until Spock sets him straight:

SPOCK: Jim, you proceed from a false assumption. I am a Vulcan, I have no ego to bruise.

KIRK: You're about to remind me that logic alone dictates your actions

SPOCK: I would not remind you of that which you know so well. If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.

KIRK: I would not presume to debate you.

SPOCK: That is wise. In any case, were I to invoke logic, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

KIRK: Or the one.

SPOCK: You are my superior officer, you are also my friend, I have been and always shall be yours.

Of course just reading the lines don't do this scene justice. There is so much heart put into these performances that completely sell it. This one scene adds so much flavor to these characters and their relationship. It also advances Kirk's story arc in TWOK. It also makes me want these guys to succeed. This is one of my favorite-ever scenes in any movie.


Resonance: 12
This one is waaay off the charts. I actually look at the resonance this movie produces in 2 ways. First there is the visceral resonance, the way I remembered so many details about this movie when I bought it on a VHS tape 7 years ago after not having seen it for 15 years.

Then there is the emotional resonance, TWOK features themes of coming to terms with aging and mortality. And this is a theme that is explored in the best possible way. Not in a only-film students-and-megageeks-will-get-it kind of way, nor in a hit-you-over-the-head-with-it kind of way. The theme is present througout the entire film but is never its sole focus. In the very first scene, Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley) is going through a Starfleet simulation/test of character (the infamous Kobayashi Maru). The simulation presents a situation where there is no chance for success or escape and is designed to make officers-in-training face the possibility of death.


We later learn that Kirk is the only officer to ever beat this test and thus avoid facing his own mortality. Of course he could only do this by cheating, and thus completely missing the point of the test. The entire rest of the movie can be seen as a Kobayashi Maru test where Kirk can't change the rules.

How does this resonate with me?

I've been depressed much of this past year. Bad year at work, bad year at home, I'm 33 and still trying to get through a doctoral program. I've had to face death as an adult for the first time. Like Kirk, I'm feeling old, worn out. Kirk has to face the music in this movie and I totally relate. I hope to find the same peace Kirk does by the end of TWOK at some point.


Tears: 9

We've come a long way and still haven't spoken about the death of Spock. Yes, Spock does get better eventually (next movie even), but the way his death is handled: the build up, the painfully heroic sacrifice. It's perfect, as well as I've ever seen a major character's death handled in any movie.

The ending coda following Spock's death is just as good. The funeral, Kirk's eulogy, even the soaring orchestral rendition of Amazing Grace are tremendous. Then there's Kirk's reconciliation with his son, his final words of goodbye to Spock, and finally the camera setting down on the Genesis planet and finding Spock's coffin. Then for the only time, it's Spock who delivers the classic Star Trek introduction.

I admit, I don't usually cry at this ending anymore, but the fact that it still moves me after seeing it about eleventy-bazillion times is nothing short of amazing.

Bryan Singer completely ripped off just about every element of this ending I mentioned above for X-Men 2, and I can't even be upset about it cause it worked pretty well in that movie. If your going to rip something off, why not do it from the best.

Awe: 7
I am awestruck whenever I get to see that ending with James Horner's booming score playing.


Twists: 8
I love how the plot twists are so informative of character. The good guys are at a disadvantage for just about the entire movie, and only get by on their wits. And I don't mean technobabble-wits, just good old fashioned quick thinking in a way I could understand and appreciate. I'm thinking of the 'coded messages' trick Kirk & Spock use here, its done right in front of the audience, but people don't usually realize what they did till later.

Immersion: 10
This film moves fast, so much story is told in such little time. It's a model of efficient and emotional storytelling. James Horner's score, which I alluded to earlier, totally adds to the immersion, picking it up at just the right moments.

Dread: 6
Three words: Ear-burrowing worms. Khan's method of mind control is absolutely gruesome. Nothing nearly as disturbing as this anywhere else in Trek.

Laughs: 5
Surprisingly, in a movie this tense there are some genuine laughs. I've always felt that moments of levity make the danger in movies seem more dangerous. The laughs here all come from well written character moments that serve to make the protagonists seem more likable.

What's any discussion of Wrath of Khan worth without the oft-parodied line:


If you don't love this movie you are just not trying.


Roe said...

Greatest. Trek. Ever. Still one of the greatest movies and still makes me sniffle when I see it. Great review!

Stacey said...

My husband claims to have never seen this entire film, and that disappoints me to no end.

I love this movie, so much better than the somewhat confusing and bizarre first one which seemed to not know what series it was based on.

Chris said...

That is complete sacrilege, smack him around and put the DVD on in front of him.

Roe said...

Adam's never seen all of Star Trek II? Wow... I don't know how I feel about that.

Stacey said...

Feel betrayed by it.

Lauren said...

My Dad said it's the only Star Trek movie he's never seen as well. Wierdos.