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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Movie Reviews: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Howdy Chaos Corner fans! I'm back with another in my series of "classic" movie reviews. I'm continuing with my reviews of the Star Trek movie franchise. Today, I'll be reviewing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I'll try to tread lightly, but I won't be able to avoid the spoilers here like I did for TMP. Now, for many Trek fans, TWOK is the "Holy Grail", the pinnacle of Trek's movie adventures. For others, it drifts too far from the lofty ideals of Roddenberry in favor of action, or it is seen as a step backwards from the epic scope of TMP. So, is this Star Trek par excellence, or is this a severely overrated TV show wannabe? Let's take a look then...

Personal Background: As a kid, I watched Star Trek; I grew up with it- my parents watched the re-runs constantly, which meant I watched them too. I was a wee one when Khan came out in 1982, and I know I didn't see it in theaters (a bit too young). I am unaware if my parents had or not, but I do know they owned the RCA VideoDisc format (like TMP). However, unlike my childhood interest in other Trek episodes and TMP, I intensely disliked Star Trek II. As a wee lad (I was 4 or 5 when this came out), I was scared by this movie. In particular, the part with the Ceti Eels terrified me. I hated the music, Chekhov's screaming, etc. The rest of the movie was dark and scary, and of course, the death of Spock traumatized me. I hated this movie.

Scared the hell out of a 6 year old me...
 However, as I grew older, I became more mature, and I "rediscovered" the movie when I was just getting into high school. I bought the set of movies on VHS, and began watching TWOK. I fell in love with the movie at that point, and have ever since. It isn't perfect, but heck- whatever is? I shouldn't even need to say that, but too many people look for "perfect". OK, so why is this movie so good?

Basic Plot: Admiral Kirk is nearing the end of his career as he and Captain Spock are put in charge of teaching new cadets aboard the Enterprise. Kirk is depressed about his new lot in life, missing the days of adventure and youth. Then, the unthinkable happens. Khan, a genetic superman from the 20th century, who was exiled by Kirk, is accidentally found by the crew of the Reliant. Khan immediately takes over the Reliant, and he has a plan in mind. Khan blames Kirk for all the tragedy that has ruined his life, and he sets in motion a deadly game of cat and mouse, plotting to see the demise of Kirk. In the balance is the Genesis device- a miracle of science with the power to create life on dead worlds! Kirk must now race to stop Khan from acquiring the device- least Khan uses it to take over the universe. But all Khan wants to do is lure Kirk into his trap...

 Themes/Concepts: This is where TWOK really gets its huge reputation and following. While the themes of TMP were grand sci-fi, this one is much more human, so much more relate-able. The movie is really about facing your mortality. Everyone dies, its that simple. But how do we each face it? Some scoff at the idea, others obsess over it. Many simply find it too disturbing to even think about. Of course, if you know you're going to die, you'd like to know that you found you're place in life and lived it to the best/fullest. That you did everything you'd like to do in life. It could be having a family, having a rewarding job, traveling the world, living up to a moral code, whatever- its different for each person. But- for just how many people does that all happen for?

Despite the fame of this bit, it does symblozie how broken Kirk is
Therin lies the heart of TWOK. It rarely happens like that; life is tough, and bad things happen. So many die unfulfilled, failing to live the life they thought/dreamed they would. That is what this movie is really about- aging, and the knowledge that death is near- did you live your life to the fullest? At the start of TWOK, Kirk is old now. He's 50- he knows that he won't be out "adventuring" anymore... its a "game for the young". Now, reflecting on his life- knowing that there are "fewer days ahead than there are behind", Kirk is melancholy. He's made personal mistakes, moral mistakes, and he isn't a hero anymore. He feels that he's already had the best- and its not enough. He treats his birthday as a "funeral", he's miserable, believeing he's finished and not happy with the results. Khan is at exactly the same point- this man was a ruler of "a quarter" of earth over 200 years ago. He lost it all then, left earth in suspended animation, and was awoken in the 23rd century by Kirk. Khan is then exiled to Ceti Alpha V with is wife, forgotten by Kirk and everyone else. Disaster strikes, and his world is reduced to a wasteland, and his wife is dead. Khan looks back at his life and he sees the tragedy, the waste. It drives him mad- a man so powerful, reduced to less than nothing. The state of Ceti Alpha V is a mirror for Khan's soul- a wrecked, dying landscape. The only thing that lives there, is hate.

Project Genesis: some of the earliest CGI work in movies
The other theme is rebirth- the cycle of life and death. This is clearly represented by the Genesis device- a miracle of science that is "life from death" in every sense. A power beyond imagining. When Khan learns of this device, think of what must run through his mind- he could use it to make a new world for his followers, perhaps. Or use it to take over earth- a threat like a nuke. But, he is so broken, so lost, that he decides to use Genesis to get back at his hated foe, his tormentor, Kirk. Khan is willing to pervert such brilliant power for a single, crude murder is just staggering, when you think about it, especially when you factor in how brilliant Khan is and he surely can see Genesis for what it is. Ironically for Kirk, the crisis of the Genesis device becomes a means to possibly re-connect with his family- a second chance to do right by his son.

Spock ties into these themes also, a man who HAS found his place, who has accepted things, who has "found himself". He lives by his moral/logical code, and he sacrifices himself, without hesitation or hand-wringing- unlike either Kirk, who doesn't quite understand "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" until the end, or Khan- who is willing to die in order to murder his rival.  Again, the themes all come together here. This is why the movie is brilliant. No other Trek movie is about such lofty, but all too human, themes.

Characters/Acting: Of course, Ricardo Montalban IS Khan. His performance is indeed worthy of the reputation he gets from this movie. Better still, if you have seen him in the TOS epsiode "Space Seed", his performance takes on even more depth. Khan is a genius, and Montalban shows that thoroughly- in his words, in his eyes. Constantly thinking... five steps ahead of everyone else (except Kirk). Then there's his strength- Montalban makes you believe that he IS a genetically engineered "superman"; there has always been fanboy debate about his famous pecs, are they real or not... frankly, it is irrelevant. Montalban carries his physical prowess as a threat- despite his age and his weariness and the suffering he's endured- he can put the hurt on anyone still. Finally, there's the broken rage. Khan went from being one of the biggest, strongest, and most powerful leaders of old Earth and, by strange fits and starts, he has been reduced to nothing. Just a relic on the "barren, sand heap" of a planet. Of course, he is infuriated by the loss of his wife. That is something that anyone could relate to- the loss of a loved one. But for Khan, this was the last straw. He has lost it all- his wife was the last in a long line of indignities. And who has been responsible? The man who "woke" him in "Space Seed"- Kirk. Kirk woke him, deduced his identity, and thwarted Khan in his plans to take the Enterprise and begin again (a major theme for the movie).It was Kirk who sent him to Ceti Alpha V... Khan, a superhuman genius, in every way Kirk's superior- just can't get out from what Kirk has done to him, these last injustices. And Montalban gets that and nails it. He is all anger and fury- his other traits warped and diminished by his hate and resentment. Montalban makes that so apparent- no wonder he gets cred for being one of sci-fi's best villains- his reputation is well deserved.

"Other people have birthdays- why are we treating yours like a damn funeral?"
Speaking of Kirk- this is Shatner's finest hour as Kirk. Yes, Montalban gets the praise, while Nimoy gets the tears, but in actuality- this movie works because of Shatner. Khan could be the best villain ever and Spock's death could be sad, but the movie rises above those things- a meditation on aging, dreams unfulfilled, and finding and accepting one's place in the scheme of things. Shatner's Kirk goes on that journey. In TMP he had one last "big adventure"- at the start of TWOK he seems resigned to the fact that his best days are behind him. That he is "old, worn out". You see the weariness in every scene until Khan shows up. Suddenly, a "new adventure"- but this time, death seems very real for Kirk. Until now, Kirk has laughed in the face of danger- he's escaped the worst fates imaginable in TOS- and the episodes always ended in a laugh between Kirk and the crew. But this time- Khan could well succeed- when Kirk sees Khan's image onscreen as his attacker- look at Shatner- there's bewilderment, fear, and then the sense of  "That's it. I'm screwed".

The best scenes of Shatner's career
Throughout his battle with Khan, Kirk is fighting for his life, and he realizes that life is worth living- worth fighting for. He's doing what he does best- fighting against the odds to save his crew (and the galaxy). Kirk seems to recover his old "swashbuckling"- and then, Spock dies. All over again, death becomes all too real for Kirk- someone has paid the price for his "adventuring". Shatner's scene with a dying Spock is his best moment, along with his moving words at Spock's funeral. However, this is where it gets really good for Kirk (Shatner)- life goes on. He has a son, a family- that's worth living for. He has made mistakes, as has everyone else- Spock's death teaches Kirk that, and when he says "I feel young"- its not his age. Its his understanding- about himself, about human nature.

Spock's moving death
Nimoy also reflects this idea of "understanding" in his portrayal of Spock. Truth be told, Spock is surprisingly muted here. Such a vital character- yet he's quiet, serene in this movie. This is not the cold logic of TOS and TMP, Spock has come to an understanding about his human side since TMP. He is, in a sense, balanced. His role of teacher suits him greatly. He is official with his students, yet he cares for them (not just Saavik). His scenes with Kirk for his birthday shows that too. Spock has "found his place" in the universe, and he is more "human" than ever before as a result. His quietness/subtlty in the movie is then exploded in the final minutes in the Mutara Nebula- Spock, without a word to Kirk- goes to engineering to fix the warp drive- knowing full well that he will die doing so. It's not a "here goes nothing" action- Spock is too logical for that. His neck-pinch of McCoy is great, and his death scene is absolutely tragic. It's emotional without Spock being emotional. The glass that separates him and Kirk is a great metaphor for the "alienness" of Spock- and Nimoy shows his character breaking through that in his final moments, as he explains his rationale.

Even the other characters reflect the themes of the movie
The other characters get more to do this time as well. Scotty is great in his scenes, especially in the extended cut, with his nephew dying in his arms. McCoy is also strong, as usual. His debate with Spock about the merits of Genesis is classic Trek. Sulu and Uhura get a few good lines. Chekhov gets a chance to shine when he is captured and tortured by Khan. Finally, the first "next gen", if you will- David and Saavik. They represent some of the themes of the movie, and both give memorable performances. Who knew that Kirk's son would be so whinny? Hehe!

Saavk represents the natural cycle
Special Effects: Compared to TMP, the effects here are minimal, to say the least. Indeed, many have said this is where the movie is more like a TV episode- a bottle episode, at that! Even the bridge of the Enterprise is the same set as the bridge of the Reliant. Some of the Enterprise shots in space dock are from TMP, as are the shots of the Klingon cruisers during the Kobyashi Maru scene. All of that is true; it was done to save money. After all TMP was incredibly expensive, and while it made money, it was not nearly enough- so the studio said "not again" and paired down the budget. Makes sense, business-wise.

However, I'd argue that the special effects ARE very good- even if there aren't a ton of them. Indeed, filmmakers today, obsessed with putting CGI into nearly every scene, could learn from TWOK. The effects are put into the service of the plot, and NOT the other way around. The battle scenes do exactly what they have to do- the tensions of "submarine warfare" are served by these ship effects. The Genesis simulations give you the sense of what's at stake (and the first major use of CGI, by the way) if Khan gets the Genesis device. Finally, the battle of the Mutara Nebula is visually stunning and memorable. Additionally, it serves the plot in a symbolic way- both Kirk and Khan are "lost" in the movie- Khan is lost to his desire for revenge, and Kirk is lost in terms of his youth and "place in the universe". Thus, both are symbolically lost, and their ships are just as blind- there is no clear path, and it is difficult to see your way out. In that sense, the Nebula effect is perfect for both the battle and the symbolism- and it DOES look great.

Thus, while TWOK's effects aren't the greatest- they work in service of the movie, and therefore, are used sparingly. Which is just fine.

Great imagery, special effects, and music in this scene
Musical Score: The musical score is by James Horner, and is, in fact, one of his earliest. Now, I know that some complain about Horner's scores, and it is true that his Star Trek music sounds an awful lot like Krull, which has an uncanny resemblance to his Aliens score, which is very close to his... well, you get the point. However, the same could be said for Danny Elfman and John Williams. The truth is, the score of TWOK is incredible. It is not as "sci-fi" as the TMP score, but it invokes something that TMP (as a movie) didn't- emotion. Horner's score captures and then amplify's the emotions of the scene. Listen to Spock's theme- its quiet, stately, and contemplative nature. Contrast that with Khan's slow reveal- which is also quiet, but has growing menace behind it. Then there's the battle cues, and the Battle in the Mutara Nebula being a great bit of action music. Finally, Spock's death and burial is just incredible- sad, melancholy. I still get a bit misty eyed with the bag pipes and afterwards. Again, while this score isn't as sci-fi and "experimental" as TMP, it is a great compliment to the events and emotions onscreen.

Kirk has found peace after all- and the music conveys that
 Lasting Impact: There's so much here, it's not funny. The cultural impact is immense. From Kirk's "Noooo!" to Spock's death, to Khan's rage- its all here. The events set in motion here will reverberate thoughout the rest of the Trek movie series one way or the other. The uniforms, also, will be with the franchise from here on out.

TWOK- Trek's best moment, or a curse?
There's more, but I would rather talk about something that has been making the internet rounds lately, and that is the impact Khan himself has had on the franchise. Almost every movie in the franchise since has had a villain, and some say you could almost hear the writers/directors screaming "be just like Khan" throughout! The question is, has every movie in the Trek franchise tried to live up to Khan, only to fail miserably? The answer is yes and no. Some of the movies have tried, no doubt. Certainly, the Next Gen movies are waaaay more guilty of that- Look at First Contact and Nemesis in particular. For the classic Trek movies- I'd say no. Trek's III and VI have Klingon bad guys, and yet those particular villains are NOT the center stages of those movies. In IV, there's no "bad guy" at all. As for V, perhaps, but the movie is so lighthearted  that there's no way its trying to be TWOK. And in the 2009 Trek- Nero is just a plot device, and he's barely in the movie at all. Looking at it like this, the argument that the desire to imitate the villainous Khan and the dark mood of TWOK  in EVERY Trek movie just doesn't hold water for the classic Trek movies; the TNG ones DO fall in that direction though, interestingly enough. What does that mean for the next JJ Abrams Trek...? Haven't a clue. Should they do Khan again? Hahahaha... don't get me started.

In any case, TWOK is, without doubt, the best Trek movie ever, and one of the best Sci-fi movies of all time. I would certainly give it 4 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. Hmmmm.... I think I know what I'm going to pop into the Blu-Ray player now...

Until next time!

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