Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' (1982)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Still widely considered the best Star Trek movie ever made, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is one of those pieces of '80s pop culture that was always around in the background when I was a kid, and I saw it multiple times in bits and pieces on TV, but possibly never all the way through in a single sitting. Watching it again now, especially following the ponderous, frustrating Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I was really impressed with how well it succeeds on multiple levels, as a thrilling suspense story, as a character piece about the main trio of Trek stars (Kirk, Spock, McCoy), as an extension and revitalization of the Trek franchise, and, maybe on a slightly smaller scale than The Motion Picture, as thought-provoking science fiction. I'll reserve judgement on its overall place in the Trek movie canon until I finish this entire project, but I'm confident in saying it's a great Trek movie and a great sci-fi movie.

After the lukewarm response to The Motion Picture (both from critics and at the box office), Paramount slashed the budget for the sequel and relegated Gene Roddenberry to a largely ceremonial role. The result was a lean, exciting film with no wasted moments and no ponderous philosophizing. That's not to say that Wrath of Khan is a hollow spectacle, but it never stops the story cold to muse on the nature of life or the universe. Director (and uncredited co-writer) Nicholas Meyer, who'd go on to become a very important figure in the Trek world (he's even working on the upcoming TV series), effectively integrates the suspense with the character development and the big ideas, so that there aren't any lulls in the story, but the movie is also not just a series of empty thrills.

Even though, like The Motion Picture, Wrath of Khan takes a bit of time to reunite the Enterprise crew and get them back on the ship, all that time is put to good use, as Kirk (William Shatner) mopes about getting older, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) trains the new, young Enterprise crew, and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) grumbles entertainingly about all of it. Even Chekov (Walter Koenig) gets a surprisingly substantial role in the story, as the new ship on which he's second in command, the Reliant, is the one that comes across Khan (Ricardo Montalban) and his stranded group of followers. Scotty (James Doohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Sulu (George Takei) have about as little to do as they did in the previous movie, but they still never seem like afterthoughts.

And unlike the previous movie, with its somewhat off-putting new characters Decker and Ilia, Wrath of Khan makes a valuable addition to the Trek mythos with the Vulcan Lt. Saavik, played by Kirstie Alley in one of her earliest and best performances. Saavik fits in extremely well with the Enterprise crew, and she provides a valuable perspective that's similar to but not the same as Spock's. The crew's mission to stop Khan from using a terraforming device to destroy entire planets has suitably high stakes for a feature film, and yet Khan's revenge mission against Kirk feels intimate and character-driven. Wrath of Khan is based on an episode of the original TV series, but it feels much less like an overgrown TV episode than The Motion Picture did. Montalban gives a truly captivating performance as the grandiose, vengeance-obsessed Khan, and Shatner and Nimoy bring real depth to the friendship between Kirk and Spock.

Even though it was later retconned (the entire next movie is devoted to undoing it) and was already being dialed back by the reshot ending, Spock's death is still moving and powerful. From its iconic lines of dialogue ("Revenge is a dish that is best served cold"; "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one"; "I have been and always shall be your friend"; "Khaaaaaan!!"; etc.) to its creepy alien bugs to its tense space battles, Wrath of Khan is consistently memorable and engaging, and it's the best evidence that Trek could be blockbuster cinema and not just a cult TV series.

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