Sunday, March 8, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

When Leonard Nimoy died, I suggested to my friend Nick that we do one of his movies for his podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. I suggested the science fiction film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan due to a certain iconic scene I won't spoil, the animated 1980s The Transformers - The Movie because Nimoy was the voice of Galvatron, or The Pagemaster in which Nimoy voiced Jekyll and Hyde. Although Wrath of Khan is the obvious choice, given how Nimoy seemed to want to be known for stuff other than Spock (after all, he wrote a book called I Am Not Spock), another movie might've been a good choice.

Well, as I somewhat expected, we went with Wrath of Khan. I hadn't actually seen the movie in its entirety, although I had read a 30+ year old paperback copy of the novelizationI'd gotten from the library, so I was cool with that. Here's the podcast. And now for my review...

The Plot

James Kirk, formerly captain of the Enterprise and now an admiral growing old and bored behind a desk, decides to take command of a training cruise of his old ship. Just in time too, since an accidental planetary mis-identification unleashes Khan Noonien Singh, villain of The Original Seriesepisode "Space Seed." Khan plots to steal the planet-remodeling Genesis device from Dr. Carol Marcus, an old lover of Kirk's. Dr. Marcus has a son who's got her curls but darker hair more like the admiral's. Ahem...

The Good

*The film works as a deconstruction of (and Reality Ensues moment for) the character of Kirk and, more broadly, of all the dumb things Starfleet people did in the original series. Kirk the ladies man has a resentful illegitimate son, Kirk who marooned a dangerous enemy and forgot about him now has to face him again, Kirk who plays fast and loose with the rules has his ship crippled, and Kirk who never accepts that he can lose pays a terrible price for victory. And we see the consequences of sending flag officers to strange planets unescorted when Khan and his surviving followers capture Captain Terrell and Chekov.

*Once Terrell and Chekov visit what they think is the barren, lifeless Ceti Alpha VI, the ball starts rolling fast and doesn't slow down. Other than the opening credits--more on that later--the film is never boring.

*Due to conflicting shooting schedules, Kirk and Khan are never onscreen together. That actually turned out really well, as having them get in a physical brawl with each other would have been kind of cliched even if it would have been a callback to the climax of "Space Seed." And the only way I can think of within the framework of the existing film of getting Khan and Kirk physically tussling would undermine Khan's supposedly greater intelligence (it would involve him falling for an obvious ploy).

*Khan's scheme to lure his old enemy for one last battle is pretty clever.

*Per TVTropes, many characters are foils for each other. I was already aware that Kirk and Khan were a lot alike--they're both ambitious, dominant men with a penchant for womanizing, with the difference being that Khan is not concerned about the rights of others--but I hadn't thought that Saavik and Khan's henchman Joachim were foils too. Both are younger subordinates of an aging male leader, both are willing to argue with them, and both leaders are willing to listen at least some of the time.

*I like how Joachim knows how to play on Khan's ego. Someone who's basically grown up in the court of a despot (I'm guessing Joachim was born on Ceti Alpha V during the exile) would know how to do that.

*The beginning, in which a battle with the Klingons turns out to be something entirely different, is very well-done.

*The death of a certain character is well-foreshadowed. We joked that there was four-shadowing, five-shadowing, etc. and I think we got up to seven. But it was very subtle foreshadowing, so it wasn't like anything was given away in advance.

*Kirk's strategy for getting an opponent who outmatches him in both ship quality and intelligence is clever. According to TVTropes, Khan's deadly sins are Pride and Wrath, and Kirk plays these like a harp.

*A certain iconic scene reduced one of my fellow viewers to tears. Nimoy makes a really good call-back to the opening sequence during it, something I thought was particularly good.

*The movie has some really clever literary allusions to A Tale of Two Cities. The aging, bored Kirk's birthday is "the best of times" and "the worst of times," while a character's sacrifice is "a far, far better thing now that I do, than I have ever done before." Bravo. Khan, stranded for years with only a few books to read, sure loves to quote Moby Dick. He might also be a lot more aware of the parallels between himself and Ahab than he seems...

*McCoy's badgering of Spock about how cold, logical, and inhuman he is gets turned on its head. Spock is cold, but he's willing to apply that same coldness to himself as readily (if not more so) than anybody else.

*I liked how Spock and Saavik would talk to each other in Vulcan when they wanted to have conversations not meant for outside ears. I had a friend in high school who was a South African emigre and she and her mother would talk to each other in Afrikaans when they wanted to discuss somebody covertly.

The Bad

*The opening credits roll over an endless field of stars for at least two minutes, probably closer to three. It's quite boring. They should have had the opening credits roll over the opening scene to save time and keep the viewer's attention.

*Dr. Marcus wants a completely lifeless world to test Genesis on, which is why the Reliant comes to Ceti Alpha V in the first place. However, the nearby world of Regula is described as a dead planet several times. Given how smaller-scale Genesis testing had already occurred there I figured Marcus wanted a completely untouched planet to experiment on, but there's not even an offhand comment to explain this. Terrell could be exasperated by her demands for a totally lifeless planet (it's implied she's disqualified several of their finds) and suggest Regula, only for her to shoot him down.

*This version of the movie lacks a deleted scene (that appeared in a 1985 ABC TV broadcast and later in the director's cut) revealing that the character Peter Preston is actually Scotty's nephew. As Nick pointed out in a discussion about why the scene was deleted, the fact he's Scotty's assistant is reason enough for his death to tear up the older man--he reacts most viscerally to that, not to any of the others--but the fact Khan has killed a major character's relative on top of the multitude of nameless cadets would make him seem more dangerous. In the novelization it's especially poignant because Scotty's last interaction with Peter was to chew him out about something (probably his blatant crushing on Saavik, which isn't in the movie either).

*There's a lot of stuff that's told or implied rather than shown. Khan's invasion of the Regula station and torture of the Genesis scientists for information being implied by the hanging corpses and what Kirk's crew learns afterward works because stuff that's imagined is often more horrible than what's depicted and a rampage/torture scene would have slowed the movie down and probably gotten it rated R. However, showing the hijacking of the Reliant rather than handwaving that it was done and leaving the view to think of possible explanations (the mind-controlled Captain Terrell ordering most of the crew to beam themselves down to Ceti Alpha V and then having the skeleton crew beam up the Augments to overpower them is one possibility) would have been nice. It would show Khan as a strategist and he and his surviving Augments as dangerous warriors (we see a couple feats of superhuman strength from Khan, but that's it). It would also build suspense--the Reliant is bringing Khan on a murderous course for Regula and everybody is completely oblivious.

*Those who have seen "Space Seed" know the identity of Khan's late wife, the one for whom he grieves and for whom he pursues Kirk so vengefully, but someone who hasn't would have no clue. The actress who played the character in the original series had been disabled by multiple sclerosis and could not be in the film, but given her unusual story (she was a Starfleet officer whom Khan had seduced), mentioning her would have been a good idea. Given Khan's repeated references to "her," someone who knows the story (like Chekov, whom the novelization reveals had a crush on her and later wondered if his acting on it could have saved her from herself) could flippantly remark that he couldn't have possibly really cared for her. This could--and probably would--provoke an epic freakout by Khan.

The Verdict

Great film. 8.5 out of 10.

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