Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Needs Of The Many

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, which roared into theaters in the summer of 1982 (perhaps the last truly great movie summer we'll ever see), remains the best STAR TREK film ever made.  This spinoff of the first-season episode "Space Seed" finds superman Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban) escaping from a barren prison planet and seeking revenge against the man who had exiled him there fifteen years previously, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner).

Set several years after the events of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and more than a decade after the end of the TV show's original "five-year mission," STII opens with an exciting sequence on what looks like the bridge of the starship Enterprise in which young half-Vulcan cadet Saavik (Kirstie Alley in her first major film) is unable to defend herself against three Klingon vessels, resulting in the ship's destruction and the apparent deaths of her crew, including Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley).  It turns out the disaster was merely a training exercise under the tutelage of Spock and the observation of Kirk, now manning a desk at Starfleet Command in San Francisco.  It's Kirk's birthday, presumably his 50th, which prompts the gift of reading spectacles from his old friend McCoy.

The Enterprise, captained by Spock and only set for a short training cruise for the benefit of its very green rookie crew, is suddenly ordered into action when mysterious troubles occur on the Regula 1 space station, a scientific outpost run by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and her son David (Merritt Butrick).  Marcus and her team have been developing the top-secret Genesis Device, amazing technology able to create life from scratch, to turn a completely dead rock of a planet into one blooming with water, plants and everything needed to sustain human existence.  In the wrong hands, Genesis could be a devastating weapon, one capable of destroying entire civilizations.  Those "wrong hands", in this case, belong to Khan, festering with obsession since his banishment to Ceti Alpha V and, later, the death of his wife (originally one of Kirk's crew, Marla McGivers, played in "Space Seed" by Madlyn Rhue).  Although Khan, who has captured a starship and imprisoned its crew, has possession of Genesis, his ultimate goal is vengeance ("He tasks me, and I shall have him.") against Kirk, leading to a cat-and-mouse "dogfight" within the Mutara nebula and the death of Kirk's closest friend.

After the lumbering STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, Paramount handed the reins of its potentially profitable franchise to a new executive producer, Harve Bennett, who had successfully run several hit TV shows, including THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (TREK creator Gene Roddenberry was removed from day-to-day decision making and credited as "executive consultant").  Although neither Bennett, writer Jack B. Sowards, nor director Nicholas Meyer (TIME AFTER TIME) had ever been involved with STAR TREK in any of its incarnations, this turned out to be to the film's benefit, since they were able to bring fresh thinking to the projects and weren't saddled with preconceived notions of how TREK was "supposed to be".  Perhaps their best decision was upping the action content, and, indeed, STII is the fastest paced and most violent of the series.  Another smart decision came about when Nimoy was hesitant to return as Spock, perhaps the series' most popular character.  Bennett was able to coax Nimoy back into the fold by promising to kill Spock off, believing that no actor could resist performing a dramatic death scene.  When word of Spock's death leaked to the fans, it spawned a heap of publicity that, whether or not the fans approved of the idea, couldn't help but benefit the film's release.

STAR TREK's most exciting movie is also its most militaristic (despite TREK creator Roddenberry's protests), clothing its actors in thick Napoleonic uniforms, bathing the sets in red mood lighting, and even installing a manually operated photon torpedo bay.  The result is a tense action picture anchored by its two charismatic stars:  Shatner, whose middle age adds surprising depth and vulnerability to his swaggering hero, and Montalban, whose robust vitality and megalomaniacal preoccupation with Kirk's death makes Khan a worthy adversary, despite the fact the two actors never appear together on screen.  Adding piquancy to Shatner's performance is his superlative work in the film's closing sequence, in which he and Nimoy say goodbye to each other in one of science fiction's most powerful moments.  Shatner has perhaps never been better than when he delivers Spock's eulogy at the funeral.

Working with a budget less than half of ST:TMP's, Industrial Light and Magic, using both cunning and models and FX left over from that movie, demonstrate excellent visual effects, especially in the final confrontation between the two ships, which may be scientifically implausible, but is undoubtedly one hell of an action scene.  Equally as important is James Horner's majestic score.  Following Jerry Goldsmith's extraordinary music in ST:TMP, among the finest of his legendary career, must have been nerve-wracking, but Horner's confidence shows no bounds, leaping in with a rousing soundtrack that includes an instantly hummable main theme and a menacing one for Montalban's lionhearted antagonist.

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN is a rare breed in modern moviemaking--an action movie that simultaneously thrills, enlightens, and touches the souls of its audience.  A summer blockbuster with allusions to literature and philosophy?  You don't see that often.  It's a formula that would be repeated the next time Meyer took over the helm of a STAR TREK movie, his Glasnost-influenced STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991). 


Unknown said...

This is such a great film and, as you point out so well, there is a reason why this is the most beloved film in the STAR TREK series. It just delivers on every level and the entire cast seems to be having a blast playing these characters again.

"the summer of 1982 (perhaps the last truly great movie summer we'll ever see)"

Ain't that the truth? Some incredibly SF/fantasy films came out that year including TRON, ET, THE THING, THE ROAD WARRIOR... incredible.

Benzadmiral said...

Truly "Wrath" is a top-notch adventure film, good SF, and good "Star Trek," with lines that ring not only true but eternal. At the time the film came out, a fan I knew proclaimed it nothing but a space Western, in which Black Bart (Khan) escapes from prison, steals the plans for a new Gatling gun, and goes after Marshal Dillon (Kirk); that it wasn't SF. I said, "The Gatling gun doesn't tie into themes of birth and death like the Genesis device, does it?" He had no answer to that.

By the way, to be strictly accurate, Khan and Kirk do appear on screen together when they are conversing on the viewscreens of their ships, and they also speak by communicator. However, they never physically appear in the same room together -- which makes this script even more amazing!