Monday, July 09, 2012

Movies I Like: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

If you weren’t around in 1982 you missed a crazy-good year for film. I have often said that it was the last great year for movies. Some disagree and I have heard all of the arguments to the contrary. But I tell you there was something about that year that I have not seen repeated since. The number of great, classics, influential or just plan fun movies to be released in 1982 is stunning. Here are just a few:

That’s a few of them and I suspect that even you younger readers have heard of one or two of these. This is not to say that I love every film listed above—I only mean to point out the quality, number, and variety of the films you had to choose from in ‘82.

It was so much fun to go to the movies then. One of the summer movies released that year was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Star Trek II was, of course, the sequel to the fantastically successful, but disappointing to fans, StarTrek: The Motion Picture.

Star Trek II is considered by many to be the best film in the Star Trek franchise. I think that’s probably true because it is the only Star Trek movie that is A MOVIE first and foremost. It aims to engage and entertain those who are not diehard fans. It tells a story—not only that, it tells a good story and it tells it well.

The Wrath of Khan’s story was conceived by producer Harve Bennett, who wrote an outline for the film, and then brought on writer Jack B. Sowards to write the screenplay.

The film’s director was Nicholas Meyer, himself a novelist and no slouch as a writer. (He had already written and directed a film called Time After Time about Jack the Ripper escaping into the 20th century using H.G. Wells’ time machine, so Wells must track him down. It’s a fun movie.)
 When Myer was brought in, the script needed help and he rewrote the movie in 12 days, though he did not take a writing credit. The story was a kind of sequel to an episode of the original Star Trek television series called “Space Seed,” where the crew of the USS Enterprise does battle with Khan—a genetically enhanced human being. 

Ricardo Montalbán as Khan
Star Trek II starts with what looks like a dangerous mission: a starship must decide whether to cross into an area called the Neutral Zone to rescue a ship in trouble, but to cross into this Neutral Zone is an act of war. The person in the captain’s chair decides to risk war and attempt a rescue. This is seen as an act of aggression by the enemy (the Klingons) who attack the starship. During the attack, many of the bridge officers are killed, including Mister Spock.

When all is lost, a door slides open, and a figure enters and calls for the lights to be turned up—this is Captain (now-Admiral) Kirk. With his entrance the “dead” rise and brush themselves off.

This, it turns, out is a simulation—a test called the Kobayashi Maru designed to put young officers in the position of having to make an impossible decision—a “no-win scenario.” It is a chance for them to face death.

Doctor McCoy questions staffing the Starship Enterprise with inexperienced cadets and mentions it to Kirk as the old bridge crew looks on.

Admiral, wouldn't it be easier to put an experienced crew back on the ship?

Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor.

Now, what is that supposed to mean?

Soon after this opening Kirk meets up with his old friend Spock. Upon seeing him, Kirk jokes, referring to the simulation, “Aren’t you dead?” This is a bit of foreshadowing because this is a film where Spock does die.

See how the film has just begun, and already the subjects of death and aging have already come up so naturally? Not missing a beat, it is in this scene where Spock presents Kirk with a birthday gift—an old book.

(reading from book) "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." —Message, Spock?


None that I'm conscious of. Except of course; happy birthday! —Surely the best of times.

The book is of course Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and its opening line matters in this story. Kirk does not seem to be happy about his birthday—for him this is not the best of times.

Later, Kirk’s old friend Dr. McCoy drops by Kirk’s home with a birthday gift. Along with a bottle of alien spirits, McCoy also brings the gift of reading glasses. Again, the idea of aging.

It comes up here that Kirk is not happy being an administrator, but he is feeling his age and feels as he said before that “galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.”

Dammit, Jim, what the hell is the matter with you? Other people have birthdays, why are we treating yours like a funeral?

(He could have just as easily said, “Dammit, Jim, this should be the best of times and you’re treating it as the worst of times!”)

These dualities of old and young, life and death, creation and destruction are at the center of this piece.

For the sake of space I will move quickly through some of the story.

Khan, an old enemy of Kirk’s, takes over a starship called The Reliant to seek revenge on Kirk. Khan has also found out about something called “Project Genesis.” He finds a way to lure Kirk into a trap, in part using an old love interest of Kirk’s, Dr. Carol Marcus, who is in charge of Project Genesis.

Kirk, not suspecting that he is about to be attacked, is caught off-guard when The Reliant, a starship in his own fleet, fires on his ship causing major damage.
 It is at this point, when the Enterprise is crippled in space, that Khan reveals himself as the attacker. He demands that Kirk surrender and transfer all information regarding Project Genesis over to him. Kirk is able to stall Khan for a moment while he “receives” the Genesis data; we see Kirk hesitate as he puts on his eyeglasses, a symbol of the weaknesses of age.

Kirk manages to outsmart Khan and cripple his ship in return. Now Kirk goes with Spock and McCoy to see just what this Genesis Project is. They learn that it is a kind of missile that when deployed to a dead moon can turn the lifeless world into a thriving ecosystem. This is the discussion that follows:

Dear Lord. You think we're intelligent enough to... suppose...what if this thing were used where life already exists?

It would destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.

Its "new matrix"? Do you have any idea what you're saying?

I was not attempting to evaluate its moral implications, Doctor. As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create.

Not anymore; now we can do both at the same time! According to myth, the Earth was created in six days. Now, watch out! Here comes Genesis! We'll do it for you in six minutes!

Really, Dr. McCoy. You must learn to govern your passions; they will be your undoing. Logic suggests...

Logic? My God, the man's talking about logic; we're talking about universal Armageddon! You green-blooded, inhuman...

From a story construction standpoint, Project Genesis is brilliant—it both creates life and destroys it. Again, this duality of life and death intermingled.

Because I don’t like these posts to get too long (too late), I won’t go through the entire film, but I could. This life/death young/old thing never lets up. During the film, Kirk meets his son: Birth. And he also loses his best friend: Death.

It comes out that Kirk cheated when he took the Kobayashi Maru as a cadet. He has never faced death until now. But seeing his friend gallantly sacrifice his life so that others could live teaches Kirk the value of facing death head on.

Notice how even Spock’s death is about the duality of life and death—he dies to save lives. 
Near the film’s end when Kirk sits down to read the book that Spock gave him for his birthday, he finds that his glasses are broken. He is not an old man. He then has this talk with his son:

David Marcus
Lieutenant Slavic was right: You never have faced death.

No. Not like this. I haven't faced death. I've cheated death. I've tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.

David Marcus
You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.

Just words.

David Marcus
But good words.

Lastly, as Kirk looks out at the newly formed Genesis planet, where they have deposited the body of Spock, he recites some of A Tale of Two Cities:

It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. A far better resting place that I go to than I have ever known.

Carol Marcus
Is that a poem?

No. Something Spock was trying to tell me. On my birthday.

You okay, Jim? How do you feel?

Young. I feel young.

"Young. I feel young."
This kind of focus on theme is the kind of thing I rarely see anymore, but it is powerful when it is used. In the case of Star Trek II it created both a hit and a classic. I wish more screenwriters would follow Khan’s lead.


Henry Sheppard said...

As usual, great stuff. Thanks, Brian.

city said...

thanks for posting.

David Coe said...

Hey Brian, it's David Coe. Thanks for posting on this film. I just rewatched it, and it was fantastic. I love how the film opens up right off the bat with the Kobayashi Maru simulation (redefining a life-death situation; as I see it, a test of character), as well as poignant talk of life and death, and how the Kobayashi Maru is subsequently used throughout the film. When Kirk first encounters Khan: stalling for time while preparing to attack (disarming his shields). Then next when Kirk tricks Khan by speaking in code about how long it will take to ready the Enterprise, and lastly by luring Khan into the nebula, where the battlefield will be even. In each case Kirk employs "original thinking" to stave off certain death. But finally Spock faces a life or death situation where "original thinking" will not save the day; he has but one logical choice, to face death and save the many. His logical Vulcan mind recognizes this almost instantly. So he goes where "no human" can go, to enable the warp drive. Kirk's solutions were clever (in Kirk's own words "cheating") - but Spock actually dies as his solution. A duality there for sure. And in doing so, Kirk has to finally face death, the death of his close friend. I also enjoy Kirk as a flawed hero; he partially caused the problem by marooning Khan 15 years prior. Kirk is Khan's "white whale". And Kirk encounters his former lover (an "old wound"), who didn't think Kirk fit to be a father, and never even told him about her son. Just fantastic stuff, every line adding to the wonderful meditation on life and death that pervades the film. The crew at the space station gave their lives, that Dr. Carol and a few others would live. Spock dies, and we are all but told that he will be reborn. Life from death. On just a "whoa that's cool" level I am blown away with the entrance of Kirk & Khan onto the screen, and their electric enmity during their scenes together, even though they aren't even in the same room! Definitely my favorite Trek film. Khan is a wonderful villain, beautifully played by Malteban (ear bugs, yes!). The end of Kirk's eulogy was stunning. "And how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?"

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I saw this for the first time in decades recently, and yeah, you hit it exactly: it's the only "Star Trek" movie that's a movie first and "Star Trek" second. It plain feels different than the rest. It earns your attention through story, rather than assuming you're excited simply to hang out with your Starfleet friends again.

Plus, it gave a generation the urge to yell into the sky "KHAAAAAAAAN! Khaaaaaaan! khaaaaaan!" Which is awesome.

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