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Our Star Trek marathon warps on with our second film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Katey remains a total Trek noob and Josh is, as always, a huge nerd. Follow along with our entire marathon by going right here.
JOSH: By the time we got around to popping Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in, Katey was pretty skeptical. I mean her first ever introduction to Star Trek was The Motion Picture and let's face it, even we Trekkies know that's the recipe for a pretty good nap. But I knew what was ahead, and so with a bag of Cheetohs in one hand and a by now, orangish-colored remote in the other, I convinced Katey to hit the impulse engines and keep moving with our marathon. Then I spent another ten minutes explaining what an impulse engine was, and why that's not the same as a warp drive, after which she gave up and vowed never to watch another Star Trek movie again.
Another ten more minutes of begging (ok and maybe even a little sniveling) I had her in front of the screen again and this time, kept my mouth shut. For I knew something that Katey did not. It's this: There is no better movie than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. If anyone says otherwise; to the last, I will grapple with thee... from Hell's heart, I stab at thee! For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee! That sounds better when Montalban says it, but that doesn't make it any less that I mean it. This is without question, my favorite movie. Not my favorite Star Trek movie and not one of my favorite movies; my favorite movie, all time. So beware, because I'm cranking the geekatude up to Warp Factor 10 on this one. I'm going in firing hyperbole-powered photon torpedoes. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the perfect film. The greatest film. Kate you'd goddamn better well like it, or I'll leave you trapped inside a dead planetoid, buried alive… buried alive…
KATEY: OK, fine Josh, fine. I thought I might not be captivated by Wrath of Khan, that maybe I'd be able to put that stake through the heart of Star Trek… but I could be wrong. We'll see.
JOSH: On the surface, this story seems a lot more straightforward than The Motion Picture. It's your basic revenge tale in which a man's past comes back to haunt him. In this case that man is Kirk and Khan is his past. Khan blames Kirk for everything that has happened to him and to me what's so interesting about this whole thing is that well, he's kind of right. Kirk did leave him stranded there and maybe Kirk should have been checking up on him. It's a brilliant story and I love the way the past between the two of them is hinted at and danced around. I know their history having seen the original Trek episode in which Khan first appeared (“Space Seed”, check it out Katey!), but to me this story almost feels like it would be just as good or maybe even better without that knowledge. You don't need it, their history together merely adds dimension and depth to the story and the whole Trek universe, in the same way any really great back story should.
Of course at its core Wrath of Khan is flat out the greatest submarine battle ever told, it just happens to take place in outer space. Director and co-writer Nicholas Meyer actually had no interest in outer space or science fiction, but he was a huge, huge fan of the “Horatio Hornblower” books and he saw Trek as basically those seafaring stories set in space. Because of that he translated everything he saw into nautical terms, solving some of the spacey disconnect of the previous film while at the same time giving himself a firmer foundation to build a great story on. What's amazing is how intense the action feels, even though almost the entire film is spent with guys sitting around in one spot. There are no fist fights or even high speed chases, but when it's over it feels like you've just been through all of that. Wrath of Khan doesn't settle just for being a great outer space action either, the script is interwoven throughout with bigger themes about life, death, aging, birth and rebirth. Best of all, it builds on characters and touches on all these big ideas without sacrificing the forward motion of the story or the script's adventure elements, it all happens in concert as part of one perfectly tuned whole. Call me a fanboy if you want Katey, but it doesn't get any better than this. Nicholas Meyer is a genius, now beam over and acknowledge it.
KATEY: OK, if Nicholas Meyer is such a genius, then why has he done so little work since this movie? I'll admit that what he accomplished here is pretty impressive, for all the subplots if nothing else. At one point I wrote in my notes that it's basically the same plot as the first film -- an Enterprise crew member (Chekhov this time) is taken over by the bad guy and turned into his zombie minion. But of course, Wrath of Khan is so much more than that. I too love the dynamic back and forth between Kirk and Khan, one of those rare perfect pairings of villain and hero where they start to resemble each other toward the end. Their rivalry forms the core of the story, of course, but it's amazing how much wider-ranging the narrative is, from Khan's back story to Kirk and Carol's romance to Spock's final sacrifice. None of it would have worked if the story weren't well executed, but Khan follows the perfect three-act structure, with each act including a conflict with the villain and among characters, until it all comes together, shining, at the end.
KATEY: Sure, many of the best parts of the movie come from Khan's insanity and his interactions with Kirk, but the movie gets its emotional heft by expanding its conflict to nearly all the supporting characters. Characters like Chekhov, Scotty and even Bones, who felt more like background dressing in the first film, became an integral part of the action, and each were clearly affected by Khan's attacks. And when they introduced new characters, like Carol and her son, they become an important part of the world rather than just cannon fodder.
But you can't talk about the good guys in this movie without mentioning Spock, who commits a famous selfless act "for the good of the many" that has to be reversed in the sequel-- right?? Even though Kirk's character developed a lot for me in this movie, and I'm not quite so comfortable calling him a prick, it's Spock who emerged as the most fascinating character in the series. Given that the next movie has his name in the title, I know I have a lot to look forward to.
JOSH: I hope you're not too attached to Carol and David. That space-lane warps to disappointment.
A big part of why this one works so much better than the first one is in how they approached the crew. For Star Trek II, series creator Gene Roddenberry was relegated to a consulting capacity while Harv Bennet took over as the second film's producer, and unlike Roddenberry (who was always only interested in the big picture) in Harv's mind the Trek universe was entirely character driven. In specific, he saw it built on the relationship of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy as a foundation, with each forming different sides of a triangle which when connected; logic on one side in Spock, passion on the other in McCoy, and the balance between them in Kirk; formed an unbreakable force. They started building the movie's script with that idea, and then sought to create an opposing element so powerful that it could actually challenge the triangle. Khan was born out of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy's strength and to me that's why this whole thing works so well.
No doubt, Nimoy gives an amazing performance here. His death scene is one of the all time greats. It's easy to imagine audiences full of Trekkies balling their eyes out the first time this played. I'm pretty sure I cried at least the first two times I saw it, even though I've only ever seen it on TV. Trekkies were stunned. And Nimoy, let's face it, has always been the most truly talented member of the cast. He's the real artist of the group, the guy who gets film, who gets acting more than any of the others. Shatner deserves some credit too though. He gives an excellent performance here, a performance he builds on in Trek III to create something even better. But you're also right that everyone, except maybe Uhura, gets to be a significant part of the story. Even the new kid in Saavik, fills an important role. Scotty has perhaps one of the most wrenching moments in the film, outside of Spock's death, when he stands there in sickbay, choking back tears for his nephew. “He stayed at his post, even when the other trainees ran!” Dammit Katey, thinking about Scotty is getting me all choked up again.
JOSH: Maybe there's some way out there in this crazy world to argue that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan isn't the greatest movie of all time. Ok whatever. But I defy you to find a better movie villain than Khan Noonien Singh. Forget Anton Chigurh, sorry Heath Ledger's Joker, you're all just pale imitations of Ricardo Montalbahn's brilliant, game changing performance as Khan. He's so good that Hollywood has spent the last 25 years trying to duplicate it. Any time anyone tries to make anything with a bad guy in it, they're instantly compared to Khan… and they should be. He's vicious, he's ruthless, and he's utterly brilliant. Even better, as I said earlier, he's not entirely wrong to be pissed off. Ok maybe his response isn't the right one but goddamn it the man has a right to be pissed.
Khan's story is one of obsession, his thirst for revenge drowns him, drives him, pushes him beyond all reason. There's a point in the film where Kirk blames Khan's doggedness in the face of certain defeat on ego, but Kirk has him all wrong. It's revenge that drives him, revenge which pushes him, revenge which smolders at the core of Ricardo Montalbahn's soul as he gives one of the most brilliant performances of all time, dishing out literary quotes in his sleek, dulcet tones while thrusting his chest (all real by the way) toward the camera menacingly. Yet even in the grips of bloodthirsty revenge Khan is the essence of control, calculation, measured restraint. Maybe that's what makes him so immensely powerful and intimidating. And he does it all, sitting in a chair, and glaring straight into the camera. No magicky dark Jedi force powers, no quick-draw gun battles, no hand to hand combat. Just Ricardo Montalbahn, staring into the camera and promising defeat to all who oppose him. Khan. Greatest villain in movie history. Go ahead, you know you want to agree with me. Where's Ricardo's goddamn posthumous Oscar? Khaaaaan! Khaaaaaaaan!
KATEY: OK, Josh, set your phaser to off before I say this: Khan is a little cheesy. Yes, I know, he's got every reason to be pissed, he's been living on a desert and that's why he's half-shirtless the whole time, and his hairpiece probably has a perfectly good explanation as well. But between the bronzed pecs and the use of the words "thee" and "thine" and the Harvey Two-Face moment at the end, I've gotta admit, he went over-the-top at times. But then again, maybe that's what makes the whole thing work -- the characterization of Khan is so balls-to-the-wall crazy that you just have to go with it, and in the meantime accept stuff like the Genesis machine and Vulcan speak. There's no doubt that Montalban is great here, and sells every evil moment and Shakespeare-level insult. But it's possible he could have been toned down about 10 notches and still done it just as well.
KATEY: It's amazing that this movie was made just three years after the first Star Trek, given that everything-- from the costumes to the galactic clouds-- looks better this time around. I still maintain that pretty much everyone looks goofy in the uniforms, and when Kirk's uniform gets torn during the first attack on the Enterprise, it looked like he was wearing a lobster bib. But those are minor quibbles. It's strange that this movie includes a scene nearly identical to the one in the first movie, Kirk's triumphant return to the Enterprise accompanied by a bombastic score, but at least they trimmed the length this time. And the final battle in the Nebula has all the drama and impact that the first film lacked-- the clever use of models and perfect editing made the whole thing feel real. Finally, it's impossible to discuss the look of this movie without mentioning Ricardo Montalban's pecs-- but what else is there to say but "wowza!"
JOSH: Kirks' uniform isn't torn! It's supposed to do that. It's like… unbutton your collar to relax and let some air in. Maybe by modern standards the uniforms look a little goofy, but they hold up a lot better than those horrible penguin greys in the first film, or for that matter any of the clothes people were wearing back in the early 80s. Again, like so much in Wrath of Khan, the new uniforms were heavily influenced by naval designs. Hence the flap that comes open (and does not look like a lobster bib!) and the metal insignias and rank symbols. More than any other outfit, this is the one that eventually came to symbolize Trek on film. This is the uniform you'll see for the rest of our marathon, better learn to love it! As for the look of the film itself, Khan isn't as flashy as The Motion Picture, but I think it benefits greatly from all the design and effects work already done on TMP. They're freed up from being impressed with all the cool things they're able to do, and instead they just start using it. It gives the whole thing a more lived in, realistic feel. Sure they update things in places (they finally get the transporter effect just right for the first time here), but they're building on TMP's foundation. TMP gave them the tools and now they can really put them to work. Instead of going gaga over how pretty the Enterprise is, they get down and dirty with the ships, blow them up, engage in firefights, blast them with phaser damage. The space battle is fantastic, one of the few really great capital ship battles ever caught on film. Even in Star Wars, most of the space battles devolve into little dogfights between faster vessels. Nobody else has ever really managed to capture two massive, starships slugging it out as well as Wrath of Khan. It's also worth mentioning that Wrath of Khan is one of the first movies to make use of computer generated special effects. Though it's pretty dated now, that Genesis planet demo-sequence was computer generated and a pretty big deal at the time. CGI is where it is today in part, because of Star Trek II.
JOSH:If you're going to sit down, close your eyes and listen to a pleasant orchestral piece, then the soundtrack to star trek original marathon: the wrath of khan is probably the one you want. But if you're looking for music to use as the backdrop which drives a movie, then you want James Horner's score to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It fits. It's nothing fancy but it shouldn't be. It's militaristic, intense, full of banging drums and martial horns. The same is true of everything about Wrath of Khan. Where The Motion Picture may sound gimmicky, full of outer-space boops and bleeps, Khan feels stripped down, real. Raw. Great sound design, great soundtracks shouldn't overwhelm the picture. Great sound should compliment that. Star Trek II gets that as absolutely right as star trek original marathon: the wrath of khan got it wrong.
KATEY: I was actually familiar with the theme from this movie already, given that I am a giant nerd and enjoy listening to movie scores (shut up!) So it was even more satisfying to notice where the main theme came in and out, returning in different permutations to fit all the different moods. The difference was most stark for me in the aforementioned big scene where Kirk returns (again) to the Enterprise. I still can't figure out why this scene had to exist in both movies, but at least this time they toned it down both in length and in music. It didn't feel like the grandest thing Kirk had ever done; it felt like a homecoming.
KATEY: Spock is Half-Vulcan. Kirstie Alley's character is full Vulcan. So why do they look basically alike and do all the same things? What distinguishes Spock from other Vulcans other than the fact that he gets angry sometimes?
JOSH: First things first. Saavick (Kristie Alley) is half-Vulcan, half-Romulan. That's part of why Spock has taken her under his wing as a pupil, though I don't think her parentage is actually mentioned in Wrath of Khan. Romulans are basically Vulcans who abandoned the Vulcan planet thousands of years ago and started their own, separate society. They weren't cool with it when the other Vulcan's decided to get rid of their emotions, and so they got the hell out of there. Thousands of years later, Vulcans have no emotions, Romulans have too much emotion. They're very good at being angry. You wouldn't like Vulcans when they're angry (ironic considering that Eric Bana plays a Romulan in the new Trek movie). As for Spock, he doesn't show emotion at all, except on very rare occasions, and when he does he's embarrassed. Think of Spock like Barack Obama. Barack had a white mother and a black father, yet he identifies himself as a black man and for the most part, is accepted in society as a black man. Spock takes after his father and since he was raised on Vulcan, he thinks and acts like a Vulcan. From there comes a lot of the conflict in his character. He aspires to be a purely logical being like the Vulcans he identifies with, but somewhere inside him that illogical, emotional human side rages, fighting to break through his logical, dispassionate exterior.
KATEY: McCoy is a Romulan? Aren't the Romulans the villains in the new movie? Who are these people, exactly?
JOSH: What in the… what movie were you watching? McCoy is a Romulan? I have no idea where you came up with that. The closest McCoy gets to being Romulan is drinking Romulan Ale, and if that makes him Romulan then I'm Scottish, because I drink a lot of Scotch. Leonard McCoy is a human (and a lover of fine spirits), in fact he's the most human of the humans. You can tell he's human by his lack of pointed ears or funky forehead ridges. He's Spock's equal and opposite. Spock is pure, alien logic and reason while McCoy is all human frailty, weakness, passion and emotion. Kirk stands between the two views, and that's how Star Trek works.
KATEY: The existence of "Regular 1" and the relationship between the scientist ships and the Starfleet confused me. Is this something I need to worry about in the future?
JOSH: I'm guessing you mean Space Station Regula 1? Why do I get the feeling that not knowing the name of the space station makes you a million times cooler and more socially acceptable than actually knowing it makes me? A thousand people just fell in love with you while at the same time several hundred others vowed to keep me away from their daughters. Regardless of what this admission of knowledge does to my already rather limited social standing, there's no reason to worry about it. They were just a bunch of private scientists who managed to get government funding to come up with something crazy. Kind of like Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb.
KATEY: Do you get more out of this movie if you've seen Khan's TV episode appearance?
JOSH: Like I said before, I think it may actually be better if you haven't seen the television episode. Frankly, the Khan seen in the TV episode is very different from the one you get here. After all, he's had 15 years to go crazy since we saw him last. Though maybe you'd like the TV version even better, what with your wild, inexplicable predilection for a more restrained (boring) Khan. One funny note regarding the television episode: Though during the course of the movie Khan says he recognizes Chekov and Chekov obviously recognizes him, Chekov isn't actually in Khan's “Space Seed” episode. Walther Koenig didn't join the cast of Star Trek until season two, while “Space Seed” takes place during season one. Presumably he was on the ship somewhere and we just didn't see him.
KATEY:Did we know Kirk had a son before this? Isn't that kind of a major thing to pull on a character 10 years into his existence?
JOSH: No one knew Kirk had a son before this, including Kirk. It's not really a surprise though. Kirk's sexual exploits are near legendary. Somebody was bound to forget the birth control eventually. He's just lucky it wasn't with an Orion slave girl.
KATEY:Spock's not dead, right????
JOSH: No, he's definitely dead. Spock really is a rotting corpse when you hear his “where no man has gone before” voiceover. Actually the story goes that Nimoy refused to do Star Trek II unless they killed Spock off at the end. The really surprising thing, especially when this movie is watched in the context of the way it fits into the sequels that follow, is that when Wrath of Khan was made they really had no specific plan for a sequel. In fact, Nimoy approached it with the idea that this was his goodbye to Star Trek forever, and was ready to move on to bigger and better things. That moment before Spock goes into the radioactive chamber to die, when he puts his hand on McCoy's face and says “remember” might seem like something written into the script to set up a sequel… but it wasn't. It wasn't in the script at all in fact. It's something Nimoy came up with on the fly, on the set. According to Leonard, he suddenly felt like he was going to miss Spock and thought maybe this wasn't really it. So he asked Meyer to let him do that take, to leave an out just in case some day he changed his mind. The rest is Star Trek III… and history.
KATEY: As soon as I finished the DVD I ran into some Trek-loving friends, and all I could say was "Guys, that movie is awesome." Wrath of Khan rules, and I'm now actually excited to see what happens next. Yes it's a movie that takes place in space and involves stuff like phasers and a Genesis machine and the villain's henchmen are actually Chippendales (seriously!), but it's the complete lack of irony or camp that makes this so enjoyable. You really do believe that a genetically engineered man and his crew could be stranded on a desert planet for 20 years as punishment for taking over the world, and then use evil earworms to return to power and seek vengeance against a guy who doesn't know what eyeglasses are for. And yes, mere days ago I would have read a sentence like that and scoffed. But it's a perfectly structured Hollywood adventure movie, with subplots that all flow seamlessly into the main story in the end, a cast of characters worth following, and most importantly, a killer villain. I'm not sure I'm ready to declare it my favorite movie ever, but I would definitely show this to my dozens of other friends who don't know a Klingon from Chekhov. It makes things like a machine that can recreate planets and the notion of a phaser seem entirely plausible (even though I'm not 100% sure yet what a phaser is), and gets away with asking big philosophical questions without seeming over the top. Dammit, I've been sucked in after all. Khaaaaaaan!
JOSH: A phaser is a gun. They come in handheld varieties, and the mega-sized version they strap on the outside of ships to shoot at other ships. Before you ask, no, photon torpedoes do not come in a handheld version. Photons are kind of like outer space missiles.
I'm wasting time reading from Scotty's tech manuals, primarily because I don't want to stop talking about this movie. Can we go back and review Wrath of Khan at least once a week? Social life? What's that? Fine, I'll get to the point so you can go hang out at a trendy coffee shop.
I love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I'm not one for making lists of my favorite movies, my attitudes and opinions often change and what's my tenth favorite movie today might be number twenty by tomorrow. One thing though, remains a constant. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is my favorite movie. It embodies everything I've ever loved about science fiction, Star Trek, and great movie making. Fantastic characters, dialogue, action, adventure, spectacle, introspection, and a bad guy beyond compare. It's a world with both big ideas and real consequences. So few movies have ever managed to get this formula right, though since Wrath of Khan Hollywood has wasted a fair amount of time trying. Wrath of Khan is the movie every other movie wishes it could be, and now Katey you know why so many filmmakers with a big-budget project to sell so often hold up this one as an example of what they're shooting for. While other kids were going gaga over Star Wars, I sat at home dreaming of Star Trek, and it's all thanks to Wrath of Khan.
Follow along with our complete marathon, every step of the way, by clicking here.
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