Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Release Date: June 4, 1982
Director: Nicholas Meyer


Although it did well at the box office, Paramount was disappointed with the critical and financial performance of The Motion Picture. Many millions were spent on development (mostly for the aborted Phase II television show), and many fans and critics felt the movie was plodding and talky. Nonetheless, it performed well enough to warrant a second go. When Roddenberry delivered a story treatment involving Klingons, time travel, and the Kennedy assassination, Paramount "kicked him upstairs" and turned over the reins to producer Harve Bennett with two directives: make it cheaper, make it better. And as much as this might smart for a fan of Roddenberry, it's hard to argue with results. Bennett immersed himself in TOS research, looking for the key elements missing from TMP: dramatic conflict, and a good villain. Eventually, he settled on Khan, the wily genetically engineered antagonist from "Space Seed." He hired director Nicholas Meyer (who had previously directed "Time After Time" starring Malcolm McDowell), rookie composer James Horner, pulled Ricardo Montalban off of Fantasy Island, created a former flame and estranged son for Kirk, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The face that launched a thousand Shatner imitations...


Matthew: The construction of his movie is, frankly, masterful. It introduces a central theme at the beginning, mortality, and then develops it in dramatic conflicts for the rest of the film. We get touching scenes between Kirk/Spock and Kirk/McCoy, with Spock extolling the virtues of becoming older and wiser, and McCoy chiding Kirk for wallowing in self pity as he gets older. Then, the parallel theme of how Kirk deals with these sorts of "no-win" scenarios is introduced and developed as well. Within his thematic backdrop, we are given a tale in which a dastardly villain places Kirk in just such a no-win situation, and one of Kirk's dearest friends makes a mortal sacrifice out of love for his fellows. The growth that Kirk experiences in facing up to mortality and loss in this way is palpable and real. He comes to appreciate his life and the people in it more, and resolves to enjoy those relationships for what they are instead of wallowing in some halcyon vision of his past. Through this journey, he goes from feeling "old" to feeling "young" by the end of the film.

Kevin: I don't have much to add in terms of analysis of the film; Matt pretty much covers every base there. I will add that it's stories like these that make me more than a little annoyed at Star Trek's reputation for cheesiness, as it seems obvious, at least to me, that the people levying those claims just haven't watched it. It's a pretty timeless theme that uses Star Trek's unique fantastical elements to explore a very human story in a way that is very satisfying in terms of both story and character development. 

Matthew: Just in case we were worried about this movie devolving into a dumb action vehicle (ahem, "Star Trek[2009]"), the writers also introduce the Genesis Device, a piece of technology that promises to create new, vital worlds from the dead husks of planets. The double-edge to this technological sword is its destructive power - Genesis destroys as easily as it creates. The metaphor for atomic power is obvious and effective, and it drives the plot of the film. So we see that we have a nigh-perfect melding of character driven story and a science fiction plot driven by technology. 

Kevin: This, in my opinion, is the best marriage of action story, character drama, and science fiction tale that TOS ever makes, and that is up against some pretty stiff competition. Many non-Trek fans will cite this as a movie they enjoy a great deal or the one Trek incarnation they like, and with good reason. The science fiction provide the support for the main conflict, but that conflict itself is very human and very accessible.

Matthew: Maybe my contempt for humanity will show through here a bit, but sometimes I think people like STII without knowing why. They think it is because the movie is action-packed. But these hypothetical people are wrong. This movie is not terribly action-packed at all. There are really only three or four action heavy scenes (earwigs, two space battles, some brief fisticuffs), and they only total maybe ten minutes. That goes to show how well this movie is paced and how well tension is developed. Because it's certainly never boring.

Kevin: In addition to some great broad structural ideas, there's scads of little touches that are lovely as well. Little barbs between the Main Three are executed with the perfection of long use. Character moments like the conversation in Spock's quarters or between Kirk and Carol Marcus in the Genesis Cave are quiet moments that really gel the broader action sequences into a comprehensively compelling story.


Matthew: Despite the lampooning that the "Khan!" scene has historically elicited, in my book Shatner is the star of this film, and for good reason. This is among his most nuanced work. He is vulnerable and wounded by his own impending mortality, his feelings of regret come through crystal clear with his estranged former love and son, and his grief upon losing Spock at the end of the film is quite, quite affecting. I get a little misty just thinking about it for this post. That's how good a performance it is.

Kevin: We discuss this in the podcast, and it's something I hadn't considered before, which is shocking given how many times I've seen it, but when Kirk starts screaming, he knows he has an ace up his sleeve, so how much of that was performance for Khan's benefit and how much was genuine frustration at the general situation? It adds an extra layer to the scene that makes his scream actually pretty effective. He's trying to fake losing control without actually losing it, however good that might feel right now. Between the Enterprise, Regula I, and poor Captain Terrell, the body count is pretty high and there's a pretty straight forward argument that between his decision in "Space Seed" and his lack of attention to protocol earlier in the film, this ENTIRE situation is all his fault. That would send me pretty close to the edge. Especially in comparison to his actual TOS work and not the SNL parody of it, Kirk doesn't completely lose control very often, and it's unsettling when he does. I also agree with Matt that the final speech is heartbreaking. There's the perfect combination of deep pain surrounded by a surface layer of forced numbness that's both genuine and moving.

Matthew: Enough can't be said about Montalban. He is the Trek villain par excellence. Why? Because he seems like a real person. When we hear that Khan is manipulative, cunning, devious, and brilliant, we believe it in the person of Ricardo Montalban. No other Trek Villain actor, with the possible exception of John DeLancie, comes close to this level of depth and excellence in acting.

Kevin: It was fun watching the special features talk about how Montalban had trouble transitioning from Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island and back into Khan. It's to his credit that he actually went back and watched Space Seed. That kind of dedication is not as universal as you'd think and it really shines through on film. There's an abandon to his performance that is thoughtful, but not self-conscious. A lesser actor can (and has) destroyed an episode (or movie) by making the villain two-dimensional in his villainy. For all of Khan's bombast, his motivation (if not his actions) are pretty understandable, and the performance never obscures that.

Matthew: Not only was Bibi Besch totally MILF-tacular as Carol Marcus, she really nailed her scenes in the role. I wish we had seen more of her (no, not that way). She was entirely credible both as a "real" person and as a love interest for Kirk. It was easy to see why he would fall in love with her, and it really made you wish that they would get together by the end of the picture. That sort of chemistry can't be bought. It happens naturally, and when you capture it on camera, it creates the best kind of cinema love stories. The only other love interest who worked so well for Kirk was probably Areel Shaw in "Court Martial." Edith Keeler was pretty good, too. But Carol Marcus is the tops, and it's mainly due to Besch's strong performance.

Kevin: I'm gonna say this when we get to Generations, but my kingdom for Antonia's name to be Carol. Of all Kirk's old flames, this is the best. Maybe the extra screen time helped to flesh out the story, but the lion's share of the credit should go to Bibi Besch's acting and the chemistry she had with Shatner. She managed in a single look to convey love, annoyance, fondness, regret, and longing and it elevates a fairly standard plotline into art. Female characters in movies, especially when they are explicitly the love interest, tend to exist only insofar as they impact the main male characters. Despite being Kirk's love interest, Carol Marcus is never two-dimensional, never just the babe in the movie (though, I will admit from an academic standpoint, she is smoking hot). She has a career and desires and motivations that exist independent of Kirk, and it makes her interactions with Kirk more interesting. While it's admirable to show progress for female characters by having them not be love interests, I think it's also deserving of praise to show a woman who is a love interest who doesn't lose her identity as a result.

Matthew: By the way, Doohan gets a dramatic scene, for once, and he does a fine job with it (despite our questions as to why he takes the burned body to the Bridge instead of directly to Sickbay...). Too bad its context was entirely cut from the movie. I'll discuss this decision below.

Kevin: I also want to single out some of the supporting cast for praise. Merritt Butrick did a good job of playing Kirk's son. He conveys Shatner's bravado, but not his restraint, a result of both his inexperience and his resentment. And poor, poor, uncredited Joachim. His agent while trying to negotiate better billing somehow got him dropped from the credits entirely, and that's sad because this was an awesome supporting turn. His obvious respect and admiration for Khan combined with his ability to contradict him made him immediately a more interesting character, and it gave depth to Khan and his followers. They are not merely cardboard cutouts, blindly following the more important villain. They are people just like everyone else, and it makes the scenes on the Reliant more than filler.

Production Values

Matthew: Many effects and models are re-used in STII, in an attempt to save money. A truncated version of the spacedock fly-by is played perfectly, and an upside-down "Spacedock" model becomes the Regula I laboratory. The new contributions are the first non-Constitution class vessel ever on screen, the Reliant, which is indeed a lovely model. The Mutara nebula provides a great backdrop for a submarine-style battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant. The effects sequences portraying damage to the vessels are terrific.

Kevin: I want to sit every special effects designer born after 1985 down and show them this movie. The effects in this movie absolutely stand up to the test of time and high definition. I would go so far as to say they kick the snot out of a lot of stuff currently being produced. First, there is thought behind every effects shot. It's not done merely to fill time or demonstrate what new technology can do. The effects serve the story, not the other way around. Second, the models are AWESOME. There is a veracity to the play of light on a real object that computer generated effects can never fully replicate. Everything here looked like a real object in real space. Avatar was pretty, but this was inspiring.

Matthew: Jerry Goldsmith is a tough act to follow, but James Horner does a yeoman's job. His score is muscular and stirring, yet beautiful when it needs to be. He does a great job of creating separate themes for characters, and the music cues in the space battle really heighten the drama. This score is equivalent to hitting a grand slam in your first Major League at bat (a feat accomplished only four times in MLB history, by the way).

Kevin: Twenty years after first seeing the scene when the Reliant emerges from the static and the Enterprise tries to turn away, succeeding only in exposing a vulnerable flank to attack, the music cue still affects me. I feel palpable tension, no matter how much I may know the moment is coming, but that moment of alarm made of brass instruments is perfect. I won't say I like this better than the score for TMP, but I'd be hard pressed to find a movie that was a better marriage between what the movie needed and what the score provided.

Matthew: Some editing choices miss the mark here. On the DVD director's cut, we see an excised scene in which Scotty is established as being Engineer's Mate Peter Preston's uncle. This goes a long way to putting a scene which stayed in the theatrical cut in context, when Prestion dies during Khan's attack. The scene is VERY short, on the order of 20 seconds. And, it is available on the DVD in full widescreen resolution with sound editing, so clearly it was shot and printed for final release. The editing choice just baffles me. It doesn't ruin the Blu-Ray edition of this movie, which is spectacular by any other measure, but it just bothers me when editing goes awry and leaves loose ends.

Kevin: I agree fully, if only because James Doohan should be given as much screen time as logically permitted by the narrative. I'm going to wrap up my discussion of production values by heaping praise on the uniforms. There are my favorite movie uniforms out of all eleven films. They may even edge out the TOS uniforms for me. The layering and weight of the fabric looks great, and they look like real uniforms of a real organization. The brass details on the shoulders and sleeves was just the right amount. It's a clear home run for the costume department.


Matthew: Well, something has to be the standard by which all other things are measured. And STII is it for Trek movies. The phrase "firing on all cylinders" hardly does it justice. Tense, gripping, moving, complex, perfectly paced, well acted, well scored, well shot.  But again, it achieves greatness by being great Star Trek, not by trying to be Star Wars. The naval feel of the battle harks back to "Balance of Terror." Khan of course is a villain whose story is picks up from "Space Seed." The Genesis Device serves as a metaphor for the current Cold War climate, much like many a TOS episode. The action isn't omnipresent, there are plenty of quiet spaces that give us time to reflect, making the action all the more exciting. It's an obvious 5.

Kevin: Harve Bennett demonstrated something with the making of this film. You don't have to be a die hard Star Trek fan to make a nigh-on perfect Star Trek film. You just have to respect your audience. And he did so, both for Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike. The longer I work on this blog, the more I realize, there's not much difference in doing that for the two groups. We've said it before, but Star Trek is a good, thoughtful example of dramatic storytelling, so if you start from a place of respecting the intelligence and emotional capacity of your audience, it's pretty hard to go wrong. As much as we gripe, if we couldn't nitpick continuity errors, we'd be pretty bored. Tell a good story with three dimensional characters and we're pretty happy campers. Happy, nerdy campers. If nothing else, this movie succeeds because it never panders to me as a Trekkie or as a person. The external drama and the internal conflicts are both credible and engaging. The pretty-damned-near perfect technical execution is pretty much gravy. This is a 5. This is the 5 all future 5s will be judged against. This movie is a 10 and that's only because our scale, unlike Spinal Tap's, doesn't go to 11.

Matthew: I just want to respond to your good point, Kevin - it is probably just as easy, if not easier, to make a "good movie" that respects Trek as it is to make a "good movie" that plays fast and loose with the rules (ahem, Star Trek 2009...). Why? Because human beings crave pattern and structure. A movie with no dramatic coherence and story logic, regardless of how pretty it is, tends to annoy rational viewers. So why not go with it? You're inheriting a fully developed lexicon of structure and logic in the Trek canon. Think of how much time that saves you as a creator! So why not do what Harve Bennet did, and create a movie that fits seamlessly into this, and is all the better for it? The nerds rejoice in the details, while the non-nerds are impressed by verisimilitude without even knowing why exactly. In conclusion, **** you, J. J. Abrams. THIS is how it's done, you insufferable hipster twit!



  1. Excellent podcast and review of this film. I know it's an obvious pick, but TWOK is easily my favorite of the Trek films as well. I like to think of it as a commentary on what we might call the Kirk 'legend,' or mythos,' for lack of a better term. Every plank of the popular Kirk myth is disassembled in this film: Whereas before his decision-making as a captain has seemed near-infallible, he's now getting old and making elementary mistakes like forgetting to turn on the shields. Whereas before he was the ultimate ladies' man, now he's confronted with the one who got away, and the son who resents him; for the first time, a past relationship has consequences. And whereas before he was always able to cheat death, this time, not so much.

    TWOK strips away every element of the Kirk myth to leave only Kirk the human being, and finds the character only stronger for it. In so doing, it's making the case for heroes instead of superheroes. Kirk's victory over Khan, a genetic superhuman who sees himself as a figure of epic literary proportions, represents a victory for mere mortals over gods. So while I like Abrams' Trek better than you do, when you suggest that TWOK and Abrams' Trek are complete opposite kinds of movies at a fundamental level, I think you're very much onto something. Abrams' Trek does, as you point out, approach Trek with a superhero sensibility, and much of what I find valuable in TWOK is in the challenge it poses to that sensibility.

    1. I agree. I think the characters in the TOS movies are very much like real people. If anything links all 6 movies, it seems to be humanizing the characters, creating deeper, more nuanced portrayals than TOS did.

      The nuTrek characters are superheroes through and through. Motivations are paper thin, and everyone is the absolute best at everything ever, realism be damned.