Sunday, March 4, 2012

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I'll admit right off the bat that I'm not a big fan of Star Trek, but this is more based on my lack of exposure to the franchise. The only other movie I've seen is the fantastic J. J. Abrams reboot and a couple of episodes of the original series here and there. Star Trek II was the only one besides the Abrams series that I had really wanted to see because I had kept hearing so many positive things about it, but only recently had I acquired a copy on DVD, specifically the extended Director's Cut. While I don't immediately wish to see more Star Trek, I have become a fan of this movie and I can see why others love it too.

The events of the movie take place 15 years after the Original Series episode Space Seed, which I had watched beforehand. The crew of the USS Reliant are searching for a lifeless planet to test something known as the Genesis Device, which can create life in an area where none exists. They stumble upon what they believe to be Ceti Alpha VI, which seems desolate enough to qualify as a candidate. However, they keep receiving a mysterious signal and decide to beam Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) down to the surface to investigate. As they search the area, they run into Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán), who reveals that they are in fact on Ceti Alpha V, which Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), now an Admiral, had exiled him to 15 years prior; Ceti Alpha VI had actually exploded, which caused his own planet to suffer greatly. He blames Kirk for everything bad that has happened to him, including the death of his wife. Khan now plans to avenge her death by eliminating Kirk, no matter what it takes, starting with a complete takeover of the Reliant.

What unfolds next is fascinating to watch. It's sort of like a classical nautical adventure, only set in the far reaches of space, pulled off by having the Federation function like an actual navy. As we learn more about the Genesis device and Khan's intentions, the plot becomes more dramatic and at times exciting. There is an interesting chemistry between Kirk and Khan that helps make this work, and the tactical thinking displayed by the two of them as they try to come up with deeper strategies is simply amazing. This carries over until the final climactic battle in a nebula, when Khan finally shows some desperation in his two-dimensional battle plan.

The way every character is portrayed helps to really sell the movie in all of its elements. Admiral James T. Kirk has to deal with being middle-aged on his birthday, something which he isn't very proud of. This is compounded by McCoy's gift of antique reading glasses, which gets used rather well as subtle symbolism of Kirk at first succumbing to old age when using them a couple of times, but then reclaiming his youth once the spectacles are cracked at the end and when he says "I feel young." Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) acts as a good opposite to Kirk, approaching situations with logic as opposed to letting emotions influence him. He is also shown to be very tactical as well, especially during his encoded radio communications with the Admiral as Khan listens in. Another spectacular performance shines through with Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), who delivers some light-hearted and humorous moments to an otherwise dramatic and serious film, creating some balance that helps the movie be a classic.

Then there is, of course, Ricardo Montalbán's performance as the antagonist, Khan. Montalbán plays the character in ways that make him a very interesting villain to watch, especially how dead set he is on eliminating what he sees as his greatest enemy. His presence alone breathes a certain atmosphere into everything around him and I couldn't help but be impressed whenever he was on the screen. Khan will stop at nothing in pursuit of his prey, ignoring reasoning given to him by both Chekov and his own crew. This is done similarly to Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, whom he embodies and quotes at the right moments to sell the drama with graceful precision. It is this along with his quick and forward thinking that, to me, makes Khan a credible and memorable character that stands up well even into the present day.

But while Star Trek II has great characters, it also has some memorable and classic moments. One of these is Kirk's "Khan Scream", which has been endlessly copied, referenced, and parodied through TV and the internet (though incorrectly). I found myself dropping my jaw in awe when I first saw the Genesis chamber, with its vast, colorful space and impressive scale in relation to the characters walking into it. There are also a couple of moments within the nebula that stand out as well. The first is how Kirk and Khan both alter their strategies to suit the environment of the nebula cutting off their sensors, leading to an amazing scene where the Enterprise goes underneath the Reliant and then "surfaces" behind it to deliver a finishing blow. This works in the end since Spock reveals that Khan is used to battles in two dimensions, thus he isn't used to thinking in three, something which is alluded to near the beginning of the film with a checkerboard. The other moment in the nebula is when Spock manually fixes the core of the Enterprise's warp drive, enabling the ship to escape an explosion from Khan arming the Genesis device.

This moment, while leading to a moment of victory, shifts into the most dramatic event of the movie, which is Spock's death scene. As Kirk and Spock share this moment, the drama really sinks in and their emotions immerse the viewer into the scene. You can tell just how much Spock meant as a friend to Kirk, as what can be seen as a part of him is now gone, seemingly forever (he returns in the sequel, but that doesn't matter here). Everything about this death is pulled off fantastically, including the event leading up to it and how it is dealt with after the fact as the Admiral regains his sense of youth. Spock even delivers the closing narration.

Other things I liked about the movie were the score and visuals. The score is simply perfect as it matches the tone and fits whatever is happening at the moment. Even what can be heard from the original TV show is used well at the beginning and end. The special effects are breathtaking and surprisingly hold up even today, particularly those used to illustrate the Genesis chamber and the nebula, as well as the transformation of the space within the nebula into a planet after the Genesis device explodes aboard the Reliant. I also thought Ceti Alpha V had an impressive sandstorm on its surface. Set designs for the ships and other locations are also well-detailed, something I can also say about the costumes and props. I know this may sound like an odd way to praise a movie, but I actually found myself impressed by not only the well-framed cinematography, but also the lighting. Yes, the lighting. I felt it contributed heavily to the overall dramatic atmosphere and highlighted the mood of each scene, like those on the Reliant, perfectly.

While there are plenty of good things to say about this film, there are admittedly a couple of things that seem off a little. The costumes for the Federation for example, while offering a more timeless look that fits the naval feel, do seem a little heavy. A couple of plot holes also exist, the most glaring of which is the fact that Khan recognizes Chekov even though he wasn't in Space Seed and the fact that the USS Reliant was unable to detect that Ceti Alpha VI no longer existed. These quips are minor however and most of the holes, whatever others there may be, can be explained away logically. For instance, it is possible that Chekov was indeed on the Enterprise at the time and just not a prominent character then, but it is still odd that he of all the crew members would stand out in Khan's memory. I'll also admit that I found the pacing to be a little slow at times, but sitting through the movie is well worth it anyway.

Star Trek II is indeed a fantastic movie. Every element balances out very nicely to create an atmosphere that never ceased to amaze me. It's a film that stands out to me well beyond the realms of pop culture and I now consider it to be one of my favorite films. If you've ever been curious about The Wrath of Khan, and aren't a nitpicker or someone who doesn't like older sci-fi, then you should definitely give this film a viewing. If you don't own it, you may very well want to afterwards.

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