Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Directed by: Nicholas Meyer
Produced by: Harve Bennett
Screenplay by: Jack B. Sowards (uncredited: Nicholas Meyer)
Story by: Harve Bennett & Jack B. Sowards (uncredited: Samuel Peeples)
Production Designed by: Joseph R. Jennings
Edited by: William P. Dornisch
Music by: James Horner

Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Ricardo Montalban, Kirstie Alley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols. Mimi Besch, Merritt Buttrick, Paul Winfield, Judgson Scott

1982 / 116min / Rated PG

Admiral James T. Kirk returns to the U.S.S. Enterprise, which has been turned into a training ship for a group of Starfleet cadets. Unhappy in his new post and not in command of a starship, Kirk struggles with aging and death when an old nemesis, Khan, escapes after fifteen years of imprisonment on a desolate world and seeks revenge on Kirk for the death of his wife.

Despite being a success at the box office, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been costly and not as big a success as Paramount Pictures would have liked. In an attempt to cut back on costs and increase profit, series creator Gene Roddenberry was forced out of production and Harve Bennett was brought in to produce a less expensive film. Bringing a young Nicholas Meyer on board who evoked a sense of swashbuckling adventure that matched the atmosphere of the original series, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has become the definitive Star Trek movie.

The space battles are wonderful. From the first suspenseful buildup to attack to the grand finale in the heart of the Mutara Nebula, the battles are tense, thrilling and wonderfully realized, playing out like two sea ships duking it out on the high seas. What's even greater about the battles is that they are not won by strength, they are won by wit and knowledge. Kirk doesn't defeat Khan by being stronger or smarter, after all, Khan is a genetically enhanced being. Any direction confrontation would certainly result in Khan's victory. But in the end it is Kirk's experience as a starship captain that allows him to conquer Khan in the end. What's great about this is that it plays back to the character element of age touched upon in the beginning. Were it not for Kirk's age and experience, it's most likely Khan would've won. Which is why Kirk ends up instructing a young Kirstie Alley as Lt. Saavik on the importance of knowledge and strategy. To-date, no Trek battle has out-done what is done here.

The characters and performances are wonderful all across the board. The original cast are at
their best here, particularly Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley. They are comfortable in their roles and don't seem as awkward or lifeless as they did in The Motion Picture. One of my big complaints about The Motion Picture was the lack of interaction between The Trio (Kirk, Spock and McCoy). While that interaction is limited here as well, it is beautifully handled. Nimoy and Kelley are wonderful as they bicker about the implications of the Genesis device, while Shatner is amusing as he sits back and watches, exasperated. The chemistry is best at the climax, but more on that in a minute.

Khan is wonderfully written and portrayed by Ricardo Montalban. You know what he wants and why he wants it, and you really do believe in his anger and vengeance as he sets out to kill Kirk. Montalban's performance has become the definitive Star Trek villain. He's grand, over-the-top and yet not so much that he hams it up. Montalban has yet to be topped by any villain in any Trek incarnation.

Kirstie Alley is instantly loveable as Lt. Saavik, the half-Vulcan/half-Romulan protege to Spock. This was the performance that made people notice Alley, and it's too made she was not brought back to continue the character in the next sequel.

The key to Wrath of Khan's success is that it managed to capture the fun and adventure of the original series. The characterization that was missing from The Motion Picture is presented perfectly here. Probably the best decision that Nicholas Meyer made (Meyer wrote the screenplay in 12 days from a collection of previous drafts) was to give Kirk glasses. This one small gesture shows that these characters are in a different place from where they were when the series ended, something The Motion Picture did not accomplish. They humanized them, made them mortal, and increased the emotional impact of the grand finale.

Khan's emotional payoff does not come from his defeat and death, but instead in the best death
of and Star Trek character. Adding to that impact is that it is also Trek's most popular and beloved character, Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock. It is one of the most touching and poignant moments of any of the Trek films. The performances are perfect, from Kelley's McCoy trying to stop Spock, to Shatner's portrayal of Kirk's grief both in the death scene and the funeral, to Nimoy's portrayal of Spock's death. The writing hits all the right notes, with all the right things being said. It's not how much is said, but what is being said. This probably would not have been so emotional or touching had it not been for the buildup and characterization established throughout the film. This is why characterization and development are so important, and this film really hits a grand slam.

At the heart of the film is Nicholas Meyer's focus on the cycle of life and death. Kirk's constant attempts to cheat death, to the discovery of new life in Kirk's long-lost son, Spock's death intercut with the birth of a new world are wonderfully handled by Meyer. It brings it all into focus. It's not just a movie where things happen, it's a movie that is about something. Spock's death, as tragic and heartbreaking as it is, off-sets the discovery of Kirk's son. Meyer handles the movie's themes so wonderfully you barely notice them as they're happening at all.

The Wrath of Khan is the definitive Star Trek movie. Each film, in some way, has tried to capture that same magic, but to varying degrees of success and none anywhere near the magic that is captured here. Everything is perfect, the writing, Nicholas Meyer's flawless direction, James Horner's swashbuckling score, the effects, the performances. The Wrath of Khan established how to make a Star Trek movie and launched the franchise into a bold new direction. If you want to make a Star Trek movie, this is the one to look to as the perfect example.

(of 4)


Dave said...

An excellent review. This is a stronger movie than the first. While Wrath of Khan is one of the movies I really love, it is not my favorite.

Christian said...

This is my favorite Trek movie. Very good review! Even after 27 years, it still packs a powerful punch and has aged well.

I have it on the DVR and watch it on occasion. That is kind of crazy because I am pretty sure I have it on DVD!

Evie said...

It's one of my favorite Trek movies. I agree that Spock's death scene and funeral service are played well and are very moving. The arrangement of Amazing Grace is gorgeous - even though it opens with bagpipes! I generally hate bagpipes, but they were just the right touch on that occasion.