Monday, May 13, 2013

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I’ll start off this review by just saying it flat out – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is my second favorite film of all time.

After the lukewarm reception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture the filmmakers decided to go in a different direction for the sequel. More action/adventure and less cerebral science fiction was the name of the game, and it turned out to be exactly what audiences wanted to see when it was released in the summer of 1982. Not only was Star Trek II a huge success financially (it cost significantly less than its predecessor and made about as much profit), but it is considered by most to be the high point of the film series.

Kirk (William Shatner), after returning to his Admiral duties on Earth, begins to feel that life behind a desk is not for him. While on a tour of the Enterprise a distress call from a space station is received and Kirk jumps at the chance to lead the crew of a starship once again. This begins a series of events that brings him face to face with a doomsday scenario, facing his mortality, the ultimate sacrifice and an enemy from the past – Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban).
This movie is amazing from start to finish. The script by Jack B. Sowards and Nicholas Meyer is pitch perfect and gives fans a little of everything that they loved about the old show and still manages to make it very accessible for those not familiar with the franchise at all. There’s some romance (Kirk rekindling his love with Carol Marcus), action (plenty of starship battles), a great villain (Khan is one of the best), high drama (Spock’s final scene, Kirk admitting that he’s getting old and discovering that he fathered a son), comedy (watching Spock and McCoy verbally spar is just as fun now as it was in back in the day), adventure (there’s a fun high seas feel to the whole production) and a bit of commentary on current events (weapons of mass destruction). Mind you this is all presented through an 80s filter and even though the flick is over thirty years old it still feels topical and relevant in this day and age (North Korea).

Shatner puts his all into his performance as Kirk. Sometimes he overdoes it, as par the course, and sometimes he downplays the drama quite well. Seeing him freak right the fuck out after learning that Khan intends to fulfill his need for vengeance upon his whole crew and not just him is both awesome and kind of silly due this his overblown line delivery (“KHAAAAAAAAN!”). On the flip side when his emotions overwhelm his stoic exterior during Spock’s funeral is more than a little heartbreaking. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves and his performances in some of the Star Trek features are kind of fantastic.
Of course Leonard Nimoy steals the show, especially in his character’s final moments. Nimoy wanted out of this franchise to focus on different roles, and he’s no slouch during his (at the time) swan song. Trekkies all over the world cried in unison when he sacrificed himself to save the crew, and in retrospect we can see it coming a mile away when Spock dropped “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” early on in the film.

DeForest Kelly serves as the conscience of the film, especially when dealing with the topic of the Genesis Device and its applications (“Myth suggests that Earth was created in six days. But watch out… here comes Genesis. We can do it for you in six minutes!”). It’s a shame that we really didn’t get to spend a lot of time with this character until the next film.
The rest of the main cast performs about as well as can be expected. None of them, outside of Scotty and Chekov, are given much to do except react to things and recite “Aye, sir!” a lot. Walter Koenig gets the most screentime out of all the secondary cast members due to being forced to be a part of Khan’s crew (thanks to those creepy little eels that are put in his ears to control his mind). He tends to overdo things as well, especially when he’s being controlled by Khan. James Doohan gets a kicker of a scene when one of his engineers dies a particularly gruesome death (in the Director’s Cut it is revealed that he was Scotty’s nephew).

The new faces in the cast, like Kirstie Alley, Bibi Besch, Merritt Butrick, Paul Winfield and Judson Scott, are all quite good as well. It’s Ricardo Montalban who overshadows everyone, and I mean everyone. He brings scenery chewing to a whole other epic level that very few have been able to top in sheer gleeful cheesiness. You can’t help but be impressed as he quotes Shakespeare and Melville through his teeth, odd pectoral muscle cleavage bouncing and 80s hair metal band mane fluttering in the Reliant’s AC. He seems to be enjoying every drooling minute of playing the crazed nemesis of Kirk. It’s infectious. If it weren’t for Montalban I doubt the movie would play as well as it does.
Director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time) pulled a rabbit out of his hat and didn’t allow the science fiction to get in the way of the characters and story. On a pure storytelling level this is perfection. Gone are the shots of crewmembers staring blankly at the viewscreen, boringly flat line readings and overblown special effects. This is simple and effective filmmaking.

And FINALLY someone told the costume department that these dudes and dudettes are serving in the military! The uniforms all the Starfleet officers now wear perfectly reflect something you’d see on a naval officer, only sci-fied up to fit into the genre. From this point on the movies starring the original cast featured this style of dress, and rightfully so.
I also have to give a shout out to James Horner’s wonderful score. Back when this film was made he was the new kid on the block and eager to prove himself. His only other sci-fi work was for Battle Beyond the Stars, and that low budget gem had one hell of an awesome soundtrack. His work here is freaking phenomenal. His soaring themes, while not using any of the previous film’s motifs, work wonders for the movie and lift it to a higher level. I still listen to this score to this very day.

Even though the film ends on a big downer there is still hope lurking around the corner. That’s what Star Trek is all about. Things may be looking bleak, but there’s the possibility that things will turn out for the better. The semi-cliffhanger ending sells this completely, and back in 1982 I couldn’t wait to see what part 3 had in store for my favorite crew.

5 out of 5

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