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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

 Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly viewing of something in my movie library.  Back in the spring, I wanted to watch every Star Trek movie before Into Darkness came out, so I did.  And that brings us to the second part of my 12-part series "Every Star Trek Movie."  Dated in my notes at March 31, 2013, here's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Well, here we are again, as I race against the clock to try to watch every Star Trek movie before Into Darkness comes out in six weeks. Since we did The Motion Picture last time, we already find ourselves at the dearly beloved, the best of the best, the greatest of the great, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

There's no doubt that many, many people consider this to be the best Star Trek film. So I guess the question is what makes it so great? What makes it the most beloved? Where does this excel, whereas the first one began the longstanding belief that the even-numbered ones are the best ones? Well, let's see if we can figure that out.

When last we left the franchise from a behind-the-scenes perspective, The Motion Picture got mixed reviews from the critics, was branded a runaway production, went over schedule and over budget, but it still made a shit-ton of money at the box office, so a sequel was inevitable. For all of the first film's problems, Paramount blamed The Motion Picture's producer...Star Trek's creator himself, Gene Roddenberry. So the film franchise was taken away from Roddenberry, and he was given the largely ceremonial title of "executive consultant." The search was on for a new producer to manage the film franchise, and they found one in the form of veteran TV producer Harve Bennett. The story that Bennett likes to tell about landing the gig was, when he was interviewing for it, one of the Paramount execs asked him, "But can you make it for less than 45-fucking-million dollars?" to which Bennett replied, "Where I come from, I can make you 5 movies for that."

Having landed the job, Bennett sat down to start figuring out what #2 should be about. So, wanting to learn more about the Star Trek universe, he called up Paramount's archives and ordered up every episode of Star Trek and sat down and watched them all. He eventually stumbled upon the first season episode Space Seed, in which the great conqueror Khan Noonien Singh from late 20th century Earth is awakened and tries to take over the Enterprise so he can conquer the galaxy. The episode ended with Kirk deciding to strand Khan and his genetically enhanced humans on the desolate planet Ceti Alpha V, challenging them to tame the wilderness and populate the world. At the end of the episode, Spock muses that it will be interesting to come back in 100 years and see "the crop that has sprung from the seed we planted today."

And right away, Bennett knew what his first Star Trek movie should be. We needed to see the crop that sprung up.

And so they started fleshing it out. Khan was going to be the villain. Leonard Nimoy was at the height of this "I am not Spock" phase, so they lured him back into the production by promising that they'd kill off Spock and give him a great death scene. All the elements were there, but it wasn't quite gelling. So, in order to finish off the screenplay, they turned to a bright young scriptwriter in Hollywood named Nicholas Meyer. Meyer already had a certain degree of fame, having written the novel The Seven Per Cent Solution, which some consider the best Sherlock Holmes novel that wasn't written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He also directed the critically acclaimed time travel movie Time After Time, which had HG Wells use his time machine to pursue Jack the Ripper to modern day San Fransisco. Despite not being a Trekkie, Meyer was intrigued by the project, considering it to be "Captain Horatio Hornblower in outer space." He did a rewrite of the script, uncredited and for free, and this was enough to win him the director's chair.

The team was in place, and history was about to be made.

Trying to follow the same format as my The Motion Picture review, let's take a look at some of the new characters added to this film. First up, we have Spock's protege, Lt. Saavick, played by Kirstie Alley in her first major role. Saavick was a little more emotional than the typical Vulcan, explained in deleted scenes and the expanded universe as being a consequence of her half-Vulcan/half-Romulan parentage. She cries at Spock's funeral, she curses during her Kobayashi Maru test, and she seems somewhat frustrated when Kirk won't reveal how he finally beat the Kobayashi Maru. Being a rookie, fresh out of the academy, she's fond of doing things by the book and quoting regulations. She was a neat character and became a welcome addition to the Star Trek canon.

Another big addition is the Dr. David Marcus, one of the scientists developing the Genesis Project, and revealed in the film to be Kirk's long lost son. Sadly, though, we really don't get to know him that much before he's killed off in the next film. We know he's got quite a bit of anger and resentment towards Starfleet, but why? He seems just to be there as a reminder that Kirk is getting older. It's the same with his mother, Carol Marcus. Although, we do get some hints at maybe the source of David's resentment. We learn that Kirk wanted to be a father to young David, but Carol asked him to stay away because he wanted her son to have a more stable upbringing than flying around the galaxy. Did Kirk visit one time, and did David get resentful because "Uncle Jim" never stayed very long? I guess it's a question for the expanded universe.

Heh...it's funny. Since it's already established that Carol Marcus is a character in Star Trek Into Darkness, I kind of hope that the post-credits stinger is her and Kirk looking at the results of a home pregnancy test and going, "Oh, boy."

And of course, Ricardo Montalban coming back as Khan. Apparently, he did the film for a significantly reduced paycheque because he just loved the character so much when he played him back in the 1960s that he was eager to reprise the role. And yes, that's his real chest.

Now, when did I first see this one? I have vague memories of seeing it on TV when I was a kid, and before I became a full-blown Trekkie. I have fuzzy memories of the "worms in the ear" scene, and that's about it. I guess I first remember seeing it when, I was down at the corner store one day, and this was before I had the movies for myself on VHS, and the had Star Treks 2, 3, and 4 for rent. Since these three have been referred to as "the Star Trek trilogy," I convinced my Mom to rent the whole trilogy so I could watch it all in one weekend. And I'm pretty sure that's when I finally saw #2 from beginning to end, and went, "Hey! That woman from Cheers is in this!"

Once again, do I really need to recount the plot? Of course I do, because I have a formula to stick to. So it opens on Earth on Admiral Kirk's birthday. We seem the familiar crew at Starfleet Academy, helping to train Spock's new class of cadets, let by Lt. Saavik. Of course, after having experienced the Kobayashi Maru test, and with Kirk having become a legend Saavik wants to know how Kirk handled the test, but Kirk refuses to. Even though it's his birthday, Kirk is unusually despondent, and Bones eventually figures it out. Kirk is going through his midlife crisis. Kirk regrets having accepted the promotion to Admiral, having been stuck with a desk job back on Earth, while all these youngsters now commandeer the Enterprise for a training cruise. Kirk wants to be back in command of a starship, and out there, boldly going where no man has gone before.

Hey, where's Chekov in all this? He's on the starship Reliant, looking for a lifeless planet to test the Genesis Project. They find the planet Ceti Alpha VI, and when they beam down to check out the planet, they're promptly apprehended by Khan and his crew. Khan explains that the planet they're on is his planet of Ceti Alpha V...and that a few months after the Enterprise dropped him and his crew off, Ceti Alpha VI exploded, altering the orbit of Ceti Alpha V and turning it into the lifeless rock that it is today. Since one of the casualties was Khan's wife, Khan vows revenge on Kirk. Khan interrogates Chekov and his captain, Terrell, with the now legendary "worms in the ears" bit.

Watching this today, I really loved this scene. I always wondered why, with today's DVD technology, they don't include Space Speed on every release of Wrath of Khan, but watching this scene again, it nicely sums up what happened in that episode and gives you all the back story you need to know without getting talky. It's a very good scene.

And the music is good, too. The music for Wrath of Khan was done by the now-legendary composer James Horner. After having cut his teeth on many of Roger Corman's B-movie efforts, this was his first big blockbuster. And his music in this scene is very evocative of the music in the original series.

So, Kirk and crew join the Enterprise, to accompany Spock and his cadets on their training cruise. Meanwhile, Drs. Carol and David Marcus get a call from Chekov, saying that the Genesis Project is to be transferred to the Reliant and all control of the project is being taken on by Starfleet. Chekov says the order came from Admiral Kirk, so Carol gets on the horn to ask Kirk what's going on. Because the transmission is garbled, Kirk gets orders from Starfleet to go investigate. With this emergency now in hand, Kirk, as the most senior officer, takes command of the Enterprise and sets course for Regula I, home of the Genesis Project labs.

Kirk decides to let Spock and Bones in on what the Genesis Project is. Kirk shows them the computer animated simulation. Genesis is a terraforming device that can instantly transform a lifeless planet into one capable of supporting life, re-writing the structure of matter on the molecular level. If it were to be used on a planet that already has life, it would eradicate all such life in the creation of the new planet. Needless to say, in the wrong hands, it could be a terrible weapon.

Fun trivia fact: as previously blogged, Pixar began life as the computer animation R&D lab of ILM. ILM did the special effects for this Star Trek film (their first time), and their computer animation R&D lab made the computer animated Genesis simulation sequence. Therefore, the computer animated Genesis simulation sequence is the first thing Pixar ever produced.

En route to Regula, Enterprise is intercepted by Reliant, now commanded by Khan and his crew. A space battle erupts, and Kirk finally learns who the villain behind everything is. Kirk is able to fight back, though, and the Enterprise and Reliant are equally disabled. The Enterprise arrives at Regula, and find the space station deserted. They eventually do find Chekov and Terrell, though, who explained that Khan arrived first, and unable to find the Genesis device, slaughtered the crew and left Chekov and Terrell. Kirk, Bones, and Saavik continue investigating, and discover that the Genesis Device was beamed to the planet below.

They beam down and find themselves in an underground cave, and they're attacked by some of the remaining scientists, including the Drs. Marcus. Kirk is initially taken aback to be confronted by his now grown-up son. However, all is not well, as Chekov and Terrell reveal they're still under Khan's control, thanks to the ear worms, and now that he knows where the Genesis Device is, Khan beams it up, and decides to leave Kirk stranded in the cave for his vengeance.

Which, of course, leads to one of the film's most infamous scenes.

While trapped in the cave, Kirk and Carol have a heart-to-heart, and Kirk reveals that with enemies from his past, his ship being commanded by younglings, and now meeting with his full-grown son, he feels old...oh so very old. But then, they go into the Genesis cave and they see the awesome power of the Genesis device. While chilling out in the cave, Saavik finally gets her answers about the Kobayoshi Maru. Kirk is the only one who ever beat the no-win scenario by re-programming the simulation so it was possible to win. "I don't believe in no-win scenarios," Kirk says, and calmly calls Spock and says it's time to be rescued.

Spock beams them up, and it turns out they didn't take off like Kirk ordered, they've just been pulling double shifts to fix up the Enterprise and take on Khan once again. For the sight of their final battle with Khan, Kirk and Spock have chosen the nearby Mutara Nebula. The gasses in the nebula with disable both ships equally, making it a fair fight. Enterprise and Reliant play a game of cat-and-mouse in the nebula, but using his extensive knowledge of space battles, Kirk gets the drop on Khan and cripples the Reliant. But, not willing to be captured, Khan activates the Genesis Device with his dying breath, figuring he'll take the Enterprise with him.

Back on the Enterprise, they see that the Genesis Device has been activated, but the Enterprise's engines are still damaged, and there's no way they can outrun it. Spock figures out how to fix the engines, but in order to do it, someone has to crawl into the radiation-filled dilithium crystal chamber and fix it by hand. So Spock does it, making the ultimate sacrifice to save the crew. And Leonard Nimoy gets that death scene he was promised.

My brother always found it funny that Spock takes a moment to straighten his uniform before talking to his captain...I think it shows to his logical and meticulous nature that, even on death's door, he remembers proper protocol.

The Genesis Device works its magic, and re-organizes the wreckage of the Reliant and the surrounding Mutara Nebula into the Genesis Planet.  In the shadow of this new life, having finally confronted death, and reconciling with his long lost son, Kirk finally gets out of his funk and realizes that life is for the living.  The end.

Well, that was originally the end in test screenings, and people found that ending far too depressing.  So, in reshoots, they came up with the closing montage of slowly zooming into the Genesis Planet's surface, focusing on the Spock's casket, and the Spock closing the film with the classic opening narration from the TV show.  It was all done to hint at Spock's possible resurrection and give the film a happier ending.  And it did the trick.

So that's The Wrath of Khan.  The question still remains:  what makes this the greatest?  My hypothesis is that it all comes down to the characters.  It's kind of like Jaws.  In Jaws, thanks to that mechanical shark never working, they had to cut back on the special effects and started focusing on the characters.  Same thing with Wrath of Khan.  With its significantly lower budget, that meant less big, epic space battles, which meant they were able to focus more on the characters.  And that's why were given a Kirk whose lost and adrift as his middle age begins.  He probably gets his best character arc in all of the Star Trek films as he works through his shit and confronts all these ghosts from his past at once.  Spock, too, gets some time to shine, as he starts taking a more paternal role in his relationship with Saavik, and finally realizes that him making the ultimate sacrifice is simply the logical thing to do. 

So while it does qualify for the title of the greatest, thanks to the large degree of character work for our familiar crew, I wouldn't deem it the greatest.  We'll get to what I consider to be the greatest a little bit later on the list. 

Until then, it's time to rest up.  Next, we'll be searching for Spock.

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