Monday, November 15, 2010

A Nasty Villain Returns With A Vengeance In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan!

The Good: Excellent plot, Character elements, Effects, DVD bonuses, Great acting
The Bad: None!
The Basics: When Khan escapes the planet he was imprisoned on in "Space Seed," the U.S.S. Enterprise must save the galaxy from Khan's perversion of a scientific experiment into a weapon.

Following on the heels of the Star Trek: The Motion Picture The Director's Cut (click here for my review!) which remixed and redid the special effects of the first, dreadfully slow Star Trek movie came the DVD Director's Cut of the classic film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Wrath of Khan was a perfect film to begin with and the DVD treatment of the film does nothing to diminish the film, instead only enhancing its perfection. Like The Empire Strikes Back (click here for that review!), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had very little added back into it, affirming its original quality.

When the U.S.S. Enterprise begins a training mission with most of the senior crew overseeing a ship full of cadets from StarFleet Academy, Admiral James T. Kirk is given the chance to stretch his space legs and he leaps at the opportunity. The ship sets out under the guidance of Captain Spock and his Vulcan protege, Saavik. Meanwhile, in a remote corner of the galaxy, the U.S.S. Reliant, with first officer Pavel Chekov, runs into a planet that appears deserted until he and his captain find a downed ship. The ship is housing none other than the genetically enhanced former ruler of most of Earth, Khan.

Khan quickly - and monstrously - learns what Chekov and his captain were doing on his little planet and he sets off for the Regula 1 space station where testing has begun on the mysterious Genesis Device. Hijacking the Reliant with his superhuman crew, Khan seeks to take control of the Genesis Device as a weapon, killing those who keep him from his objective. This lures Admiral Kirk to Regula where he and Khan engage in a battle of wits and starship battle techniques to prove dominance and control an incredibly powerful device.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is essentially "Moby Dick in Space." Khan hunts Kirk as Ahab hunted the whale, beyond all reason, beyond all sense of self and acknowledgment of peril. This is a tale of obsession and it is fraught with consequences. Just as Khan's obsession results in the ultimate consequences that end this movie, Admiral Kirk is finally forced to accept the consequences of his actions from previous episodes of "Star Trek" and unseen prior events in the life of James T. Kirk. These take two forms: Khan and David.

Khan is a remnant from the original Star Trek and he appeared in the episode "Space Seed" (click here for the episode review!). In that episode, Kirk awoke Khan and his crew from suspended animation only to have Khan attempt to take over the ship with the aid of the ship's historian. By the end of the episode, everything was tidied up all neat and Khan's people were condemned to a nearby planet to live and rule over it as they saw fit. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan presupposes that Khan's world was made almost entirely inhospitable when another planet in the system exploded and altered its orbit. In the series, Kirk never faced the consequences of abandoning Khan to his own devices and here he is forced to. The consequences include the loss of life, the menace of a despot with a super-powerful device and the destruction of Kirk's ship.

The other consequence nicely balances the malice of Khan and that is in the form of David Marcus, a young scientist who is working on the Genesis Project with his mother, Carol Marcus. David and Carol are part of a team working to make lifeless planets bear life through the use of a missile - the Genesis Device - that reorganizes existing matter and energy into patterns that support life. It's like a giant transporter that makes rocks into trees. David, as it turns out, is a consequence from Kirk's prior relationship with Dr. Carol Marcus. With all of the relationships viewers saw Captain Kirk have on Star Trek it seems both natural and perfectly appropriate that one of those relationships would net him a child.

What keeps the film viable, fresh and interesting is that it does not simply begin and a simple chase movie and certainly it does not start out as a "kill the villain of the week" flick. Instead, The Wrath of Khan begins as a slow, eagerly developing story about aging. Admiral Kirk is feeling his years and here he is forced to accept that he is no longer young in the way that he was when he embarked on his five-year mission. Instead, here Kirk is forced to use his brains as opposed to his brawn and he works himself slowly out of the slump that he is in to rise to the heroic levels needed to thwart Khan.

And where Khan is a singular menace, Kirk is teamed with Spock and their teamwork allows them to maneuver toward victory, even as Khan's obsessions take him over.

Most nitpickers will observe that Chekov, who Khan recognizes, was not on Star Trek when "Space Seed" aired. There's a simple explanation for this discrepancy for those who like to think about such things and it would be that Chekov was on the ship, but not assigned to the bridge at the time. Khan read the ship's library, so it would be possible he encountered Chekov's record there, if one wants to make excuses for the writing oversight here. Far more troubling is the crew of the Reliant, which apparently cannot count, mistaking Khan's Ceti Alpha V for Ceti Alpha VI. More troubling than the Chekov backstory is how a planet that exploded would leave no debris to be detected by a science vessel sent to find lifeless planets.

These nitpicky ideas are easily brushed aside as the film creates a story that is far more engaging for its broad concepts than its minor technical inconsistencies. The character elements that force the characters to deal with consequences are enhanced in the Director's Cut. Returned are brief lines where Kirk acknowledges that his first victory over Khan comes only because he had specific knowledge of the equipment that Khan did not. Also included in this version is additional footage of Cadet Peter Preston, who is Scotty's nephew and who serves to make a point about consequences. In this version, the viewer cares a little bit more about Preston.

Part of the brilliance of the rivalry between Khan and Kirk as expressed in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that the hero and villain never directly face off. Kirk and Khan communicate via communicators (like cell phones) and they see one another on the view screens, but they are never in the same place at the same time, which only serves to add to the tension as they chase one another around the stars.

This is a huge kudos to actors Ricardo Montalban and William Shatner for pulling off their acting jobs so perfectly that viewers are often surprised to learn they never met on the set. Montalban creates an anger in his eyes and a vengeance in his voice that makes the viewer believe he is staring down Kirk, spitting at him. And when he is enraged, the viewer feels the menace, so wonderful and convincing is Montalban's performance.

Similarly, William Shatner sells the audience on both Admiral Kirk's reluctant aging and his ability to still be cunning and clever. He alternates between casual and command body language perfectly emoting using his physique as opposed to simply voicing all of what is going on in his head. Shatner wonderfully baits Khan with an affect that (again) makes one think he is standing right next to the villain.

The cast is rounded out by wonderful performances by Leonard Nimoy as the taciturn Mr. Spock and DeForest Kelley as the emotive and cranky Dr. McCoy. Walter Koenig, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei are all given moments to support as well and they live up admirably. For such a tight cast, newcomer Merritt Butrick fits right in with his energetic performance as David, as does Bibi Besch as Carol Marcus.

It is Kirstie Alley who steals ever scene she is in, though, as the Vulcan Cadet Lieutenant Saavik. Alley is cool, calm and mostly very Vulcan in the role (though she does swear during the opening sequence). Alley holds her own with acting heavyweights Nimoy and Shatner and she does it while embodying a brilliant addition to the crew. It is a pleasure - especially now - to watch her work.

This two-disc DVD set also includes thorough commentary on the film as well as a number of featurettes and some decent easter eggs. The supporting material is enough to counterbalance the nagging nitpicky plot points that might otherwise rob this film of perfection. I find this film is best enjoyed with its sequel, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. But, even on its own, this is a wonderful film essential for anyone who likes science fiction, action adventure and revealing human dramas.

For the rest of the Star Trek films, please check out my review of the film franchise here!
For other science fiction films, please check out my reviews of:
Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters
Land Of The Lost
The Clone Wars


For other "Star Trek" movie and episode reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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