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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Star Trek in Retrospect - Part I: "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982)

With Abrams’ big reboot on the horizon I thought it was about time I take a trek through past films in the nerd-ridden franchise. In memory of the fonder moments of Star Trek I’ll be looking at my favorite, and arguably the best, of the Star Trek films. So if you’re looking for my thoughts on the first and fifth movies, you’ll have to wait. I’m sure I’ll get to thrash them one day. I also won’t be focusing much on any of the series because, frankly, that would take up more time than I’m willing to spend.

So where do I begin? Well not quite the beginning in this case. And, despite the ever-charitable need to save the best for last, it just so happens the best is at the front of the line—At least in this retrospect.

After the first movie, which was based on a 45 minute script for the pilot of the debunked “Star Trek: Phase II,” Paramount decided to go a different direction with the franchise. Putting the Star Trek cast in the hands of director Nicholas Meyer proved to be one of the greatest decisions in the franchise’s history. Loved, spoofed and revered by audiences, fans, film historians and critics all over the world is the U.S.S. Enterprise’s greatest mission—And for that matter, one of science fiction’s greatest films: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

Based as sequel to the original series episode “Space Seed,” “The Wrath of Khan” made sure prior knowledge of the episode was not a requirement to enjoy the movie. After the genetically engineered renegade Khan escapes from exile he sets course to kill the man who banished him: James T. Kirk. The aging Admiral, unaware of Khan’s return, meanwhile contemplates his life decisions in contempt and juggles his worries with that of the Genesis device—A powerful tool for six-second terraforming, but also a dangerous weapon that could fall in to the hands of Khan.

I try to keep my synopses concise. Sometimes I like how I’ve worded them, other times I roll my eyes at myself, knowing there’s really no way to do a film justice while keeping the summaries short. As I write this I have to roll my eyes a little. I suppose no summary does a great film, like this one, any justice. It simply must be experienced.

Experience is a great deal of what this film is about anyway, so its fits the bill of being a movie. (Rather than some other form of media.) So often will I hear that “Star Trek II” is a great revenge story. This is very true considering Khan’s hunt for Kirk borrows such sensational literary mimicry from “Moby Dick.” But historians have explored that side of the film so many times that it has become an easy target for commentary. I prefer to look at Admiral Kirk’s story, which includes so much more than outwitting Khan’s Captain Ahab persona.

For audiences unfamiliar with the Star Trek cast, watching “Star Trek II” gives the impression that James T. Kirk has always been this well written. For those of us who know Star Trek better, it’s interesting to note that we’ve never dived this far in to Kirk’s character. At long last those late nights with Orion slave girls, duels with expressionless, plastic lizard-men and constant ripping of his command tunic have caught up with Kirk. Going through something one might call a mid-life crisis, Kirk comes face to face with a slowing career, a family he could have been with and the heartbreaking task of handing the Enterprise to a younger generation. When Khan finally enters the picture Kirk begins to wonder what he’s been doing for the last fifteen years since he exiled his nemesis. Is it worth being put through the events in the film?

This is an important aspect of the film to understand because of its chief theme: Life birthed from death. During all the mayhem of Kirk’s life and Khan’s “wrath,” the Genesis device awaits testing. From the beginning it is contemplated as a miracle as well as a threat. Echoes of the atom bomb’s birth ring loudly among the Genesis device’s entrance in the story, but there’s more to it. It plays an intricate roll in the film’s finale, and Kirk’s reunion with life. After a famous “death” happens aboard the Enterprise it ignites the metaphorical “rebirth” of Kirk’s character, breathing new life in to his outlook and his future.

Those who have seen the movie know of the life from death that I speak of. And the excellent contrast of that specific death with the new world being born of the Genesis device is absolutely astounding imagery. I’m writing this review as if to cater to those who have yet to see this movie, but truthfully, if you have not seen “Wrath of Khan” stop reading this and go watch it now. If you’re a friend of mine and have yet to see it, we’ll have chat about how long we’ll remain friends later.

Well now that we’ve looked past “Wrath of Khan’s” more poetic moments it would be criminal not to mention the film’s visual aspects. I’d like to begin saying that I’m a fan of outer space battles, but if they aren’t a lot of fun, then they need to be fresh. My problem with the final film in the original “Star Wars” trilogy was that it recycled so much in terms of space battles. The Star Wars prequels didn’t provide anything new either. That said, while the final showdown in “Star Trek II” is a much slower paced skirmish, its also one of the smartest and most dramatic of the space sci-fi genre. Instead of plowing through the stars, firing all weapons, the Enterprise and its opponent wander aimlessly through a dark nebula trying to outwit each other like two submarines. The result is thrilling and, ultimately, gorgeous, as the nebula makes a beautiful backdrop for these awesome ships.

I must also note the uniform design. Director Nicholas Meyer wanted something that resembled, “Horatio Hornblower in space.” As such, these uniforms have a militaristic, navel look to them. The Star Trek uniforms have never felt so real and as a result of their genius they were used for the next four films. These are easily my favorite uniforms in the Trek universe.

By the end of the film the audience has felt the full wrath of Khan, they have learned more than they ever thought they would about the much beloved James T. Kirk and the beautiful Enterprise, battle worn, is a little bit emptier. I can’t think of a more accessible Trek film (currently) and it’s hard to find much wrong with this movie. If the best science fiction says more about ourselves than it does aliens, or starships or… whatever, then “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” really is one of the best movies out there. It avoids any alien encounters, keeps the techno-babble to a minimum and maintains a great love for the human heart. Space poetry at its best.

**** out of ****

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