Friday, April 10, 2009

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Retrospective)

Is The Wrath of Khan my favorite film? Don't know - got too many favorites. Would it be on the desert island list? Certainly. More important than anything else, it is the film by which I judge all others. I'm not joking. If I ever write a script half as good as Nicholas Meyer's shooting script for this film, I will be able to die a happy man.

Everything I want in a story can be found in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. For me, it strikes the perfect balance between action, excitement, wonder, humor, and poignancy. At its core, Khan is a film about aging, mortality, and the legacy we leave behind. When I first saw it long ago, in the early 80's, as a young child overly preoccupied with his own mortality, it filled me full of joy and comfort. It still does.

In the last post, I said I wouldn't chronicle the history of each film's production. I know for some people, hearing how a film was made and why it was made that way spoils the magic. But it's important when talking about Wrath of Khan to take a moment and talk about Gene Roddenberry - and his almost complete lack of involvement in this film and every subsequent Star Trek film until his passing in 1991.

Roddenberry received almost all the blame for The Motion Picture, and Paramount took his baby away. He got an "Executive Consultant" credit on each sequel, a paycheck, and the knowledge that the studio didn't give a damn about his opinions. I won't go into more detail on the matter - it can easily be found online. I'll leave all but one of my opinions to myself, but the one I want to talk about is the main reason for The Motion Picture's failure and The Wrath of Khan's success.

After being unable to have any real involvement with the films, Roddenberry went back to television and created The Next Generation, which he, to my knowledge, had full control over until his death. And the first few seasons of that show have all the same problems as The Motion Picture - boring characters, bland plots, too many ideas and not enough drama, and an emotional distance from the audience that all but one of the Star Trek spin-offs never fully recovered from. In Roddenberry's Star Trek, humanity has already evolved into a near-perfect society, with our baser emotions and instincts always under control. That's all well and good, a nice sentiment - but it makes for terrible stories.

Nicholas Meyer, Khan's writer and director, is somewhere between a realist and an optimist in his Star Trek stories. People are still people, full of the same flaws and weaknesses that humanity has always suffered from, but his characters overcome their weaknesses and better the world around them...or they are consumed by them until they are undone. That, to me, is Star Trek.

It's interesting to note that, besides a couple of brain slugs and two Vulcans, Khan is a story without aliens, solely focused on human beings. And what few aliens there are don't really count: the brain slugs are a plot device, and the Vulcans have never been more human than they are in Meyer's three Trek stories. I think that's one of the main reasons that this film appealed equally to Trek and non-Trek moviegoers when it came out in 1982.

Also, it's just a damn good story. All the pieces fit together perfectly, with each plotline strengthening and enhancing the other - The Kobayashi Maru simulation, Kirk's mid-life crisis, Khan's lust for revenge, Carol Marcus, Kirk's son and Khan's protégé, The Genesis torpedo, and Spock's sacrifice.

By today's standards, there isn't much action - but every moment of action is gripping. Meyer's love of Horatio Hornblower and other swashbuckling tales is obvious: the Enterprise and Reliant act like two giant battleships in space, slowly passing and flanking the other, unloading devastating cannon fire until both ships are all but crippled. There is an honesty to these scenes unique to Trek - people die terribly and there is no quick fix to each ship's damage. At the end of the film, both the Enterprise and its crew have received deep wounds from which they may never fully recover.

That makes it sound like Khan is a dark, depressing film - but really it's not. Of course, before the studio added Spock's casket on the Genesis planet and Leonard Nimoy's narration which ends the film, it may have been. Setting up the sequel so obviously does marginally cheapen the impact of Spock's death - though his death scene is still incredibly powerful - but it's for the best that the film ends with a sense of hope. The joy of simply being alive.

There's lots of other things I'd like to talk about - ILM's incredible effects, James Horner's rousing score, and Meyer's direction of the Trek cast and Ricardo Montalban - but I think it's time to wrap this up. I want to talk Khan's impact on science fiction and then I'll be done.

First, I find it highly doubtful - and depressing - that almost every major studio going today would not allow Meyer's script to be filmed without serious script-doctoring. It would most likely be considered by today's standards as too serious, too weighty, without enough humor, action, or appeal to male moviegoers 15 to 25. I can easily picture some studio exec's sole note on the script being "too much talk about death, not enough time spent actually killing people."

But people love this film, and more than one story - Trek and non-Trek alike - has chased its tone, its quality, and its resonance. X-Men 2 is the most obvious example, with almost the same exact ending as Khan, down to the dead character's final narration. Other Trek stories like Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, and Star Trek X: Nemesis tried to evoke Khan's sensibility, with only DS9 succeeding.

As for me, I watch it at least once or twice a year. It's always in my mind when I'm writing a story. As I said at the beginning of this rant, if I write a story half as good as The Wrath of Khan, I'll die a happy man.

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