Sunday, December 16, 2012

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek: The Motion Picture managed to make money on its budget, but that budget was an astronomical at the time 46 million dollars.  I have to assume that part of that total reflects whatever costs went into the aborted Phase II project, because it was really not up on the screen; Star Trek:TMP looked, not cheap per se, but certainly not enormously expensive (to put that 46 million in some sort of perspective, the Superman film released in 1978 was the highest-budgeted movie up to that point, and it cost 55 million dollars to make.)  It was an expensive movie, is the point, and Paramount decided that they didn't get enough of a return on their investment, so changes needed to be made.

The biggest change that they made was to kick Gene Roddenberry upstairs into a "consulting" role, which is Hollywood speak for "Thanks, pops, but we'll take it from here."  It would be easy, and cheap, for me to say that the reason Star Trek II is so successful is because Roddenberry was removed from the project.  But one, Roddenberry's fingerprints were, are, and always will be all over Star Trek, and that can't be denied, so anything good that happens under the aegis of Trek owes some debt to him..  Second, and significantly more importantly, there are many post-Roddenberry projects that are widely understood to be much, much worse than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so it simply has to be acknowledged that other people are just as capable of making a hash of this universe as Roddenberry was.

The irony, of course, is that Star Trek II was made for significantly less money than ST:TMP, but it looks like it was made for much more.  The locations are more diverse, the effects are more evocative, and there are more guest stars hanging around.  Chalk part of this up to the leftover Phase II costs that got tacked on to the first film's budget, and chalk part of it up to the ability of Star Trek II to re-use sets, but director Nicholas Meyer has to be given a good deal of credit for doing a much better job of putting the money he had available up on screen in an interesting way, rather than padding the film out with, for example, a 10 minute scene of the Enterprise travelling through the heart of a boring cloud.  We spend time on two non-Earth celestial bodies and on board two distinctive Starfleet ships (the first movie just had the Enterprise, and the Cloud.)  In a movie that is 20 minutes shorter than the first film, significantly more things actually happen.

You know the plot.  Of course you do, but I'll recap it anyway for my own edification.  The captain of a scouting ship, USS Reliant, along with his first mate(?), Commander Chekhov, beam down on the barren surface of what they believe to be Ceti Alpha VI; they are looking for a lifeless planet, any one will do, to serve as the testing surface for the Genesis Project, a device which can instantly terraform a planet, replacing its current surface with one that is capable of supporting life.  Unfortunately for them they are actually on Ceti Alpha V, the planet that served as the base for Khan Noonian Singh's marooning at the hands of Jim Kirk.  Khan (always Khan) has an unstoppable hate boner for Kirk, not for the marooning per se, but because Ceti Alpha V was knocked out of its orbit by the explosion of Ceti Alpha VI, causing it to become the lifeless husk we see now and costing Khan's wife her life.  In the years since his marooning, no one (namely Kirk) ever checked up on the inhabitants, forcing them to fend for themselves, forgotten by the rest of the universe.  Khan manages to hijack the Reliant and uses it to pursue the Enterprise, with the Genesis Device used as bait to lure Kirk to a science station orbiting Regula I where it was developed and is currently housed.  After a brief battle that cripples both ships, the Enterprise limps to the science station and a team led by Kirk beams on board to look for the missing Genesis Project scientists, including Kirk's former lover Carol Marcus and their son David, who Kirk has apparently never met.  The scientists have escaped to a hollowed-out cave inside the planet where the Device was tested, and the team follows them down there, where Khan uses the opportunity of Kirk's temporary absence to steal the Genesis Device by beaming it onboard the Reliant.  Kirk and the away team beam back aboard the Enterprise and lure the Reliant into a local nebula, where the two ships engage in a cat and mouse chase before the Enterprise finally, and seemingly irrevocably, cripples the Reliant and mortally wounds Khan.  Khan has one more trick up his sleeve, however, and activates the Device.  With its warp drive inactive thanks to the earlier battle the Enterprise will seemingly be destroyed by the Device re-shaping all the matter in the general vicinity into a life-sustaining planet, but Spock fixes the drive just in time for the Enterprise to escape, in the process subjecting himself to a lethal dose of radiation.  As we gaze upon the new Genesis planet, Spock's body is sent down to its final resting place on its surface.

Whew, that was exhausting.  Just a ton of stuff happens in this movie; I didn't even mention the ear slugs that allow Khan to control Chekhov and the captain of the Reliant, or the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario that Lieutenant Kirstie Alley goes through, or Kirk's coded message gambit from inside Regula I, or probably a half dozen other things.  Star Trek has a tendency to get bogged down into ethical and spiritual quandaries, and to forget to simply entertain.  Khan's monomaniacal pursuit of Kirk fixes that problem - there are no deeper questions involved in his revenge quest, just a man who is royally pissed off and will stop at nothing to have his vengeance.  The Genesis Device provides a (small, admittedly) window into the ethical dimension of the series, as it is essentially a doomsday machine, albeit one that can be used for altruistic purposes.  The film kind of leaves this part of the plot behind in the final act, but it waves at the questions it raises just enough to satisfy me.  In other words, this is an eminently rewatchable film, and I don't mean to damn it with faint praise when I say that it transcends its source.  Bullet points to follow.

Can you sing the opening theme of this film?  Well, you probably can, because you're a huge nerd.  But a normal person couldn't.  It is not at all memorable.  I guess the music in this film is effective enough, but this is yet another film in the series where we get a brand-new opening theme.

Supposedly, the news that they were planning to kill off Spock had become something of an open secret during the production of the film, so they pulled the trick of faking out the audience with a bunch of deaths during the Kobayashi Maru training sequence at the very beginning.  I don't know if anyone was fooled when they saw Spock "die" only to get back up, thinking "oh, that's what the rumors were about", but at least they made an attempt.

Can we talk about the Kobayashi Maru scenario?  It is total bullshit.  First of all, during any given real-life scenario at the helm of a starship, there will be an array of options, and all of them will land somewhere on the spectrum between "really good" and "really bad".  The idea of a win/lose dichotomy is a terrible thing to teach to your trainees.  Second, the idea that a training exercise can teach a person how they will respond to their imminent death is just nonsense.  No one knows how they will deal with that until it actually happens, and no training scenario can possibly mimic the stresses of that.  And third, there is no way that the fact that the Kobayashi Maru training test was a thing wouldn't leak out to the cadets at Starfleet, meaning they would all be expecting it to come up at some point and would be almost completely immune to its stresses.

Even though the last movie ended with Kirk taking the Enterprise into the great unknown, this film starts with him again sidelined on Earth as an Admiral without a starship, lamenting his lost baby again.  I don't really care about continuity but given how much of the first film revolved around the same dumb theme (there is absolutely no chance that Kirk would give up command of the Enterprise unless he was forced out under penalty of death) it's kind of annoying to have to go through it again.

There are five major guest stars here.  We've got Paul Winfield as Captain Terrell, the captain of the Reliant, and he comes across as a little overwhelmed (Chekhov is given a lot of the heavy lifting to do during their scenes together, which has the unfortunate effect of making it seem like the black captain of a starship automatically defers to his white inferior officer).  Kirstie Alley plays inexperienced Vulcan officer Saavik, and she's cute but never seems to have a great handle on how to do the sort of emotionless acting that Leonard Nimoy owns as Spock.  Bibi Besch plays Carol Marcus, the head of the Genesis Project team, and she makes almost no impression.  She's there to exposit about the project and be Kirk's former lover (they have absolutely no chemistry which, really, it's hard to have chemistry with the planet-sized ego that is Billy Shatner.)  There is Merritt Butrick as David Marcus, whose performance is unpleasantly mumbly and stuck on "petulantly arrogant" for most of the movie.  And then, there is the Montalban.  His reputation in this movie is totally earned.  Every line reading he gives is completely cool beyond belief, even when he's hamming it up (and he hams it up a lot).  He is the coolest thing in the movie, and the first thing in this series that would not be out of place in a James Bond film.  I mean Khan is, at his heart, basically a Bond villain, someone with inexplicable rage and a unique sense of style who represents a threat to all of humanity but especially our hero.

Chekhov's knowledge of Khan is sort of all over the place.  He doesn't seem to recognize the containers that Khan and his followers live in, but he recognizes the name Botany Bay even if he doesn't know why.  Then when Khan reveals himself (in a perfectly theatrical moment, with Montalban slowly removing basically an armored suit to reveal his face) Chekhov knows who Khan is, but his tone of voice reveals clear surprise that Khan is there.  If Chekhov knows who Khan is, which he clearly does, then why does he A) not immediately make the connection between Ceti Alpha V and Ceti Alpha VI and B) not also immediately realize that Khan is going to be the leader of the group that captures them?  Hollywood bullshit, that's why, so we can have our heroes explore the location and also get the big surprise reveal of Montalban.

Why do their spacesuits have handles on the front?  That's just asking for a 20th century genetic superman to  grasp them and lift.

The space slug in the ear scene is way gross.  Would this have been traumatizing to some children?  Probably.

We do get a complete carbon copy of the scene from the first movie where Kirk and Scotty took a shuttlecraft around the Enterprise and gazed on it with something pretty close to sexual rapture.  This time it's Kirk, Sulu, Uhura and Bones, and the sexual rapture is muted but still present.  It's mercifully shorter this time, but still completely unnecessary unless you basically assume the audience either didn't bother to watch the first movie, or has completely forgotten everything about it (which is, admittedly, not far-fetched).

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, unless you're James T. Kirk and your need is to constantly steal the command of the Enterprise from its rightful current owner, which this time is Spock.  Then your need is what matters the most.

The Genesis presentation by Dr. Marcus is a good way to maximize special effect budget value.  You see this cool-looking transformation of an entire world, but it doesn't have to look like anything but a simulation.  They never explain how Genesis is going to deal with temperature problems of sub-optimal planetary orbits, but who cares I guess, wizardry is a good enough answer to basically all Star Trek science questions.

Saavik tries to get Kirk to raise shields when the hijacked Reliant won't respond to hails, but he's too much of a dingus to listen and gets a bunch of people killed.  There's a running gag about Saavik quoting Starfleet regulations and Kirk not knowing them, and this is maybe supposed to make Kirk seem cool but really makes him seem like an incompetent.

Boy, Engineering has to be the most dangerous job in Starfleet.  No one should sign up for that gig; every time someone attacks the Enterprise, someone (or ones) from Engineering gets it.  They actually linger on the death of a red shirt who works down there, which is the sort of small thing that really makes a world feel lived in.  Kirk gets some of the kid's blood on his uniform's white apron thing, and it sticks there for a while.

The prefix code is really a bullshit deus ex machina.  Why does it exist?  Why do other starships have access to it?  Given logic, it should generally work the exact opposite of the way it does here, with Starfleet ships being hijacked by malevolent actors and then using the code to destroy ships still under Starfleet command.  But Kirk uses it to take down the hijacker.  Also, given that its only positive attribute is that it allows a captain facing a hijacked ship to even the odds, shouldn't everyone's mind pretty much jump to it immediately as the answer to their problem?  They don't, it takes Kirk making a leap of logic for anyone to even remember that it exists.

When they go down to the Genesis project science station around Regula 1, the away team prowls the corridors in a scene that pretty clearly references Alien.  It's good for Star Trek to move outside of its hard sci-fi comfort zone and dip into a genre like horror occasionally.  They even find a dead body hanging from the ceiling.

DeForest Kelley is the (probably not-so-secret) MVP of the Star Trek series.  His cantankerousness allows the audience just the right amount of distance from the material, to see its inherent ridiculousness while not being completely pulled out of the universe.

Shatner's weird rhythms have never been better utilized than in the scene right after Khan's assassination plan (using the mind-slug-controlled Chekov and Captain Terrell to try to kill Kirk on the science station) fails, when Kirk and Khan have their little tête-à-tête over communicators.  "You keep....missing....the target!"  Two enormous hams, facing each other down.

Kirk's freakout (the KHAAAAAAAAAAN moment) when Khan says that he's stranded them inside Regula 1 forever doesn't really make a lot of sense in light of the fact that he had a plan up his sleeve the whole time, and he gets back on to the Enterprise without really breaking a sweat.  Why does he feign so much anger at Khan at that point?  I mean, he already knows that Khan's plan has failed.

I kind of stopped taking notes during the last 30 minutes or so, because it's just really great submarine movie action through the nebula with the Enterprise and the Reliant.  Meyer goes really heavy on the nautical stuff all throughout the film, and it really pays off once we get down to brass tacks, the two ships pursuing one another through three dimensional space in which neither has a clear picture of its surroundings.

If the Genesis device could turn a nebula into a planet, then why didn't they just do that in the first place instead of spending all that effort seeking out a lifeless planet?

I can't say I got emotional at Spock's death or anything but I certainly think that I could have if either I didn't know it was coming or I was more invested in these characters than I actually am.


  1. Kirk really is a barely competent captain most of the time. I went back and watched the original series when they became available on Netflix and wow did he make bad decisions time and time again, only to be bailed out by some crazy ass Deus ex Machina. Maybe he was a Peter Principle Admiral, promoted so he would stop killing off red shirts on every away mission, and he broke so many rules they finally busted him back down to Captain where he promptly gets his ship taken over by Spock's brother and then gets blamed for assassinating the Klingon Chancellor. Spoiler alert: they pull that "captain without a ship" schtick once more, only he steals the ship this time.

  2. About the Genesis device--I'd have to watch it again, but I never got the impression that it could create a planet from a nebula. It just remade the environmental conditions on an existing planet. It's considered a WMD by the Klingons because if you fired at a planet with living things on them, the life would be obliterated in favor of the new matrix.

  3. The way it's filmed, I can't say I'm 100% certain that the device builds a new planet out of the nebula wholesale, but I'm about 95% certain that that's what happens. Again, I don't think this matters that much, because wizardry, but it does leave me with that final question.