Kirk stares at the reading glasses with a certain trepidation, looking upon his birthday gift on the cusp of brooding.
"Dammit, Jim, what the hell's the matter with you?" grumbles McCoy. "Other people have birthdays. Why are we treating yours like a funeral?"
The moment comes in an early scene that represents one of the most important decisions made at the outset of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — and one of the most important decisions in the entire Star Trek canon. These characters — who became iconic and generally simplified throughout the episodic TV run (as well as Star Trek: The Motion Picture) — have suddenly become real people with real fears. Their limitations, human vulnerability, and the realization of their mortality come crashing down on us. We realize that Kirk has become the microcosm of an aging institution: The Star Trek franchise has grown older, and knows that its subjects must as well.
Bones bluntly tells Kirk that it was a mistake he let Starfleet kick him upstairs into the bureaucratic admiral's desk job, and that he should get back his command as soon as possible, "before you become part of this collection — before you really do grow old." Later, in the aftermath of a surprise attack, Kirk will reluctantly put on these glasses so he can read a computer console. He won't want to do it (amusingly muttering "damn" under his breath), but he'll do it anyway.
Star Trek II is often heralded as the best of the Trek films, and for good reason. Here's the Trek movie that joins epic sci-fi with straightforward simplicity; serious intentions with the winks of irreverence; and sincere emotional payoffs within the structural confines of a scenery-chewing popcorn revenge picture. Why does this work? For one, it has an engaging story that rarely labors. But in the final analysis, I think it comes down to the issue orbiting Kirk — the fact that aging has given him the realization that life is perhaps not as simple as he once thought it was. A crucial decision Spock makes at the end of the film will cement this fact.
In the DVD commentary, director Nicholas Meyer says that his original title of the film was Star Trek II: The Undiscovered Country. It's a title that would not be used (though it would eventually resurface for Meyer's return to the franchise in Star Trek VI), but it would've made a lot of sense here. The undiscovered country in Hamlet is death, and that's exactly what much of Star Trek II serves as a reminder of (also life, which is presented as the flip side of the same coin, which it is).
The movie begins and ends on notes that remind us that things are not the way they used to be. If the TV series was self-contained and episodic, Star Trek II argues for a film series that would take on a new tone where actions have consequences, characters become more complicated, and movies are chapters rather than episodes. As the story's opening minutes show an aging Kirk who feels painfully old even though he may not be, the closing minutes show him somewhat rejuvenated, but only after paying a costly price.
Time has not stood still. Kirk now instructs a new generation of rookies who will crew the relaunch of the Enterprise under Spock's command. Chekov has moved on to first officer of the Reliant. But even if time has marched forward, Kirk and his crew find themselves plagued by a figure from Kirk's past — the obsessive Khan, who wants his revenge ... served as cold as possible.
If the beginning and end of the film serve as a meditation on mortality and the passage of time, the middle is more an exercise in storytelling simplicity. Khan is not a particularly complex character, which is part of what makes him effective. His exile has embittered him beyond all reason; he simply blames Kirk and takes his thirst for vengeance to the point of monomania. "He tasks me," Khan says to his most trusted lieutenant. "He tasks me, and I shall have him." He steals the Reliant and cleverly stages a crisis to lure the Enterprise into a trap. He also hopes to gain control of Project Genesis, an experimental science intended to create life, but with the potential side effects of an Armageddon weapon.
Khan is still the best and most memorable of the Star Trek villains, in no small part because of Ricardo Montalban's performance, which has just the right balance of obsessive quirkiness and scaled-back restraint. Khan's dialog is colorful and entertaining; like all great villains, he's often even more fun to watch than what's going on around him, as when he gloats to Kirk about beating him. Montalban doesn't go overboard, but rather just far enough; if it's scenery chewing (and sometimes it is), it's of the most effective kind.
Khan's surprise attack on the Enterprise reveals Kirk at his most trusting and least cautious, and it's a mistake that hangs over Kirk's head for much of the movie. Refreshing, how the story presents Kirk as human and fallible; we can sympathize with his dilemma. When Scotty's nephew dies from battle injuries, it's a human toll for Kirk that's not only a result of Khan's deviousness but also Kirk's own command decisions.
The cat-and-mouse games involving the two ships provide plenty of interest. One of the most satisfying scenes comes when Kirk and Spock use the Reliant's prefix code to drop its shields in what is to Khan a counterstrike as surprising as the attack he launched upon the Enterprise. There's also the final hunt through the murky Mutara Nebula — still a virtuoso sequence — which seamlessly integrates special effects into the story, supplying enough tension and suspense to play as a good submarine movie. The effects hold up well, in part because they are straightforward rather than elaborate, and because the Enterprise retains the scale and elegance it had in the first film: Rather than darting through the frame like a fighter jet, it's a huge ship that moves slowly. I like that the battle sequences are characterized by big ships that look as if they must tack in order to turn. James Horner's terrific score (for this film as well as the third installment) is perhaps the franchise's best overall (with all due respect to Jerry Goldsmith); I'd still like to see Horner return to score a Trek film.
To many, where Star Trek: The Motion Picture went astray was in its efforts to deliver an epic sci-fi story at the expense of character interaction when what most people wanted to see were the familiar characters in a story that was suited to the Star Trek universe. This is, in short, precisely what The Wrath of Khan seeks to set right and why it remains the generally regarded favorite. Fans want to see scenes like the one where Spock and McCoy argue philosophical points over Project Genesis — a classic, if brief, Spock/Bones exchange if I've ever seen one. Similarly, Kirk and Spock have a scene that resonates early in the film, where Spock famously explains that "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" — a philosophy that, at the end, he will apply in practice with the utmost Vulcan logical detachment.
The film also develops Kirk in ways we were perhaps not expecting. We learn not only about his qualms with age but of his past with Carol Marcus and the fact that they have a son, David — who doesn't much like Kirk today. Shatner is often derided for his penchant for overacting. (Indeed, one of my all-time favorite franchise moments of melodramatic camp comes in this movie when Kirk shouts "KHAAAAAN!" into his communicator.) But it should be noted that Shatner gives one of his best performances in this movie. He's restrained and credible in his most crucial scenes, like the one with Carol inside the Regula tunnels where Kirk quietly takes stock of his situation regarding David and ponders "my life that could've been."
Also well conceived is the film's running theme on the Kobayashi Maru simulation exam — something that pays off with true story significance. The no-win scenario opens the movie with Saavik at the helm of a simulation that ends in disaster. We're told that back in Kirk's training days he beat the exam. How? By cheating, of course — reprogramming the simulator to make it possible to rescue the survivors. It's of no small irony that Kirk's face-off with Khan forces him to attempt cheating death again for real. He finds, however, that life deals him all-too-real consequences.
This of course brings us to the defining moment in Star Trek II — Spock's decision to sacrifice himself to save the Enterprise from the Genesis Device explosion. It's a decision he's able to reach using pure logic, and yet it's impossible not to be moved by it based on the pure selflessness of his act. Fittingly, by using Vulcan logic, Spock is able to do something that is nothing short of heroically human.
Spock's death would be heartbreaking to anyone familiar with the Trek universe. It's almost unthinkable: How could they kill Spock, perhaps the franchise's most beloved character? Spock's death and subsequent funeral are scenes that manage to generate substantial, genuine emotional power. And it's Shatner who must carry these scenes, because the audience is in Kirk's shoes, saying goodbye to a well-known friend.
It's also through Kirk that we see how Spock's death filters through the movie's other elements, like the Kobayashi Maru scenario: Kirk cheated that scenario but now finds — as he reveals to David — that he was not prepared for such a loss. Even if Kirk doesn't believe in losing, there are indeed no-win scenarios in life. And yet the movie finds for Kirk a sort of personal redemption in the notion that as he loses his friend, he regains his son. And even as Spock lies dying, the Genesis planet is being born; Meyer cuts between this death and birth in a sequence that reinforces the movie's central theme of the cycle and duality of life and death.
Released in 1982 when I was very young, and seen over the years on TV and VHS, The Wrath of Khan is one of those movies where I can't remember a time when I hadn't seen it. For me, this DVD release mainly constitutes a format upgrade (Dolby Digital, widescreen, superior image quality, etc.) and a chance to revisit a film I've seen so many times and know so well.
Unlike last year's reissue of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this DVD cut sports nothing that qualifies as "significant" in terms of changes from the theatrical cut. The snippets of footage that have been edited back in have already been made available in various TV editions. (Perhaps most noteworthy are those lines that establish the doomed young cadet as being Scotty's nephew, omitted from the theatrical cut.) Considering how few there were, it's a wonder why such brief scenes would be cut from the film in the first place, but restoring these minor points does not represent a significant change. Most (like me) are likely to be attracted to this release because of the restoration and sound mix for DVD, and the separate bonus materials.
But it also provides a chance to look at this film in a little more depth. What I find myself discovering is the Trek film that best captures the spirit of the original cast and series, and a film that by its end even manages to say some things that are somewhat profound.
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