Friday, February 27, 2015

From the Rental Vault: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The pattern of Star Trek movies to stink up odd-numbered films but do quite a bit better as even-numbered ones was only half-established when Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer created what would become Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Gene Roddenberry's 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture had taken care of the stinker half, but there was as yet no way to know what its sequel would create.

Paramount was happy with neither the performance of the first movie nor the time-travel script series creator Roddenberry had produced for the sequel. Studio executives felt that the first film's plodding script and Roddenberry's own over-meddling as producer made the first big-screen voyage of the starship Enterprise a box-office and critical disappointment. So they promoted Roddenberry to "executive consultant," didn't consult him, brought in Bennett and Meyer and told them they had about a quarter of the first movie's budget to play with -- $11 million (It was actually about $8.5 million to start but the purse strings were loosened when execs saw and liked the initial work).

Both men approached the project like it was a movie to be made rather than an icon to be worshiped -- neither had ever watched the original TV show before working on Khan. The lack of deification helped produce one of the best of the Star Trek movies -- or, depending who you ask -- the best Star Trek movie.

Starfleet Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is traveling with the Enterprise, under command of his friend Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), on a training voyage for new cadets. The ship receives a distress call from the space station Regula 1 and investigates, only to find that the station was attacked by Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetic superman who had tried to hijack the Enterprise in the television episode "Space Seed." Khan seeks access to the Genesis device, a terraforming system that can also be used as a weapon, in order to have his revenge on Kirk.

Meyer and Bennett worked the themes of aging and death into the storyline throughout, and not only in the well-discussed climax. The difference in tone from Roddenberry's optimistic viewpoint for his series, which was so upbeat it didn't allow for much thought about such things, was greeted at first with uncertainty by the cast. You could die at the drop of a hat -- especially if you wore a red shirt -- but you didn't do much reflecting on mortality. When they finally bought into it, though, they brought what were easily some of their best performances as the iconic characters. Shatner has his scenery-chomping ham blazes of glory, but some of his best moments come when he uses only his face to show his despair. DeForrest Kelley's Leonard McCoy, often the moral ballast of the show, brings that weight to his questions about the wisdom of unexamined technological advance. James Doohan's Montgomery Scott, too often relegated to almost comic technobabble laments, becomes a signal of the significant human cost of confronting evil. Montalban, so often reserved, debonair and urbane even when a villain, lets his freak flag fly as he portrays the ravaged, Ahab-like Khan, whose thirst for power has been replaced by an almost holy crusade for vengeance.

And Leonard Nimoy seems to have finally found peace with the character that defined him, showing the "emotionless Vulcan" of the television show comfortable enough in his own skin to crack jokes, poke fun at himself and indulge illogical human customs while remaining recognizable as the summer of 1982's favorite alien who didn't have a glowing fingertip. The presence of the earnest Kirstie Alley as the cadet Saavik, acting in many ways as the by-the-book Spock would have done in the past, gives him a good foil for all of these moves.

Khan didn't gross as much as the first movie did, but since it worked from a smaller budget it made Paramount much more money and has had much better staying power. Its success encouraged Paramount to continue the franchise and Nimoy enjoyed it so much he decided to participate in the series as it moved forward, as a star and a director. Although nothing was ever on record, the likelihood of a continuing franchise would not have been high if Khan had tanked the way The Motion Picture did. To say nothing of subsequent television spinoffs, a publishing empire and the current reboot. Nimoy's work in making Khan the success it was played a huge role in that future.

In a significant way, he really did save the ship. And he saved them all.

Fair solar winds, Mr. Spock, into the undiscovered country.

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