In this installment of the Nostalgia series, we’re looking at a classic science fiction movie — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (or TWOK).
I will admit up front that I’m biased. Star Trek is not something I can be objective about — I have too long a history with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, as well as the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But hey, that’s why it made the Nostalgia list.
Still, it’s been a very long time since I saw TWOK. I’d been worried about whether it would hold up over time, but on watching it again this weekend, I was surprised. True, I got a certain amount of warm fuzzies from seeing the familiar characters and the Star Trek universe again. Okay, maybe a lot of warm fuzzies. But all that aside…turns out it’s an excellent movie. What exactly makes it good? Read on…
A lot of movies use action as a stand-in for character development. The bigger the explosions, the longer the action sequences, the better, right? Well, no. Those things are interesting only (IMHO) if we care about the characters. Granted, TWOK has a big boost in that regard — we already care about the characters before the movie even starts. But even so, the movie takes time to balance action with drama. There are quiet character moments interspersed with life-and-death stakes. The action sequences don’t spend too long on any one point, but move swiftly from one thing to the next, keeping us engaged. (Other classic science fiction movies that do this very well: Aliens and Terminator 2.)
On the plot level, the whole movie is a cat-and-mouse game between two adversaries who never even meet face-to-face. There’s no fistfight or even a phaser fight between Kirk and Khan. It’s all mind games. And the upper hand goes back and forth between them, constantly shifting. [SPOILERS…………] Khan lies in wait for Kirk’s ship; Kirk arrives all unsuspecting; there’s a space battle that ends in stalemate; Kirk beams onto the station, then down underneath the surface of the planet to investigate; Khan strands him there; Spock comes to the rescue; Khan steals the Genesis device; and so on. Again, none of these sequences are drawn out. They last just long enough to make their point, then move on.
On top of the plotting, the dialogue and acting are superb. It helps that most of the actors have known each other for fifteen years at this point (the movie came out in 1982; the TV show started in 1966), so their chemistry is amazing. Kirk and Spock, Spock and McCoy, Kirk and McCoy, and even the secondary characters work so well together. The dialogue allows those relationships to shine, and the delivery of the dialogue just makes it all the sweeter.
(Case in point: Kirk, McCoy, and Saavik are about to go on an away mission.
Spock: Be careful, Jim.
McCoy (bitingly): We will.)
(I didn’t discover the existence of Kirk/Spock slash until after my peak Trekker days. But now that I know it exists, the undertones are hard to ignore!)
Speaking of Kirk and Spock… [SPOILERS……….] That death scene. Wow. This is where the shared history really lends emotional weight. Here’s where Kirk has to pay for cheating on the Kobayashi Maru. (New!Kirk, are you listening?) He’s been a little cocky, he’s been on top of his game for the whole movie, he’s beaten the madman. He and Spock have been practically reading each other’s minds. (Ahem.) And now…suddenly it’s all gone. (Until the next movie, but we — and they — don’t know that yet.) William Shatner may be a bit of a laughingstock these days, but you know what? He was a damn good actor, and so was Leonard Nimoy.
I can’t close without admiring Khan. Actor Ricardo Montalban does an amazing job as the bitter megalomaniac, hyper-intelligent and superhumanly strong but ultimately lacking in both experience and a knowledgeable support system. (In fact, he argues with his underlings instead of taking in all their knowledge to help him make a wiser decision — a fundamental difference between himself and Kirk.) He’s given dialogue that’s deliciously over the top and poetic at the same time, and he delivers it beautifully.
One final point. I’m not a big fan of the new Star Trek movie (2009). I realize I’m in the extreme minority, but let me explain. What I really felt was missing was a sense of wonder (hat tip to Arthur C. Clarke). Star Trek has always been about exploration, discovery, the quest to increase knowledge and mutual understanding. There’s this feeling that the universe is a, well, fascinating place and we’re lucky to be out there among the stars. It’s what I love most about the Star Trek universe. I didn’t feel that at all in the 2009 reboot…but TWOK has it in spades.
Are you a Star Trek fan? Have you gone back to watch The Wrath of Khan or another of the original six movies? How did they hold up against your earlier viewing(s)?
If you liked this post, you might also like Book Nostalgia: The Time Quartet by Madeleine L’Engle.