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1982, Best Summer Ever: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”

August 2, 2012

Is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the most successful film sequel ever? Yes. Yes it is. Oh, I’m sorry—that was not rhetorical. It’s almost impossible to overstate how important this film is in the Star Trek canon. In June of 1982, when it first hit screens, Trek was still just a short-lived, but well-known TV show that had spawned a logy, overblown movie that had failed to fulfill Paramount’s dreams of creating a franchise that could compete with Star Wars. Writer-director Nicolas Meyer was given a substantially-reduced budget, but made a film that was fleet, exciting, and most importantly tapped into the humanism of Trek that made people like it. Not only did it draw non-Trek fans, but it created a visual and storytelling template that would successfully carry Trek for thirty years, four additional series, nine more films, and earn Paramount billions (that is with a B) of dollars from the franchise they so desperately wanted. If any sequel did more heavy lifting than that, I don’t know what it is. But what’s so great about it? Here are a couple of things:

1)  Action: Where the first film was a journey into “the human adventure” or some such twaddle, TWOK was basically all about the big spaceship shooting at each other. Remember what the USS Enterprise shot in Star Trek: The Motion Picture? An asteroid. That’s exciting, right? Oh wait, no, that’s actually the opposite of exciting. Meyer seemed to understand what every adolescent geek in the audience did: if you’re going to have these beautifully-rendered starships soaring gracefully across the screen, you gotta have them thrash each other in massive space battles.

2) Ricardo Montalban: So, here’s your dilemma: you’re making a Star Trek movie, which means your main character is played by one of the hammiest over-actors ever to gulp down the scenery like a famished great white shark stumbling upon a swimming club populated exclusively by Midwestern housewives. Who, possibly, can you cast opposite such a voracious force of nature that won’t be blown off the screen? If you’re Meyer, you cast William Shatner’s Mexican doppelganger—Ricardo Montalban. Yes, Mr. Rourke himself, a man who can match Shatner’s impassioned histrionics with his own over-the-top “smoldering Latin” shtick. He’s the man who made us believe the Chrysler Cordoba’s “fine Corrrinthean leather” was a thing (it’s not a thing). When Khan hisses, “I will leave you…buried alive…buried alive…” and Kirk responds by wailing, “KHHHAAANNNN!” so loudly it echoes in the vacuum of space, it’s a clash of two titans of the overdramatic. The heavens shuddered.

“Submit to the power of my pecs, Kirk!”

3) No bald chicks, but one hottie: Okay, so Star Trek–like many sci-fi franchises—is pretty light on the chicks (they scare us geeks). But if you’re gonna throw one into the mix, she might as well be a comely space-wench. I mean, hey, if you’re the kind of kid who memorized the specifications of all Federation ships of the line, you really can’t trust puberty to just jump-start itself, right? So, in The Motion Picture, Gene Roddenberry gives us an intergalactic nymphomaniac…who happens to be bald. In TWOK, the creative staff, having come to the (totally reasonable) conclusion that Roddenberry is just twisted, give us a very young, very fit Kirstie Alley. Not only is she a stone hottie, but as an emotionless Vulcan, she inflicts on the male audience the same desire to melt that icy heart that female fans long harbpored for Spock. Of course, in later years Alley would inflate like a Macy’s Day balloon, but in 1982, she was the hottest thing outside of a Jabba Slave Girl costume (oh wait…crossover fanfic idea, right there!)

Time kills everything good…

4) A simple, engaging plot: In TWOK, Kirk does battle with an old nemesis who is out for revenge and steals a futuristic WMD. There we go, that’s the plot in one sentence, and it seems pretty interesting too, right? Lot of potential there. Compare that to, “The USS Enterprise must save Earth from a giant, malevolent cloud.” Yeah, you see where I’m going with that.

Make no mistake: this is the face of great acting.

5) The human adventure: Yeah, that was the tagline for the first movie, but damned if anyone in that movie displays anything like an actual human emotion. In TWOK, by contrast, we see Captain Kirk grappling with a mid-life crisis. He’s a paper-pushing Admiral, unsatisfied with his life. But he still has his friends, and at their urging, he undertakes one last mission. Throughout the film, he is confronted with the consequences of his actions, and increasingly relies upon the support of his closest friends and confidants. Even as a ten year-old kid, I understood this story was deeper and more satisfying than the simple hero’s journey of Star Wars. The depth of characterization even leads to one of the film’s best elements.

6) Humor: There’s a lot of it, which contrasts with The Motion Picture’s ridiculously self-serious tone. Spock subtly screws with Kirk, but letting an untested rookie steer the ship out of dry-dock, prompting Bones to offer Kirk a tranquilizer. Bones and Spock bicker like they did in the original series. Spock and Kirk play nicely off Kirstie Alley’s befuddlement at a ruse (“You lied?’ “I exaggerated.”) It’s great, warm humor that comes naturally from the characters and their longtime relationships and makes the audience a part of this family.

 7) The uniforms: The Motion Picture had money to burn, and created alien landscapes, and super-giant mechanical vessels, and massive crowd scenes, and…what the fuck are they wearing?!?  Okay, so basically they wore either weird-ass unitards with computer readouts on their junk (Kirk so totally designed that feature—prove he didn’t yo,) or short-sleeved jerseys to show off Shatner’s guns. In TWOK, Meyer put them in genuine, military-style uniforms, which, along with being pretty snappy, allowed you to take these people seriously.

“According to my groin-computer it’s time for an orgy…”

8) The Ceti eels: Damn, those things were creepy. I mean, just…ick…

9) The final knockdown: The wounded Enterprise plays a game of cat-and-mouse with Khan’s ship in a nebula, as Meyer creates a sequence that harkens back to old, submarine warfare movies. It’s gorgeously rendered with practical effects—big ship models and painted glass. It looks amazing and is suspenseful as hell. Remember the suspenseful part in The Motion Picture? Oh yeah…there wasn’t one!

“Who’s your daddy, huh? Yeah, Kirk’s your daddy. Bitch.”

10)  Spock’s death: Oh, um, spoiler? Spock’s self-sacrifice is perfectly in character, and helps to complete Kirk’s journey of self in recognizing the limitless potential of the human spirit he has so missed since giving up command of the Enterprise. And as played by Nimoy and Shatner (who doesn’t take the opportunity to ham it up), it’s simply heart-wrenching. When Spock delivered his last words, “I have been—and always shall be—your friend,” I was crying harder than I did when E.T. bit it later that summer. It’s one of the best scenes of a franchise that has spanned four decades.

Yeah, Wrath of Khan. Man, that was a movie.

2 comments

  1. I remember seeing TWOK in the theater with my grandma, paranoid the whole film that little ear bugs from the beginning were gonna crawl around the floor, up my leg and into my ear. Still enjoyed it a lot. I love the 1982 reviews! Makes me want to run out and find a copy of TWOK to watch, haven’t seen it in years.


  2. Yeah, I saw it with my uncle. I had a similar reaction to the eels scene…



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