35th Anniversary Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan

One of the great movie experiences of my life was seeing Star Trek the Wrath of Khan when it opened in 1982. I was a huge fan of the original series and when the first film came out I was there on opening day. A lot of people seem to be disappointed in Star Trek the Motion Picture, but I ate it up and the audiences turned out in droves. Despite some lingering negative feelings it was a huge hit. In spite of the fact that Wrath of Khan was the second film in the series, it felt like the film franchise was being rebooted. The action was going to be more dramatic, the uniforms for the Federation were dramatically different, but the best thing about this film was that it would focus so much more on the relationship between the three main characters on the Enterprise.

Admiral Kirk is unsatisfied with a desk position in Star Fleet. Spock is now the Captain of our beloved ship, and Dr. McCoy continues to be the kind of sage friend that both of them need to have in their lives. The film begins with a fake out on the rumored death of Spock, and then gradually refocuses on the melancholy that seems to hang over Kirk as he faces the fact that he is indeed getting older. The Enterprise is a cadet training vessel and it suddenly gets called into service and Kirk, McCoy and Spock are reunited on the bridge that we always want to see them at. There are the usual crew aboard and a new character that held the promise of important things to come. One of the old crew is now the First Officer on another Federation vessel ( or wessel as he was likely to pronounce it) , Captained by actor Paul Winfield. In the process of finding a location for an important experiment, they happen upon an old nemesis of Captain Kirk and the fireworks begin.

So many Star Trek tropes are introduced in this film that it already feels like the start of a new show. This is the film that gave us the Kobayashi Maru, the refusal to accept the No Win scenario, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, “I have been and always shall be your friend”, “Khaaannnn”, the old Klingon proverb and a dozen more. Kirk gets a lot of back story with the introduction of two other characters and the effect is to make the film even more personable. The biggest impression however is made by the guest star returning to a character introduced in the original series, Ricardo Montalban. He not only steals the Reliant, he steals the movie with his bare chest and long flowing white hair. Montalban spews out the lines with an elegance at one moment and a spiteful vengeance in the next. He is the embodiment of the genetically engineered superman that supposedly practically conquered earth in the 1990s, two centuries earlier. He mixes Shakespeare and Melville and still is convincing as he outwits and id outwitted by Kirk.

The first time I saw the film was at the National Theater in Westwood on opening day. It was a beautiful wide and large auditorium with a gold motif and curtains. It was famously the Theater where “The Exorcist” first played in Los Angeles, and it was only just now that I discovered it has been torn down for almost a decade. The movie was packed and the sound system was terrific. The impact of the film on me at the time was profound. Characters that I had loved were getting old or dying, the ship that we marveled at is severely damaged, and there is a bagpipe salute that will bring a tear to any stout hearted Trekker.

 

The Fathom event that put this back in Theaters featured a so called “Director’s Cut”. Nicholas Meyer who is responsible for putting the movie together with one fourth of the budget of the previous film did a fantastic job in 1982, but there were a few things he was unhappy about. The final scenes of the casket on the Genesis planet were filmed and added against his wishes, he wanted Spock to stay dead. According to the information being screened before the movie, he has subsequently acknowledged that he was wrong and that the scene works for the series. Most of the additions are small moments with a single line or two that elaborate on the characters motivations or fill in a plot element. The best additions were some small scenes that clarified that cadet Preston is Scotty’s nephew and then Mr. Scott gets a better dramatic scene after the first attack on the Enterprise.

Before the program this evening, I watched the Original Episode “Space Seed” last night. Khan’s impervious nature in that show has given way to personal vendetta in the film, and that works really well given how the plot sets up his situation. William Shatner was interviewed for about twenty minutes as an extra for the event and he was entertaining and eccentric as heck. He conflated a couple of the movies as he was talking about them, but he was an impressively sharp 86 year old. He seems quite vital and he keeps pretty busy. Kirk was always my favorite on the show. Spock was the popular character and I loved Leonard Nimoy, but let’s face it, Captain Kirk was about as close as you could get to James Bond in space. He had a string of lovelies across the galaxy and he got to ham it up on a regular basis. His shouting of the name exemplifies the theatricality of his performances but also fits with the nature of his character.

 

Frankly, I may not stop smiling for a few days. From the first notes of James Horner’s score with the Alexander Courage theme woven in, to the Amazing Grace electronic music at the end, I was hooked. This is another commercial for a video release, but it is exactly the kind of value added commercial that makes me want to spend my money and reward everyone involve. The word is given, Warp Speed my friends.

Star Trek Beyond

 

I will tell you up front, I’m a Trekker. I’m not the type to do cosplay or read every variation of the stories, official or unofficial, but I’ve been watching Star Trek since 1966 and I’m a fan of the show and much of the philosophy. I know that J.J. Abrams got a lot of s*** from fans because he emphasized the action more than the cerebral, although in the context of a two hour movie, I think that criticism is hollow, especially for Star Trek Into Darkness. I also thought the first film from 2009 was the best film of that year. There, I said it and you now can filter this post as you think fit. Star Trek Beyond is a major let down for me. I found it lacking in depth, confusing to follow, full of plot wholes and guilty of all of the criticisms that people have made about the previous two films (minus the lens flare).

 

As I was traveling a couple of weeks ago, the electronic poster boards were big and ubiquitous in the London area for this film. I hated that I had to wait until we got home, almost a week and a half after it opened to see it. After seeing it however, I’m satisfied to be commenting on it a day later than my usual posts would go up because there is not much here to get excited about. I’d hoped that the influence of comedy writer and actor Simon Pegg would be enough to make the film feel more humanistic and emphasize the comradeship of the crew more. My guess is that the bits that were funny, he is responsible for, but the overall structure, plot and characters are the result of multiple hands and it is a mess. As usual, no spoilers here, but what the hell did the villain need with the macguffin when his weapons systems and technology are so easily able to defeat Star FleetĀ  vessels as demonstrated early in the film? The backstory and transformation of the character Krall makes almost no sense. There is a seed of an idea for a philosophical discussion of the need for conflict, but it basically goes nowhere except to become cliches in the mouths of both our heroes and the villain.

When the ship met it’s end in Star Trek III, I was moved. When it has subsequently been destroyed or damagedĀ  so substantially that they just rebuild it and move on to the next episode, there is a loss of engagement with the audience. This is one of the things that has been missing from the rebooted series, a sense of loyalty to the craft and the crew. Except for the main figures, everyone else is an extra that hardly bears mentioning much less mourning, they might as well all be wearing red shirts at the start of the story. Speaking of secondary characters, there is an explanation of the lead villain in the story, but the data on all of the other bad guys is not clear at all. A couple of them actually have names and it is not clear if they were with their leader when transformed or if they came from later groups or if they are indigenous and represent the pure form of the species. This film is in such a rush to get to the next action sequence that they don’t bother with basic explanations and the ones that they do come up with are the techno gibberish that often fills the dialog of a Trek film, only now it is delivered at warp speed.

 

There are a few things that work pretty well in the film. I think the relationship between Spock and Kirk continues to develop and I liked that Bones and Spock end up spending time together. Karl Urban has been a great Dr. McCoy and he has all the best lines and comic moments in the film. The character of Jaylah is potentially a good add to the character mix but her dialog is often so “you Tarzan, me Jane” that the character mostly has to be appreciated for the action scenes. Since they have come up, let’s talk about the action, it is a special effects and editing nightmare. It is often so dark you can’t see what is happening, and the constant movement of the set, while interesting, renders perspective meaningless. It is very difficult to tell what is blowing up and what is causing it to do so. Sometimes you can’t even say who is in the scene. The sequences are edited frantically, as is the style these days, which means there is almost no development of tension in any of those sequences. Everything is spectacle and narrative goes out the window. There is a long sequence with a motorcycle that was awkward and the effects shoots are not as well paired up with the live action as they need to be to sell it. This was at least one place where the quality of the visuals was not up to snuff. On the other hand, there are some solid mixes of make up and CGI effects to make some of the alien creatures seem real. I must say however that it sometimes feels like an extended version of the Cantina sequence from Star Wars.

So on the plus side you have some good visuals, and a few funny lines from Dr. McCoy and once in a while from someone else. On the negative side, you have a confusing story, a lack of character development (being gay and having a kid does not count if they are only props and not integrated into the story), plot holes that should make for some great YouTube parodies in the next few years. The movie also feels small, despite the size of the base they are ultimately trying to protect. There is no big issue except the bad guy wants to destroy things. Once again the old adage proves true, “You are only as good as the villain”, and in this case, Idris Elba can’t compensate for a poorly written antagonist. Look, it’s still Trek and you should see it, but it is closer to “Nemesis” or “The Final Frontier” than I think anybody wants to admit.