Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Movie That Saved a Franchise--Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan

I recently watched all six of the Star Trek films featuring the original cast. That experience confirmed what I had long suspected: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan may be the best sequel to follow a mediocre first film. To be fair, Star Trek: The Motion Picture wasn’t as bad as I remembered—but it’s a lumbering journey to “where no man has gone before.” There’s too much stately footage of the starship Enterprise and the new characters (weakly played by Stephen Collins and Indian actress Persis Khambata) lack interest. Despite critical drubbing and much Trekkie criticism, the film was a boxoffice smash and so Paramount gave the green light for a sequel.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was ousted from the project and the reins were handed over to producer Harve Bennett. A non-Trekkie, Bennett watched every episode of the TV series and determined that the first film lacked two ingredients: (1) a dynamic villain and (2) an emphasis on the on the “triangle” of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy.

The Wrath of Khan resurrects one of the series’ most memorable bad guys, the supergenius Khan (Montalban), who attempted to take over the Enterprise in the TV episode “Space Seed.” After being thwarted by Kirk and crew, Khan and his followers were marooned on an unpopulated planet and given the opportunity to start again. Alas, in The Wrath of Khan, we learn that the destruction of a neighboring planet has turned Khan’s world in a deadly desert and that Khan’s wife has perished as a result. When a starship on a scientific mission inadvertently provides Khan with a means to escape, the mad man seeks his vengeance on Kirk.

Khan lures the Enterprise to a scienctific station working on the Genesis Project, an experimental device that can create life on a planet with no life—but which can also used as a devastating weapon. It just so happens that the Genesis project leaders are one of Kirk’s former flames…and the son Kirk has never seen.

The coincidental aspects of the story are a bit hard to swallow, but co-writer/director Nicholas Meyer zips the plot along so speedily that one has little time to notice. I really like how he crosscuts from Kirk to Khan to the Genesis team as they all converge on the same location.

The Kirk-Spock friendship forms the heart of the film (McCoy is used primarily for comic relief). Their closing scene together is the best in all Trek films and also provides the most memorable line of dialogue: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one.”

With its back-to-basics approach, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan laid the groundwork for the rest of the Trek films and pretty much saved the Star Trek franchise. It also forms a trilogy with the Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (their plots are connected, whereas the last two films are stand-alone adventures).

In addition to Wrath of Khan, writer-director Nicholas Meyer was also involved in the next two best series entries in the series: The Voyage Home (an amusing time travel adventure) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (an effective mix of politics, sci fi, and mystery). Meyer, whose filmography is surprisingly short, also directed another time travel tale: the classic Time After Time.


monty said...

Awesome post Rick and I agree with everything you said. As boring as the first movie was, Star Trek 2 was a whole different animal. To this day I still think it is the best Trek film ever, even better than the new one which was quite good. I think it's about time I had me a little Trek marathon.

ClassicBecky said...

I agree with Monty -- I'm going to get out all my Trek movies and have a marathon. Wrath of Khan was certainly the best, although I enjoyed all of them. I loved the references made to Moby Dick by Khan as, like the mad Captain Ahab, he chases Kirk, his Moby Dick. There are quotes from the book throughout the movie, and you can also see a copy of the book on a shelf in the compound where Khan and his clan live when they are found. I am an original Trek fan and really enjoyed your article.

sarkoffagus said...

Rick, I've seen little of the series, mostly because it's too expansive and I'll need a Trekkie (or Trekker) to point me in the right direction. But I have seen the movies, and, as it happens, I also recently had a STAR TREK marathon (and, like you, just with the first six). WRATH OF KHAN is an outstanding film and was the first of the TREK films that I saw. At the time, I was young, and it left me with an intense fear of something crawling into my ear (which actually still scares me). KHAN is indeed superior to the first film. I also liked IV and IV, which you mention, and I enjoyed THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. This was a wonderfully delightful read! Thank you, Rick.

Aki said...

Rick, this is one of my all time favorite sci-fic movies. I am a big Star Trek fan!! The Wrath of Khan is definitely the best of the OS movies. "Space Seed" is one of my favorite episodes. Khan was a villian but he did have reason for hating Kirk. After all the good captain didn't come by and check to see if things were going well on Khan's planet like he said he would. That scene with the ear that Sark mentioned indeed makes my ear hurt too. I remember crying in the end of the movie. I love Star Trek and will admit I am a Trekker. I own some Star Trek comic books, have read all the Star Trek books, and I don't mean just the OS, but the Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise. One year my cable didn't carry ST Voyager. I went nuts and my little brother video taped all the episodes that year and sent them to me. I still carry my Star Trek key chain (will never part with it), own the movie posters, have my ST coffee mugs, Star Trek shirts, models of the shuttles, Enterprise and etc., etc. ...oops did I leave out the DVDs? Oh, yes, I have a com badge that chimes just like on the series, can't leave home without it! Best TV series ever with great characters who really respect and like each other. Loved your article about Wrath of Khan and sure hope Shatter and Nemoy and all the others read it too!! One sad note to add..Merrit Butrick who played Kirk's son in Wrath died at the age of only 30 in 1989.

sarkoffagus said...

Oops. In my comment, I meant to say I liked IV and VI. I don't like IV so much that I have to say it twice.

Bill Guppy said...

Trek II is good and you're probably correct that it saved the whole "Trek" movie series, but I still prefer "Undiscovered Country."

toto2 said...

Awesome review, Rick! I was disheartened after seeing "ST: The Motion Picture" and wasn't thrilled to see "Wrath of Khan." But it was such a departure from the first entry, thankfully, and really was entertaining. Ricardo Montalban was excellent as were the Trek regulars and I even liked Kirstie Alley.

Great blog, all, but keep those earwigs away! Yikes!

JavaBeanRush said...

Ricardo Montalban mentions that Kahn was the closest thing to a great role he's ever had onscreen because "the man has...passion."

TV LEGENDS Interview Part 5 at about 25:00

Rick29 said...

Hey, I really enjoyed all the comments and the link to Ricardo's interview from Java. Becky, thanks for mentioning the MOBY DICK analogy...can't believe I didn't mention that. Aki, I can tell you're serious about TREK since you used the preferred term for fans (Trekkers...though Trekkies is what I heard first and always sticks with me). Sark and Toto, my ears are starting to ache just thinking about the scene you referenced. Nice to see at the Cafe, Monty!