I am unsure which film I first saw in the theatres after moving to my present location. It may well have been the third Transporter film, which would be ironic considering that it has the exact same problem that Abrams‘ “reboot” of Star Trek has.
I mean, help me out here, people who do not deserve to be labelled as retarded and shipped off to an island where they cannot harm the rest of our ever-increasingly bloated population. When you pay the lion’s share of twenty bucks to see a film once, you sort of feel obligated to expect that the film you are paying to see will have been at least competently shot. Right? As opposed to, say, giving you the feeling that if you shoved a camera up your arse, got on all fours, and crawled about in reverse whilst the actors did whatever occurred to them, including wiggling naughty bits at you, you could still make a more cohesive and sensical action sequence. Right?
Well, in June of 1982, audiences did not merely expect a film to be competently shot. They expected it to be artfully shot. As in shots communicated not only the story, but something deeper and more powerful. And whilst director/uncredited writer Nicholas Meyer was hardly a seasoned professional (he had only written five and directed one film(s) before this point), Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan had all of those things and more.
No, let me put this the way that occurred to me after listening to James Horner‘s score for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. The height from which Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan shits upon JJ Abrams‘ “reboot” of Star Trek compares favourably to the distance between where you sit right now and Proxima Centaurii. For those who still do not get it, Proxima Centaurii is the name given by astronomers to the closest star we have so far found that has planets in orbit that meet the criteria to sustain Earth-like life. The distance between Earth and Proxima Centaurii is most frequently expressed as being 4.6 light years. That is, if you could somehow find a way to sustainably travel at the speed of light, and keep that speed from go to woah, it would still take you 4.6 years to reach Proxima Centaurii. That is the kind of margin in quality Abrams’ egocentric wanking wants for in comparison to Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.
In 1967, an episode titled Space Seed saw the original Star Trek crew come upon a derelict ship in which cryogenically frozen passengers are found. The leader of these passengers, Khan (Ricardo Montalbán) is just like his fellows in that he is a genetic superman bred to be a perfect soldier for the Eugenics Wars. Instead, however, he and his fellows became warlords that dominated a third of the Earth as it was then. The basic outcome of this episode is that after an attempt to seize control of the Enterprise, Khan is overpowered, court-martialled, and exiled to what Kirk (William Shatner, for those who have been living in the heart of the Peruvian jungle for fifty years and honestly did not know) believes will give he and his people a fair chance to live.
It is not clear from the time references given in either of these teleplays, but there is obviously a substantial gap in time between Space Seed and the beginning of The Wrath Of Khan. Kirk is now an Admiral who in the film serves the function of training the next crews that will go out to explore space. His old science officer, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), is the one most directly training them. Most of the old Enterprise crew are also part of the training process, an example of which the film begins with. In the film’s opening sequence, a Lieutenant by the name of Saavik (Kirstie Alley before her physical and intellectual form went to shit) is undergoing a test known as the Kobayashi Maru. Essentially, this test, named after the ship that the tested crew is called upon to rescue, puts the officers in a no-win situation in order to test their character. Exactly what this is meant to accomplish is never made clear, but later in the film, we learn two things about Kirk when he was a Captain rather than an Admiral. One, he is the only cadet to have defeated this scenario. Two, he gained this distinction by surreptitiously reprogramming the simulator so that it would be possible to win. He never explains whether he changed it merely in this way or gave himself a cheat sheet. Given that he is (presumably) reprimanded, but also given a commendation by Starfleet brass for his “original thinking” (his words), I think he merely makes it possible, not inevitable, for him to win. This segment of the film is actually a rare example of where telling rather than showing works, because it allows an intelligent audience to fill in the blanks rather than have everything spelled out to them.
Which makes it pretty clear where Abrams‘ attempt to show young Kirk winning the Kobayashi Maru test all goes to shit. If you know the name Abbie Hoffman, then you have likely seen an image of him holding a shotgun in one hand, flipping off the photographer on one angle with the other, wearing a coked-out-of-my-gourd expression, with the word fukk painted on his forehead. That is about how subtle Abrams‘ Kirk is about announcing to the Starfleet academy brass that he has altered the conditions of the test. He does not merely telegraph that he has altered the test so that he can win and knows exactly how, he practically begs the question of why Starfleet’s academy did not simply kick him out on his arse for this stunt. Given that at the time, I was attempting to trudge my way through a university course in “creative industries”, this scene and the shaky-cam basically made me decide that I want to gouge Abrams‘ eyes out, rip out his tongue, skewer his eardrums, and break his fingers with a bowling ball or similarly heavy object, just on principle. Abrams, you are a shit storyteller, shit of an even bigger magnitude than Peter “Elves Über Alles” Jackson, or anyone who gives Kirk Cameron the time of day on a film set. Can I make that any clearer?
I will credit Abrams with two good moves, though. As I watched his shitty Star Trek film, as soon as I heard the opening bars of The Beastie Boys‘ Sabotage, I said aloud “they are going to introduce Kirk now”. Second, well, it is like this. Eddie Murphy, back in the days when he was funny, made a joke about Kirk’s propensity to ball any female thing that came across his path. I will not attempt to repeat the entire joke here because he is right about how white people attempt to repeat his jokes and fukk them up immensely. But as he says in this part of Delirious, you have got to be a horny motherfukker to fukk a green bitch. Why Trek has never followed up on this joke before Abrams came along has got me beat.
But anyway, Star Trek II‘s main plot concerns itself with two things. One, Kirk is beginning to feel decrepit and weary, as the all work and no fun situation of being an Admiral wears him down. He is even told by Spock in one sequence that it was a mistake to accept promotion. Two, in the time that Kirk has been growing old and weary, Khan has been milling about on the planet where he was left, growing stronger and angrier. The crew of a vessel called Reliant learn this the hard way. Reliant is engaged in a mission to find a planet suitable to test a device that, if used on a dead planet, will terraform it into something that can sustain life. Rather than simply hang around Starfleet and grow old with the rest of the old Enterprise crew, Chekov (Walter Koenig) has taken up an unspecified position on the Reliant. He and the Reliant’s Captain, Terrell (Paul Winfield) teleport down onto one planet that they think might fit the bill until Chekov reports picking up a “reading”. Although they place a call to the project’s supervisor, one Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch of Tremors fame), she is very clear with them. They have to go and investigate it, to make damned sure that if the device is used on this planet, it will not kill any living things.
Unfortunately, what living things they do find on the extremely hostile planetoid make one believe we should have just used the device on it and paid protocol no mind. Kind of like Kirk does vis-a-vis the Prime Directive in nearly every episode of the TV series. But the thing is, although it takes some explaining, this near-lifeless planetoid and the one that Kirk exiled Khan to in Space Seed are exactly the same thing. It seems that a phenomenally short time after they were left on Ceti Alpha V, Khan and his band witnessed the “explosion” of Ceti Alpha VI, the planet that Chekov and Terrell thought they were investigating. Apparently, this explosion sent out a shockwave that shifted the orbit of Ceti Alpha V, laying everything waste.
This is a good moment to talk about one aspect that makes Nicholas Meyer a far superior director not only to Abrams, but pretty much every other director who has worked on Star Trek with the sole possible exception of Leonard Nimoy. As I have hinted, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan was only the second film, period, that Meyer directed. Needless to say, he was a bundle of nerves, trying to suss out how best to work with and direct the actors in his charge. A singular ‘phone call from Shatner or Montalbán, and Meyer would have been replaced so fast his head would still be spinning to this day. Which should give you some idea of how terrified Meyer must have been as he began to try to direct Montalbán through this scene. As I remember the story I heard in the audio commentary, Khan’s explanations of what happened between then and “now” were delivered in the manner you would expect of a man who has spent at least a decade on a planet where merely going outside entails a risk of death. But Meyer stepped in after a take or two, and quietly asked Montalbán to show his “top” (that is, the level where he displays the full extent of the character’s rage and anger) as sparingly as possible. That way, Meyer reasoned, when Khan did raise his voice and command one of his crew to do something terrible, it would have much greater impact. Montalbán‘s response, to hear it from the commentary, was everything a second-time director can hope to hear when delivering such instruction to a man who had been in at least a hundred films at that point. (I just checked the IMDB as I did my cleanup work on this text. The IMDB’s current layout and system makes it very hard to count the exact numbers (disimprovement from ages past), but a rough guess including television series work puts the number of titles Montalbán had been in prior to this film at ~120.) I forget how it was impersonated in the commentary, but something like “ah… you are directing me… this is good, I like this, we can work like this”. Probably, given his fame and renown for playing the Ricardo Montalbán stock character at the time, this was the first time in about two decades that anyone had actually given him specific instruction in how to perform.
Hence, when Chekov tries to accuse Khan of lying about his situation, pointing out that Ceti Alpha V had life when last he looked, Khan’s enraged but brief roar of “this is Ceti Alpha V!” has all of the impact of a drill sergeant shouting into the camera for half an hour packed into what could not be more than five seconds.
It is these moments, when Ricardo Montalbán breaks Khan’s usual angry but calm, relaxed-sounding demeanour and raises his voice, that have some of the most impact in the film. Montalbán, according to legend, agreed after production was completed to play the role for considerably less than the producers offered him at first, citing his enjoyment of making the film. He has also been quoted as counting the role as a career highlight.
But unlike a lot of films in recent years, where the director or writer(s) seem to be in a hurry to get to the next “shooty part”, Star Trek II makes a considerable investment of time in setting up the basic mechanics of the plot. Each side of the battle is painstakingly introduced, the Genesis device is explained in such a way as to make sure even a toddler understands why nobody in Starfleet wants Khan to have it, and all of this inexorably drives Kirk to his first “direct” confrontation with Khan.
This confrontation shows both characters at the most extreme levels of their defining characteristics. The Reliant, approaching the Enterprise, keeps its shields up and resists all attempts at communication. In what little they do attempt to say to the Enterprise, they claim that the “core emissions” from their engines are hampering their communicative equipment. A quick check from Spock reveals that no abnormalities exist with said emissions. Numerous members of the Enterprise crew, from Saavik onward, plead with Kirk to adopt a more cautious stance on approach. Even Khan’s crew express disbelief at their luck concerning how careless Kirk is being. And as the Reliant locks its phasers upon the Enterprise, Kirk realises all too late that he has walked right into an ambush. Urgently, he orders the crew to raise the shields, but as Ricardo Montalbán‘s furious order to fire makes clear, it is too little too late. In this moment, as Ricardo Montalbán roars out the word “fire”, just recalling the first time I saw this film, I realise something a bit odd now. In this shot, Ricardo Montalbán proved that he grokked a lot about what it meant to be so consumed by anger that all else is excluded. He acts exactly as I would if my male parental unit were lined up against a wall and I had ten men with me armed with some very nasty shotguns. I would be roaring “fire” like that, like it was coming out of every cell in my body.
According to interviews with Ricardo Montalbán, his only regret in making the film was that his character never had any scenes where he came face to face with Kirk. The fact that they never do any face to face interaction, only fight through proxy of the space vessels in their control, is really beneficial to the story. But in one memorable sequence where the two characters are talking through their ships’ viewing screen, in spite of the two halves of the conversation being filmed months apart, is a masterpiece of scripting and editing. It also shows the benefits of the earlier-described instruction from the director, to keep the character’s temper reigned in until it really counts. Most of the conversation is a gloat from Khan. But Kirk quickly offers to have himself beamed over to the Reliant if Khan spares what is left of his crew. Khan agrees on the proviso that along with himself, Kirk also sends over any and all materials he has on board relating to the Genesis project. This proves to be Khan’s undoing, for in the minute (literally) that Khan gives Kirk to retrieve the data, Kirk instead sends a command through the communications system that causes Reliant to lower its shields. As the crew of the Reliant panic in the realisation that their shields are dropping, and Khan does not know where the function to override the remote command is, Kirk gives his own order to fire.
Khan’s hysterical issuing of orders to his crew to start firing back also reveal his lack of understanding about how Starfleet vessels work. His query as to why the ship cannot fire when he is told so by one of his crew is answered with fairly simple technical jargon. This makes for quite a contrast to the complete technobabble that became the norm on the New Generation series. “They’ve damaged the photon control… and the warp drive… we must withdraw!”, or something close to that. But the end result is that the two commanding officers part ways for a while. After an argument about the “must withdraw” statement, the battered and bruised Enterprise slowly moves away to lick its wounds.
A number scenes follow. After surveying the damage and visiting the sick bay where numerous recruits and other personnel from the engineering levels are dying, Kirk directs the Enterprise to the space station from which the Genesis project was being directed and developed. Regula I, as this station is called, just happens to be the place where someone that Kirk bumped uglies with in the past works. As it turns out, this is none other than Dr. Carol Marcus. The son that Carol has more or less been raising on her own over the past twenty years, David (the late Merritt Butrick) is following in her footsteps as a scientist. Although the extent of his work in the Genesis project is not made clear in this film, such has been the focus of his life for approximately the same amount of time as it has been Carol’s. Once Carol and David (along with Chekov) are retrieved from within the Genesis planet (as it is called in the film), Khan and his Reliant crew resume chasing Enterprise. The Enterprise trails away toward a nebula, Kirk hoping that this will even things up enough that he will be able to force Khan into an untenable position. But at first, Khan is not biting. So Kirk opens up on the communication channel and taunts Khan as best he can. This results in another short, decisive moment where Khan’s temper goes right off the rails, and he pushes the Reliant in pursuit of the Enterprise at full speed. Within what is called the Mutara Nebula in the script, the two ships trade blows. With his crew all dying around him, Khan just will not stop until some “tricky” flying on the Enterprise’s part ends with one of the engines of the Reliant being blown off, and he laying on the rubble-lined floor of the bridge, with minutes left to live.
Suffice to say that the crew live to see another film (four of them, in fact), and I will leave it there because it is the details of how they accomplish this that make the “sauce” of the film. It is also apart and aside from the point that I am trying to impart here.
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan predates Prometheus by about thirty years, but they both follow a similar principle. That is, the more groundwork the makers lay in terms of who the characters are, what motivates them, and how they will inevitably clash, the better the scenes where they clash will be. Sure, the first time I saw Star Trek II, the opening scenes made me think things like “get on with it”, or that it seemed to be taking forever for anything to happen. But here is the rub: I was six years old (approximately) then. Films like Star Wars, The Evil Dead, or pretty much about anything other than RoboCop, prompted similar reactions at a later age. Irrespective of how I look at it, I get the feeling that whilst I am ageing forward at a rate that is starting to distress me (I may only be mid-thirties, but to look at me you would think I was fifty), whilst cinema audiences and the industries that fuel and fill our more abstract thought processes have been ageing backward in all of that time. That is why films like the earlier-mentioned Prometheus get such big squeals of delight from me. Because no matter what way you slice it, to a creature that prides himself on higher intelligence and minimal bullshit, a film that is at least partly made with grown-ups in mind is like several birthdays at once. At that is the rub about Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan as opposed to every other Trek film save maybe VI: The Undiscovered Country (which Meyer also directed and wrote the script for). Rather than bullshit the audience that there is going to be no conflict or savagery in the future until we, the angelic Humans go out there and find it in the primitives, we are going to find no end of it amongst ourselves. If you are eligible to vote in your jurisdiction and think otherwise, then congratulations, you are what Ashley Judd calls “a child growing older” during Heat.
The lowdown? If you have only seen what Abrams calls Star Trek and have kidded yourself that it is even average, go and see The Wrath Of Khan immediately. Get an eyeful of characters who are not so cardboard they may as well be cut-out bins. If you saw one of the other Trek films (particularly New Generation ones) and were put off by the god-awful storytelling, go and see The Wrath Of Khan (it is what Nemesis tried so hard and failed to be, for one).
If you have already seen The Wrath Of Khan and know what I am talking about, pass this on to the good people at Paramount as a hint that we want the Director’s Cut on Blu-ray Disc. Yes, the already-released BD is good, especially in terms of sound, but the Director’s Cut, much like rereleases of Blade Runner or Alien 3, is an example of where just that little extra detail drastically changes one’s reaction to the story being told.
And for Odin’s sake, Hollywood, at least make an effort to release a couple of films oriented towards grown-ups every quarter, will ye?
(Postscript: As I was going through the World Wide Wait to look for images to supplement this article and further my points to some degree, I came across the horrible whisperings that Abrams apparently intended to make the overdue but unwanted sequel to his Star Trek In Name Only a “remake” of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. No, Abrams, just… no. You are not capable of telling such a compelling story. You barely are able to hold a camera in a manner that tells a story at all, and even then only in fits and bursts. Your cast mostly sucks monkey’s arse through a rubber hose (especially Zoe Saldana and Simon Pegg, the latter of which proves even more that you suck as a director). Be a man for a change and find your own story to ruin, please.)