Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

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*. The general consensus was that with Star Trek: The Motion Picture the franchise had got off to a bad start on the big screen. What’s more, it was pretty obvious what had gong wrong. The first film came in with lots of high intent. The series had become a kind of scripture that couldn’t be treated lightly. But a light touch was exactly what was needed.
*. Was it by design or just propitious that director Nicholas Meyer had no familiarity with Star Trek when he was called on to take the helm here? I think it was just luck, but it was fortunate.
*. The result was, in Pauline Kael’s opinion, “wonderful dumb fun.” Kael liked comic-book movies. It’s why she liked the 1976 King Kong. But then she was writing at a time before comic-book movies became the only game in town.
*. The triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are creaky, but share a few light moments that recapture some of their magic from the old show. Ricardo Montalban, however, steals the show with his big hair, New Wave-primitive get-up, and plastic bust. He’s not afraid to play it big, and you have to love all he does with his hands, placing one on his hip and waving the other about theatrically or simply wagging his finger in a threatening manner. It’s a ridiculous part and yet he still turns in a classic performance, creating one of the screen’s greatest villains.

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*. There’s something endearing in the fact that Khan has been spending the last fifteen years reading the canon. Paradise Lost (and Regained!), King Lear, Moby-Dick. He’s got all the desert-island classics on his bookshelf. But then, what the hell else is he going to do living in a cargo container in the middle of a desert?
*. On the other hand, a little learning is a dangerous thing. Khan is (supposedly) super-intelligent, but he is not widely read. His literary models are tragic: Lear, Satan, Ahab. That last is the closest analogy, fitting well with Meyer’s wanting to make the movie a naval adventure in deep space. It’s also the source of one of Khan’s flashier lines. In Moby-Dick Ahab declares that he’ll chase the white whale “round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.” And here’s Khan: “I’ll chase him ’round the moons of Nibia and ’round the Antares Maelstrom and ’round Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”
*. He’s also quoting Ahab at the end: “To the last I will grapple with thee.” If only he had had a copy of The Confidence Man with him, or anything slightly more useful to achieving his revenge.

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*. It’s worth quoting from Roger Ebert’s review: “his performance [Montalban’s] is so strong that he helps illustrate a general principle involving not only Star Trek but Star Wars (1977) and all the epic serials, especially the James Bond movies: Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.” This is a fair observations. We can probably all think of exceptions, but as a “general principle” it holds up pretty well.
*. The dogfight in the Mutara Nebula is very pretty what with the purple mist and cloud lightning going on in the background. Let’s face it, most of space is pretty darn boring. You need a good nebula to light things up a bit.

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*. Introducing Kirstie Allie. Now there was an inspired bit of casting. And as the years have gone by hasn’t she begun to look even more the part?
*. The costumes have changed since the first film but are no less startling. Breast flaps with shoulder clasps. Flared trousers. Turtlenecks. What is it about the future that makes fashion designers go wild?
*. Well, Kirk’s son does show up on the bridge with his sweater tied around his neck. I guess he was a prep at the Academy. So what can you do?
*. I know what you may be thinking. Just why does the earwig come crawling out of Chekov’s head? I don’t think anyone is quite sure, though I have heard some interesting attempts made to explain what is going on. According to one interpretation the creature somehow sees Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) kill himself (taking the parasite host with him) and so decides to jump ship, unwinding itself (very quickly) from Chekov’s cerebellum and heading for the nearest exit. But perhaps Chekov has an aneurysm or something and this upsets it. You decide.

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*. It’s understandable that Dr. (Carol) Marcus didn’t want her son (that’s Dr. David Marcus) to grow up to be a space cowboy like his dad, but it seems odd to me that she would go so far as to keep the identify of his father hidden from him, so that she could keep him all to herself (that is, raise him in “her world”). Isn’t this the equivalent of being a space smother-mother? And why would Kirk go along with such a plan so readily?
*. Nicholas Meyer really wanted to kill Spock off at the end. But how realistic a plan was that? Meyer couldn’t have been under any illusions as to how this was (not) going to end.

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*. For my money this is the best of all the Star Trek films. And yes, that’s meant as very faint praise. The franchise made for great television, but the movies ranged from the merely good (this one) to the instantly forgettable and truly terrible. I still think Wrath of Khan goes on a bit too long, but it’s still the only one of these movies I can come back to and watch with any pleasure.

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