Saturday, February 11, 2012

More on The Thing (2011)

Jackson Leverone at the blog The Horror Reviewer, has posted some very intriguing thoughts on the 2011 The Thing, which I reviewed earlier in the week. 

He suggests, basically, that the movie's flaw is in storytelling, in the depiction of the actual monster.

In "The Mischaracterization of The Thing in The Thing (2011)," he writes:

"Many complaints have been made about the 2011 film's use of CGI over practical SFX. That debate aside, I see a shortcoming in the storytelling. The monster in the remake lacks desperation. In the original, the Thing is relatively weak. That is why it hides in the guise of something familiar. Against a group, the monster tends to lose fights. It only transforms to attack a lone victim, or to defend itself when cornered. The Thing is very careful, which is what makes it so frightening in the original. It knows what to say and how to act to gain your trust. And because its stealth is its greatest asset, it only transforms as a last resort. The transformations are defined by their irrationality: on screen, we see a perfectly ordered human body devolve in an instant into a writhing, gory chaos."

I recommend the entire piece at Horror Reviewer, as it provides a fascinating analysis of the monster's behavior, and how it has changed from the 1982 Carpenter film.

I'm posting this piece today in part because I can't stop thinking about The Thing (2011).  A reader here, Cannon, wrote a lengthy, meticulous six-part comment after my review, and by and large, I find his arguments in favor of the film's quality persuasive. 

Most trenchantly, Cannon writes a bit about the sub-textual importance of featuring a woman as the film's lead character in an otherwise (mostly) male environment.  I complained about this facet of the prequel as unrealistic given the context of 1982 Antarctica, but I have become increasingly convinced that Cannon is correct, and my outlook was too narrow and not deep enough.

Cannon writes:

"It is here that the film toys with our expectations, as we take for granted that, because she's the female lead, everything Kate does is the de facto right way to handle the situation. As it plays out, there is something vaguely, indirectly disturbing about her character.

Consider how she’s able to turn three of the men, Lars, Peder and Jonas, against the other four, Colin, Adam, Edvard and Sander, when checking their teeth. The movie is careful not presume that her theory is entirely full-proof, as even Sanders at one point objects that there are “too many variables,” and he may be right. Yet, as the scene progresses, notice how the first three men become increasingly obedient to Kate while she herself becomes aggressively dominant over everyone in the room. In his native language, Edvard, not with admiration but dread, says to Sander, “She’s clever ...and now she’s in charge.”

Indeed, a key observation is made that Kate has attained a kind of unquestionable mother-knows-best sense of order and, regardless the merits of her rationale, has the power to decree each man friend or foe, human or monster. All at once she becomes a Columbia grad crucible of sorts. This aspect of her character reaches its apex during her final scene with Carter when she torches him for being the thing. In their commentary director Heijningen Jr. and producer Eric Newman mention an alternate version of the scene where it’s confirmed that Carter really was human but was burned alive all the same. It might have been ballsier had the filmmakers gong that route but, then again, it may also have been a little too on-the-nose. Perhaps it’s best left ambiguous that Kate was possibly presuming too much based on limited science or was downright imagining what wasn’t. Or perhaps the idea is more interesting metaphorically -- how even the voice of reason can ultimately become judge, jury and executioner."

I must confess, I find Cannon's thesis compelling, and accurate to the details of the film's narrative.  It tracks.  Also, my friend and another great thinker, Le0pard13 also noted in the comment sections that The Thing in the 2011 film initially resembled " a vagina with teeth."

Okay, let's couple these two pieces of information. A woman gaining power over men, becoming "judge, jury and executioner" by din of her sexuality, and a monster that looks like a "vagina with teeth."  Is form echoing content here more than I understood? 

Given this connection -- Kate as a vagina with teeth, almost literally --  I'm suddenly wondering if the new The Thing charts the sexual dynamics of human behavior as much as the original gazed at 1980s feelings of alienation, isolation, and paranoia in the warm-up to the age of AIDS.   If this is indeed the case, then I have grossly underestimated the quality of the film. 

Yet by the same token, I'm also rather taken with Jackson Leverone.'s reading of the alien's behavior, and its general discontinuity with the original Carpenter film.

So I'm right back where I started: Sensing that there is more to The Thing (2011) than meets the eye, but also that, on some level, it still fails to succeed.  One thing is certain: The Thing (2011) is no cheap knock-off, no fiasco, as many critics claimed.  It may not be the masterpiece that Carpenter's film was, but in twenty years, will we see this "thing" better?  Cannon and Jackson Leverone. are certainly helping me see more clearly.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sci-Tech #4: Colonial Marines Edition

Sleek.  Utilitarian.  Streamlined.  And absolutely bad ass.

Those are the words that leap immediately to mind as I describe the technology and hardware  of the Colonial Marines as featured in the 1986 James Cameron film, Aliens. 

As you gaze at some of the images I selected below, you'll detect precisely what I mean. 

Colonial Marine technology is hard-edged, sharp, and blunt, designed for some very "tough hombres."  The technology primarily is colored in shades of gray, blue and black, evoking a very strong "no nonsense" vibe.  This technology isn't about being pretty.  It's about delivering death from above (and anywhere else).

And, of course, this was intentional. 

The Alien (1979) universe showed us civilian space truckers, but Aliens (1986) calls in the cavalry, Earth's greatest military fighting unit, to battle the titular xenomorphs.  At least some of this movie technology has become the stuff of fan obsession in the decades since the film's premiere in the gun-ho age of Reagan and the invasion of Grenada, particularly the impressive M41A pulse rifle, which features a pump-action grenade-launcher on the undercarriage.  I'd love to get my hands on a recreation of this weapon, but they generally cost hundreds of dollars, last time I checked.

The great thing about the Colonial Marine tech of Aliens is that it is both futuristic and recognizable as an extension of today's weaponry and vehicles.  We recognize everything, but it's been tweaked a bit and even improved upon.   From drop ships to pulse rifles, from proximity scanners to remote-control perimeter "sentry" guns, Aliens reveals that man's capacity to wage war remains at the vanguard of his evolution as a species.

But, of course, here -- on LV426 -- man has met his match, and that's a critical part of the film's equation.  The Marines represent America in space: proud, resourceful, and bristling with state-of-the-art military capacity.  But like the soldiers who went into Vietnam and found themselves waging a losing battle against an intractable foe, the Marines here find that even all their weaponry and high tech gear hasn't prepared them to face this particular enemy.

I'm a strong and firm defender of Fincher's Alien 3 (1992), but one reason I suspect it never found the widespread appreciation of Aliens is that it eschewed futuristic technology to such a tremendous degree.  It was a bold idea: land Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in a terrain with no weapons and no ready allies, and then -- when she has nothing else to fall back on but her wits -- examine her courage.  That's an audacious approach, but probably not a crowd-pleasing one.

I think people really missed that pulse rifle...

The Narcissus Sulaco: a transport ship bristling with pointed outcroppings that resemble spears...or turrets.

In the director's cut, these sentry guns blasted aliens by the dozens.

A marine's best friend: the M41A Pulse rifle with pump-action grenade launcher.  Handy for close encounters.

The "freezers." Note how, in contrast to Alien (1979), these cryo-units ae big and bulky, like the soldiers they house.  Also, instead of being set-up  in a blossom formation (around a hearth, as it were), they are constructed a military formation.

In the Narcissus bay: the drop ship, for "flying the friendly skies." Not.

From the Archive: Sci-Tech #3: Alpha Moonbase Edition

"Space: 1999" had a style, a feel, a look of its own." - Martin Landau (Lee Goldberg. Starlog: "Martin Landau Space-Age Hero." July 1986, page 45).

"...Space:1999 is like Star Trek shot full of methedrine.  It is the most flashy, gorgeous sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV.  Watching it each week is very close to being under the influence of a consciousness altering drug. - Benjamin Stein. The Wall Street Journal: "Sailing Along on a Moon-Base Way."

Though TV reviewers were often quick to criticize the storylines on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999, most nonetheless agreed that the visualizations of this classic series were unimpeachable. 

For example, TV/Radio columnist Charlie Hanna termed the sci-fi program a "visual feast," and The New York Times critic John J. O'Connor noted that the "visual lavishness is apparent from the dazzling array of electronic gadgets and hardware to the "moon city" costumes designed by Rudi Gerneich."

I can add my own testimony to this effusive praise.  When I initially watched Space:1999 back in 1975, I was certain that this was indeed what the future would look like.  It just seemed right and appropriate that by the year 1999 we'd all be able to communicate across mini-tv screens thanks to devices such as the useful commlock.  And, of course, furniture and interior decoration would be immaculate, minimalist, and stream-lined by the eve of the 21st century, right?

Okay.  It didn't quite turn out that way, but you can't convince me that it shouldn't have turned out that way.  I wonder how the recently announced Space: 2099 will countenance the near future. 

So for today, and my third installment of Sci-Tech, I want to present some of my favorite imagery of Moonbase Alpha from Space:1999. The sets  for Space: 1999 were created by production designer Keith Wilson, and the exterior miniatures by special effects director Brian Johnson.   In both cases, these gentlemen did extraordinary work.  In short, they accomplished three critical things: 

First, they created believable technology with one foot in the future and one in the present. 

In Space:1999, for instance, you'll see control rooms, nuclear generating plants, and high-tech medical units, but at the same time, you can note characters reading books, adjusting thermostats in their crew quarters, and even tanning themselves in a solarium ("Force of Life.") 

In practice, this is quite an extraordinary combination.  Despite the clean, minimal lines of Moonbase Alpha construction, crew quarters boast a sense of individuality and recognizable humanity ("Matter of Life and Death."), Areas of heavy use such as laboratories, as seen in "Breakaway" and "Voyager's Return," are cluttered and over-crowded.  In other words -- despite the immaculate white conception of Moonbase Alpha -- man will be man, even in the future.  He will use the "space" on the Moon in just the way he does here on Earth; and that way isn't always clean and austere...or even neat.  Victor Bergman's laboratory is another example of this design approach.

Secondly, the designers of Space:1999 didn't skimp on a sense of scope, meaning that the vistas and views of Moonbase Alpha appeared more legitimately cinematic and impressive than virtually any other sci-fi series sets in history up to 1978 including Star Trek, wherein the Enterprise bridge famously did not include a ceiling.  

The control center of Moonbase Alpha, Main Mission, is a perfect example of this aesthetic.  It is a vast, two-story affair replete with a ledge and observation area, as well as a kind of mission control pit where analysts toil on a regular basis.  Attached to Main Mission -- with a wall as a huge sliding door -- is the Commander's office.  For privacy, Commander Koenig can shut the door to Main Mission.  In cases of emergency, he can open the door, and his desk overlooks the Big Screen and his workers.    What must be noted about this is that both Main Mission and the Commander's office are vast.   The two (joined) sets present the appearance of a real life, sprawling complex.

Scope is sometimes achieved other ways on the series as well.  Miniatures do the trick to convey passage on the useful Travel Tube, and in rare instances, Space:1999 joins live-action footage with rear-projection footage of Eagles and their hangar bay.  Again, there's a powerful aura of a fully-operational Moonbase here.

Third, and equally important, the amazing technology and design of Alpha and the Eagles were merely the starting point of this adventure.  Week after week, our impressive views of Earth's high-tech turn-of-the-century moonbase were one-upped, essentially, by mind-blowing alien landscapes and worlds,  as featured in episodes such as "Guardian of Piri," "Missing Link," "War Games," "The Last Enemy" and so on. 

After many of those trippy adventures, the high-tech environs of Moonbase Alpha felt not like a dazzling vision of a future age, but rather like "home," even fostering a sense of security. By creating alien worlds of such blazing distinction and originality, the makers of Space:1999 actually made their "future" Earth technology seem all the more believable (and desirable).

It would be impossible to write this post without commenting just a little on the Eagle, one of the most beloved spaceship designs of cult-televisions.  These craft are perfectly in keeping with Moonbase Alpha: as remarkable embodiments of "near future" technology.    No flying saucers or stream-lined nacelles in this world.  Rather, the utilitarian Eagles consist of interconnected modules, retro-rockets, landing pads and nose-cones.  All these facets are recognizable as dramatic extrapolations from the then-current Apollo program.  Again, Space:1999 had one foot in the future, and one in the present.

This is how Brian Johnson described the creation of the Eagles, in an interview with me almost a decade ago (on the advent of Space:1999's release on DVD):

"I was in my "modular" design mode in those days. I reasoned that it made sense to make Pods that were interchangeable. The command pod could serve as a lifeboat, Eagles could be "chained" together, etc...My basic ideas came from looking at dragonflies and insects of all sorts. I copied nature to some degree - I think it made the Eagle believable."

Believability, scope, and then imagination. These are the sturdy foundations of Space:1999's set and model designs.   Below is a brief gallery showcasing Moonbase Alpha as it appeared in Year One.  Finally, I should add that these sets, models and designs look even more remarkable on Blu Ray.
Looking up to the Commander's office.

Gazing at Main Mission's "Big Screen."

Minimalism meets clutter: a fully functioning machine laboratory.

A Room with a view.  Note the globe of Earth cast in gray and black to match the rest of the set.

Clock, communicator and more: The comm-post.

Against a backdrop of stars: a repair-man with a tool kit.

Remote control flying an Eagle.

The well-lit travel tube interior track.

A nuclear power plant of the future.

The Solarium

Behind our heroes, a hanger bay filled with Eagles.

An Eagle spacecraft, with special module (from "Breakaway.")

Moonbase Alpha

From the Archive: Sci-Tech #2 Altrusian Edition

In Sci-Tech 2, I turn the attention to Land of the Lost (1974 - 1976), an inventive Saturday morning program set in "Altrusia," an artificial (?) planet positioned inside a closed pocket universe. 

According to the mythology of the program created by celebrated science fiction author David Gerrold, advanced humanoid Altrusians once lived peaceably in this strange habitat, and boasted a great science and high sense of technology. 

But the Altrusians ultimately de-volved into barbarian Sleestaks, and their technology -- in the time of the stranded Marshall family --  has been largely left untended and in disrepair.  To the Sleestaks, their repository of  race knowledge -- the Library of Skulls -- might as well be magical.

Interestingly, there are Star Trek connections here beyond the presence of story editor Gerrold. Walter Koenig (Chekov) wrote one of the earliest and best episodes -- "The Stranger" -- which introduced Enik (Walker Edmiston), the Altrusian.  He was a time traveler from the land's more civilized  past; a character shocked by how primitive (and superstitious) his people had become.

Also, Herman Zimmerman -- who went on to design several Star Trek TV series and films -- served as the art director of Land of the Lost.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Zimmerman some years back, and he told me: "I built the opening miniature of the series: the rapids.; The show began with a group of young people, their father, and their raft, in Colorado, and I created this a large miniature, probably 25 to 35 feet long. I shot it on videotape with miniature figures and a life raft. And the letters that arose out of the mist and announced the title Land of the Lost? I carved those personally."

Zimmerman designed and created many of the mechanisms and strange devices of "Altrusia," which seemed based on a crystalline-technology.    "Saturday morning TV was not blessed with much money, so we built all the Sleestak caves out of heavy-duty tin foil," he also reported.  "A good bit of my time was spent repairing holes in the foil when someone leaned against it and tore it open."

And yet despite the grievously low budget, there remains great visual consistency to the world of Altrusia, as you will hopefully detect from the selection of photos below.  From the miniatures to the live action sets, from matte painting to the props, Altrusia seemed like a real living place...a place you could reach out to touch and explore.  It's amazing how far that "tin foil" goes when creative minds are at work; creative minds determined not to talk down to children.

I've always maintained that at its heart, Land of the Lost offers a powerful environmental message.  Frequently, the various races inhabiting Altrusia (Human, Sleestak and Pakuni) must work together to maintain the balance of the environment so that life there is beneficial for all the species.  The series goes to great lengths to depict how in a single eco-system, all life-forms are intimately interconnected. 

For instance, in one episode, Sleestak attempt to modify Altrusia to exist in perpetual night, so they can hunt for the nocturnal Altrusian moths which fertilize their eggs.  The Sleestak neglect to remember that in the coldness of perpetual night, the moths will die from the low temperatures.

Several episodes of Land of the Lost deal with the "natural" mechanisms of Altrusia that cause an environmental imbalance.  The land seems to get an "irregular heart beat" in "One of Our Pylons is Missing."  Devices called "Skylons" warn of weather anomalies in "Skylons" and "Hurricane."  And so on. 

If only on Earth, it were as easy to correct such problems of environmental imbalance.  If only a re-shuffling of a planetary "matrix table" that could set everything right...

Anyway, here are some photos that reveal the lost world of Altrusia, one of sci-fi television's most unique but memorable destinations.

The Lost City of Altrusia, after the fall of civilization.

An Altrusian "maghetti," a kind of divining rod for locating time doors.

From "Album," a time-door.  Lots of mist in Altrusia.

An Altrusian Pylon catches the attention of Grumpy, The T-Rex.


The beating heart of the Land of the Lost/Altrusia.

A more advanced Altrusian matrix table? Mysterious tech from "The Musician."

More Altrusian architecture; from "After Shock."

Altrusia's repository of Knowlwedge: The Library of the Skulls.

An Altrusian Matrix-table (interior Pylon).

An "ancient" Altrusian guardian.

An Altrusian spirit dwells inside a Pylon ("The Possession").

The Altrusian city before the fall of civilization.

From the Archive: Sci-Tech #1: "The Cage" Edition

 The mission of these "Sci-tech" posts is to gaze at the technology/production design of popular cult-tv series and films over the decades. 

After all, film and television are visual media, and one reason we enjoy these cult TV shows (even ones that have been around for decades...) involves the look of the program in question.  

Many of us are science fiction TV/film fans in the first place because we appreciate the imaginative, or speculative hardware of these futuristic productions.

Given the importance and prominence that Star Trek has in our culture today -- the origination point for cell phone designs, perhaps? -- I thought we would take a gander today, for our first such Sci-Tech post, at Starfleet technology as envisioned by "The Cage" all the way back in 1964. 

One of the things I have always admired about Star Trek is that the universe imagined by Gene Roddenberry boasts a distinctive history and feel; and this "unaired" original pilot is a prime example of that aspect of the series.  

Later used in "The Menagerie," the bulk of this episode's footage displays Starfleet technology as it was before Captain Kirk assumed command of the starship Enterprise.  Years earlier, in fact.

But what remains amazing to me is that the tech of "The Cage" -- while futuristic -- nonetheless looks  somehow less futuristic than Kirk's Enterprise.  The view screen on Pike's Enterprise is smaller, for instance.  Then there are these goose-neck intercom transmitters everywhere on Pike's starship.  Overall --- in general -- the equipment in "The Cage" appears bulkier, heavier.

You can even see inside the transparent communicator's circuitry in several shots, a touch done away with for the more familiar communicators of the series. 

And -- I love it -- Starfleet is apparently not yet "paperless" here, as you'll see in one shot of the bridge's science station.

You'll also notice there was far less color on the Enterprise in "The Cage" than in the series proper.  Here, almost everything is shaded metallic gray and blue.  There's also more architectural "noise" on the ship too -- pillars surrounding the table area of the briefing room, etc.  Captain Pike's cabin (not pictured) has this weird low ceiling, maybe some kind of lighting apparatus...

Call me a heretic, but I rather enjoy this "busier" approach to production design and 23rd century starship technology.  Somehow, the Enterprise of "The Cage" feels more like a real working ship than some later renditions of the starship. 

So to start us off on "Sci Tech", here's a look back at the distinctive "sci-tech" of "The Cage," from 1964. 

The transparent communicator, bristling with visible circuitry.

Gooseneck monitor screen.

Starfleet is still using printers.
The science station, under red alert lighting, with gooseneck monitor and printer.
An early, smaller and more "rounded" viewscreen.
An early Enterprise schematic.  Notice the preponderance of blues and blacks here.
There's ore visual "clutter" in this version of the briefing room.  Notice the pillars bracketing the room.
Mr. Spock uses an entirely different-looking type of computer interface.
The original transporter room.
The transporter controls, replete with goose neck screens.  Notice too the "techs" wearing jumpsuits instead of standard issue Starfleet uniforms.
The Enterprise brings its power to bear on Talos IV with a laser cannon.

The Films of 1982: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Imagine if you will, June 4, 1982, a Friday in which two new films open at the local cinema: Poltergeist and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. 

How could you possibly choose which to see first? 

 If you were a Star Trek fan, that question was easily answered, I suppose.  Today, both films are considered classics (though of different genres...) and even more so, The Wrath of Khan remains the best-regarded of eleven franchise feature films.

Described in simple terms, Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has endured as such a popular film (and as such good Star Trek to boot) for thirty years because -- at its beating heart -- it concerns the psychology of two great leaders; two larger-than-life men who embark upon very different paths in life. 

One man, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) exemplifies experience and, through his friends and crew mates like Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), also wisdom.  

When Kirk doesn't acknowledge his experience, his "first best destiny" as a starship commander, he fails.  When he remembers "why things work on a starship" -- such as relying on the advice of rational Mr. Spock -- he succeeds.  It's that simple.

The other great leader is Khan (Ricardo Montalban), a "prince" of superior resources, vast intelligence...and a soul twisted and corrupted by years and decades of obsession. 

Khan is a mirror-image of Kirk.  His ego and intelligence may be considerable, but he has little practical experience captaining a starship, and -- unlike Kirk -- he explicitly ignores the advice of his people, namely the wise-beyond-his-years Joaquin (Judson Scott).  Khan is Kirk out-of-balance, only with ten-times Kirk's strength and an unquenchable compulsion for vengeance.

Thus The Wrath of Khan is essentially a 105-minute showdown between these two men, and a sustained, even intimate duel between their contrasting, mirror-image personal characteristics.  The spaceships and other high-tech trappings are but a colorful backdrop for what is, in essence, a very old human story. 

Above, I noted that both of these men are "larger-than-life."  Indeed, Kirk and Khan might even be described as paragons of  the human animal, and the way that the film mythologizes them, appropriately, is to connect both Kirk and Khan to the annals of human history, specifically to great literature of years and centuries past. 

Producer Harve Bennett has termed this quality Nicholas Meyer's "literate" approach to the Star Trek universe, and he's dead right. 

Again and again Meyer transmits to us important information about Kirk and Khan (and their lives) by contextualizing them in terms of great works of art such as John Milton's Paradise Lost, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and, of course, Herman Melville's Moby Dick
Khan's light reading: Moby Dick, King Lear and Paradise Lost.

These particular books actually appear in the film themselves, in characters' hands and upon bookshelves. 

Passages from these books are quoted regularly by Kirk and Khan too. 

So, this is a future world deliberately linked to the present, and to the past as well.   Past is prologue,  history is real, and art tells us important things about ourselves and our human nature.

By carefully and purposefully forging this connection to the human experience as recounted through literature, The Wrath of Khan provides the audience -- citizens of the twentieth and twenty-first century -- an acute understanding of Kirk and Khan,  these "men of the future" (of the 23rd century). 

Thus these characters are not remote strangers to us. Rather they are part of a continuum of human experience (there's that word again...), and so we can ably identify with them.  We all know about Joseph Campbell and "The Hero's Journey," a template which so many films have adopted by now that ennui has become the inescapable result.  I wrote some about that here on the blog, yesterday.

He doesn't need to do that.

Star Trek II also takes full advantage, for the first time in the franchise's history, that audiences have already lived a "TV" life with these particular characters.  Where Star Trek: The Motion Picture was bombastic, colossal in scope, and in some senses remote in terms of human passions, The Wrath of Khan nimbly plays on our memory of the TV series (of Khan, in particular), and also our memories of 78 adventures shared between Kirk and Spock. 

It's a difference in modus operandi.  Star Trek wanted to be a considered movie material so badly that the first film was called, portentously, "The Motion Picture" and everything (sets, miniatures, uniforms) had to be recreated to seem bigger and more impressive than before.  The Motion Picture didn't try to pretend that Star Trek (the series) didn't exist , but nor did it play on the most abundant strength of the original series: the dynamic, warm character interplay.  The Wrath of Khan rectifies that error.

And the critics noticed. 

Richard Schickel at Time insightfully noted that "there is something comfortable, even old shoeish about the new film, a sense appropriate to its theme of coming to terms with middle age, that all aboard are pleasurably rediscovering their best selves."  Variety noted accurately that Wrath of Khan was "closer in spirit to the popular TV series than to its big budget predecessor," while The New York Times' Janet Maslin got right to the point, tagging Star Trek II as a "sequel that's worth its salt."

On a personal note, I admire Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for its comparisons to great literature and its vivid connections to the original series, but also for the noble undertaking of admitting the patently obvious: time has passed.  Hollywood is the place of fantasy and magic.  And yet  one reality Tinseltown can't escape or deny is that we are all aging. 

Many franchise films attempt to ignore this fact, much to their own detriment.  Star Trek II is a bold film because the creators have decided to incorporate the aging of Captain Kirk and his crew into the equation.  The Search for Spock traveled even further down the road with this idea, with director Nimoy obsessively focusing on middle-aged faces...and finding much beauty and charm in them. 

But Star Trek II initiated that conceit, and a noticeable shift occurred in the franchise because of it.  The characters  now viewed themselves as older and wiser -- experienced -- and the delightful thing about that was that we had shared at least 78 out of those character-building "treks" with them.  The Wrath of Khan, in some sense, concerns a middle-aged Captain Kirk coming to terms with the fact that he is different than he was during the five year voyage.  He doesn't have as much stamina, he isn't as physically strong...but in his new status, he excavates new strength of character (in his experience...) that also contributes towards his best destiny as a starship commander.

It was the Best of Times, it was the Worst of Times: The Heroic Poem of Admiral James T. Kirk.

In the case of Kirk, Meyer connects the great starship captain to a dozen or so Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester written between 1937 and 1967,  and also Charles Dickens' 1859 chronicle of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities

In terms of universe and set-up, the Forester novels are likely of paramount importance.  Gene Roddenberry always stated that the tales of Captain Horatio Hornblower, an English sea captain, were instrumental in the creation of Kirk. 

To wit, Kirk and Hornblower share many common individual traits. They are both part of a benevolent military hierarchy, either the English Royal Navy or Starfleet Command.  Both are also commanding officers: "men alone" making decisions of life and death on a dangerous terrain, whether the ocean or outer space.
Seizing on the Hornblower allusion, Meyers presents Star Trek fans with the most nautical, jaunty version of the outer space mythos yet presented.   More than ever, Kirk plays the role of introverted Hornblower in The Wrath of Khan, proving an "unhappy and lonely" man with an overweening, overdeveloped "sense of duty." 

Specifically, Kirk -- now in middle age -- has accepted a post as planet-based admiral, an act of loyalty to his command structure that clashes with his personal (and sublimated) desire to once again command a starship.  "Spare me your notions of poetry Doctor, we all have our assigned duties,"  Kirk says to Dr. McCoy.

Throughout the film, the audience sees Kirk fighting this interior battle.  Should he put the needs of the command structure (Starfleet) ahead of his own personal needs (to fulfill his "first best destiny" as Enterprise's captain)?  He tries to convince himself he should, largely using his advancing age as a rationalization or excuse. 

"Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young," he tells Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) after the Kobayashi Maru simulation.

McCoy accurately notes that Kirk is "hiding" behind "rules and regulations" and during the events of the film, Kirk comes to understand that his experience is indeed something that is needed at sea, or rather in the final frontier.  His experience is the key to defeating a menace like Khan.

If the Hornblower saga provides Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan its nautical coloring (down to the use of a bosun in some sequences, and shots of torpedoes launching from the ship...), A Tale of Two Cities provides the majority of the film's useful information about the enduring Kirk/Spock friendship.

In A Tale of Two Cities, two men -- Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay -- become intertwined against the volatile backdrop of the French Revolution.  Literary critics have theorized that Carton and Darnay actually form part of one larger whole: the psyche even, perhaps, of author Dickens.  In the end, Carton -- a man who has wasted his life -- goes to the guillotine and his death for "the better man," Darnay. 
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock is the Carton figure, going to his noble death so that Kirk -- the Darnay figure -- may live on.  Now, of course, Spock has not lived a wasted life like his literary predecessor.  Spock is a brilliant, wonderful being, no doubt. 

And yet, examined more closely, we can detect that Spock has, in some fascinating sense, "wasted" at least one important gift: his human heritage.  It was not until The Motion Picture and his encounter with V'Ger that Spock came to understand the benefits and wonders of human emotion and human friendship.   All his life, he has buried this important part of himself. 

"Jim, I should have known..." Spock admits, lamenting V'ger's inability to understand "this simple feeling" (friendship).
A Tale of Two Cities: Message, Spock?

So no, Spock's life is not a waste in the sense that Carton's surely is, but Spock has not exactly lived a full "human" life, either. 

Accordingly, both Carton and Spock sacrifice their lives for friends (Darnay and Kirk), and -- in that final act of martyrdom -- "redeem" themselves. 

Carton saves a better man; and Spock makes a "human" decision to save his eminently worthy shipmates, and specifically Kirk.  In both cases, the decision to die a noble, selfless death actually defines these flawed men.  Sacrifice is the act which allows them both to transcend their mortal errors.

It should be noted, as well, that A Tale of Two Cities was originally titled "Recalled to Life" and ends with Carton living on, but only in spiritual form...envisioning a future in which his noble sacrifice bears remarkable personal fruit (the birth of Darnay's son with Lucie.) 

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock -- in some spiritual form (his katra...) -- goes on too.  He mind-melds with Dr. McCoy and is literally, in The Search for Spock, "recalled to life."  In more earthbound terms, it is not hard to imagine Spock's death as the impetus that brings Kirk together with his love, Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and his son, David (Merrit Buttrick).  Of course, it didn't quite turn out that way in the end, but as the events of The Wrath of Khan unfold -- before sequelitiss set in -- it was certainly a valid speculation

But for the here and now of Star Trek II, McCoy, in the film's coda, suggests Spock's spiritual immortality.  "He's not really dead, you know.  As long as we remember him."   And, of course, Kirk makes the comparison to A Tale of Two Cities explicit. He quotes Carton's last words: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." 

That Spock narrates Star Trek's famous introduction as a coda in The Wrath of Khan -- from beyond the grave apparently -- further enhances the idea of a "spiritual" Spock living beyond the material world (as was the case with Carton) and continuing in some "other" form.

Again, literary scholars have frequently suggested that Darnay/Carton form a complete psyche, and thus the basis for Dickens' "way" of viewing the world around him.  Likewise, Star Trek scholars have suggested the same thing about Kirk/Spock and also about Kirk/Spock/McCoy.  Specifically that -- taken as a whole -- the perspectives of Kirk and Spock (or of the aforementioned triumvirate) offer viewers a complete entity (Id/Ego/Superego) through which the world might be perceived and insightfully understood.
At film's end, a "lens" (representing Spock) is shattered.

In one of Wrath of Khan's many beautiful touches, Kirk is given in  a pair of 400-year old spectacles, or eyeglasses by Dr. McCoy, and we eventually see (after Khan's defeat) one "lens" shattered, broken. 

This is plainly because Spock is dead, and one of our ways of "perceiving" the universe -- one part of the Kirk/Spock psyche -- has been destroyed.  We can no longer "see" through that eye.  Kirk's glasses -- our glasses -- are damaged, and that's a great, symbolic touch on the part of the filmmakers.

In terms of specifics, Star Trek II is also book-ended by elements of A Tale of Two Cities, with the opening and closing passages of Dickens' book proving crucial elements of the thematic undercurrents. Near the beginning of the film, Spock gives Kirk A Tale of Two Cities for a birthday present, and Kirk reads aloud the first line.  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Spock's Sacrifice: It is a far better thing I do...
At film's end, as Kirk contemplates his friend's noble death/sacrifice, he recites aloud  the closing line of A Tale of Two Cities.  "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.  It is a far, far better rest I go to, than I have ever known."

Spock's sacrifice has thus resolved two problems in the narrative. 

First, it has resolved Kirk's existential crisis, which is reflected in the opening, introductory quote "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," and given him a new lease on life. 

And secondly, Spock's sacrifice has resolved Spock's lifetime crisis, the fact that he "wasted" his life on the Vulcan way, instead of fully embracing his human heritage.  As I noted above, his final sacrifice (echoing clearly Carton's) erases the mistakes of his life span.

In life, Spock was always forced to hide and cover his human half.  He could not rest for fear of being  discovered (and taunted...) by Dr. McCoy and others.  Every day, Spock had to fear  that his cool Vulcan mask would slip and he would be exposed.  What the last line of A Tale of Two Cities suggests is that in embracing humanity -- and in embracing sacrifice/death -- Spock has done "a far better thing" than he ever did.  In death, he can finally find a "better rest" than he ever knew in worrisome life.

Kirk recognizes this fact, at least on some level.  During his eulogy of Spock, he notes that of all the souls he encountered in his travels, Spock's was the most...human, a verbal recognition of Spock's apotheosis.

Surely, this is the most elegant and beautiful use of literature in a science fiction epic yet put to celluloid.  We learn everything we need to know about Spock and Kirk, and where they are emotionally and personally in their lives at this point through the book-end quotes from A Tale of Two Cities. 

Because film is primarily a visual medium, Nicholas Meyer also utilizes some terrific film grammar to make the point about Spock's sacrifice bringing a second life to his beloved friend 

In one instance, Meyer artfully cross-cuts between the birth of the Genesis Planet (forming in what's left of the Mutara Nebula) and Kirk desperately running through the corridors of his starship to say his final farewells to his old friend.  As Kirk's eulogy for Spock notes, the half-Vulcan's death "takes place in the shadow of new life." The lovely, if haunting images show us that dichotomy.

Yet it is not merely Genesis itself that represents this new life.  Spock's sacrifice is the thing that gives Kirk his second lease on life.  After Spock's sacrifice, Kirk feels "young."  He is no longer worrying about his life that "could have been...but wasn't" (as he declares with resignation in the Genesis Cave.).  Contrarily, he is musing on Spock's axiom that "there are" -- in life -- "always possibilities."

In other words, in direct defiance of Star Trek's TV-styled origins, Captain Kirk's viewpoint has changed and evolved.  He has suddenly -- for the first time in his life -- "faced death" instead of "cheating his way" out of death.  Spock has made Kirk realize just how valuable his life is; how valuable his remaining years truly are.  By facing death and acknowledging his mortality, Kirk is in a position now to no longer fear his own mortality.  At last...he can live again. 

Once more, I should stress that this realization would not be nearly as meaningful or resonant without the guidepost of Dickens' work; without the comparison of Kirk and Spock to Darnay and Carton and their own literary journey.

Better to Reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven: The Tragedy of Khan Noonien Singh

Better to Reign in Hell (on Ceti Alpha V) than serve in the Federation.
We have seen how Admiral Kirk in The Wrath of Khan is tied explicitly to the literature of Dickens and Forester.  

His opposite number, Khan, is also defined largely in terms of literature in the film.

The first such work to consider is Paradise Lost, written by John Milton in 1667. 

Mimicking the structure of Virgil's Aeneid, Paradise Lost's  numerous "books" (chapters, essentially) concern the War in Heaven and the expulsion of man from the Garden of Eden (a topic also covered in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).

"Space Seed," the Star Trek episode that introduced Khan (Montalban), ended with the former tyrant happy to go into exile, far away from the "paradise" or Heaven-like utopia of the United Federation of Planets.  Specifically, Khan asked Kirk if he had ever read Milton.  After Khan's departure, Kirk quoted Lucifer's famous line from Milton -- upon being cast into the fiery lake of Tartarus -- that it was "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan dramatically furthers the comparison between Khan and Milton's fallen angel, Lucifer.   Because of a catastrophic orbital shift, Ceti Alpha V has literally become a Hell -- an arid, hot desert world populated not by demons, but "monsters" like the Ceti Eel. 

If you recall your Milton, you know that Lucifer was cast to Hell in the first place for attempting an insurrection in Heaven, and that was also Khan's crime in "Space Seed:" attempting to take command of the starship Enterprise. Kirk (as God?) cast Khan down to Hell in response to this act.

Explain it to them! Khan is Ahab and Lucifer.

Of course, that banishment was neither the end of Khan nor the end of Lucifer. 

In Book 2 of Paradise Lost, Lucifer and his "rebel angels" (the makeshift, genetically-engineered crew of the captured Reliant in this case) learn of a new world, a new Eden being formed exlusively for man. 

Once more, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan strongly reflects this idea, as Khan and his rebel followers depart from Hell (Ceti Alpha V)and make for a new "paradise" created by the Federation. This new "world" is the not-yet formed Genesis planet, a miracle of sorts -- no less than "the power of creation" -- which promises an end to "cosmic problems" such as "hunger" and "over-population." 

Khan wants a stake in that new Heaven.   He wants Genesis.  Whereas Spock's sacrifice gives Kirk a new beginning, Khan seems to believe that the Genesis Device can literally give him a similar second chance, an opportunity to rule a world of his own making.

On a general level then, Khan is to Lucifer as Kirk is to Hornblower.  Khan and Satan are both tragic who have lost everything.  They are both depicted as charismatic, magnetic personalities who are highly narcissistic and overconfident. 

It is also frequently stated that Hell is so painful a place because those doomed to eternity  there must cope with the enduring "absence of God."  Khan seems to bear a grudge against Captain Kirk, similarly, because of Kirk's absence over fifteen years.  "Admiral Kirk never bothered to check on our progess," he notes with anger.

In very specific terms, Khan is also a reflection of the Captain Ahab character in Herman Melville's great American novel of 1851, Moby Dick

As you will recall, that book told the story of a wanderer named Ishmael, and his fateful voyage aboard the whaling ship, Pequod.  The vessel was captained by Ahab, an obsessed man who had lost one of his very limbs (a leg...) to his hated  nemesis, a white whale.  As Ishmael soon learned, Ahab was obsessed with hunting down and delivering his revenge upon that the cost of everything else.

On no less than three occasions in Star Trek II, Khan recites or echoes dialogue from Moby Dick, specifically Ahab's dialogue. 

In the first instance, Khan  charts his obsession.  "I'll chase him around the Moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom, and around Perdition's flames before I give him up," he tells Joaquin.

In Moby Dick, in Chapter 36, Ahab had similarly said of Moby Dick: "I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round Perdition's flames before I give him up."

No further explanation needed there.

In the second instance, Khan spies the Enterprise (limping away to the Mutara Nebula) and shouts.  "There she is!  There she is!  Not so wounded as we were led to believe...

In this case, Khan's excited utterance is a deliberate echo of Ahab's more ocean-bound exclamation "Thar she blows! Thar she blows!"  In both cases, the point of obsession (Enterprise or white whale) is visually recognized, and the final pursuit engaged.

Finally, upon Khan's looming death, he willfully quotes Ahab's last, vile words in Melville's novel.  "To the last, I grapple with thee; from Hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." 

Even with death approaching, Khan cannot cut loose his obsession with Kirk; as Ahab went down forever attached to his quarry, the white whale.

What's so interesting about Khan, however, is that -- unlike Kirk, perhaps -- he quotes literature that provides a pretty negative didactic example.  Yet he doesn't learn from it. 

If Khan truly sees himself as an Ahab figure (and certainly, both quotes lifted  from Ahab suggest that reality), then he must realize that, in real life, he has been "cast" as the villain.  That's why I note above that this movie is, after a fashion, the "tragedy"of Khan Noonien Singh.  Khan knows literature well (including the Shakespeare tragedy, King Lear as well as Moby Dick), yet he is unable to escape from the orbit of that literature; from the role that fate has designated for him.  I submit this is so because of guilt.  Khan must hate himself for the death of his wife almost as much as he hates Kirk.

Khan would have done well to listen to Joaquin: to take Genesis and start a new life.  But -- like Ahab -- Khan cannot get over his obsession (and his guilt?).  The result of Khan's mono-maniacal compulsion to pursue a course of vengeance is the death of all his people on Reliant.   This is not a man you would want to follow, despite some attractive personal and leadership qualities. 

So, I submit, Khan knows he is a Shakespearean, Melvillian villain.  Literature tells him so

As the viewer contextualizes Khan as Ahab, so does Khan do the exact same thing.  He is willfully and deliberately playing the role of villain in the situation, invoking Hell and even Satan for his cause.  He did the same thing in "Space Seed," comparing himself to Milton's Lucifer.  Even as we contextualize Khan in terms of literature's great villains, the character sees himself the same way.

We Learn by Doing. Or You Have to Learn Why Things Work on a Starship

Defeating Khan is an exercise in experience.
In regards to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Sean Connery's return to the role of Bond in Never Say Never Again (1983), I wrote a lot about the idea of heroes like Kirk and 007 entering their later years. 

Some of the historical context for that idea came out of what was happening in the American public square. 

In the early 1980s, America was led by the oldest President in our history, Ronald Reagan.  But the same era witnessed the ascent of an affluent youth culture and new modes of expression in everything from movies (with the advent of PG-13) to television with the birth of the music video "clip" on MTV.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan reflects this uneasiness and tension between age (and wisdom?) with callow youth by landing a "trained crew" (our beloved Star Trek heroes) back aboard the Enterprise, but with a trainee crew, a group of fresh-faced kits who -- as of yet -- may not be able to "steer," in Kirk's words. 

This is the Star Trek movie, we must recall, in which we first met Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley) and Kirk's hot-blooded young son, David Marcus (Merrit Butrick).  Before The Next Generation, they represented the next generation.

Accordingly, much of the film involves the idea that with age and experience come wisdom.  This notion is repeated again and again in The Wrath of Khan, from Kirk's reminder to Saavik in the turbo-lift that "we learn by doing," to Spock's nudging of Kirk at Enterprise's departure that "for everything there is a first time."

In the crisis with Khan -- when Saavik professes confusion at Kirk's strategy to lower Reliant's shields -- Kirk admonishes the young officer that she must learn "why" things work on a starship. This is, again, another way of stating that experience is valuable. 

And yet the conflict or tension with "youth" is present and acknowledged too.   Kirk complains after the engagement with Khan that he must "be going senile," and tells Saavik to go on "quoting regulations."

In other words, Kirk may have experience, but he hasn't yet regained his confidence. 

That comes later

Finally, Kirk ultimately defeats Khan because of his experience. Spock provides his captain a cunning analysis, the bread-crumbs of a winning strategy.  Spock notes of Khan that the villain is "intelligent, but not experienced" and that his pattern (in command of Reliant) "suggests two dimensional thinking."

In other words, Kirk may be growing old, and he may need glasses (he's allergic to Retinax...), but he can still beat a physically stronger man with a "superior intellect" by remembering his history; by using his experience.  In 1980s America this was not a small thing.  People accused the young MTV generation of having a "short attention span," for instance.  And yet our senior-citizen-aged President outmaneuvered the Soviet Union ("The Evil Empire") and helped to initiate the end of the Cold War.

In some ways, both the inevitable (and desirable) passing of the torch and the value of experience play out in Star Trek II. 

Without, hopefully, sounding nasty or elitist, I sometimes worry that folks like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so much  for the wrong reasons, for "short attention span" reasons..   Or maybe I should just say, for shallow ones.

You know, it has space battles in it, where The Motion Picture did not.  There's also a charismatic villain in the film, unlike V'Ger in The Motion Picture.   

And truthfully, you can see how the Khan storyline, action and villain have been regurgitated unnecessarily in the Star Trek mythos repeatedly since this film proved so successful. 

Later on, Khan became the prototype for Soran, R'ualfo,  Shinzon, and Nero.  And like their illustrious predecessor, each of these pretenders to his throne came bearing a cosmic WMD (the Ribbon, tharalon weapons, Red Matter, etc.)

Truthfully, you can even watch Wrath of Khan today, and detect some of its flaws, too.  For instance, the Reliant goes to the wrong planet, mistaking Ceti Alpha V for Ceti Alpha VI. 

Talk about sloppy mission preparation!

Then there's the fact that Mr. Chekov never actually met Khan in "Space Seed," the sometimes oppressive use of TMP stock footage in terms of the special effects, and the idea that device meant to re-shape planets can actually -- absent the resources of a world -- create one.

You can argue, debate, and retcon these points to your heart's content. I know I do.  But in the final analysis a movie shouldn't have to be explained, or ever appear, on the surface, internally inconsistent.

Still, none of these issues makes the movie a failure in any way, though I always have to laugh when people nitpick The Final Frontier to death ("they got to the center of the galaxy in hours!") but then turn around and act as though Wrath of Khan is immaculate perfection in terms of technicalities.

Getting controversy out of the way: Aren't you dead?

Yet I admire The Wrath of Khan deeply and thoroughly  The death of Spock (and his goodbye to Kirk), never fails to move me.  And heck yeah, the space battles are tense, viscerally-presented set-pieces 

I also enjoy how playful the movie is, down to its acknowledgment of the real-life context surrounding it (particularly the outcry over the death of Spock).  That controversy is joked about within the text of the film itself, and the air bleeds out of it; the balloon of apprehension knowingly burst. 

One line from Shatner and a delicious, raised eyebrow from Nimoy is all it takes:  "Aren't you dead?"

I also credit The Wrath of Khan for escaping the gravitational pull of TV-thinking.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture ended with, essentially, status quo.  As Harlan Ellison famously noted in his review of that film for Starlog, the human adventure wasn't beginning...the door got slammed on it.  The guest stars perished, but otherwise, the movie's climax took the leads back to square one.  It could have been an episode in an on-going series. 

With his diabolical, wonderful and artistic sensibilities, Meyers introduces blood, gore and most importantly, mortality to the mythos in a way not previously seen. Later franchise movies continued this process with the death of David and the destruction of the Enterprise.  But as a consequence of Meyer's aesthetic sensibilities, while watching The Wrath of Khan one clearly gets the idea that the stakes are a lot higher than ever before.  I remember a review of the film stating that Khan attempted "universal armageddon" and "nearly got away with it too."  Indeed.

Since the movie, by and large, concerns Kirk's realization that he has never faced death (and never experienced the freedom that comes after facing death and putting mortality aside...), this is an appropriate aesthetic choice.  Blood spatter on Captain Kirk's uniform; an engineering trainee burned and scarred; a team of scientists hanged from a control room roof, their throats slit.  It's almost grim. 

Finally, my favorite, purely cinematic moment of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan involves Kirk's realization that there's no cheating death this time.  Meyer strings together a series of sequential zooms, to James Horner's expressive score, as Kirk asks "distance from Reliant," and Sulu -- hopelessly -- comments "we're not going to make it, are we?"

Without Spock's sacrifice, no.

That moment, with the zooms-to-close-up on Uhura, Chekov, Takei and Shatner, sells the threat in a palpable, cinematic fashion.   We have never seen such fear on the crew's faces.  We have never before experienced the team vetting a "no win scenario."  It's a beautifully orchestrated moment, and one rarely commented upon.  Meyer's insistence on blood, guts and mortality -- real stakes -- makes the moment all the more powerful.  We sense that this Star Trek movie plays for keeps.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is arguably the greatest Star Trek film ever made.  Perhaps it took the death of Spock, plus a strong thematic connection to our shared human experience-- our most prized literature -- to bring forth such extreme "life...from lifelessness."