Sunday, September 26, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

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 nearly thirty years because -- at its beating heart -- it concerns the psychology of two great leaders; two larger-than-life men who take 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," 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 a 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.

Delightfully, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan tweaks that approach.  Meyer's insistence on connecting Kirk and Khan to great literature simultaneously makes the characters sympathetic and recognizable, and elevates their tale to the realm of heroic poem.  But he doesn't walk us through all the stereotypes we now know by heart from Campbell.  He doesn't need to.

It's amazing to consider that The Wrath of Khan cost approximately one fourth of The Motion Picture (a film I resolutely admire, by the way), yet it is the lower-budged sequel that fans seem to consider "epic."  In large part this sense of grandeur is due to the explicit connections  Meyer makes with historical literature.

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

A heroic entrance.
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 introvered 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 being launched 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. 

"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 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, in a sense, 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." 

But for 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."  

Similarly, 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 sequels set in -- it was certainly a valid speculation.

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 forms a complete psyche, forms 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 a beautiful touch, Kirk is given in  a pair of 400-year old spectacles, or eyeglasses, by Dr. McCoy early in the film, 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.

In terms of specifics, Star Trek II is also book-ended by element 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.

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, 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.  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 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 (like 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 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 can not 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.

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 with 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.  In some ways, the 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, "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 in the text of the film itself, and the air bleeds out of it; the balloon of apprehension 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 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 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."


  1. I've been waiting for this one, John. Ever since you've started examining this series' films, I've been on the lookout for the most loved Star Trek film. You didn't disappoint, my friend. One great examination, including a fine look at its literary roots. I'm glad you gave it your typically critical look, including those aspects that don't quite jibe (I've seen Space Seed many times and Chekov is nowhere in sight).

    You're so correct how quickly and deftly Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan defused the Spock controversy. This was talked about by fans after it was leaked for a good bit before the film debuted in '82 (and some folk called for this movie to be boycotted). Many of those are likely now die-hards for this picture. ST II means that much for the faithful, currently.

    I think Spock's sacrifice is as you surmise. However, I also think it plays to the way Kirk commands his starship versus Khan's imperialistic tendencies. You could imagine someone in Kirk's command corp offering up their lives to save their teammates/friends. That loyalty is in itself an act of love. Though I've no doubt that Khan would order someone on his crew to their death to save the ship (and himself), there's no sense that Spock's initiative and independent sacrificial act has a basis among Khan's staff.

    Anyway, a wonderful review and analysis of this most excellent Star Trek film. Thanks very much for this, John.

  2. BTW, that is one great heroic silhouette deployed by director Meyer in the film (and by you in this review). Way to go!

  3. Le0pard13: Hello, my friend. I thought you would like that heroic silhouette of James T. Kirk(your photo essay on the subject of cinematic silhouettes was unforgettable...).

    I agree with everything you wrote about TWOK, and I appreciate you bringing up the idea of Kirk's crew vs. Khan's crew/because of their leadership qualities. Spock sacrificed himself...would Khan's people have willingly done the same? I think not.

    Great comments! Thank you for writing.

    All my best,

  4. Wow, this is like an extra-strength post! I was hoping you'd tackle this film at some point and you did not disappoint, JKM.

    I love that you went into detail about the references both overt and subtle to great works of literature. I think that's what I love most about this film is that it's steeped in the classic while still having some rousing ship battles and delicious scenery chewing by Shatner and Montalban. It just doesn't get much better than this in the STAR TREK universe for me.

    I also think that what does it for me is the baggage that Kirk and his crew have at this point. We've got the original series and the first film so we know these characters very well. We know what makes them tick and the film really plays on that and so we are immediately invested in their struggle and when Khan ambushes them and really hits them where it hurts it makes things that much more intense because so much is at stake. I never really get that in a lot of other TREK films but this feeling seems so much more palable in this film for some reason.

  5. Hi J.D.:

    Thank you for great comment!

    I agree that with the wind of the original series at our backs, and with Nicholas Meyer proving via the blood/guts/battles that Khan's game is for keeps, Wrath of Khan feels more immediate and dangerous than some Trekian efforts (particularly of the Next Gen variety, I might add...).

    The stakes indeed feel high. The movie indeed "hits" the characters where it hurts (that's a great way of putting it), and the movie just works. The references overt and subtle allow us to contextualize this duel between Kirk and Khan between heroic poem and tragedy, I think.

    I'm lookng forward to the Carpenter-a-thon next week!


  6. John.

    Wonderful and literary analysis as one should expect.

    Khan and Kirk. The Ying and Yang, speaking of balance.

    I have read in some books that Meyer was specifically shooting for the nautical look on the crew of Star Trek. This visual cue suggested Moby Dick in a subtle way. In fact, when the concept came to go this route there were some that were not overly enthused about the move away from the original look, despite not being utilized in ST: The Motion Picture.

    You use terrific imagery to capture the literary feel of Star Trek II and how this story is presented in a classical context despite being in space. Nice.

    By the way, your admiration for the Original first film has me intrigued. I'm sad to say that II've never seen that one. Is that crazy? I've seen them all, but there was so much negative surrounding the original it never became a priority and just slipped off the radar for years.

    So, that final act of STII is striking, beautiful, emotional. Thank God they gave that to us on film before it was too late. What a moment.

    I love your point about not being dead as long we remember. Isn't that powerful? The power of our memories. It is true. It's like when people say how would you like to be remembered when you die and my only thought is that I hope that I am remembered. That's all.

    Watching Deep Space Nine's pilot really taps into this theme. Commander Sisko attempts to explain he lives in a linear timeline to beings who live a non-linear existence. But Sisko keeps recalling the death of his wife and the beings can't get passed that. They tel him, "You exist there." And he realizers too, he is very much, not only reliving his past over and over, unable to let go, but a kind of prisoner of his memories. Aren't we all?

    Memories have such a powerful influence both positive and negative. STII- STIII is a great example as you put it.

    Finally, and this is a riff on something similar I have read in books, but I do enjoy the fact STII unabashedly embraces an aging crew. The aging process is not shunned. In the first film visually, the makers were aware of their aging crew, but never really touch on this fact. STII is unafraid to accept the process, accept mortality.

    Anyway, your comaprison of Khan and Kirk through literature is thorough and fascinating. I loved the level of detail and example you offer. I wrote a review of this film on my own site in Feb 09, but this is superior in its literary examination. And Boy, you are so right, Khan is a tragic figure, because he knows it.

    Well John, you can certainly love STII because it offers the perfect melding of all elements needed for a great film. When you think about it, 2,3 & 4 serve up some powerful endings.

    You have eloquently covered all the bases my friend. Thank you.

  7. Sci-Fi Fanatic,

    Thank you for a beautiful comment, and your valuable insights, my friend. I agree with every thought you expressed.

    Star Trek II works so ably because mortality and aging -- as you note -- are an essential part of the tapestry.

    I'm so glad that this movie didn't either a.) re-cast younger actors or b.) make pretend that the crew is "forever young" (although in our hearts, of course, we feel that way).

    Acknowledging mortality and the end of life, and squaring that circle with the thought that immortality rests in remembrance...well, it's just beautiful, isn't it? Very poetic; very elegant.

    Also, knowing your love of Space:1999, I do highly recommend Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It is a feast for the eyes and indeed the brain, if not the heart.

    TMP aims for a cerebral, 2001: A Space Odyssey feel, but also has a wonderfully emotional moment with Spock in which he registers his friendship with Kirk, and the value of human emotions.

    Seriously, you would love the film. In some ways it is the most cinematic of the feature films, and certainly it features the most dazzling production values/visual effects. The opener with three Klingon ships destroyed by a space cloud is stunning. Over thirty years later, my Dad -- by no means a "Trekker" -- still talks about the visualization of this opener (with a great accompanying score by Jerry Goldsmith).

    I remember Roger Ebert's words of wisdom on TMP: "Just sit back and let the movie give you a good time." Seriously, just go with that approach, and you won't be disappointed.

    Thank you for a wonderful comment, and now I must check your archives for that Wrath of Khan review!

    Your brother in blogging,

  8. Grayson5:18 PM

    Great review, John! And very insightful comments, everybody.

    It is funny that I never thought about it until now, but even the color of the Enterprise is a grayish-white. This is very similar in color to the white whale (sperm whale) from Moby Dick.

    I always found it interesting that both ST:TMP and ST:TWOK have Kirk starting off as a planet-based Admiral. Although it is not really part of Star Trek canon, I always have speculated that Kirk and the crew had a series of missions after the events of TMP but before those of TWOK. One then can think of the real ten years between the end of Star Trek on TV and TMP as taking place between TMP and TWOK.

    On the special features of my The Day the Earth Stood Still DVD there is something very interesting - Nicholas Meyer and Robert Wise jointly provide audio commentary for the film. It is a great conversation but unfortunately they do not mention their time on Star Trek. Earlier this year I got to ask Nick Meyer a question during a radio interview and I found out that the conversation was recorded for the LaserDisc release of TDTEST. As best as I can tell from info on the Internet the LaserDisc came out in 1988. Alas, Meyer didn't recall them ever discussing their different approaches to Star Trek.

    (Meyer's first name is mispelled on my DVD copy. According to the interview is included on the recent Blu-ray release.)

    Sorry for getting a little off topic!

    All the best,


  9. A great post. Some comments:

    1."connect both Kirk and Khan to the annals of human history, specifically to great literature of years and centuries past.":STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES was a deeply literary show, as evidenced by a random sampling of episode titles:









    Sadly, this attempt to convey the drama of the future via the tropes of the past seems to have diminished with subsequent iterations of STAR TREK, albeit with certain notable exceptions (e.g., the brilliant use of the Gilgamesh myth in DARMOK, the Melville quote in FIRST CONTACT, etc). J.J Abrams' STAR TREK (which I enjoyed) stands as the culmination/nadir of this trend, as the closest thing to a classical reference that he was able to conjure forth was a clip of the BEASTIE BOYS.

    2. Melville Quotes in WRATH OF KHAN: Khan actually precedes his "round the moons of Nibia" with another Melville quote. When he is asked why he intends to pursue Kirk, he says that "He tasks me, and I shall have him," a clear riff on Ahab's "He tasks me."

    3. "If Khan truly sees himself as an Ahab figure..., then he must realize that, in life, he has been "cast" as the villain."

    "He is willfully and deliberately playing the role of the villain in the situation.": A fascinating analysis, but I am not sure that I concur. Although the audience is certainly meant to link Khan to the villainous aspects of Ahab and Lucifer, I think that Khan himself is interpreting these characters in the Romantic manner of Byron and Shelley, who saw Lucifer as a heroic rebel against a tyrannical God. Bearing in mind Khan's strong tendency towards self-aggrandizement (recall how, in SPACE SEED, he spoke of the Eugenics Wars as a grand crusade to unify humanity), it is more likely that he sees himself as a Byronic hero than as a straightforward villain. Or, to put it another way, perhaps Khan is carrying Harold Bloom's criticism on into the 23rd century.

    4. "regurgitated unnecessarily in the Star Trek mythos repeatedly since this film proved so successful": I've often felt that WRATH OF KHAN is to STAR TREK what GOLDFINGER IS TO JAMES BOND: a brilliant film that, through its very aesthetic excellence, functions as a kind of cinematic incubus over the series, preventing subsequent creators from attempting anything new.

  10. Syon: A brilliant comment here, and I find myself agreeing on all points.

    1. The Original Series was highly literary -- with Conscience of the King proving almost an hour-long celebration of the Bard. Wonderful. And a good point (thank you for enumerating the specifics in terms of episode titles.).

    2. Thanks for pointing out another Ahab moment.

    3. I really like your interpretation here, that Khan views himself as a Byronic hero rather than a villain. Nice...I can buy into that, and you're right -- it fits the character history we see from "Space Seed."

    4. Yes, yes, yes. The comparison to Goldfinger is smart, I think. Khan and Goldfinger are so good that later installments can only imitate it, not innovate above and beyond it.

    A wonderful comment. Thank you!



  11. sonix1977nl7:24 PM

    We seem to think alike. I absolutely love the part on the bridge where Kirk asks about the time and distance from reliant. The acting, music, camera work and cutting comes together perfectly.

  12. of note: it is surprising and sad to know that both Bibi Besch and Merrit Buttrick both passed away. Breast cancer (1996) and pneumonia (1989).


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