Monday, 5 October 2009

Star Trek 2 - The Wrath of Khan

Lowdown: Kirk & Co revisited by an old enemy.
In our sins we have been re-watching the original Star Trek series lately. Although full of bull, even in Spock’s so called logical ways, I have to say we find it pretty entertaining and much less of the soap opera than the Next Generation. Having watched the Khan TV episode (Space Seed, dated season 1 episode 22 from 1967) we thought the next rational thing to do is to follow it up by watching Star Trek 2 - The Wrath of Khan, which was first released in 1982.
Wrath of Khan is the second of the Star Trek feature films, the first one being too artistic and grandiose for its own good and thus quite boring. Wrath of Khan, on the other hand, is a film with tons of historical importance: I watched it for the first time in New York’s Queens as a child getting out of Israel for the first time. That visit to New York has had a significant impact on me; I still recall the pleasurable and massive awe I had experienced upon wandering the Big Apple. One afternoon my father took us to visit an old friend of his now [then] living in Queens, in this huge apartment building. The kids were playing baseball in the building’s courtyard, but I was as interested in that game as I am now; instead I listened to the host’s battle stories about New York crime (crime was not something you would experience first hand in Tel Aviv), ate the generous dinner steak on offer, and for dessert – watched Wrath of Khan on cable. Cable! What a wonderful intention! At the time I even thought the ads were great (Israel’s sole TV channel back then was just transitioning out of black and white transmissions, and ads took more than a decade to enter more to enter the scene). I didn’t enjoy the film much; I couldn’t understand the English well enough to understand what was taking place and overall found the film too boring. But oh, what a pleasure it was to be able to watch a film just out of the cinemas at a home environment, and in New York none the less!
Since that childhood experience I never got the opportunity to revisit Wrath of Khan properly again. I was curious but low in expectations ahead of today’s DVD viewing.
Wrath of Khan takes place around two decades following the Space Seed, an episode in which the Enterprise’s crew rescues a spaceship floating in space for several centuries with its inhabitants frozen. They discover, albeit too late, that these refugees are escaped convicted criminals from late twentieth century earth led by Khan (Ricardo Montalban, an older version of whom also plays Khan in the film). Khan’s gang turns out to be the result of eugenic experiments to create super humans, and as such they think they are superior to the Enterprise’s crew and try to take the ship over. Kirk outdoes Kahn, though, and sentences him to exile on a remote planet nearby.
Move on to the film, and Kirk’s an admiral with Spock the captain of an Enterprise manned mostly by aspiring cadets. We learn Khan’s exile was rather rough, and we see Khan secure himself a spaceship with which he plans to make his revenge on Kirk. This time it’s personal; will Kirk, reassuming his commanding position on the Enterprise’s bridge, be able to stop Khan again? Not only is Kirk’s personal fate at stake here, but also the fate of the Enterprise’s young crew and that of the new experimental Genesis machine that is able to generate a living world out of nothing; at the hands of Khan it could prove to be a mighty weapon. Rest assured, though: with Khan’s superior intelligence stuck in twenty century thinking, the fate of humanity is in good hands.
Overall, Star Trek 2 - The Wrath of Khan is a pretty entertaining affair. It’s entertaining because of its silliness, as in the case of these small crappy looking insects that penetrate innocent ears and render their subject controllable. It’s entertaining in its Star Trek world of clich├ęs, as per standard issue logical Spock vs. spontaneous (?) Bones. And it's clumsily entertaining in the way it copies The Empire Strikes Back and gives Kirk a renegade son, thus creating a poor replica of the legendary "Luke, I am your father" scene.
In short, if you like Star Trek, you would like to reminisce with this one. Indeed, reminiscing seems to be what the film does best, with very long expositions telling us rather too tediously that our heroes have been aging through the years; you will only suffer through this if you care for the characters in the first place.
Other than that, there are some inconsistencies between the film and the TV series that set it up. For example, if memory serves me right, the Chekov character that takes a pivotal part in the film did not exist in the Space Seed episode. The changes that matter more are the changes to the spirit of the Enterprise: the uniforms and the rituals are much more navy like than that free enterprising spirit the series boasted. I guess all is fair in love and the war to differentiate the film from the TV screen.
On the more positive side, production values have significantly improved. The visual effects, although not digital (thank goodness), are quite impressive and are used to create thrilling spaceship duels. These are more intense and clever than anything the TV series could muster.
Iconic scene:
It seems like whenever a TV series moves to the big screen it feels the need to escalate matters so that the transition will seem justified. In Wrath of Khan that escalation comes in the form of the death of one of the Enterprise’s key crew members (which I won’t name here as I don’t want to ruin the film for you; I will, however, point out that Wrath of Khan’s sequel, Star Trek 3, is called The Search for Spock).
Of course, the problem with using such escalation tactics is - what do you do on your next sequel? Go even a step further and destroy the Enterprise itself? And what do you do on subsequent sequels – destroy the Enterprise yet again? Not that I’m suggesting in any way that this would be the course of action taken by the producers of Star Trek; no way, they’re bound to be smarter than that. After all, that ship lasted through countless TV episodes; it would take more than a couple of sequels to destroy it several times.
Technical assessment: The DVD we had on our hands here sported a nice collection of supplementary material that proved quite interesting, including some recounting of the film’s history by key characters collected during the late nineties (a long enough time to allow the benefit of historical perspective). Other than that, the DVD sports poorly constructed menus that limit soundtrack and subtitles accessibility, a rather aged picture and an even older aged sound, especially in the dialog department. The musical soundtrack is very eighties, with pompous symphonic music escorting every pan of the Enterprise across the screen.
Overall: Star Trek fans should love to reminisce with this one. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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