Saturday, November 2, 2013

Nitpickery: The Wrath of Khan

Hey y'all.  So I was thinking about Star Trek a lot, and how I used to be so into it.  Granted, it still amuses me, but I could never be a Trekker.  That, however, doesn't stop me from nitpicking it as much as I want.  And I will do so with this blog.  I shall nitpick what is arguably the best Star Trek thing ever, the Wrath of Khan.

This movie was not one of the ones I saw a lot as a kid.  This is perhaps the primary reason why it's only my third favorite of the Trek movies, behind The Undiscovered Country and Voyage Home. However, it's on Netflix now, and quite frankly I'm astounded at the production quality of it.  Not just the sets and the camera, but the acting is delightful, the sets all work, and the story makes me smile. No wonder half a dozen Trek films have ripped off -- er, "homaged" this film in some way.

But in order to keep this from being the rantiest rant that ever ranted, I'm going to control myself in at least one way.  How so?  Like this:

----- Top Ten Things I'll Say about Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan -----

First, a quick plot summary.  So Captain Kirk is struggling with his career, in that he's torn between his duties as an Admiral and his desires to captain a ship again.  Meanwhile, his former bridge officer Chekov has been reassigned, and his new vessel has been assigned to assist a scientific organization in testing the Genesis device.  This device, proven successful in smaller scale testing, is now going to be used on a barren planet.  If only the planet they tried to use hadn't been the very one the intrepid Kirk had stranded his old enemy Khan Noonien Singh.  Now that Singh has a chance to get at Genesis, Kirk must take command of the Enterprise one more time to stop him.

That should get people up to speed, yes.

10.  This movie is not about Khan.

My huge problem with the latter Trek movies, and especially Into Darkness (what kind of stupid title is that anyway?) is that when they reference this movie, they give Khan the Darth Vader treatment and act as though he was the only thing good about Wrath of Khan.  They, usually accidentally, forget that Khan's story was one of simple revenge: Kirk stranded him on a planet that ultimately proved hazardous, and Khan is obsessed with hurting Kirk just as bad.  It's really a paint-by-numbers revenge plot.  What made Khan good was his acting, his bizarro look, and his magnificent quotes. That's the only reason why he's remembered above other villains who have done more damage than him.  Sheesh, the guy is barely there in the first fifty minutes of the film.

No matter why Khan is interesting, this movie isn't about him.  It's about Kirk and his inner struggles about what he wants in life.  It's about how his actions have consequences, and the fact that he's never faced the unwinnable situation.  It's also about life, and how precious it is, and how we can miss it by getting caught up in things like career and revenge.  Khan's own obsession with getting Kirk is a sign that he values revenge more than life, and it ultimately proves to be the end of him and his followers. It's also a fun proof that higher intellect does not make you a better person, and that one's emotions can destroy your intellect.

Basically, I'm just trying to say that Wrath of Khan was intelligent and yet still entertaining.  While there's a time and a place for movies where a beat cop single-handedly shoots up a bunch of terrorists in a building, the fact of the matter is that you don't have to dumb down a movie and reduce it to the villain of the week to make it work.

Man...everyone who thinks shallow as crap action movies are worthwhile to make needs to watch this movie again.  Absolutely no reference ever conveys the intelligence, depth, and self-controlled drama of this film.

9.  Kirstie Alley's performance didn't work in this movie.  Wait, what? she's great!

Kirstie Alley played the part of Saavik, a Vulcan who is Spock's protege, but for the moment is a bit of a regulation-quoting stuffy person.  Pretty expected for a Vulcan, actually.  Conceptually, I find Saavik a bit odd, as it feels like the screentime she gets could have been given to Sulu or Uhura and make them feel like a bigger part of the plot.  But whatever.  The fresh blood probably livened up the plot.

My problem with Kirstie Alley was that she never felt like a Vulcan to me.  Good Vulcans have a sort of self-possessed control, and even in those brief moments where they lose their cool, they at least have a hand on the throttle, so to speak, and know they have to regain control of themselves.  Alley's Saavik felt a lot more...well, not necessarily emotional, but something about her lacked discipline, and she seems to display minor emotions quite frequently, especially when Kirk is nearby.  Though to be fair, I'd be uncomfortable too if I were trapped in an elevator with an Admiral and he kept staring at my boobs.

As a kid, I much preferred Robin Curtis' version of Saavik, as she had that innate "Vulcanness" about her and wasn't so free with her emotions.  She also seems like the kind of person that would call someone out for not realizing her eyes are up there.  All in all, Curtis seems more like a Vulcan.  This is not to say that Alley sucked, I just didn't feel that she was as good.

That, however, was before I learned that Saavik was supposed to be half Romulan.  Romulans are related to Vulcans genetically, and they too apparently have to contain their emotions to an extent, but they were always a bit more expressive than their cousins.  Thus, Kirstie Alley's performance makes perfect sense for someone with Romulan heritage.  It makes some of her sharper comments a completely natural extent of her background.

So basically, either version of Saavik works for me.  Alley was better at half-Romulan, and Curtis is better at pure Vulcan.  Granted, this movie never mentions Saavik's background.  I wish it did, though perhaps that would have taken too much focus off of Kirk, and overall Wrath of Khan really is his story.

But seriously, for a minute there in the elevator I thought that Saavik might have to lodge a complaint with the Enterprise's human resource department.  It's still harassment if it's only with your eyes, Jim.

8.  This movie and the previous are proof Roddenberry was at risk for George Lucas disease.

Yeah, I said it.  Basically, George Lucas disease is when the originator of a creative world gets too stuck on his own vision and doesn't realize that sometimes his ideas are dumb, too narrow, or too done before.  Of course, Roddenberry was never as bad as Lucas, but he was pretty stuck on his own ideas.

Perhaps this comment has more to do with my knowledge of Trek history.  Really, when Roddenberry wanted to create Trek, all he wanted was to make a show that would be good and successful.  This doesn't necessarily make him greedy, it just means that his original intention was not to create a highly moralistic society in the fiction realm.  Star Trek ended up growing beyond his control after its initial cancellation.  Roddenberry had in fact given up on Trek after the second season, when he found out that the third season had a really bad time slot.

However, when the fans rose up (and Star Wars came out), Star Trek came alive again in the form of Next Generation, as well as all of the original series movies.  Roddenberry tried his hardest to make the first of the movies, The Motion Picture, be exactly what he wanted it to be.  And he spent too much money making a film most people dislike.

Roddenberry was kicked out for this film, and director Nicholas Meyer took over the creative reigns, producing something much more interesting.  Sadly, George Lucas had no one else to stop him from creating the Star Wars prequels, as people saw him as the sole genius behind Wars.  And thus the poor Wars fandom tripped and fell on its face.  Sadly for the Trek side of things, producer Rick Berman tried way too hard to continue Roddenberry's vision after he died, without adding enough creative spark to make it work.  And thus paving the way for JJ Abrams to turn Trek into a generic space "adventure" with trashy chicks, digital things slamming into other digital things, and stories that make no sense, where they're deep enough to count as real plot.  I swear, I have no idea why people think JJ Abrams is any different from Michael Bay.  Abrams does exactly everything that Bay does.

Wait, were we talking about something?  Oh year, Star Trek II.  Anyway, I wonder why they weren't afraid to replace Roddenberry, while Lucas was allowed to create characters people hate, clutter the screen with meaningless digital crap, and produce stories so absurd that nobody really knows what happened.  It's not as though Roddenberry didn't also take credit for what his comrades did too. Seriously, The Motion Picture wasn't nearly as bad as the prequels.  Of course, you could argue that nitpicking the prequels is more fun than sitting through TMP,  Just no.

Nicolas Meyers is an excellent director, and I really wish he'd been in more Trek stuff.  They could have used him.

7. Y'know, those movie uniforms really lend a lot of dignity to the female members of the crew.

Roddenberry gets a lot of credit for "empowering" women, but...dude doesn't deserve it.  I've done some reading about him, and he was responsible for trying to show as much skin as possible.  He even insisted on shortening skirts himself.  Let's all be honest with each other now.  How seriously can you take a woman who is wearing a miniskirt that doesn't even cover her underwear?  Come on, are you really going to call her "Lieutenant" or "Admiral" or "Doctor" without trying to hide a smirk? Chances are, you're not, regardless of whether you find that woman attractive.

Which brings up another point -- only very attractive women can wear those short-short uniforms from the original series and not look disgusting.  If you weigh just a bit too much, or your posture isn't model-perfect, then chances are there's still going to be a respect deficit.  And even in later series, each one attempts to put at least one female in an outfit that is likewise pathetic.  There's Deanna's various outfits, Seven of Nine's grotesque outfit that literally made the actress pass out, and Kira Narise's tight red getup that I am convinced they gave her just to make up for her tiny boobs.

Wrath of Khan, however, allows women the option of actually wearing real clothes.  These movie uniforms look great, function great, and are the most popular costumes in all of Trek.  They're so dramatic!  So fun.  And the women don't look like sluts brought on for the purpose of being eye candy and to bring bridge officers reports and food.  Seriously, there was one bit in original series where Grace Lee Whitney even placed a cloth napkin in Kirk's lap as though it was her typical duty. Ew.

6. Homeboy's shirt sleeve looks like bacon.

Whenever Khan's crew is on the screen, look at his second in command's torn shirt sleeve.  You can't say that it doesn't look like a strip of bacon.  Now that I've seen it, I just can't unsee it.

5. Scotty's nephew probably would have lived if Scotty hadn't dragged him to the bridge.

So when the first confrontation with Khan is over, why does Scotty', nephew?  Son?  Highly beloved crewman?  Well, whoever he is, I'm sure it would have been easier to save him if Scotty had brought him directly to sickbay rather than taking his injured body all the way from engineering to the bridge, and then bringing him to sickbay.  Or was it somehow important for Scotty to show him to the bridge crew for reason other than dramatic movie tension?

4. As much as this is about Kirk, it never feels like his usual ego-driven acting.

Throughout Star Trek, William Shatner has always edged his way to the front of the screen.  Both metaphorically and literally.  It's hilarious and yet also very off-putting.  There were times when Kirk would walk so far ahead of the other actors in a shot that they would go out of focus, when Kirk would take lines better spoken by other characters, or somehow the plot would revolve around Kirk even when Kirk's not the main focus of the story.  How many episodes with Kirk duplications did we really need?

However, this performance seemed a lot more driven by story.  The camera didn't focus unnaturally at him or cut too much to his face when others were talking.  His performance was a lot more subdued, and he doesn't dramatically rescue someone with his own, personal effort.  Wrath of Khan is simply a story about a captain, and Shatner does what he is supposed to do.  This is clearly the director's doing, as Nicholas Meyer even forced Shatner to do retakes to get a more subdued performance out of him.  Good for you, Nick.

3. It's weird when the climax of the movie is the most boring part.

This is probably just a subjective point, but I find the space battle with the Reliant and the Enterprise to be pretty boring.  I've never been a battle buff, and there are ways to make "submarine" battles exciting, but I'm just not feeling it here.  When I watch the movie, I usually get a snack or play Candy Crush while this scene is playing.  I feel a little bad for not being more interested in it, because it's actually an intelligent space battle, rather than digital crap throwing explosions at more digital crap.

In any case, Spock's death makes up for it, and I don't take points away from the movie for it.

2.  The film has a story-wrecking plot hole.

Yes, it's true.  There is a major problem with this film, and it can be a problem, especially if you're too much of a nitpicker.  Now, this is not the fact that Chekov recognises Khan despite the fact Chekov as a character wasn't created during Khan's first appearance in original Trek.  I'm willing to believe that the Chekov character was some lower-positioned crewman on the Enterprise who was there on the ship and was later promoted to the bridge.  I'm very willing to believe that Chekov knew about Khan before the events of this film.  That's fine.

However, there is a problem involving Chekov.  At one point, while he is down investigating the proposed test planet with Captain Terrell, he picks up a buckle and notices that it says "Botany Bay". That was the ship that Khan and his ilk were cryogenically frozen on when Kirk first found them in the Star Trek episode Space Seed.  Somehow, by this single name, Chekov remembers Khan and that he's a dangerous man.

While it's a bit iffy that he'd remember something that obscure in reference to Khan, it's not plot-breaking.  What is plot breaking is "Ceti Alpha".  Back in the Space Seed episode where Khan originates, Kirk ends up dumping Khan and company on the planet Ceti Alpha 5.  Years later, Captain Terrell brings his ship to the Ceti Alpha system with no knowledge of its past at all.

Now, surely if Chekov remembered something like "Botany Bay", he'd definitely remember "Ceti Alpha", as remembering what planet Khan is on is more important than remembering the name of a ship.  Surely Chekov would have been able to warn Captain Terrell well before they accidentally put themselves in Khan's hands.

Even more than that, surely Kirk, in his captain's logs, would have recorded what he did with Khan back at the Space Seed incident.  Even if Ceti Alpha 5 was a really distant, obscure planet, Kirk would have this planet added to the star charts.  So many years later, when a Federation ship is trying to find a planet, surely someone would have accessed all the records they could about whatever planets they can find.  And that's assuming the star charts wouldn't have been included as standard on all starships from that point on.  Sheesh, some officer on the Reliant really screwed up his job.

Thirdly, the reason why Ceti Alpha 5 is such a crappy place to live is that Ceti Alpha 6 blew up and destroyed 5's environment.  Why did Ceti Alpha 6 blow up?  What would cause a planet to blow up? Wouldn't something that powerful be extremely noticeable in a place as empty as space?  Wouldn't the fact that a planet Kirk surely recorded has since disappeared clue them in that something is wrong?  I mean, a planet doesn't disappear without some sort of consequence, not in a world with ships, satellites, and long-range sensors.

I learned later that most of these things were explained in a previous cut, but for dramatic effect were all cut out.  Well, okay, but it's still a plot hole, and it's still really irresponsible for a captain to send no one but himself and a bridge officer, both apparently unarmed, to the surface of a dangerous planet.

1.  The flaws don't bother me.

I don't care about the plot holes.  I don't care that it's not obvious Kirstie Alley is half Romulan, or that Scotty's nephew gets pointlessly used for dramatic effect.  I don't care that the bloody handprint on Kirk's shirt is distractingly cheesy, or that Chekov's ear with the eel crawling out of it was obviously fake.

Why would I care about any of those things?   The story and acting were all marvelous, and the music was the pinky off the teacup.  Seriously, when the Star Trek style music started playing Amazing Grace, I cried like a baby.

One of the weird things about this movie is that even though there's death upon death, it's actually an extremely optimistic film.  It's about how life is precious, and it's way more fun to enjoy life than to get bitter due to revenge or earthly distractions.  It's about how even the most dramatic battle is nowhere near as wonderful as sitting in a peaceful place and eating an apple.  It's about trusting, loving, and appreciating your friends and relatives, as you never know if life will keep everyone together or separate them.

Because I hadn't seen this movie in many years, I forgot all of that.  And getting to the end was like being refreshed, like coming through troubled times stronger than I was before.  Even Spock's death was a beautiful moment, and grieving for him was completely healthy for the crew.

Hey wait, why did they hold a funeral for him before rescuing the real crew of the Reliant from Ceti Alpha 5?  Shh, nerd girl.  Shh and watch the movie.

Anyway, this movie is the bee's knees, and everything positive about it far outweighs its few faults.  I could watch it again and again.  Wrath of Khan is a completely unpretentious science fiction that is not only true to the sci-fi realm, but perfectly watchable for more casual viewers.

This movie is for:
- Nerds
- Non-nerds
- People embittered by modern films
- Action film buffs

This movie is not for:
- Children
- People with no attention span
- People who don't want to find out that JJ Abram doesn't know Trek from a hole in the ground.

Best Actor: Was I going to say anyone besides Ricardo Montalban?  Nope.  Though I will say Carol Marcus' actor was marvelous, David Marcus was very believable, and that Captain Terrell was extremely sympathetic.  Still, when Montalban gasps out "from Hell's heart I stab at thee", you might as well just walk onto the set and hand him his oscar.  Wait, what?  He wasn't even nominated?  Was Hollywood drunk that year?

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