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Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Age: The Final Frontier

Up front, the moral of this review is, "Don't watch Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan when you're tired (especially if you haven't seen it in awhile)." For geeks of a certain age, Nicholas Meyer's 1982 movie isn't just a franchise sequel, it's a pop cornerstone and one of the high watermarks of sci-fi filmmaking. But I put it on the other night and quit after fifteen minutes that I hadn't recalled being so painfully dull.

In fairness, I was really sleepy before pressing "Play".

Last night, I resumed watching it and had an entirely different experience. Perhaps I've become so accustomed to mega-budget, computer-graphics-driven extravaganzas in the last decade-plus (including J.J. Abrams' reboot of this very series) that I'd forgotten about space adventures that took their time--be they for creative reasons, or because technology had not yet advanced to the point where absolutely everything in a writer/director's head could be realized on-screen. Whatever the case, I found Wrath of Khan to be lovely, moving, and headier than it had any right to be.

The movie isn't so much a follow-up to the poorly received Star Trek: The Motion Picture as it is to an episode of the 1960s TV series, "Space Seed". On the show, the USS Enterprise stumbles upon a vessel in deep space containing contains the cryogenically frozen bodies of a race of villainous super-humans. They were exiled from Earth in the late 1990s, at the height of a genetic engineering craze. The crew doesn't discover this until the passengers are reanimated and walking around the ship, of course, and they end up nearly being destroyed by the mutineers' leader, Khan (Ricardo Montalban). Luckily, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is handy at foiling plots and has a big heart: he deposits Khan and the gang on a lush, green planet where they can start anew--and not spread to other parts of the galaxy.

Fifteen years later, Khan remerges with a vendetta against Kirk and a starship to help him realize his sick dreams. He also gets his hands on a planet-seeding missile known as the Genesis probe, which he plans something with (even Khan's loyal crew don't know what the plan is beyond "Get Kirk!"). Ostensibly, The Wrath of Khan is a protracted game of hide-and-seek between two guys on rival spaceships. I'd forgotten that they never confront each other in person: all of their interactions are over view screens. I don't know if this was an intentional cue on the part of Meyer and writer Jack B. Sowards, but it underscores several of their movie's themes.

The Wrath of Khan's catalyst isn't the madman's revenge fantasy; it's Kirk's birthday. He turns an undetermined age and laments the fact that, with his promotion to Admiral, he has lost the ability to have adventures in space. He's been relegated to inspecting starships. When called upon to take his precious Enterprise on a training mission, he emotes something like nostalgia mixed with boredom. Many of his former crewmembers retain their child-like enthusiasm for exploration, but Kirk is a sarcastic mope who feels trapped by the prestige of his life choices.

Later in the film, he's reunited with an old flame named Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), who also happens to be the lead scientist behind Genesis. In another nod to the creators' vision for this Trek's focus on maturity and consequence, we learn that Carol's son, David (Merritt Butrick), is also Kirk's kid--whom he'd left years ago to gallivant through space. In what has to be one of the worst long weekends in star date history, our hero finds himself at one point marooned deep inside a rock with his ex and their spiteful, illegitimate kid, while an age-old enemy circles overhead, waiting to kill more of his friends.

Montalban has rightfully become an iconic big-screen villain. His Khan is as close as we're going to get to a legitimate snake-person until human/animal hybrids become a real thing. He's a bit over-the-top in places, especially when bragging about his "genetically engineered intellect", but that's not out of line with the original Trek's style. More important than the man, though, is what he represents: the relentless, crushing pursuit of time.

Kirk has spent his entire career cheating death, screwing people over (and just plain screwing them), and growing his ego into a Gamma Quadrant-sized problem. Khan is a reminder that the past is a living thing that must be reconciled with before one can enjoy the present or appreciate the possibilities of the future. Montalban's a hammy performance, sure, but it's also a pitch-perfect embodiment of the inner, overly anxious voice of regret that has at one point threatened to bury each of us alive.

Denial is a cancer, the film argues, and ignoring it only increases its damaging effects. Kirk learns this the hard way when he loses his best friend, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), to a radiation meltdown caused by Khan's ship. Fans of the series know that the follow-up movie is called "The Search for Spock", but I still wept like a losing Idol contestant when a frail Spock pressed his hand against Kirk's while making the Vulcan peace sign. By finally coming to grips with death's very real presence in his life, Kirk finds a way to lighten up and enjoy the wonders of his job again.

Speaking of wonders, the effects in this film are simply amazing. The Wrath of Khan's digitally restored blu-ray highlights the practical-effects genius at play in this production. From the animated disintegration of phaser victims' bodies to the submarine-standoff-in-space between Kirk and Khan that takes place in a purple, stormy nebula, everything about this film's visuals shows thought, painstaking care, and real ingenuity.

Many argue that computer animation is hard work. I've come to disagree. It's long work. It's tedious work. But at its core, it still involves sitting in front of computers for hours on end, and maybe, occasionally, having meetings in which more people look into monitors together. The practical effects pioneers of yore sweat over miniatures and destroyed models and sets that would require days (at least) of re-hand-crafting and re-rigging if something went wrong. With rare exceptions, CGI extravaganzas do absolutely nothing for me now, because I know they're packed with essentially risk-free animation. I was filled with more wonder and respect watching the Enterprise leave its docking station than during the entirety of The Avengers.

Geez! Now who's getting old and cranky, huh? The long and short of it is, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan is a legitimately great movie. It worked for me when I was five ("Cool! mind-controlling, armored slugs!") and it means even more to me as an adult ("Maybe I should work harder at keeping up with old friends"). A film with ideas that are bigger and prettier than its imagery is a rare treat, indeed, and if you're paying attention, your heart and mind may boldly go where you never imagined they'd go before. 

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