Sunday, April 26, 2009
STAR TREK II: KIRK GETS ALL SHOUTY
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN is widely considered, throughout Trekdom and Geekdom, to be the best of the gaggle of Star Trek films, and I've kind of just went along with that declaration without putting much thought into it. It's the first Trek movie I have very distinct memories of seeing in the theater, with a beloved character actually dying and those creepy bug things crawling into and out of Chekov's ear, but I really haven't rewatched this one in its entirety a great deal of times since then.
I jotted down my thoughts while watching this time, so I would have a more immediate reaction instead of a remembered potpourri of commentary.
-I really don't like the sudden, drastic change in Starfleet Uniforms. Too stiff, too monochromatic, all the same and too faux-regal, like the formal wear of some Duke of a foreign country. No thanks. I prefer the drab uniforms of the first movie to this turn of style. The "away team" jackets some of the crew wears in a later scene are sort of cool with the fat ribbed collars, but they're too bulky with their giant shoebox pockets and they just come off as dorky winter coats.
-I pretty much immediately hate Kirstie Alley as new Vulcan cadet Lt. Saavik. She's not nearly Vulcan enough in her manner to pull it off -- there's just something about her performance that makes her come off like she's trying not to be too Vulcan, so she'll still be a likable character, and maybe Kirk will notice her and ask her out or something. She perhaps should have learned from Leonard Nimoy how to correctly play a genuinely likable Vulcan.
-The movie kicks off with a "training sequence" scene that just comes off as too fake. Several of the crew feign fatal injuries as Saavik leads them into certain death, and I guess we're supposed to reel with shock that "hey, they're killing off the whole crew and the movie just started! What is going on here!?" But the scene is obviously not fooling anybody as the direction, tone, and musical cues suggest nothing even close to a scene approaching such levels of drama. All I ended up thinking was, "why are they blowing up all the computer equipment and risking throwing their backs out cartwheeling over the railings for such an obvious simulation?"
-It seems odd that the entire crew of the Enterprise is now reduced to bad dinner theatre performances aboard a training simulation replica of the Enterprise. One of the characters remarks that "galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young", but surely these distinguished crewmembers who've proven their mettle years ago could be promoted to something a little more dignified and important than ride simulation attendants, no? Were the top brass trying to fool Saavik into thinking she really was aboard the Enterprise in a command position? Did they sneak into her room late at night, chloroform her, dress her in a uniform, prop her up in the Captain's chair then startle her awake by shaking her and blurting out "Captain Saavik, there's an urgent situation that needs your attention!" "Oh! What?! Hmm, I appear to have made Captain in my sleep. Curious. Okay, what've we got? Disabled ship in the Neutral Zone, you say? Hmmm."
-Kirk enters to gloat in front of Saavik how he passed the test she just failed by cheating. And I hate what his hair has become -- it's approaching near-fro dimensions. Spock also seems to be now experimenting with eye shadow.
-Hey, we actually get to see Kirk and McCoy kicking back at Kirk's pad in their civvies. And it's Kirk's birthday. McCoy gives Kirk a pair of antique eyeglasses (it's hard to find any with the lenses still intact) as a present. Kirk's reaction: he has to ask McCoy what they're for! Don't they teach any sort of history with visual examples in Starfleet Academy?
-Chekov certainly gets a lot more lines and screentime in this movie than he has in all the TV episodes and the previous movie combined... which only serves to hammer home how annoying his accent is. He also seems to have been demoted from serving aboard the flagship of Starfleet to the Reliant, which has an actual black Captain! Take that DEEP SPACE NINE!
-It's a nice bone to Trek fans to bring Khan back as the villain for this film, and they laid out his backstory quite nicely, but they goofed with having Chekov and Khan mutually recognize each other as they had never met before. Chekov had not yet joined the cast when the original episode featuring Khan aired. Anyway, I love Ricardo Montalban's performance as Khan, and he begins deliciously gnawing on the furniture with his performance nearly straightaway -- and you gotta love that chest-baring outfit. It was rumored that Ricardo had some sort of prosthetic chest to cover up his withered old-man chest, but this appears to have been roundly disproved by many folks involved with the film and seems like an unlikely and unnecessary measure.
-Kirk gives the Enterprise a pretty sorry inspection tour. He tried to be a big hardass about it, and even does the old finger-swipe-dust-test on one of the consoles, but he just comes off as a big lazy softie when he tries to intimidate an ensign (Scotty's nephew) to no effect and then abandons the inspection due to apparent boredom.
-We get some recycled footage of the Enterprise in drydock from the first film (which might not be so obvious to me had I not watched it mere days ago). I'm still impressed, after all these years, with just how frikkin' cool a ship the Enterprise is! It's elegant, sleek and sexy, and I think it later lost some of that appeal after they complicated its linework with extra detail and features. It's just a cool ship -- like an old-school flying saucer mating with a couple of big hair-dryers.
-Yet again, the Enterprise seems to be the only vessel in close enough range to handle the threat at hand. How many ships are in the employ of Starfleet anyway? Three? And the other two are always out on some long-distance border-run? I also wonder how these guys can perfect teleportation and warp technology, but they can't seem to manage to make a computer that doesn't speak in some stilted monotone! Kirk mentions, after listening to the sales pitch presentation for the Genesis Project, that "the tape was made about a year ago". I'm sorry, did you say "tape"? Again, teleportation, warp technology, still using "tape" for recording purposes. What doesn't belong in that group? The minds behind Star Trek are often praised with a Jules Verne-like precognition in creating futuristic technologies like cellphones, tricorders, and bluetooth headsets (I'm looking at you, Uhura), but I'm gonna have to label most of that as accidental luck if they can't imagine beyond tape recording. Or was Kirk just being old-fashioned in his terminology, like when your grandfather refers to you listening to your "ipod records"?
-The back and forth sniping between Mccoy and Spock really shines in this movie. They're like an old married couple for cryin' out loud. That is all I have to say about that.
-I always thought it was sorta dumb that, as big as these ships are, no matter where they get hit during space combat, bridge consoles start going up like the Fourth of July, sending crewmen cartwheeling over the railings. Is that really how things work on a starship? Take a shot to the rear nacelle and Spock's science-console commits sympathetic suicide?
-Khan's "gang" sure knows an awful lot about operating a Starfleet vessel, especially considering they've been stranded on a lifeless planet for 15 years. Sure, Khan's supposed to be a genius, but what did he do, give them all a super-quick crash course in Starfleet vehicle operation between scenes?
-Spacebattle! Action! Violence! Death! Why in the hell would Scotty drag his nephew's nearly-dead body all the way up to the bridge instead of first taking him to sickbay? Cuz it makes for a nice dramatic follow-up to Kirk's comment about going to check and see if there's any injuries, that's why! I'm sure the kid would have died anyway, even if you hadn't taken the precious time to personally display his injuries to your Admiral on the bridge before getting him to the medical attention he so obviously needed. Good on you, Scotty! Oh, and then we get a truly corny moment where Kirk visits the dying lad in sickbay and the kid seeks permission to pass into the next life as he uses the last of his strength to sit up and squeak out "Is the word given, Admiral?" Kirk replies and grants him permission to beam on up to heaven with "The word is given. Warp speed." Wow. Kirk not only let the dutiful pup join the Federation of Spirits, but he gave him permission to do so at "warp speed"! Surely the highest honor one can receive from a Starfleet Admiral! Most poor shmucks only get to kick the bucket at "impulse power".
-It's funny how bulky and cumbersome those communicators look compared to today's cellphone technology. I guess it's due to the necessary range the things require... yeah, that's it.
-Ah, here it is, the most quoted (and over-exaggerated) line from the film, when Kirk lets his ham show with his dialogue with Khan leading up to his quaking, echoing bellow of "KHAAAN!!" I'm stunned and consider it a real misstep in the writing of this film that Kirk and Khan never share a face-to-face scene in this entire movie! All we get between these two adversaries is phone conversations and vidscreen interchanges. It's a real shame, because this film (despite it's reputation) could have been actually great instead of just comparatively great if we'd had a scene or two of Kirk and Khan competing face to face to see who can chew up all the scenery first. And maybe one of those old-fashioned fistfights where Khan completely mops the floor with Kirk and leaves him for dead. Woulda shoulda coulda.
-I'm not a Star Trek purist or anything, but I don't like this "carrying on a conversation during transport" thing they've done here. Isn't the transporter supposed to be disassembling, beaming, and reassembling all your molecules in a few seconds time? Never mind how impossible that would be to do to sentient organic matter, but how the devil are you supposed to speak to each other while the process is occurring? How does your voicebox, lungs, tongue and mouth create and project sound which is picked up by another's eardrum and auditory mechanisms while all of that is being translated into energy and reassembled at some distant endpoint? I cry foul.
-Is it bad that I wish for Kirk's son David's death during the entirety of each of his scenes?
-Hey, we get another space battle! That's two in one movie, compared to none in the previous movie! It's hide and seek in a swirling neon nebula! Here is where I found myself really pining for a STAR WARS type asteroid field chase. Kirk beat Khan due to Khan's "inexperience in three-dimensional combat"?! Seriously? This guy's a genetically engineered super-human genius and he can't get past the concept that spaceships can go up and down in addition to going forward and backward and left and right? Yes, we definitely should have had some asteroids.
-And Spock makes the ultimate sacrifice by exposing himself to fatal amounts of radiation to do... something that looks like taking the lid off the back of a space toilet to jiggle the plunger so the water will stop running. Plus it fixes the warp drive. He dies while reinforcing his friendship with Kirk and giving one last Vulcan high-sign, then he gets a cool space-funeral with a nifty black space-coffin with a send-off by space-bagpipes. Kirk's nearly tear-choked speech mentions that out of all the souls he's encountered in his journey, Spock's was the "most human". I have no idea what that means, and that has to be a slap in the face to his pal McCoy. "Wait a damned minute, James -- I've been your friend since the academy! We've chased skirts together, we drink Romulan Ale together, we talk about growing old together, you come to me for advice for every damned thing we do, but that emotionless alien stiff was the "most human" guy you've ever met? You know what, Kirk, #@&$ you!"
I'm surprised that Spock's death and funeral didn't pack nearly the emotional punch I thought it could have and should have. Something about the handling of the scenes just didn't bring it all the way home. Having the tacked-on ending with reshoots and voice overs to show Spock's coffin safe and sound in the jungle of the new planet born from the Genesis Device's explosion didn't help convey the permanence and impact of his death either. It was said that Nimoy, despite having to be cajoled into appearing in the film at all with the promise of his character's death, had such an enjoyable time filming this movie that he requested they provide an "out" so Spock could return if they decided to make another one. When test audiences reacted poorly to the final dark ending of Spock's death, the ending coffin scene was filmed and Spock's monologue voiceover was recorded to give some reassurance that Spock would be back. And so he was... but that's for the next post.
-So, my final thoughts are that Trek 2 is not nearly as tremendous a film as it's held up to be. It's a good solid movie, but it's still lacking in so many ways that I can't help but think about what it could have been. It's much better paced than the previous movie, and certainly has more action and drama, but it still leaves me wanting more, especially in the action scenes. There still really isn't a lot of action save for the couple of space battles, and even those seem very sluggish and tepid. I think much of the problems were due to them never really having a solid idea of what they wanted this movie to be about until nearly the last minute, and the extreme budget reduction in comparison to Trek 1. While the first movie's budget was reported at $46 million, only $11 million was budgeted for the sequel! That's quite staggering, especially given the propensity for today's blockbuster sequels to have far bigger budgets than that of their predecessors.
Still, Khan is great, even if he and Kirk never showed up in the same place together, the character interplay is much better, and Spock's death added some much needed drama and tragedy to the series.
POP-METER RATING: 7/10
Next up: STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK