Reel Rumbles #31: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” vs. “Star Trek”
In This Corner…
The 2009 hit film Star Trek garnered many fans, as it became a big hit at the box office. But many new fans may not have realized that it was not the first movie in a new franchise, but rather the eleventh film in a franchise that celebrates its 45th anniversary this year. Tasked with revitalizing a venerable franchise that was on life support (Star Trek: Enterprise, the franchise’s fifth television series, had been canceled six years previously, and the tenth film, Star Trek: Nemesis, was a critical and box office dud in 2002), Star Trek actually faced a similar situation encountered by another film 27 years earlier. In many ways, the films are quite similar, and yet, in others, they are diametric opposites; as such, they become, as Mr. Spock might say, fascinating mirrors for each other. Join us as Reel Rumbles heads to the Final Frontier for a battle of galactic proportions: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan vs. Star Trek.
Round One: Story
In 1969, the original Star Trek television series was canceled after its third season, only to enjoy phenomenal success in syndication. After a short-lived animated series, plans were started to have Trek return to television in a sequel series, Star Trek: Phase II. But in the wake of the massive success of Star Wars (1977), plans for this new series were shelved in favor of turning Star Trek into a big-budget, visual effects-laden motion picture franchise. The problem was, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) wound up being a giant, ponderous, navel-gazing snooze fest.
Charged with making a more entertaining film with a fraction of the budget, the creators of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) did just that. Instead of a tale about a giant cloud searching for its creator with a bunch of drawn-out “look-what-we-can-do” FX sequences, they made a rip-roaring yarn about revenge and loss, drawing from the original TV series itself for inspiration in creating their villain. Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) had appeared in an original series episode entitled “Space Seed”, and entered the new film as a genetically-engineered superhuman with a chip on his shoulder and a vendetta against the movie’s hero, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner).
Where The Motion Picture had been cold, distant, The Wrath of Khan made the much better decision to have the central conflict be a very personal one. And though Khan and Kirk never actually share the screen together (!), their bitter rivalry is one for the ages. It also represents one of the biggest jumps in quality from original film to sequel in movie history.
Star Trek (2009) was a surprise revival of a franchise that had been thought dead from “franchise fatigue” only a few years earlier. But instead of creating yet another entirely new cast of characters (as the previous four television series had), the new film went back to basics, recasting Captain Kirk and his crew as bunch of young upstarts just beginning their adventure.
The trickiest aspect of the new film was going about taking this franchise back to the beginning without stepping on the toes of rabid Trekkies who were going to pick apart every aspect of the plot that didn’t fall into line with 40+ years of established Trek “canon”. And in this way, the plot for Star Trek is absolute genius: A time-traveling villain by the name of Nero (Eric Bana) heads into the past and sets up a chain of events that completely alters history. From that point forward, the slate is wiped clean, everything is new, and anything can happen in this “new” timeline. As such, the writers were able to draw in new fans who didn’t have to know anything about the franchise’s very long history, and they could do what they wanted with the characters and the world without worrying about offending the diehard fans. As such, Star Trek may be the first-ever movie that is a sequel, prequel and reboot, all at the same time.
Khan is a great story, but it is essentially a straight-ahead revenge thriller in a sci-fi setting. Star Trek may also feature a villain with a personal vendetta against a member of the crew (in this case, Nero has it in for Spock), but credit has to be given to the imaginative way it changes the rules and establishes its own universe. As such, Trek wins this round, 10-8.
Round Two: Script
Star Trek obviously makes many throwbacks to The Wrath of Khan, and the scripts actually share many similarities: The villain is out for revenge against one of the heroes, and is in possession of advanced technology that he intends to use in genocide against the United Federation of Planets. There are even scenes in both films where the bad guy inserts a creepy-crawly creature into the body of a member of the crew to interrogate them or control their actions.
Yet, the stories are also mirror images of each other: In Khan, Kirk struggles to come to grips with his advancing age, most notably in the scene where he receives a pair of eyeglasses as a gift from Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Star Trek is all about a fresh, young crew coming together for their first adventure. Khan, in many ways, is about endings; Trek is all about beginnings.
This point is made even in the structure of the scripts: Khan builds steadily to a dramatic final act, in which Spock (Leonard Nimoy) sacrifices himself to save the rest of the crew, and receives one of the greatest, most emotional death scenes in the history of cinema. (Go ahead; I dare you to find me half a dozen better ones.) Not bad for a character who is known for eschewing all emotion. Star Trek, meanwhile, blows its emotional payload in the first ten minutes, as Kirk’s father sacrifices himself to save 800 lives – including his wife and the newborn son he’s never going to see. Not to say that the rest of the movie isn’t fantastic, but the opening scene of Star Trek is the best in the entire movie, never topped for the rest of the film’s run time. Beginnings and endings: Trek starts with a birth, Khan ends with a death.
There are minor inconsistencies in Khan‘s plot. Many Trekkies would point to the fact that Chekov (Walter Koenig) doesn’t appear in the original episode “Space Seed”, so how could Khan recognize him? And there’s a scene where Scotty (James Doohan) appears overly emotional at the death of one of his engineers. (In a deleted scene appearing in two minutes restored to the Director’s Edition DVD, it is explained that the young man is Scotty’s nephew.) But otherwise, Khan is straight as an arrow, pushing inexorably to its final, dramatic conclusion.
Star Trek is full of quirky little plot questions, however: What the heck is “Red Matter”? And if one drop can destroy a planet, why is Future Spock carrying gallons of the stuff aboard his ship? What the heck was Nero doing for 25 years between the opening scene and the rest of the movie? (In fact, that one’s explained a little better in the DVD’s Deleted Scenes.) But most of all, the film is full of happy little coincidences that advance the plot. Most notable: Kirk (Chris Pine) just happens to be marooned by Spock (Zachary Quinto) on the exact same planet where Spock’s future self (Leonard Nimoy, despite his death in Khan) is trapped, and can thus explain the entire plot to Kirk in the Cave of Convenience.
It’s a testament to how fun Star Trek is that one can go with these little quirks and not really question them. But the plotting in The Wrath of Khan is much tighter, and thus wins this round, 10-8.
Round Three: Performances
This battle is unique in Reel Rumbles, in that two movies are presented where we have two casts playing the same group of characters. It’s an interesting comparison to have to make; in a way, the most we can say is that the new, younger group of actors in Star Trek do a fantastic job of living up to their predecessors. Most notable are Karl Urban – who comes closest to doing an impression of his predecessor, DeForest Kelley, but absolutely nails the role of Dr. “Bones” McCoy – and Chris Pine, who never approaches a William Shatner impression, yet totally embodies the cocksure, devil-may-care attitude of James Tiberius Kirk. (Also, mention should be made of Zachary Quinto, who had the most difficult task of all the new crew: acting alongside his predecessor, Leonard Nimoy, not only in the same film, but in the same scenes; Quinto performs admirably.)
So perhaps, in this case, it comes down to the ancillary characters. Bruce Greenwood earns serious points for the newer Trek in his portrayal of Kirk’s mentor, Captain Pike – as do Chris Hemsworth and Jennifer Morrison in the opening scene as Kirk’s parents – but this is really about the villains. The simple fact is that Eric Bana does what he can with the role, but Nero does not have nearly the same presence in Star Trek that Khan has in Wrath. Ricardo Montalban just oozes villainy, and the audience’s eyes are just drawn to him every time he’s on screen. Nero’s presence is severely hampered by the fact that – unlike Khan, a definite sequel – Star Trek is very much an “origin” story. By necessity, more screen time is given to the heroes, and Nero becomes simply “the bad guy”.
It’s not Bana’s fault, but Montalban beats him to a pulp, and this is the primary reason that this round must go to Khan: 10-9.
Round Four: Direction
Prior to being tapped for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, director Nicholas Meyer only had one previous film to his credit, a 1979 sci-fi adventure entitled Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper into the 20th century. With Khan, Meyer was handed a monumental undertaking: Revive a flagging franchise by making a better movie than its predecessor, with a fraction of the budget.
Against all odds, he succeeded. Where The Motion Picture was stuffy, cerebral and a bit pretentious, Khan was full of swashbuckling adventure. The two films couldn’t have been more different, and Khan was all the better for it.
Meanwhile, J.J. Abrams had also only previously directed one feature film before taking on Star Trek, but this was a different situation entirely. Mission: Impossible III was afforded the highest budget ever for a film by a first-time feature director, but of course, Abrams was already a juggernaut on the small screen, having created and directed for many popular television series, from Felicity and Alias, to Lost and Fringe. He was a known quantity, already wildly popular with audiences, and he delivered again with Trek.
Stylistically, the films are quite different, and this is most noticeable in the climactic battle scenes. The finale of Khan is played out like a great submarine battle, with the starships Enterprise and Reliant hunting for each other in a murky nebula. Star Trek, meanwhile, owes an obvious debt to Star Wars. The space battles are much more frenetic, and very reminiscent of the fast-paced dogfights seen in George Lucas’s saga.
Both style work, so maybe there’s only one real reason we can choose a winner here: The lens flares. J.J. Abrams uses this stylistic choice to make the universe of his Star Trek seem bright, shiny and full of promise. But he goes overboard with it; bright lights flash in the audience’s eyes almost to the point of complete distraction. Almost. But hey, it’s enough. Khan takes this round: 10-9.
And the Winner Is…
The rookie comes out swinging. The battle is epic. But, bruised and bloodied, the reigning champion of the Final Frontier retains its title. Star Trek is a fantastic adventure worthy of one of science fiction’s most venerable franchises, but the original great still holds the title of Trek‘s grandest film. (I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if J.J. pulls an upset out of his hat with the next sequel, due summer 2012.) The winner of this bout: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
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