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.
- Discuss Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan vs. Star Trek.
- Rank Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan vs. Star Trek on your Flickchart.
- Re-Rank Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on your Flickchart.
- Re-Rank Star Trek on your Flickchart.
- See how ALL Star Trek films rank on Flickchart.
For some Original-vs-Remake action, check out:
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly vs. The Good, the Bad and the Weird
- Thunderball vs. Never Say Never Again
- Night of the Living Dead vs. Night of the Living Dead
This shouldn’t take more than 2 seconds of thought to decide, lol. ST2!
It’s no secret I’m a major Trekker, and I’ve thought about various “Reel Rumbles” possibilities with the assorted Trek movies, but didn’t want to go too “nerd.” Commenting on someone else’s article, though…! ;)
What you call a “genius” set-up, peppered with “happy coincidences” in describing Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman’s Star Trek story, I call unnecessary and lazy. I’ll refrain from raking them over the coals here, but there are simply too many questions that I think even casual viewers will eventually ask if they paid enough attention, and they’re questions that viewers will have even if this is the only Star Trek they’ve ever seen.
Even without picking nits, there’s the question of what Nero’s beef with Spock really is. It’s stated in the movie he blames Spock for allowing Romulus to be destroyed, but why hold Spock accountable at all? Nero seems to be savvy enough to calculate when and where Spock will arrive in the past, but in all that time he hasn’t pieced together that if the Federation has the only thing that can save Romulus in the future, that destroying the Federation is a bad thing? Seriously, the dude had 25 years to work this out.
And, yes, what Nero was actually doing for those 25 years is a major question mark. If you consider the deleted scene an official part of the story, you have to ask why, if he could escape with such apparent ease anyway, he allowed himself to remain a prisoner. If you consider the deleted scene as an excised plot point altogether, then the question is, “Why didn’t Nero do something in all that time?” If his goal was to destroy the Federation, why not conquer Romulus and marshal the entire Empire in a war against the Federation? Why operate as a rogue agent, when he’s clearly got the most advanced ship in that time period?
For that matter: why hasn’t Nero appeared to really age in 25 years? Dude looks the same throughout the entire movie! You’d think a quarter century in a Klingon prison camp would age a guy.
Conversely, I think when one watches The Wrath of Khan the only real questions are, “Was Khan in the TV show?” and “They bring Spock back, right?” I’d score Story in favor of Khan 9-6, and Screenplay 9-7 (what Star Trek lacks in sensibility it makes up for with little moments).
Which reminds me: have you seen the video mashup someone did showing how, plot point-by-plot point, Star Trek had plagiarized Star Wars?
Performances I have to give to Khan but it’s a lot closer for me. I was surprised by how much I bought the new cast in the old roles. They really did a great job all the way around, managing to convey the characters without aping the actors who’d portrayed them. And yes, Karl Urban stole the show as Dr. McCoy. What tips it for me in favor of Khan isn’t Montalban, but Shatner. He rarely displayed such nuance as Kirk as he did in this performance. This is the cocksure cowboy facing the sunset, and he knows it. This may be the only time that we ever have to wonder if Kirk may not actually be plagued with regrets and doubts. And just when we think he’s about to really break down, he bites an apple and tells us he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario. It rescues Kirk from admitting frailty, and it keeps the film from becoming maudlin.
Now, here’s the funny thing. Even though I clearly favor Khan in these observations, I think that movie is vastly overrated by Trekkers. Star Trek, like the majority of science fiction, is at its best when it creates imaginary people and worlds to use as an allegory for discussing our own world and our present day issues. Khan has some great character study material, but it never really talks about the issues facing the audience of 1982 (except, the side topic of the military misusing science). My chief complaint about Khan isn’t even its fault: it’s that too many subsequent Star Trek movies have tried too hard to emulate it, most notably the failed Nemesis and, to a large extent, Star Trek.
Conversely, I think too many Trekkers have been too hard on the recent film. It’s full of plot holes, yes, and its villain is a weak Khan wannabe, but on the whole it was something that Star Trek hadn’t been in a long time: fun. I just hope that the next feature is thoughtful and fun.
Oh, and The Undiscovered Country is better than both of these. ;)
Jeez, Travis. Write your own article! :D
I can answer a couple of your questions, but you’re absolutely right: The new Trek is full of holes. Which is precisely what made me somewhat disappointed with it when I saw it in the theater. (And yes, because it is hella fun, I loved it a lot more the second time I saw it on DVD.)
Nero waits as long as he does because he knows Future Spock (Nimoy) is following him back in time. He’s waiting for that Spock so that he can be a witness to the destruction of Vulcan the way that Nero was a witness to the destruction of Romulus.
He doesn’t appear to age much because Vulcans and Romulans live – and, therefore, age – a lot slower than humans do. (He does suffer some facial scarring. Half of one of his ears is ripped off. Notice none of that is explained in the movie.)
There are a couple of great comic book series from IDW Publishing that fill in some gaps. There’s an “official” prequel entitled “Countdown” that takes place in the future, establishing how Nero and Spock go back in time, and why Nero has his hate on for the Vulcan so much. Then they did another series entitled “Nero” which fills in that 25-year gap. Both are quite excellent, and if you’re a fan I’d recommend them.
Thing is, they’re co-written by Kurtzman and Orci, and really do fill in major plot holes in the film. I had read the prequel before I saw the movie, and in essence, I knew what was missing. I didn’t like the fact that a comic book seemed to be required reading to understand a movie.
I call their whole idea “brilliant”, because it gave them a way to create a clean slate, so they didn’t piss off the Trekkies by trampling all over the holy “canon”. The problem is, their plot grew a little too complicated for its own good.
And by the way…I love The Undiscovered Country. But I’m back and forth over whether I actually prefer the ’09 film to it, and my favorites are Khan and First Contact. (I go back and forth on those two, as well.)
(Cripes! These comments are longer than the blog itself!)
I know all about the Vulcan/Romulan aging process, but think about how holding office aged President Bush (and appears to be aging President Obama). Life expectancy is only part of the story, and if he spent a quarter of a century as a Klingon prisoner, don’t you think that would show?
As for waiting for Spock’s arrival, that doesn’t make sense to me, either. Why wait for Spock to begin his invasion? Why not conquer Vulcan and hold them under his heel until Spock’s arrival? I’m not saying he had to do it a week after arriving in the past, but it seems like his plan hinged on an awful lot of variables that might have been more in his favor with advance action.
Lastly, I absolutely despise the outsourcing of storytelling to novels and comic books. If I’m supposed to know or care about something, it had damn well better be in the story as presented to me. I might have cared about all the dead Jedi in Revenge of the Sith had I not needed to consult an action figure database to know who the hell those people were. I did read IDW’s Countdown and Spock: Reflections. I kinda liked the former, but the latter was the kind of generic, incestuous tripe that’s put me off Star Trek novels and comics for the last decade. (Seriously, we needed yet another Spock-reacts-to-Generations story?) The art was awful nice, though.
As for me, what I appreciate most about The Undiscovered Country was the socio-political content, the commentary on the end of the Cold War, Chernobyl, etc. It didn’t hurt that Christopher Plummer was great as General Chang, a multi-dimensional character instead of a one-dimensional villain. Chang’s motivations are understandable, even if we disagree with his actions. We hear him quote Shakespeare and we wonder: were it not for a war he didn’t start, would he have been one of the good guys? You’d be hard pressed to find another character in the Star Trek features as interesting or developed as him.
(And First Contact is my #2 Trek feature because it kicks eight kinds of butt.)
You definitely have some points there. I totally agree about the books. And Chang is right up there in the pantheon of Trek villains. No question.
We do at least seem to agree on which ones are the good movies, if not quite the exact ranking of them. :)