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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a movie about acting

Entertainment Geekly’s ‘Trek’ series continues with the crucial arrival of director Nicholas Meyer

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2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise – and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek‘s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week from now till Beyond. This week: The first Star Trek film with actual characters. Last week: The beautiful Star Trek film about space fog. Next week: The beginning of director Leonard Nimoy’s duology.

When Wrath of Khan starts, everybody dies. It’s a scene you’ve seen a hundred times, if you’re any kind of Star Trek person. Sulu’s at his control panel; Uhura’s at the communication station; Spock’s at the science terminal McCoy’s standing around waiting for a medical emergency.

There’s a new face in the Captain’s Chair – Kirstie Alley! – and if you’re coming to Wrath of Khan chronologically, you notice the new uniforms. But the variables only make the constants feel more concrete. Sure, there’s no Chekov, but that’s not so strange: If you catch a random episode of the original Star Trek, there’s a 1-in-3 chance Chekov won’t be on the bridge. (Walter Koenig was added, supposedly, to appeal to young viewers. He was 29 at the time – older than Chris Pine in his first Star Trek.)

Sure, there’s no Kirk – but didn’t The Motion Picture begin with someone else in the Captain’s Chair, too? Heck, to go die-hard, didn’t the whole Star Trek idea begin with somebody else sitting in Kirk’s place? (Jeffrey Hunter starred in The Searchers, the strangest of John Ford’s great westerns, and he played Jesus for Nicholas Ray – and in 2016, I think he’s best remembered for Captain Christopher Pike, a lead character in an unaired TV pilot chopped into a flashback clip show.) The way Nicholas Meyer shoots the first scene, the Kirstie Alley reveal is meant as a shock – the camera moves across the bridge of the Enterprise, over faces you recognize, and then punchlines on a young woman in Kirk’s chair. But maybe, when you watch Wrath of Khan 34 years later, that shock doesn’t register. We’ve seen Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Baby Kirk. Captains leave; the chair remains.

But at the start of The Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise crew is (almost) right where they belong. On the bridge, in space, facing intergalactic peril. There is a ship in crisis. There are Klingon vessel firing on them. We’ve been here before, seen the bridge of the Enterprise sway back and forth, seen control panels explode sparks outward. But this time, something’s different. This time, everybody dies.

They’re not really dead, of course. It’s a training scenario, the Kobayashi Maru. The crew was just acting; the bridge is just a set, a room with special effects in a building on Earth. Admiral Kirk walks onboard. He looks down at Dr. McCoy. “Physician, heal thyself,” he says – a line from the Bible, the Book of Luke, and not the last time in this most literary-minded of Star Treks that someone quotes a well-known tome.

“Is that all you got to say?” says McCoy, teasing. “What about my performance?”

The Kobayashi Maru is top-ten-all-time Trek mythos or anyhow, it’s one of the ten Trek things most regular human beings know about. In popular lexicon, Kobayashi Maru euphemizes Catch-22, and Gordian Knot: An impossible dilemma, but also a fable of lateral thinking. But the pleasures of the Kobayashi Maru scene are vivid, and human.

Pause to consider the situation, for a moment. One imagines Spock in fussy, professorial terms. He’s never been completely unemotional. Actually, Spock on Star Trek is like the robots in Isaac Asimov’s novels. The robots have rules, but only so Asimov can break them; Spock preaches cold logic, but only so circumstances can parent-trap him into human emotion. But how lovely, how this second Trek film begins with the idea that this most stone-faced of Starfleet officers can take such pride in his performance. After his panel “explodes,” he falls against the railing; his head visibly sags downward; he’s really selling this.

You could study this scene for subtexts. The acknowledgement that this “bridge” is really just a set in a building in (Northern) California feels like an acknowledgement: All bridges of all the starships in the movie you’re about to see are also just sets in a building in (Southern) California. And an earlier version of the script had leaked, leading to fan outrage over Spock’s death. (How quaint, to imagine fan outrage in the days before social media!) So Spock’s death here was a misdirection, a primordial variation of Joss Whedon’s ludicrously over-architected Hawkeye untwist. A social theorist might appreciate the presence of a female in the Captain’s Chair – Kirstie Alley plays “Mister Saavik,” naval parlance with intriguingly gendered overtones – though that same theorist might playfully note that, in old-school Trek, the ultimate solution to most sociopolitical problems is “Let Kirk Handle It.”

For the moment, stuff the subtext: The Kobayashi Maru is a scene about the Enterprise crew – highly-skilled space-naval pioneer coworkers – putting on a show. They’re performing. And “performance” is both running plot point and underlying theme in Wrath of Khan. Khan fools Kirk with a performance, and Kirk fools Khan with three performances. In the second scene, Spock performs the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of…” etc. In the penultimate scene, Kirk quotes Dickens’ closing: “It is a far, far better…” etc.

And aren’t Khan’s last lines a performance? He quotes directly Moby Dick: “To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!” We will never get a great Moby Dick movie: I submit to you the possibility that Ricardo Montalban playing Khan is also playing cinema’s greatest Ahab. Consider the books on Khan’s bookshelf, and ponder how Khan and his followers spent the long years marooned on a dead windswept planet. How did they live, in such conditions? Imagine them, in year 12, edging further into despair. Imagine Khan inspiring them – performing Paradise Lost from memory, or assigning everyone parts in King Lear.

Wrath of Khan is, not coincidentally, the best showcase for William Shatner as a performer (and not just for William Shatner as William Shatner). You remember Shatner in The Motion Picture — bored, stolid, his gestures grandly wooden? Consider Shatner’s reaction when he samples some of McCoy’s Romulan Ale:

Set aside for a fact that, in that brief shot, Shatner exudes more emotions than in the entirety of Motion Picture. Focus on his final facial gesture. It’s a forced smile, one more performance. (Kirk’s closest friends get him birthday presents he doesn’t want: Depressing BritLit, eyeglasses, contraband liquor built for extraterrestrial taste buds.)

You could study Wrath of Khan as a portrait of different performing styles. Consider William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, and a central paradox of their chemistry. Spock is the alien – a being who strives to rid himself of all emotion – but past a certain point, you notice how Nimoy is a much more natural performer, communicating so much with droll phrasing lilts and micro-gestures. Whereas the human Kirk is played by Shatner, one of Hollywood’s great experts in hyperbole. (Khan is Shatner at his most wide-eyed.) As a young actor, Nimoy learned the Method and idolized Brando; Shatner came up performing energetic Shakespeare. That doesn’t make one better nor one worse – the dissonance is the key – but it adds layers to their pairing. You associate Spock with explicit stiffness – he’s a freaking Vulcan – but Nimoy’s acting is maybe more “cinematic,” eye-focused, while Shatner is more “theatrical,” full-bodied. (You may meet more people in your life who remind you of reserved, thoughtful Spock than boisterous, declamatory Kirk; some people think we elected Spock president in 2008.)

You can see this dissonance vividly – and you can see how director Nicholas Meyer keyed into the dissonance – in one of the greatest single shots in big-screen Trek. It begins with Kirk in the Captain’s Chair, receiving disturbing news. Khan has powered up the Genesis Device to explode. The Enterprise is weakened, its radioactive core leaking (or something.) The ship won’t get away fast enough. The camera follows Kirk across to Spock’s panel, a vision of confused concern. The camera frames Kirk alongside his son David – and you can feel how they are united, without any real epiphany or overwritten story point –but then it moves onto Spock. He turns from his control panel, and he thinks, and he realizes something, and he walks past David out the door.

Only later will we understand: This is the moment when Spock decides to sacrifice himself for his friends. It seems to me that you can read so much into Nimoy’s eyes here: The consideration of all possibilities, the tilting-head moment of resignation. (Does he think about telling Kirk? Does he realize that Kirk is too weak to let him go?)

Spock and Kirk aren’t necessarily together in the movie as much as you might think, and the emotional climax depends on your knowledge of their shared history. But Meyer has a lovely strategy for shooting them, together yet separated. Almost 40 minutes into the movie, Kirk walks into Spock’s room and announces that this training mission just got serious. There’s been a curious report from a nearby scientific outpost – and “we’re the only ship in the quadrant.” (How many ships does Starfleet have? Four?) Meyer shoots the scene in a single take but with multiple levels. Kirk’s reflection hovers above Spock; then the camera pulls back and Kirk turns away from his friend, framed separately in Spock’s speckly home decor.

Notice, too, how Meyer frames Kirk and Spock in the final battle scene. You’ve seen this scene a hundred times before: Kirk in the Captain’s Chair, Spock reporting. Here, though, there’s a delicate layering of planes of action, of shifting focus, of serene blue light on Spock and tough battle-station red on Kirk.

Together, yet separate: That’s the brutal visual punch line of Kirk and Spock’s final scene together. Spock’s inside the irradiated room: So near, yet so far away. When Spock dies, they almost seem to be leaning against each other, heads pointed in different directions — and I’m not remotely kidding, Meyer frames that perfect shot like a Pietà.

Compare the Kirk-Spock dynamic to Kirk-Khan. It’s often said that Montalban is the greatest of Trek’s big-screen bad guys. We’ll discuss that more in future installments – particularly once we get to the Shakespeare-quoting Klingon in The Undiscovered Country and the tantalizing Borg Queen in First Contact – but there’s no doubt that Montalban makes an uncannily perfect antagonist for Shatner. The two characters famously never physically interact, and some scholars consider Wrath of Khan one of the great submarine movies, with two great captains holding court on their bridges.

Montalban would joke ruefully that he wished he could have acted against Shatner; he’s delivering all those great lines to nobody, to the lighting equipment, to an off-screen script supervisor. If, for some curious and profoundly unknowable reason, a filmmaker tried to make Wrath of Khan today, that filmmaker might consider this separation of protagonist and antagonist a problem to be fixed – might film lots of scenes with Kirk and Khan together, talking about their motivations, or just punching each other. (In earlier Wrath of Khan drafts, Kirk and Khan had a sword fight.)

But Wrath of Khan isn’t an action movie. It’s an acting movie. Khan relishes every conversation with Kirk – you can feel how he’s been performing these moments in his mind, a showdown with his old enemy, in his long years of banishment. And you could argue that Kirk defeats Khan with performance. When Khan cripples the Enterprise, Kirk buys time with a bit of acting. “Keep nodding as though I’m giving orders,” he tells Spock, while he prepares a counter-attack. Later, when he needs Khan to chase his ship into a nebula – something Khan has no strategic reason to do – Kirk torments Khan with a message. “Are you game for a rematch?” he taunts. “Khan!”

Consider the single most famous moment of The Wrath of Khan. You know what I’m talking about:

Kirk is screaming in retort. Khan has just doomed him (we think) to imprisonment in the core of a dead planet. “Buried alive,” Khan purrs. “Buried aliiiiive.” Kirk screams, in apparent fury. But we’ll soon find out that, to a certain extent, this was all Kirk’s plan. He fooled Khan with a coded message; Spock’s already put plans for a counterattack into motion. Clearly, that yell isn’t entirely false – Kirk really doesn’t like Khan – but I submit to you that Kirk’s scream is a performance, too. Kirk needs to convince Khan that he has won.

Meyer cuts from Kirk’s KHAN scream to an exterior shot of the planet’s surface. We hear Kirk scream “KHAN” again – but the way Meyer shoots it, that could be the echo of Kirk’s yell, somehow carrying to the cosmos. And look at Montalban’s reaction. This is beyond Slash Fiction; this is pure ecstasy.

Khan is a mirror for Kirk, maybe. Khan talks about his dead wife – and his actions imperil Carol Marcus, the mother of Kirk’s son. Something interesting there: At no point in Wrath of Khan is there any sense that Carol Marcus is a love interest for Kirk. What they had was long ago. For Kirk, Carol and David are symbols of his own melancholy: “My life that could have been, and wasn’t.” That’s one of my favorite scenes – I talk about it a lot – but Meyer knows that this isn’t a scene of rekindling, of connection between two old lovers. He shoots it like a Confessional; Kirk doesn’t even look Carol in the face.

It’s a monologue, really, and maybe the joy of Wrath of Khan is watching two opposing monologuists who love the sound of their own voice. Oh, Kirk’s a good guy, to be sure – but in the schema of Wrath of Khan, antagonist and protagonist are two men growing older who can’t quite let go of the past. For Kirk, the problems are more complex – he misses the Enterprise, but he can also clearly conceive that commanding the Enterprise left him as a lonely middle-aged man, living in George Clooney’s Up in the Air apartment, with relics on the walls. For Khan, “the past” is much grander – he positively ruled the 1990s – but his lust for vengeance clouds his judgment.

The film gives him a subordinate who constantly asks the obvious question – Why Don’t We Just Take This Spaceship And Run? – and so Khan does really become Ahab, killing everyone he knows in a vain pursuit. But maybe you had one of those English teachers who insisted Ahab is not a villain but a tragic hero; and maybe, when you watch Wrath of Khan, you remember that the last thing Khan does is smile.

Then his eyes go wide, and he goes to Hell. Lucifer goes to Hell in Paradise Lost – one of Khan’s favorite books – and maybe your English teacher said Lucifer was the hero, too.

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Every Star Trek movie teaches a lesson about how to make Star Trek movies. Something to debate, based on Wrath of Khan:

Maybe Star Trek is better when it’s cheap.

Wrath of Khan marked a major budgetary decline from The Motion Picture. The money-pit first film went over-budget into around $45 million; Wrath of Khan’s official cost came to around $11 million. Even those numbers don’t quite express just how few luxuries this second movie was allowed: You can spot reused sets from the first film. Compare Wrath of Khan to, say, the second Star Wars movie and – well, maybe such a comparison is wrongheaded. Empire Strikes Back has location shooting, and long space battles between swooping ships, and kinetic cameramen filming scale models like fighter jets.

Compare that fight to the two showdowns in Wrath of Khan – and consider the strategies Meyer uses. He cuts between close-ups of Khan and Kirk. He sends the ships into a nebula, rendered here as the cosmic version of a Dark and Stormy Night, with space lightning flashing shadows across the Reliant’s prow.

The effects in Khan aren’t as imaginative as Douglas Trumbull’s work on The Motion Picture, and the sets are much smaller. But Robert Wise’s big sets felt empty, and purposeless. Meyer loves to fill the frame with details, shooting through multiple planes of action to make the science lab feel labyrinthine…

…or cutting to Dr. McCoy’s office in the middle of a spaceship battle. When the ship rumbles, the characters all look up – and you feel the y-axis of the Enterprise, in a way that suggests so much more than the few Enterprise sets built for the movie (or redecorated from the first movie).

Look closer at that image. Notice how, above McCoy’s head, there’s a legend on his door: “CDR. L. MCCOY, MD.” Wrath of Khan is full of such little details. After Kirk comforts a dying crewman, he doesn’t even notice that his uniform is stained with blood:

There’s an aesthetic idea behind Khan and his minions, never made explicit in the movie, that they’ve learned to live on spare parts. In our first sighting of their home, we see a checkers game made from machine parts. Later, we’ll see Khan’s bling in closeup: ‘80s-era techno-chic, straight out of The Road Warrior.

Wrath of Khan is on Kirk’s side – he’s the hero – but behind the scenes, you could argue that the filmmakers took all their cues from Khan. What kind of space movie do you make when you can’t afford too many space scenes? What kind of epic science-fiction movie do you make when you can’t afford more than a few sets? You make an epic in miniature, a space movie about bigger-than-life human beings.

A paradox, maybe. Star Trek is a series – a saga, a franchise, an idea, whatever you want to call it – about perfection, set in a world without money, without even human want, where the Federation operates with apparently infinite resources. Star Wars, conversely, is a saga about junk: Old spaceships, leftover weapons, grimy dirt, hand-me-down Mandalorian armor. Yet for the vast majority of the two franchises’ existence, Star Wars has had the much bigger budget – Empire was maybe three times more expensive than Wrath of Khan.

And anyhow, Trek comes from television – still a medium that fundamentally depends on creators who can work within budgetary restrictions. (Game of Thrones is maybe the most expensive show ever; ask the showrunners if they think they have enough money.) So you could argue that Star Wars’ love of junk is its own form of capitalist decadence – see how beautifully rendered every broken-down old freighter is! And Star Trek’s vision of a perfected utopia – which for some people seems antiseptic, anti-dramatic, clean uniforms and smiley, happy Federation people – is built with cleverness, narrative trickery, and obscure framing and imaginative antagonists and Moby Dick quotes. You don’t want to say Trek is cheap – $11 million wasn’t nothing in the ’80s – but it is a model of economic aspiration.

All this, in a movie about how “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”? Hell, if Star Wars represents capitalism at its peak, maybe Star Trek is freaking Marxist.

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Fashion Check-In:

These are the best Starfleet uniforms. I will accept counter-arguments, but I will not believe them.

In Meyer’s vision, Starfleet should be a little bit more like a military organization, and less like the pajama commune of The Motion Picture. This apparently rubbed Gene Roddenberry the wrong way, but what’s not up for debate is that the new costumes are the peak of Trek fashion. The fun is that they’re more ceremonial than the usual jumpsuits, but they’re also more casual. You can always tell when things are getting intense, because that’s when everyone starts unbuckling their shoulder strap and letting the single breast of the jacket-tunic fly open.

Although the best-dressed man in the movie is, without question, the most bicep-y scientist in the history of space, shown here on the left.

THE WHOLE MOVIE IN ONE SHOT: