Tuesday, June 5, 2007
This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. Its opening weekend pulled in over $14 million, making it the biggest in history. I didn’t get to see it that weekend—on Sunday my parents took my sister and I downtown to see a new musical called “Little Shop of Horrors” which was playing Off-Off Broadway at the WPA Theater. I guess this makes me lucky enough to have seen the show in its original run, with Ellen Greene in the role as Audrey that she later played in the film version. It was a terrific show and my memories of it are surprisingly vivid, but I was still upset that I didn’t get to go see STAR TREK II. That would have to wait until the following weekend. Saturday, the 3:10 show at Yonkers Movieland. It’s funny the things you remember.
The numerous times director Nicholas Meyer has talked about the process of writing the script he tells the story of how he had been set up with producer Harve Bennett, there had been several drafts for this attempt to milk a few more dollars out of Star Trek after THE MOTION PICTURE had been a wildly out-of-control production. Not entirely certain what they were after, the drafts written had satisfied no one. The scripts had various elements, Khan, Kirk’s son, Saavik, Genesis. In a meeting Meyer suggested they make a list of all the things they liked from those drafts, plot points, scenes, characters, dialogue. They would put them together and see what kind of script they could get out of that. Harve Bennett told him that the problem was that if ILM didn’t get the script in twelve days then they could not guarantee the film could be ready by the projected release date. Meyer said he would write the script in twelve days. They looked at him like he was crazy, but that’s what he did. And that’s pretty much the STAR TREK II that we have.
I love that story. Sometimes an act of creative madness can result in the best work possible. It was as if the ideas that were suddenly flowing allowed Meyer to produce the best film work he has ever done. He wound up not getting screen credit for the work he did on the script, but it’s been pointed out before that in one key scene Kirk echoes a line, “I know nothing,” that was spoken by H.G. Wells in Meyer’s previous film TIME AFTER TIME.
At this time there was no real inkling of a future for Star Trek. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE had done well, but was no doubt creatively unfulfilling for all involved. Shatner wasn’t that interested, Nimoy really wasn’t interested. Brought back into the fold by somebody as talented as Meyer, everyone clearly got energized by how good they knew this movie could be. Has Shatner ever been better than he is here? Forget the “KHA-A-A-N” scene, think about how effective a tiny moment like, “Here it comes. Now, Mr Spock,” is. Does Ricardo Montalban know how legendary his work here is? I truly hope he does.
And the smaller scale doesn’t hurt it. So much of the movie is really just in a couple of rooms. Even the bridges of the Enterprise and Reliant are the same set, just dressed differently. This movie thrived on limitations like that.
Watching the movie now it strikes me how different a summer movie it is from what we get now, not because of how different the action or effects are done, but because of how simple and potent it is in theme and story. Kirk feels age catching up with him, not knowing what to do about it, when suddenly pieces of his past come at him from seemingly every direction. A foe he once vanquished off to exile on Ceti Alpha V, a son that he never knew. Feeling that he has to act, to do something, for the first time in a long time, he brings out the best of himself and winds up reborn. Not in a sci-fi way. In a human way.
One reason this was allowed to be so strong was at this stage a Star Trek movie was still a movie, not a part of a franchise. In the space of a few hours we go from Kirk saying “I feel old…worn out,” to “Young…I feel young,” and it’s extremely powerful. No Star Trek movie could ever do this again. Because the sequels were meant to be part of a continuing series, more than this one was, there could never again be a theme as strong, as enjoyable as some of them are. Part III had to do little more than bring Spock back. Part V had this nonsense of Kirk stating, “I’ve always known, I’ll die alone,” but doesn’t mean anything. Part VI (also directed by Meyer) has Kirk starting off with a hatred of Klingons and by the end he overcomes this for reasons that are kind of vague, feeling like the machinations of the plot more than anything else. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN doesn’t feel that way.
It’s the story of a hero who learns of his mortality and learns to accept that. I’m not saying it’s the best summer movie ever, I’m not even saying it’s my favorite. But I have a special love for it that is difficult to put into words. It’s a love that stretches from childhood into a hesitant peace with adulthood and makes me remember about the possibilities that truly are there in this life. And maybe that’s a far better thing.