Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Final Frontier, Episode 2: 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan'

As I said last time I watched one of these, I'm a Star Trek fan that has never seen the movies from the original series all the way through. So forewarning, SPOILERS, duh. But if you didn't know this one, well, yeesh. 

And that leads me to something I'll admit now, as I get this ready (the menu screen is on right now). I'm nervous about this one. This is the only movie from TOS I've ever heard of people (that aren't rabid fans with no ability to criticize their fandom) genuinely liking and wanting to watch over and over again. I basically know what's going to happen already, because most people do- I don't remember a time where I didn't know Spock gets offed by Khan somehow, and I know this Khan is unnerving to watch because he's so manipulative- not scary or intimidating, but his presence is (supposedly) unsettling. And what's more, I'm also living in a post-J.J. Abrams world. Meaning I've seen Sher-khan and know some of the switcheroos Abrams  did. 

I'll do my best not to let all of that influence me in my viewing, but I'm only human, so we'll see. 

(LOL, it's PG, eh?)

General, not-so-in-depth thoughts: It  didn't feel nearly as long as the first one, and I was actually interested in what was going on a lot more this time,  too. 

Also, I think I need to add Ricardo Mantalban to my "Sexy Old Guy" list:

I had the overwhelming urge to purr  a few times
when he was onscreen. And it wasn't in the
cutsie way, either. Ahem.

OKay, so it took me a while (and it was really hard not to cheat and read the Wiki article) to come up with some ideas on what to say. But I was able to pick up on some themes, and I think it's useful to do some comparison to the first film, too. 

Once again, we have the seasoned members of the Enterprise crew being contrasted with the new up-and-comings in Starfleet, but it plays out differently here. In the first film, the old crew had been off the Enterprise and was unfamiliar with the upgrades and updates, so there was tension when the younger generation was trying to point that out. This time, the older generation is on the ship with a bunch of newbies in the form of teacher-student: They get on the ship at the beginning of the film to do a training excursion with some new cadets, with Spock as the intended captain and Kirk sort of overseeing things, as he's been promoted to admiral by now. Spock hands over the captainship to Kirk because Plot, but once he takes the chair, he's infinitely more genial and understanding with Kirstie Alley's character, Liutenant Saavik. It's obvious Spock likes her/thinks she has promise, and I think Kirk picks up on that and thus seems to want to mentor her more than give her crap like he did Decker in the first movie.

For starters, the movie opens with Saavik as "captain" during the Kobayashi Maru simulation (also shown in Abrams's movies), the unwinnable scenario that Kirk is the only cadet to have actually won because he messed with the programming. I think watching her frustration when it's over leads to Kirk seeing himself in her, because her reaction to the simulation is pretty much his feeling in general: She admits she doesn't like no-win situations, and she thinks it's bullshit that they'd have a test with no possible success. He gives her some words of wisdom about how the way we face death is as important as how we face life and that she needs to keep in mind that as a captain, she may face situations where there really isn't a good choice, just a less-bad one. And not too long later, there's a role-reversal between movies when at first, she tries to remind Kirk of regulations and Spock basically tells her to shut up, but Kirk ends up telling her to keep on quoting regulation with a pretty big smirk after they encounter Khan (because if he had done what regulation said and as she had tried to remind him, they may not have been hit by Khan's commandeered Starfleet vessel). In the last movie, Spock would defend the youngsters and Kirk would puff  his chest and keep attacking them (mainly Decker); this time, not so much.

I also had no idea this was her first role.
So this movie gives us some insight into the growth and, well, aging of Kirk. He gets reading glasses as a gift from Bones, and he says more  than once that he's feeling old. Especially when it comes to his son, David, that he (I think, anyway) meets for the first time during this movie. He's aged not just in years but in experiences- more than one character references how long ago the first encounter with Khan was, but Kirk bemoans how he could have had a completely different life with Carol Marcus, David's mother, and David, and he basically ends it with, "But I'm an old man now." And there's a great moment where he and Spock are talking, and the latter says it was a mistake for Kirk to accept the admiralship, since its nature is more sedentary than being a captain.

But his willingness to try to teach Saavik speaks volumes to how he's grown up- instead of petulantly insisting he's right, he responds with life lessons and even accepting when he's wrong, and, further, indicating he acknowledges how she is the one that was right. And the way he embraces his son at the end also says  to me he's accepted his age. Petulant Kirk would have tried to push  him away, but Wiser Kirk realizes he made a mistake in not being a part of David's life, and he wants to make up for that (or, at least, that's what it looks like to me). 

And there's the theme of Narcissism v. Sacrifice, made pretty clear through the two books featured. Kirk keeps hauling around a huge-ass copy of A Tale of Two Cities (he even shoves it in Uhura's hands at one point, "Here, woman, hold this for me," ugh), while Khan has a bunch of books in his little shack, but Moby Dick is the center of the shot. Both men end up quoting their respective books at the end. I had to look it up (because I thought it was Shakespeare), but Khan  quotes captain Ahab as he's dying, repeating the last lines Ahab  says  as he goes after the whale. Ahab was willing to let his entire crew die in his blind pursuit of the whale. Similarly, when Khan's own crew member  reminds him they have a ship and can go anywhere, Khan insists they go after Kirk. And in the end, everybody with Khan dies, including  Khan himself. 

But here's the foil: It's not really Kirk being contrasted with Khan, it's Spock, at least up to the very end. Spock says earlier in the movie and then as he's dying that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." And that death is one of sacrifice- just like the dude Kirk ends up quoting, Sydney Carter in A Tale of Two Cities and that famous, "It is a far, far better thing that I do now..." speech. Kirk quotes that as a sendoff to Spock, his friend that sacrificed himself for the sake of the ship, after also saying, "Of all the souls I've encountered in my travels, his was the most human." And the last shot of the movie  is of Spock's coffin. I think that's a biiiig deal! I think the point of all that is to show how Kirk learned so much from Spock. And yeah, this relates to the age thing- Kirk is growing up and takes the lesson learned from Spock to heart. Because Kirk realizes how shitty reality is: That it takes the death of his dearest friend for him to realize he's been an arrogant prat over and over again in the past, and that Spock's "humanity" kept him grounded; Kir's inability to keep that utilitarian perspective in the forefront got them into trouble before. And while no, his own narcissism isn't what killed Spock, it was the kind he himself could develop if he isn't careful. 

It takes my bff dying for me to actually "get it."
So in the end, it is a contrast between Khan and Kirk, because Kirk realizes he could become that. And he knows he can't let that happen. His sendoff to Spock is also a promise to adopt Spock's utilitarian outlook. And I think that's an amazing character development- one of the most annoying things about TOS is Kirk- his arrogance  gets so fucking grating. It's sucky that it takes Spock's death for there to be genuine hope for that to change, but I anticipate Kirk will be a better person in the next movies, and I'm looking forward to watching  them.

I'm also going to push a different contrast between Khan and Kirk, and it's that of familial loyalty. Khan seems dangerously calm most of the time, but he gets scariest when he recalls how his wife died on the planet he'd been marooned on. He brings her up more than once, and every time he does it, there's so much pain and anger, and he makes it clear he blames Kirk for her death. So it wasn't the marooning that made him want to "hurt" Kirk, as that wasn't what really "hurt" Khan- his worst pain comes from the death of his wife. His love and devotion to her turns into a quest for vengeance against the person he blames for her death.

Kirk, meanwhile, gets presented with one of the like bazillion women he had an affair with, Carol, and even the son that came out of that relationship. And he had abandoned them. What's weird is there's no reference to David being his son except for that one conversation with Carol- Kirk never says anything about wanting to save his family, and while  he seems ashamed of having ditched Carol, his concern for her and David is entirely professional: He's the admiral that has to go rescue some researchers; the fact that those researchers are the mother of his child and that very same child... ain't no thang.

And when I think about that in conjunction with Khan... I feel for Khan. A lot. I'd say  that gives Khan a pretty "human soul," too, and Kirk's is kind of disturbingly cold. If he even has one- he's like Sam when  he comes back from Hell (Supernatural reference). Kirk chose to abandon Carol and David, and the realization he has after Spock dies, I hope, means he'll try to be a father to David. Not necessarily that he'd marry Carol, too, but that he'll at least become a part of his own son's life. THAT would really demonstrate some growth and growing up on Kirk's part. We'll see. 

Was anybody surprised Kirk was an absent father, though?
I sure as Hell wasn't.
This relates to my final note. I have a friend that's a fellow nerd, but pretty much the only thing we agree on in Nerddom is that Batman is the best comic character. One thing he said ages ago and repeated recently is this: That Abrams didn't need to use Khan in Into Darkness, and the movie would likely have been better if he had just let Benedict Cumberbatch play an original villain. After seeing this movie, I think I can add that assessment as the second thing this friend and I agree on when it comes to pop culture. The personal vendetta Khan has against Kirk in STII somewhat more meaningful than the motivation of Abrams's version, or it at least sets things up in a more sinister way- in the original, Khan wants Kirk; in the remake, Khan is using Kirk/ has to go through him/deal with him to destroy Starfleet. There's a huge difference, and it changes the stakes. I think Abrams tries to compensate for that by having his Khan protecting his family, as in all the frozen bodies. And while that does make his Khan exceptionally sympathetic, the lack of personal connection between him and Kirk in that version doesn't make it as powerful. And it removes a means of comparison between the two, even though I feel like my favorite villain-hero dynamics usually involve parallels and contrasts. 

I'll say this, I do feel like I did this wrong. I should have watched the Khan stuff from the series. They did a good job filling the audience in, but it probably  would have been even better if I had known the details. I liked this one much more than  the first, though. Keep your eyes out for the next installation.

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