Months ago, we contrived by means of Netflix’s Max feature to simultaneously abdicate responsibility even for our leisure time and add more deadlines to our lives. Good times were had by all until it became clear that like any recommendation feature it wanted to narrow rather than broaden our viewing habits. And advertise itself.
Married to Max ran from July to November of 2013. This is one of our favorite reviews:
Michael: Dickens, Melville, and Mark (VI); oh my!
Erin: Revenge is a dish best served… in space!
(Here we’d insert the meandering path Max lead us down in the attempt to suggest something we might like to see. This was a rough night where we’d chosen the Sci-fi/Fantasy Movie and were shamelessly pimped Orange is the New Black. Eventually Max will throw out five recommendations before giving up in a huff.)
- The Road. Rejected for extended peril to small child. (Yes, we hear it’s good. No, not until he’s twenty five.)
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan YES YES YES! Not only is it from the genre we picked, it’s a cultural hole in Erin’s film viewing. PLAY NOW.
I’m not a Trekkie. I defined my life through the narratives and metaphors of the Star Wars universe. I’ve seen some Trek, sure–a couple episodes of the original series, the equivalent of a season of The Next Generation, a handful of episodes each of Voyager and Deep Space Nine. I had also seen a couple of Next Gen movies. But I had never seen The Wrath of Khan.
The film opens with Kirstie Alley leading the original recipe crew to their deaths–WTF? But, no! It was only a simulation, the unwinnable scenario (or is it?!) to test the mettle and readiness to accept death of a captain in training. Alley, meanwhile, seems to foreshadow Troi’s hair on The Next Generation.
It’s apparently Kirk’s birthday. He’s an admiral now and feeling old. I’m glad they hung a lampshade on the age thing, because between the actors’ natural age and the tendency of 80s fashion and hairstyles to make everyone look at least 10 years older than their years my first thought was how ancient they looked.
Wrath’s reputation is that of the best film of the Trek franchise. But this opening falls flat. However, as soon as the Genesis/Khan (heh, Genghis Khan) story takes off, I was all in. The ear worms that allow Khan to take control of people are nightmarishly shot, low budget but effective. Montalban’s Khan is convincingly charismatic and crazy (charismazy).
But two relationships really drive the story: the big boy face off of Khan and Kirk wherein Kirk always seems to be beat and pulls an epic win out of seemingly nowhere, and Kirk and Spock, who is actually the nowhere Kirk’s wins frequently come from. In these two relationships are also the major themes of the film. Khan will sacrifice all else to get the one man. Spock will sacrifice the one man to save all else. In the middle is Kirk, who coolly places himself in the middle but is deeply affected by both.
Wrath ends up being a film that initially seems kitschily stuck in the trappings of early 80s sci-fi but which rises to a much deeper, more universal film that even non-Trek fans can enjoy.
In contrast, I saw this in the theater and came away with a fear of creepies crawling into my ears and a fierce determination to train my hands for Vulcan salutation. My affection for Star Wars is deeper, but I can speak the language. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Ubaya. Ubaya of crossroads, at Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray.
Khan is dated, the actors are getting on in years, the sets are recycled and haphazard, and nonsense abounds. I was ready to butcher me some sacred cow, but experiencing it through Erin’s eyes made that impossible. It works.
It’s three texts nested inside one another providing a stable structure for a story about error, mortality, and grace. It’s Moby Dick inside A Tale of Two Cities inside Mark 6. This is all literally foregrounded. While talking about it with Erin, I suggested that Khan borrowed cultural capital from these texts. It does. They’re props. But they’re not simply props.
“And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him.”
Mark 6 provides the bookends. Its own bookends, in fact. And itself as bookends. It’s printed on the side of a torpedo tube during the Kobayashi Maru. We get an early glimpse to soften the impact at the end. Anyway, thereafter Kirk resumes command of the ship and the crew comfortably follows.
Dickens provides the frame and the scaffolding for the narrative. Kirk reads the opening line aloud as he boards Enterprise. It defines the parallels between Kirk and Khan. Briefly, both re-enter the world following an absence and Khan attempts to visit his own exile on Kirk, who also escapes. And it informs the conflict between Starfleet militarism and the affirming potential inherent in the Genesis project as well as the corruption of Khan, which both oppose.
Of course, that brings us to Melville. Yes, Shatner is the White Whale. That’s only part of it. Central to Khan is his painful Kieto, his eyes closed. Betrayal and loss have ruined him. Instead of learning from Moby Dick, he’s become Ahab. Obsession costs his crew their lives. Here the sampling and recombination of the source material reaches Bomb Squad levels. The most memorable lines are over a century old.
Rather than being a flouncy bricolage, though, The Wrath of Khan stands upon these shoulders and asserts itself. Spock closes the no-win narrative with the same solution he proposed at the beginning. Kirk has finished A Tale of Two Cities and recites the final line as his friend leaves the ship, mirroring the embarking passage.
We return to the Mark VI torpedo tube wrapped in the garment of Genesis. Spock’s coffin has come to rest in a garden. The impact of death softened.
“And whithersoever he entered, into villages, or cities, or country, they laid the sick in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole.”
Max has recommended a few movies I’ve already seen and I’ve mostly been disappointed with the incongruity between memory and reality. Here I remembered the pop cultural touchstones, not the literary nesting doll. It was a nice surprise and an effective device.
Like I said, I was ready to write it off. Erin’s positive response made me take a closer look. Khan isn’t just the best loved, it saved the franchise. How could it not, with such salvific sources?
I’ve never considered myself a Trek fan, which is a bit ridiculous. Sure, I don’t own a single consumer relic. But I’ve watched almost every episode. I’ve seen every film but the first and the last in a theater. I have an opinion on the captain question (Janeway.) Sokath, his eyes uncovered!
Rating: 4 stars
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). PG. 113 min. Director: Nicholas Meyer. Writers: Gene Roddenberry (television series Star Trek), Harve Bennett (story). Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Ricardo Montalban.
In keeping with the spirit of Throwback Thursday, especially since we reviewed another sequel to another reboot last week, here’s a link to our review of Star Trek: Into Darkness, which we were less enthusiastic about.