The Wrath of Khan

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Image from imdb.com

How do you feel, Jim?”

 

Did you ever read a book or watch a movie as a kid and think, “Hot diggity, that was great!”, only to leave it for a long time, get some grey in your hair (seven hairs exactly), and then come back to that movie you loved as a kid only to finally realise how brilliant it was?

Okay, maybe that was a bit specific. But that is my experience with what is undeniably the best of the Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

When I was little, I could only appreciate how fun the movie was. I wasn’t equipped to appreciate how Nicholas Meyer paints his space opera of revenge with themes from classic literature. I can now.

After Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) failed to gain the box office numbers that Paramount wanted, The Wrath of Khan was given a much slimmer budget (11 million US dollars to the first movie’s 35 million). Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer was brought in to create a sequel to the plot of the 1967 Star Trek episode Space Seed. The result saw Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise fighting against the wit of Khan Noonien Singh (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalbán, who insisted that his chest be visible at all times). The reduced budget meant that this movie was shot in a series of tight angles and close ups. The acting, and the script, had to rise above the special effects.

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Image from trekcore.com

The movie opens with Star Trek’s Catch-22, The Kobayashi Maru. The young Vulcan trainee Saavik is sitting in the captain’s chair, trying to rescue a ship. Klingons attack. The ship is destroyed. We see Spock, Uhura, Solo, and Bones. Everybody dies. End simulation. Enter Admiral James T. Kirk. Thus the movie starts with the idea that at some point, we must all face a no win scenario.

I have no problem saying that this movie is William Shatner’s best run as Kirk. Never before or again is this character so nuanced or layered. “How do you feel?” Bones asks near the beginning of the film.

Old,” Kirk says. Shatner’s delivery of the line and the tired, grim look on his face say more than I ever could.

And so begins the literary themes of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk’s journey through the conflict of Peter Pan. He is no longer the young flying adventurer he once was. Kirk is afraid to grow up. This is contrasted beautifully with Khan, the superhuman who does not age. Themes of aging, sacrifice, and death are the blood of this movie, running throughout every scene as Kirk and his companions have to face that old inevitability of the no-win scenario. And if aging and sacrifice are the blood of the movie, then revenge and obsession are the bones (no pun intended, Dr. McCoy). Nicholas Meyer, the literature expert and author that he is, makes it easy for us. Let’s look at the books on Khan’s shelf:

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Image from thegeektwins.blogspot.com

Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Yeah, okay, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the tribute this movie pays to Moby Dick. Khan literally hunts Kirk to the point of self-destruction while quoting Melville’s classic. Similarly, the reference to the bible is pretty easy to spot. Everybody is fighting over the invention of Dr. Carol Marcus, called Genesis, a device that can literally make new life by creating an entirely new planet, though interestingly it first has to destroy whatever is already there.

But for Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, you might have to look a little deeper. Because of course, this is the second appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. In his original TV appearance in Space Seed, Khan is cast out of the enterprise for attempting to take over the ship and kill the crew. He and his followers are abandoned on an empty planet. When Kirk asks if this will be preferable to imprisonment, Khan answers, “Tis better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.”

So if Space Seed is Satan being cast out of heaven, then Wrath of Khan is definitely the devil rising from the pit to war with God. Is Kirk God for the purposes of this story? Um… I’m not sure how to answer that on the off-chance either William Shatner or George Takei ever read this and explode (each for completely different reasons).

As for King Lear: Kirk is the king, and has been the king for far too long, and Khan has come to bring down the kingdom, only to ultimately fail.

What runs through all of these great works are the themes of revenge, sacrifice, and loss. The most famous line of the movie is not a reference to what has come before, but of course Spock’s iconic “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This is repeated twice throughout the film, once far closer to the beginning, and then at the end, in Spock’s death scene (AKA the most well done death scene in modern cinema). That is what links all of these stories. Khan forced his crew to hunt for Kirk, putting his needs above theirs, and they all die for it. Spock chose to die, putting the needs of his crew above his own. In this, Spock takes a step forward and manages what none of these classics of literature ever managed to do: he beats The Kobayashi Maru test. Self-sacrifice was the thing that never occurred to the characters in Moby Dick, or Lear or Paradise Lost.

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Image from swiftfilm.com

All of this is bookmarked by themes of aging. Yes, the crew of the enterprise are getting older. Yes, Jim Kirk is not the young man he was in 1966. Instead of ignoring the aging of its actors, this movie actually makes it integral to the plot. Kirk’s fear of aging, of becoming irrelevant and outdated, is even juxtaposed by the superhuman that is Khan, who refuses to ever age or die, and whose chest is still shiny and visible at all times.

Kirk admits at the end of the movie that he has never faced death. “Not like this,” he says. At this point Kirk has beaten the adversary who rose up from hell. He has watched the creation of new life with Genesis. He has found a new reality as a parent, and Spock is dead. This is all what makes Star Trek II the best movie of the franchise. It is a fascinating character study layered with a reverence for literature and the themes of loss and revenge.

How do you feel, Jim?” asks Bones McCoy at the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, Kirk is beginning to feel his age, being left behind by a newer, younger generation. At the end, Kirk has lost his best friend, and watched as a new planet roared to life. This is the most complicated and nuanced the character has ever been, or ever will be again.

Young,” he says in the end.

I feel young.”

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Image from scifanatic.com

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

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The Ship Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: A Review of Passengers

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This review contains spoilers!

In the realm of inferior movies there is a special category reserved for movies that are unsatisfactory despite their captivating and deceptively convincing trailers. Passengers is a new addition to this category, for despite its adrenaline-filled trailers that bombarded TV screens several weeks before its release, it leaves its audience with a bitter aftertaste that makes one think, “I could’ve written a much better space-romance than that.”

As the space-romance begins, the viewer finds themselves instantly thrown into a tumultuous story aboard the starship “Avalon,” which is flying through space on autopilot, navigating cosmic debris and asteroids. It is one of these asteroids that breaks through the defensive shield causing the ship to “rock”—already a rather unconvincing plot detail considering that the ship seems to have flown seamlessly for 30 years—and wakes Jim Preston from his hibernation pod.

Considering this is yet another space movie featuring Chris Pratt, one might expect him to be somewhat akin to Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy: clever, quirky, quick on his feet. However, when creating Preston’s character, it is as though the producers forgot all these things, resulting in him being, conveniently, an engineer that lacks a personality. His role does not go far beyond attempting to break open the door to the command center and to ultimately assume roles as a welder, botanist, jeweller, and stereotypical I-will-save-the-world hero. The only backstory he receives is that he could barely afford the ticket, but decided to leave Earth in an attempt to start a new life.

After Preston struggles over the course of a year with being alone on the ship and even contemplating suicide, the movie comes to what is the biggest and most problematic aspect of the movie: Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora Lane. It isn’t so much the fact that Aurora is, like Preston, a monochrome character, or the fact that she’s yet another example of a writer who writes to achieve fame (and also happens to be from New York, and have a rich and well-known writer for a father). The problem is more in the way in which she appears in the plot.

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This is where the biggest source of anger and disappointment lies. The trailers present Passengers as a romantic story of two people who happened to wake up together and find themselves trying to save the spaceship, and in doing so, fall in love. In reality however, it is Preston who “wakes up” Aurora Lane by meddling with her hibernation pod.

Preston’s explanation for this is the inability to cope with his loneliness—his only other constant companion being the robot bartender Arthur—and despite how horrible his actions are, one can understand the motivation behind them. However, the way in which he specifically “chooses” Aurora—by accidentally coming across her pod, finding her attractive, looking up an interview with her and declaring that she is the woman of his dreams—raises eyebrows and exasperates.

This development overshadows the rest of the movie, and drastically changes the atmosphere. The viewer is put in the position of judging Preston’s decision. We’re left wondering when he’ll tell her, and then choosing sides when the truth comes out, and ultimately imposing a “final verdict” depending on which character’s side they choose.

However, even the morality issues of the movie are overshadowed by the scientific inaccuracies, despite the absolute frequency of the moral dilemmas. It is a movie that exasperates not only those of science and engineering backgrounds but even general viewers having some knowledge in the field. Examples, such as flying past a burning planet, catch the eye of an audience who know that in real life the ship would be pulled towards the planet by its force of gravity.

Other glaring errors in logic are difficult to forgive even in a sci-fi fantasy movie: scenes such as Aurora floating in a water bubble and not drowning, or Preston surviving a massive flame without even minor damage to his space suit. It goes without saying that some semblance of scientific law and common sense is appreciated. For this reason, scenes like the ending lose their sentimental touch, instead provoking a stream of questions like “wait, what is that tree growing on? And how are all these animals surviving?”

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The one positive of this movie, which can also be interpreted as a negative by some, is how easily it opens up the debate on morals and what constitutes romance (although the faulty science still looms in the background as another big topic of discussion). While Preston is easily criticisable for his decision to awaken Aurora, one can counter by saying that she got the adventure she was hoping for, a bigger one than spending a 240 days in hibernation flying to a space colony. The way the viewer interprets the movie is a demonstration of their thought processes.

The movie is viewed differently by different age groups. Teenagers and young adults might see it as a destruction of dreams and the snatching away of possibilities, similar to the way in which Aurora often accused Preston of doing so. Some adults, however, will argue that it is a movie that counters the ‘dream big’, ‘dream without limits’ ideology by showing that not all people can have their dreams fulfilled; a fact that is very much a part of reality and that which is still reluctantly acknowledged by the entertainment industry.

What I got out of this movie is that capitalism is scary, business comes first and foremost, and that if I were in the movie I wouldn’t get onto the Avalon even if they paid me. (Also that writers aren’t always weak and can actually swing sledgehammers or beat-up the jerks that ruin their lives.) Other than that, Passengers was a source of disappointment and emotional discomfort, with a bland storyline, shallow characters, a “romance” that is neither believable nor right, and an ending that makes one reach for a pen and paper and yell “I can do better!”

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Peace in Their Time

“No peace in our time, growls the war-mongering renegade Klingon General Chang (Christopher Plummer) as he fires on the USS Enterprise. But peace in our time is what Star Trek VI is all about.

When the legendary Leonard Nimoy approached director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II) with a proposal for a new Star Trek movie, he led with the idea: what if the wall in space came down?

Many pieces of this movie mirror actual peace-making processes of history, and so in reference to the Chernobyl disaster, the movie begins when the Klingon power plant moon of Praxis explodes in front of the USS Excelsior, commanded by Captain Hikaru Sulu. With the space around the Klingon Empire now in disrepair and in need of an evacuation, peace must be made with the Federation if the Klingons are to survive. This peace process is pushed forward by the Klingon Chancellor, as opposed to the Federation.

Then enters The USS Enterprise, and our heroes become entangled in this political drama. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) calls the Star Fleet captains to discuss the treaty. In response, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) betrays his bigoted hatred of the entire Klingon race, a hatred which was cultivated when, in an earlier movie, a Klingon extremist killed Kirk’s son.

So Kirk, Spock, their crew, and the new Vulcan addition Valeris must reluctantly forge the way for this new peace treaty.

Of course Kirk must be the one to escort the Abraham Lincoln-esque Klingon Chancellor Gorkon, because to quote Spock: “only Nixon could go to China.”

But sadly, in the image of those who strive for peace, such as Lincoln, Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin, and Anwar Sadat, Gorkon doesn’t get to see his dream of peace fulfilled. After one dinner party scene (in which every character just quotes Shakespeare because I guess the writers were hungover that day), the Enterprise is framed for the assassination of Chancellor Gorkon. With Kirk and McCoy arrested for his murder, it seems like peace is slipping out of reach.

What follows is a dark and comical murder investigation aboard the Enterprise as Spock and the crew search for the assassins. Meanwhile, Kirk and Dr. “Bones” McCoy are put on trial, and sent to an alien gulag prison on a planet so cold that the surface will kill you in minutes. There is no escape.

However, after a couple of wonderful fight scenes with aliens—which Kirk wins with a swift kick to the knee (that wasn’t a knee, he is later informed)—and after Kirk takes a moment to reflect on his blind hatred of the Klingons, the party escapes. This is done with the help of a shapeshifter (with the obligatory make-out session with the captain), who guides them out.

But the shapeshifter betrays them, and then morphs into… Captain Kirk. Now folks, say what you will about Will Shatner, but him playing a female shapeshifter playing him is amazing.

He yells, “Surprise!”

He makes kissy faces at himself.

When the original Kirk says “I can’t believe I kissed you,” his shapeshifter counterpart replies, “It must have been your lifelong ambition,” which sent me into such a violent fit of laughter it scared both of my cats.

But eventually they escape, and Spock discovers that the masterminds behind the assassination were in fact his Vulcan disciple Valeris, a Star Fleet general, and Klingon General Chang. Irony abounds as in their determination to sabotage an interspecies peace treaty, these three members of different species were able to conspire together for war.

Valeris is arrested, and the Enterprise rockets off towards the peace summit being held between the Klingons and the Federation. Kirk, who has reconciled with his prejudice, is desperate to stop the assassination of the rest of the leaders who could save the treaty.

Enter General Chang, with a Klingon warbird ship that can fire its weapons even when “cloaked” (invisible, for the uninitiated). It turns out that it was Chang who fired on Chancellor Gorkon! Christopher Plummer’s character is just full of cheese—he laughs maniacally while spinning in his chair and blasting the Enterprise and most of his lines are just disconnected Shakespeare quotes. But his most important line is certainly: “Admit it Captain, it’s better this way.”

Chang genuinely believes it would be better for them all to kill one another than to have peace, because he doesn’t want to stop hating.

That is the true brilliance of this movie, a cheesy space opera based on the end of the Cold War. The message of this movie isn’t lost with time. If it’s not a story about the Cold War, then it can easily become a story about the Middle Eastern conflict of today. This is a story about change, about warring sides finally laying down their arms, and about how everyone is vulnerable to bigotry. That includes both the best and the worst of people. The end message is that bigotry and racism need to be pushed aside to form a better world. Star Trek VI shows that we mustn’t be afraid to forge a better future together, and we shouldn’t be so afraid to lose the flawed world of today.

Of course, the Enterprise beats Chang’s ship (with Sulu’s help), and they stop the assassination. When Kirk shakes hands with Chancellor Gorkon’s daughter, he tells her what her father told him:

“It’s about the future, Madame Chancellor. Some people think the future means the end of history. Well, we haven’t run out of history quite yet. Your father called the future the undiscovered country. People can be very frightened of change.”

These words ring true today as well. So whether it’s here on earth, or out there amongst the stars where no one has gone before, I say raise a glass.

Here’s to the undiscovered country.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan