****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A
starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, Ricardo Montalban
screenplay by Jack B. Sowards
directed by Nicholas Meyer
The film portion of this review comes from a piece originally published in July of 2000 that also critiqued the A/V quality of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan's very first DVD release. I opted not to repost Vincent's comments on the DVD proper because they no longer seemed relevant, especially in this context.-BC
by Vincent Suarez Legend has it that, despite the popularity of television reruns and the stunning phenomenon of "Star Trek" conventions, Paramount green-lighted Star Trek: The Motion Picture only after the success of Star Wars, in an envious bid for a sci-fi blockbuster of its own. In the minds of many fans and critics, however, director Robert Wise delivered a film that more closely approximated Star Bores. (For the record, I love the film's slow pace and its oft-neglected reprisal of themes from my favourite classic "Trek" episode, "The Changeling.") While not the huge grosser the studio was hoping for, fans turned out in strong enough numbers to warrant a sequel, and a cash cow was born. There have since been eight additional films and three spun-off television series, but the most brilliant Trek effort remains that first sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
In response to perceptions of the first film as lethargic and overwrought, the Trek team mined one of the series' more exciting and open-ended episodes, "Space Seed," for inspiration. Ricardo Montalban returns as Khan, the genetically-engineered warrior with superior strength and intellect (and slowed aging) who has a score to settle with Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and his Enterprise crew; upon foiling Khan's attempt to steal his starship, then-Captain Kirk left Khan and his companions on a planet that was blossoming at the close of the television episode but which ultimately grew desolate after the explosion of a neighboring planet. Khan, who blames Kirk's lack of interest in his progress for the death of his wife and many of his comrades, is inadvertently rescued by former Enterprise crewman Lieutenant Chekhov (Walter Koenig), whose starship Reliant is searching for a suitably dead planet as the testing site of the Genesis Project.
With the aid of a mind control-inducing creature, Khan learns of Genesis and its presumed ability to bring life to barren planets. Recognizing its potential as a weapon, Khan hijacks Reliant and baits Kirk by telegraphing that Reliant's new orders to recover the device have come from the Admiral himself. Kirk, currently overseeing Captain Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) Academy training mission aboard the Enterprise, predictably steers the inexperienced crew towards Regula 1 (the Genesis facility) when he learns of the bogus orders, unwittingly initiating a collision-course with his old foe.
One of the many virtues of The Wrath of Khan is its portrayal of Admiral Kirk, the most layered depiction of the character in the entire Trek canon and enhanced by a uniquely fine performance by Shatner. This characterization is neatly informed by the film's many themes, its development affected by that of the plot. Kirk, it seems, is grimly resigned to growing old, to ending his days in the administrative capacity of Admiral while his friends annoyingly encourage him to regain his command and pursue his "first, best destiny," as captain of a starship. (Even the film's one-liners, which would grow increasingly hollow in later sequels, have resonance, as when Kirk snorts that "galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.") Yet, as Kirk renews old acquaintances (Khan's everlasting youthfulness is a fine counterpoint to Kirk's dilemma) and long-lost relationships (conveniently, but also integrally, the creators of Genesis are Kirk's estranged lover (Bibi Besch) and son (Merritt Butrick)), Kirk experiences a "genesis" of his own.
Kirk's rebirth--the film closes as he wistfully proclaims that he feels young--parallels that of the Genesis Planet, formed after the device is detonated in a last-ditch attempt by Khan to ensnare Kirk and the Enterprise. The Wrath of Khan's wonderful script (credited to Jack B. Sowards but extensively revised by director Nicholas Meyer), however, is not content with merely providing such parallels; the Genesis Planet hints at yet a third rebirth as Spock, having sacrificed himself while enabling the ship to reach safety, is entombed and deposited on the planet's surface.
The moving sequence in which Spock and Kirk speak their farewells is the culmination of the film's exploration of its most profound theme, one that embodies all the best philosophical tendencies of "Star Trek". Early on, Spock attempts to persuade Kirk to serve as Commander of the Enterprise when she is called into action by proclaiming that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one." The utter humanity of this statement characterizes the film as a whole and, in particular, Spock's final act of sacrifice. That this sentiment is so nobly embraced by Spock, a character frequently at odds with his Vulcan-Human duality, only makes its expression richer and more compelling. (I defy anyone with a heart to maintain a dry eye when Kirk intones, at Spock's burial at "sea," that his friend's soul was the most human he'd ever encountered.) Of course, in another of the screenplay's many intricacies, this finale carefully echoes the opening of the film, during which Kirk encourages Lieutenant Saavik (a pre-"Cheers" Kirstie Alley) to consider whether the way in which one faces death is at least as important as the way in which one faces life.
Pensive themes aside, The Wrath of Khan is also a hell of a lot of fun. This is science-fiction in the grandest tradition, a truly operatic "space opera" in which vengeful rivalries are rekindled, innocence matures into heroism (witness the rapid growth of the Enterprise's crew of trainees), fathers and sons clash before gaining mutual respect, great military battles hinge on the slightest of mental manoeuvres, the wisdom of past centuries resurface to inform the present, and our most revered protagonists achieve great victories while simultaneously suffering heretofore unthinkable losses. The passion suggested by such content is reflected in the performances (particularly effective is Montalban, whose Khan is chillingly poetic yet barbaric), the immensely literary script, Nicholas Meyer's transcendent direction, James Horner's rousing score, and Industrial Light and Magic's flawless special effects. In short, The Wrath of Khan is the rare genre film that, through its unification of elements that are cinematic, literary and theatrical, rises above the conventions of its form, resulting in a masterpiece that easily stands on its own.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a Paramount perennial that's been reissued on Blu-ray a few times already, though this marks the format debut of Nicholas Meyer's Director's Cut (DC), which was up until now only available on DVD. The advantage this release has over that one, aside from the obvious HiDef bump, is that it also contains the theatrical cut (TC) via seamless branching, so there's no longer any need to double-dip to own both versions. (Unless of course you have one of the box sets with Star Trek II in it and want the DC.) Alas the studio appears to have no plans to release the alternate versions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country on Blu-ray prior to or coincident with September's 50th-anniversary bundle of all T.O.S.-era TV and movies, nor to give any of the other films the 4K scan Star Trek II allegedly got. Whatever the case, it's clear this reissue and the 2009 disc didn't come from the same master, but first things first: The Director's Cut.
Running three minutes longer than the TC, the DC is similar though not identical to the long-bootlegged cut that aired on ABC when the film made its network-television debut. Much of the extra footage consists of stray lines of dialogue reinstated to the scene where Bones gives Kirk a pair of glasses and to the confab with Spock about Genesis, which now leaves Bones a little testier. The most significant addition establishes one of the ship's trainees as Scotty's young nephew, Peter (Ike Eisenmann), clarifying a mid-film display of anguish from Mr. Scott. Meyer was mystified by Paramount's antipathy for this subplot, but one suspects the actor playing Peter had a lot to do with it. A veteran of the Witch Mountain movies, Eisenmann unfortunately brings too much of that plastic Disney pluck to the role. Even his aesthetic is all wrong, and the lighting seems to temporarily flatten to accommodate it. Still, the character is a more innocuous than ruinous inclusion, and the personalization of his demise has the benefit of raising the proverbial stakes.
As for the tech specs, the DC taking up significantly less storage space (27.5GB vs. 34.4GB on the 2009 platter--and that was just the TC) immediately raises alarms, but compression algorithms have improved since then and variations in image grading can have a dramatic impact on file size. The new 2.37:1, 1080p transfer exhibits a few striking differences compared to the old one and I consider it an upgrade. Cleared of a greenish cast, it looks considerably less funky (I suspect the print source is a step or two closer to the negative), with more visibility in the shadows as a consequence. Detail is finer despite some light denoising, and the colours, for better or worse, are earthier, lacking the same exaggerated intensity. I do miss the brightness of the older presentation, although its harsher contrasts are arguably more consistent with early Paramount Blu-rays than with the aesthetics of Trek. A minor framing discrepancy between the transfers--the frameline this time reveals slightly more picture info on the top and right of the screen, slightly less on the left and bottom--is hardly worth mentioning. For your edification, a couple of A/B comparisons:
The attendant 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is the same as before, and the additional footage has been as seamlessly integrated sonically as it has visually. Judging by the way that low frequencies are all but limited to the score, the track is a fairly close approximation of the 6-channel mix that accompanied 70mm prints of the film. I enjoy its quaintly showy use of the surrounds; when I heard the bay doors clank open behind my head, announcing Kirk's entrance after the Kobayashi Maru fakeout, it put me right back in the summer of '82. Meanwhile, Meyer's feature-length commentary, abridged on the TC, is good enough to podcast, regardless or perhaps because of the fact that he spends more time contemplating "the artist's responsibility" than talking about Star Trek II. Appending the DC only, Michael and Denis Okuda's subtitle track of facts--some no doubt culled from their Star Trek Encyclopedia--makes the perfect complement in its attention to all things Star Trek II, including the tale's philosophical underpinnings. At one point, "Nicholas Meyer can quote passages from 'Moby Dick' at length" pops up, followed by: "Ask him!"
Video-based extras from 2002 return in SD, cover claims of HD notwithstanding. (But hey, they're in 16x9.) In "Captain's Log" (27 mins.), Shatner, producer Harve Bennett, Nimoy, Montalban, and Meyer retrace the development of the project from its speedy script revisions to Janet Maslin's rave review of the finished product. "Designing Khan" (24 mins.) finds various production crew muffing Meyer's name, though they do praise his contribution to the franchise, and we learn that the Reliant is an upside-down Enterprise because Bennett signed off on the design without turning it over to face the right way! "Where No Man Has Gone Before: The Visual Effects of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (18 mins.) repeats the Reliant anecdote but the rest is fresh as visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston remembers the good old days of miniatures, matte paintings, and using saltwater to simulate a nebula. "A Novel Approach: The Star Trek Universe" (29 mins.) is soul-sucking torture as "Trek" novelists Greg Cox and Julia Ecklar (introduced in a whooshing-credits take-off of the original series) drone on about Khan's past and the Kobayashi Maru test whilst serving as the worst endorsements for their respective texts imaginable. An eight-minute montage of interviews with Shatner, Nimoy, Kelly, and Montalban conducted in 1982 (followed by three minutes of animated production stills--one depicts an on-set "Fantasy Island" prank), storyboard archives for thirteen sequences (on one such panel is scribbled the directive "This must be gorgeous!"), and the theatrical trailer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan round out the '02 supplements.
A trio of featurettes are recycled from the 2009 Blu-ray. In "James Horner: Composing Genesis" (10 mins., HD), the late composer gets into the nitty-gritty of Star Trek II's "seafaring" themes (or "motifs," in Khan's case) and recounts his struggle to differentiate the "incessant" battle music--something today's blockbuster composers have evidently given up trying. Obviously intended to stoke a desire to revisit the films, "Collecting Star Trek's Movie Relics" (HD) is 11 minutes of Propworx CEO Alec Peters identifying random screen-used Trek props from among a six-warehouse hoard of this crap, thus facilitating a flurry of clips. He's enthusiastic, at least. Finally, "A Tribute to Ricardo Montalban" (5 mins., HD) sees Meyer delivering a stiff but heartfelt eulogy for the then-recently-departed actor that touches on the oft-neglected matinee-idol phase of Montalban's career before getting into personal reminiscence. "For the umpteenth time I can confirm that those pecs seen in Star Trek II are his very own," Meyer says, unburying the lede.
New to this BD is Roger Lay, Jr.'s "The Genesis Effect: Engineering The Wrath of Khan" (28 mins., HD), which begins with Meyer somewhat incongruously quoting Robert Bresson: "My job is not to find out what the public wants and give it to them. My job is to make the public want what I want." Various below-the-line talent recaps how Star Trek: The Motion Picture's cost overruns put a sequel and the entire Trek franchise in jeopardy, how the TV division swooped in to produce Star Trek II at cost (but never without an eye on the big screen), and how this marooned Trek creator Gene Roddenberry at a time when he'd become something of a philosopher king. I've heard these stories before but never tire of them--they're like nerd bible study. And Lay does dig up some fresh anecdotes, with producer Robert S. Sallin revealing that the studio vetoed his choice of director: Ron Howard. He also, in case you thought rabid fandom was a new thing, recalls an ominous message left on his answering machine in the aftermath of Roddenberry leaking the shooting script to the public: "You kill Spock and we'll kill you."
In a bold move away from corporate homogeny, Mondo's custom poster art for the film decorates the slipcover and insert sleeve of this release.