You know this film really should have been horrible. People came in to head the project that weren’t familiar with Star Trek, and the project was a sequel too. And sequels are usually quick cash ins that studios crank out for money regardless of whether there is a real story to tell or not. With the theme of aging the filmmakers were acknowledging that the actors, and thus the characters, weren’t the bright thirty something’s they were in the original series anymore, something that the last film avoided like the plague. The film crew was working on a much smaller budget and if that wasn’t handled properly the film could look very cheesy. Then to top it all off they wanted to kill off a main character, a move that is often done just for the sake of shocking the audience, but with no real substance to it. This film should have sucked and sucked hard.
However, this film is not bad at all, not even close. Now since it is opens with it I’d like to start with the music. I love the music for this film. It starts off a bit like the original series theme, but then it takes off into this great bombastic tune all its own, and that really sums up the movie. It keeps its roots to the original show while adding wonderful new elements; Nicolas Meyer and Harve Bennett were truly a wonderful creative team. Meyer brought his talent and drive as a storyteller to the project, and his unfamiliarity with Star Trek allowed him to take risks and to move the franchise forward. While Harve Bennett made sure that the film still stayed true to what had come before. Bringing back a villain from the show is the most obvious move of course, but keeping the Spock McCoy Kirk triangle of action, logic and emotion was equally important.
The film is actually set up and paced like a film should be, as opposed to the hybrid of TV show and movie we had for The Motion Picture. We have a proper three act structure and the acts aren’t broken up by unnecessary captain’s logs. There are still captain’s logs, but the opening one is my favorite because Saavik gives it. It gives the opening a kind of off-putting feeling. We’re hearing a woman’s voice, but she is clearing captaining the Enterprise. She calls the ship by name and we see the familiar cast on the bridge, but why isn’t Kirk in that centre seat? Then we see that it was a simulation and Kirk has been kicked upstairs once again and it seems this time he won’t push to get his command back, feeling that he is too old to do the job now. I also noticed something new when I watched the film this time, and that was how Spock walks around the bridge in the opening. He is observing things and initially this too seems off, why would he do that? Because these are his students and he is observing them to see how they work. I love that Spock has moved into this kind of mentor role with the cadets, especially Saavik. Having achieved balance for himself in the last film he now wishes to help others reach their inner peace and full potential. While the scene of Saavik being revealed to be half-Romulan was cut that internal struggle for her still remains. When she speaks to Kirk after the Kobayashi Maru you can see how she is trying to remain the calm and collected Vulcan, but the way she inflects on her words makes it clear that just under the surface she is anything but composed. She is struggling to find her place just as Spock was once and what’s great is that she has Spock to be the guiding figure that he never had.
This film is full of little touches like that for a lot of the other characters too. I watched the director’s edition for this review and the scenes that show Peter Preston being Scotty’s nephew were put back in the film and certainly for the better I think. You can see the pride Scotty has in watching Preston work, how broken up he is when Preston dies. Not only does this give James Doohan good material to work with as an actor, but it expands the character of Scotty. He isn’t just the miracle working chief engineer, he is a man with a family. That subtle growth can also be seen in how Chekov has moved up in rank and onto another ship as first officer. There are other great things like Kirk handing Uhura the book Spock gave him as a present while he does the inspection and she just opens it up and starts reading. Or McCoy’s look to Kirk on Regula I after the line “well then this will be your big chance to get away from it all” that just screams ‘I don’t know why I put up with you.’ Then of course there is the great work of Ricardo Montalban as Khan. Not only did he manage to capture the essence of what his character was in ‘Space Seed’, but he also brought new dimension to the role with how far Khan has fallen since then. You can see him thinking in every moment that he is on screen, and even Khan is aware that his desire for revenge against Kirk is all consuming and destructive, but Kirk tasks him as he says when he quotes Moby Dick, he must prove himself superior and Kirk must know it. That desire is also interesting because it's all personal for Khan. Unlike other villains in the franchise that are focused on revenge like Nero and Shinzon destroying Earth or the Federation is not what's really important to him. Sure he takes the Genesis device to wreck havoc, but that wasn't his true goal as he shows that when he tries to use it kill Kirk and the crew at the end, even at the cost of his own life. His desire to best Kirk trumps everything else and that makes him human, interesting, and a ton of fun to watch.
Apart from the nice character stuff we have another great step up from the The Motion Picture with the costumes. I love the uniforms in this film, they are my favourite of every design we have had so far in the whole canon. They have a great balance between having everything be connected and professional with the red jackets while also keeping the separate division colours of the older uniforms with the different coloured turtlenecks and stripes on the pants. Although I have no idea why command personnel don’t have white stripes on their pants. I love the matching field jackets too, though only when the collar is down. They even managed to make some of the costumes from the last film look good! With the budget constraints it would make sense to re-use anything they could, and I personally think spacedock looks much better upside down and playing the part of the Regula I space station, and with the costumes they made the smart move of putting them on civilians. The costumes don’t look professional and for the scientists they don’t need too. It’s mentioned time and again that Genesis is a civilian project. They don’t have to all look professional on the station; those are their everyday working clothes.
Speaking of Genesis this was a great edition to the film, because not only are we exploring the idea of aging and mortality on a personal level with Kirk we’re also exploring the idea of man and technology again with this terraforming device. This time it’s about developing a technology that could produce tremendous good, but could also be used for equally evil means in the wrong hands, and how do we know if ours are the right hands? Do we have the intelligence and the foresight to use technology responsibly? Also I think it’s great that this issue is left open ended. We have Genesis activated by Khan and that’s it’s going to destroy the Enterprise, but then when the ship is able to escape the crew looks on in awe of the new life that is being created of the great potential that is out there. So was it ultimately bad or good? We decide that for ourselves, or at least we do until the third film, but that’s for next time.
Now the issue that does get full resolved is Kirk’s character arc. With the death of Spock he is injured, and in an interesting way Khan wins as he has hurt Kirk and he will go on hurting Kirk, because the man who had always been by Kirk’s side is now gone, but Kirk still survives. Kirk sees, as he quotes the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, that Spock wished him to live. For Kirk to live fully and prosper from his sacrifice. Kirk knows now that he is young still and that the adventure is not over, and that he will go on to the future a bit wiser than before having truly faced the no-win scenario himself. And what a risk that was for the filmmakers, you’re admitting that your main character is wrong that his worldview is bullshit and you have him grow and change from that. That is great stuff. The death of Spock himself was also good, because it wasn't done as a shock moment for the audience, it was done for the purposes of the story. Kirk can't deal with death and the no-win scenario if it doesn't happen. This was a death with substance. The only thing that throws me out of the film a little bit at the end with it is McCoy’s line of “he’s not really dead as long as we remember him.” Not because it isn’t a good line, on the contrary it’s a great line and obviously very quotable. The problem for me is merely brought on from real life because that line applies just as much to the memory of Deforest Kelley himself now as it does to the characters within the film proper. Also Spock’s funeral scene is another great musical moment with Amazing Grace playing as Spock’s tube is blasted out of the Enterprise into space I don’t think that scene will ever stop being moving to me.
Now with the ending and the closing narration I noticed on this viewing that Spock’s says the narration wrong. Like the 2009 film he uses the word lifeforms not life. Now while this does reinforce my belief that Orci and Krutzman yanked anything and everything they could from this film to write Star Trek 2009 I also noticed that it didn’t bother me here like it did in that film. I think this is because in 2009 the mis-quoted speech is just one more miss-step in an already badly executed film. Here it’s just one screw-up in what is a beautifully executed film. Taking a look at the DVD extras and just watching the film, with Nick Meyer’s commentary, it’s easy to see that everyone from the director to the prop people were giving this project their all. While Nick Meyer wasn’t familiar with Star Trek he knew and knows how to tell a story and to get great performances out of actors, with Kirk and Khan being the big highlights obviously. He wanted to make it more navy based with the idea of Horatio Hornblower, but in true Star Trek fashion this was kinked to fit the franchise. As I’ve said the uniforms while being naval in design still keep elements of the old series ones. The whistle blown when Kirk and his party come aboard the Enterprise sounds like the whistle of the intercom system on the show. Would people in the 23rd century really pull grates back to fire photon torpedoes? Probably not, but the story is so engaging that we in the audience can suspend our disbelief and go with it. This is also why I don’t have a problem with the Reliant crew not realizing that Ceti Alpha VI has apparently disappeared from their star charts. The way the actors are playing the scene you can tell the characters are tired and frustrated. They probably aren’t doing everything by the book like they should be and things that would be obvious otherwise are being overlooked. I’m interested and engaged in what is going on, on screen so logical questions don’t jump as much as they might in other films.
In closing this is most often sighted as being the best film in the film franchise and I agree. It brought Star Trek to the big screen in a way that wasn’t just about the effects, although effects like the Ceti eel remain creepy even now. It was about the characters and how they have grown and changed and how they continue to grow through the events of the film. It gives the actors different things to do and explore, it has great music, tight well-paced action, great themes from some of the literary classics as well as asking personal questions of dealing with aging and life’s challenges, and how humans should deal with technology and how much of it we can truly handle. It keeps itself rooted in the core of exploring humanity that Star Trek was always about while bringing in new fresh ideas that would blast the franchise forward to the next adventure.