The Wrath of Kahn

It only took me 35 years to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn—which is forgivable, I guess, since I’m only 32, so the film is little before my time.

Even as a kid, Star Trek wasn’t really on my radar. I was too busy singing Janet Jackson tunes, dreaming of being a figure skater, and reading as many books as I could get my hands on (I was particularly fond of fairytales and R.L. Stine books).

I didn’t grow into my innate geekery until college, and when I finally dipped my toe in, my attention was drawn to Star Wars, The Dark Tower, and Batman.

In January, I’ll marry a bona fide Star Trek fan, so there’s been a bit of an intergalactic education happening to get me caught up. And I have to say, I’m really enjoying it!

Last week, Bryan sent me a text letting me know our local movie theater was showing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn to celebrate its 35th anniversary. Like any good fiancée and self-proclaimed geek, I told him that of course we were going and I’d be happy to get us tickets.

Confession: before last night, I hadn’t watched any of the original Star Trek movies. I’ve seen the new movies, and Bryan and I have been working our way through TV episodes of Next Generation, but that’s about the extent of it.

Because I hadn’t seen any of the OG Star Trek films, I didn’t know what to expect of The Wrath of Kahn other than 80s-movie aesthetic and sensibility—a little cheese, awesomely bad hair, and practical effects since 1982 was well before CGI became all the rage.

Last night, armed with popcorn, Dots, and a handsome man by my side, I was ready to visit the 80s—and perhaps a nebula.

To my delight, a few moviegoers arrived in subtle cosplay. I spotted at least one red shirt and a number of communicator badges that caught the light in the theater.

When the showing began with a sit-down interview with William Shatner, Bryan told me when to cover my ears to avoid spoiling the film. He hand-fed me popcorn all the while, because I have a supportive partner who understands my obsession with movie theater popcorn and how sad it was to stop eating it in order to cover my ears.

As the opening credits rolled, I was struck with that marvelous twang of nostalgia that hits me every single time I sit down to watch an “old” movie. James Horner’s score swept me away into the far reaches of the galaxy and…I watched, I laughed, and I applauded.

Simply put, The Wrath of Kahn was wonderful. Undoubtedly a triumph of filmmaking for its time, it was clever and enjoyable for me, 35 years after its premiere, which is impressive.

What stood out?

The dialogue. The way in which the characters talk to each other is incredibly intelligent and entertaining (albeit a little cheesy from time to time, but I love that sort of thing). There are some fantastic lines and exchanges in this film – “Physician, heal thyself!”—“Ah, Kirk, my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish best served cold? It is very cold in space!”—“’Suppose they went nowhere’ ‘Then this will be your big chance to get away from it all.’” And, of course, the classic Shatner shout of “KAAAAHHHHHNNNN” (a la “STELLLLLA” in A Streetcar Named Desire). The literature major in me really appreciated the Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick references, too.

The absence of ambient noise. Sure, The Wrath of Kahn is full of truly iconic music and plenty of sound engineering to accompany battle scenes and special effects. But when it’s quiet, it’s really quiet—like when Kirk and McCoy are “celebrating” Kirk’s birthday with Romulan ale and a friendly heart-to-heart. The lack of background noise is a distinct difference between dated and contemporary films. Modern movies use a lot of ambient song or noise to create moods and evoke emotion in audience members (the most obvious example being horror film soundtracks; you can’t sneak down a midnight-black hallway without a taut strings accompaniment, can you?). When that ambient noise is missing, it’s up to the actors to bring the emotion, to let moviegoers know what that should be feeling at any particular moment. It’s pretty cool to see (and hear) this stripped approach, and it makes me admire the actors’ performances that much more.

The use of practical effects. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something special about practical effects that make them damn near timeless; okay, okay, maybe that’s a bit much. They do age, but not as quickly as over-the-top CGI effects that often just look…well, fake. There’s something cool, too, about the fact that the Wrath of Kahn filmmakers couldn’t just go, “Yeah, we’ll just create all of this on a computer, so there’s no need to film anything.” They had to think through how to shoot starships traveling in space, building model after model until they got it right. They constructed that eel-earworm-thing of my nightmares out of latex (puppetry is so rad!). Their stunt doubles were busy, flying through the air every time the Enterprise or the Reliant was hit. I can appreciate what filmmakers in the 80s were up against and the vision it took to create alternate realities (like Star Trek) onscreen.

khanAnd I can’t talk about this movie without fangirling over the actor who played Kahn, Ricardo Montalban. He is the epitome of the perfect 80s villain with his rock star hair (I immediately thought of Bowie in Labyrinth), dramatic delivery, expressive eyes, and whoa nelly, those pecs! (I can’t believe he was in his 60s while filming this movie and still so incredibly fit.) As a moviegoer, I loathed him the second he came onscreen. You just know he’s a bad dude, so it feels good to root for all our heroes aboard the Enterprise.

Yep, after seeing The Wrath of Kahn, I’d be down to watch another OG Star Trek movie. Bryan tells me two, four, and six are the best. To that, I say, bring on the popcorn.