That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #11: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.

Posted by kozemp on November 14, 2012

So many people get hung up on Wrath of Khan as the best Star Trek movie that they tend to overlook the fact that it is straight up a great fucking movie.

See, here’s the thing: it’s not easy being a Star Trek fan. And I don’t mean because of, you know, being a social outcast or whatever. I like to think at my age I’m immune to that sort of crap; really, if you have a problem with the fact that I like Star Trek, why the hell are we friends anyway? You’re clearly a jerkoff.

No, it’s not easy being a Star Trek fan because an awful lot of Star Trek isn’t very good.

With Star Wars you’ve got 2, maybe 2.5 great movies and 3, maybe 4 not so good ones. And then, if you go off into the EU, you’ve got a ton of material, most of which is actually BETTER than at least half of the movies. With Star Trek, though, right from the jump you’ve got an entire series that is unwatchable. And that’s if you LIKE Star Trek. Never mind the fact that the adjective that best describes TNG is “competent,” half of Enterprise competes with Voyager on the race to the bottom, and TOS is a collection of great concepts whose execution, let’s charitably say, varies wildly. Then you’ve got movies – excepting the astonishing, brilliant JJ relaunch – where literally slightly less than half of them even get past “good” and the rest vary from weak to downright awful.

This one, though, is different.

I have written and podcasted numerous times about The Tapes, the VHS compilations of the first three movies each of Star Trek and Star Wars that I got for Christmas as a kid and proceeded to obsessively watch for many years. Yes, even The Motion Picture. Give me a break, I was seven years old. But even at 7, I could recognize that Wrath of Khan was a cut above the others. Could it be because, even at that age, I recognized the importance of characters with strong motivation? Probably not, but it says something that this movie is so good even a seven year old can see it.

Another thing I have written, and podcasted, and said in bars and living rooms and everywhere else, is that it’s not hard to make a good movie. It isn’t. You take a good script, and get good actors and a good director, and let them work, and you get a good movie. That said, it is hard to make a GREAT movie, but Wrath of Khan manages to hit pretty much every way you can. It’s like a checklist of all the things I keep mentioning over and over in this countdown.

How to make a great movie, way the first: a great script.

For starters, the movie is written with extraordinary care. Nick Meyer talks in his book about it how he and Harve Bennett and basically reinvented Star Trek with this movie; turning it away from its roots as a heady, thought-piece space western and giving it the underpinnings of the strong naval tradition that has carried it ever since. “Horatio Hornblower in space” is how he describes envisioning it, and it’s a brilliant choice, so much so that if you told me the incipient idea of JJ’s Star Trek was “Aubrey and Maturin in space” I would be hard-pressed to disagree.

Aside from changing the informing background, though, these guys actually wrote a movie. For everything else, TMP is not, in a writerly sense, a movie. It’s an Alan Dean Foster book that was transliterated into a screenplay. They’re not the same thing. There’s a reason TMP is such a formless, shapeless mass that just sits on the floor and Wrath of Khan is a samurai sword that cleaves your skull in twain: the structure underlying TMP is a formless, shapeless mass, and the structure underlying Wrath of Khan is a deadly weapon slaved over and engineered to perfection by genius artisans.

How to make a great movie, way the second: strong supporting characters.

Much like I talked about yesterday, Wrath of Khan doesn’t have the embarrassment of riches that The Hunt For Red October sports, but it is certainly no slouch in that department. Forgetting about Khan for a moment (only a moment), but one of the joys of this movie is that for the first time it opens Star Trek up beyond the bridge crew. Saavik. Carol Marcus. David Marcus. Joachim. Terrell, poor, doomed Terrell. Even that little whelp Peter Preston gets a couple good scenes. I also think – I am not sure, but I think, someone more versed in Star Trek lore will have to correct me – this might be the first time ever that we actually get significant scenes that don’t involve the main crew, and the scenes actually work. That’s a pretty big leap for something so focused on one set of primary elements for so long.

And even the bridge crew get nice little moments, for the most part. Chekov and Scotty have 1 or 2 good scenes apiece, though like all good Star Trek fans, I could have used more Sulu.

How to make a great movie, way the third: do more with less.

Think for a second about the relationship between Kirk and Carol: how many sci-fi action movies bother to even have a relationship that nuanced, let alone have it be so underplayed? Their relationship is entirely spelled out in a conversation of about five lines, and there is no question about anything that happened ever. I daresay that even Shatner is actually really good in this scene: that one line where he tells Carol, “I did what you wanted. I stayed away.” Man that line does a ton of heavy lifting.

It happens again –well, before that, but again in my recollection – in the scene where they find Terrell and Chekov on the station and Terrell says to Kirk, “he blames you for the death of his wife.” A lesser movie would have then had Kirk go on at length about how that’s not true, and explicate the plot, and the false dichotomy behind Khan’s motives, and have him go through lengthy soul-searching about what his actions back in the original meeting with Khan.

This movie, though, being awesome, just has Kirk mutter, almost to himself, “I know what he blames me for.” Twenty years of history and the antagonistic interactions of two enormous characters, condensed into 7 words. That, gentle reader, is efficient fucking filmmaking. And efficient filmmaking rocks because the movie in the audience’s head is almost always better than the movie that you extensively and precisely lay out before them like an engineering schematic.

How to make a great movie, way the fourth: characters who want things.


Khan Noonien motherfucking Singh.

If I were making a list of the greatest movie villains ever – and I just might do – Khan would finish top 5 without breaking a sweat. Maybe top 3.

Khan is the anti-Anakin.

Khan wants things. No, scratch that. Khan WANTS things. In all-caps. Oh sweet fucking lord does he WANT them. He WANTS power. He WANTS respect. He WANTS revenge. And unlike that whiny, pussy-ass little bitch Anakin Skywalker, Khan goes out and gets them. Or at least he makes a serious go at getting them, and comes pretty damn close to completely succeeding. But like all truly great villains, Khan is felled by his own desires, his ambition, his pride; he is brought low by the very things that power him in the first place. This is Greek fucking tragedy stuff here, folks, and aside from the character as written, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Montalban comes in and absolutely fucks shit up with his performance. The man doesn’t chew scenery. He completely obliterates it with the untamable power of his being, like Jean Grey and the D’Bari star system.

And the best part is HE’S NOT THE ONLY ONE IN THE MOVIE.

Kirk wants to stay young. He wants to be back in the captain’s chair. But he also doesn’t want to usurp his best friend. (OOOOH conflicting cathexes!) McCoy always wants to save everyone (from everything, even poor eyesight). Carol and David want to be gods. And Spock, in the end, wants what Spock has wanted since the very beginning: for people to realize that there is always – always – a simple, elegant answer.

Characters who want things = interesting = good movie. Characters who don’t want things = not interesting = Revenge of the Sith.

How to make a great movie, way the fifth: bookend your story with a Charles Dickens reference.

Okay, that last one might be a little specific, but if that sort of wrapping parallelism didn’t bring a tear to your eye, seriously, you are not a person.



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