Outgrowing cynicism: an accidental review of Wrath of Khan

Hi there. It’s been awhile. Partly ’cause I drifted away from the internet while I played the entire Mass Effect trilogy (an astounding piece of entertainment, that just happens to be a video game. I highly recommend it). And partly because I’m at a major transition period at the moment… in 4 months I’ll be going to live in Canada for a long time.  (Oddly enough I’ll be at the same university that William Shatner went to.)

Anyway…

I went to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with some friends today. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen it. I am not a Trekkie though. Nor am I a Trekker. I haven’t seen any other Star Trek films, and only one episode of the show (the Tribbles episode, for comedic purposes).

I remembered it being a good standalone film. Which, admittedly, I only discovered because I first watched it with the sole purpose of seeing the famous “KHAAAAAAAAAN!” scene. It tells a clear story, and you don’t need to know any continuity or be up to date with timelines and alternate realities and all that bullshit which can really put people off of geeky stuff. I’m not entirely sure how I was expecting to react to rewatching it though. I was sure that I would still enjoy it, ’cause it’s pretty rare for me to change my opinion of a movie. A shit film stays shit, a decent flick stays a decent flick, and a movie masterpiece will always be a movie masterpiece. Before tonight, I’d put this in ‘decent flick’.

But a cynical part of me also expected to be rolling my eyes at wooden acting, dodgy sets, bad effects, and other classic hallmarks of the late 70s / early 80s sci-fi. I was kinda expecting my summation coming out of the cinema to be slightly grudging. “Man, there were some dodgy moments, but hey, still a clear plot, told competently, it did it’s job. Yeh.” And then I would shrug my shoulders.

Here’s the major piece of the puzzle that made me think this: we went to see this at the Prince Charles Cinema. A little place off of Leicester Square that is to geeky cinema what Forbidden Planet is to geeky fiction. A safe haven of Back To The Future and Indiana Jones marathons, where you can go contemplate Moon by yourself, or shout “Shut the fuck up, Donny” with 200 other people at The Big Lebowski quote-a-long. There were more people there to see Wrath of Khan (over a hundred, I’m pretty sure) than there were when I saw Iron Man 3 earlier this week (maybe 30 at the most?). I figured, based on demographics, that it breaks down like this:

  • 20% people over the age of 35 who are there for nostalgia reasons and/or are Star Trek fans.
  • 75% people there for the famous “KHAAAAN!” scene, and/or for the novelty (a free beer and slice of pizza with your ticket!), and/or ironically.
  • 5% sundry

With this crowd, I fully expected people to be quoting along with the film. Talking/mocking throughout like Mystery Science Theater 3000. Laughing at every wooden line or amateurishly executed scene. I was expecting a lot of noise from the audience. What we got instead was mostly silence. Sheer, respectful, invested silence.

So, that “KHAAAAN!” scene. We’ve all seen that clip a hundred times, I’m sure. We all knew it was coming. We were all anticipating it. And yet, when the moment came, two things happened:

  1. NOBODY shouted along with Shatner (in fact, nobody quoted anything loudly at any point).
  2. There was a noticeable delay before the applause, which took a couple of seconds to reach momentum.

For the first point, I can’t speak for everybody else, but you know what? The line took me by surprise. I wasn’t watching a bunch of actors read lines, just waiting for one particular bit to arrive. I was watching characters react to their situation. And the line was so naturally in place that I almost wasn’t conscious of the fact that this was The Moment™.

As for the second, I think everybody was equally invested, and that most people were as surprised as me when the moment came. But of course, psychologically, you kinda feel that you’re supposed to do something at this point, some act of recognition. Thus the unsure applause which took a while to find its feet while we all waited until enough people were clapping that we felt it was okay to acknowledge this moment.

That aside, yes there were laughs from the audience. But mostly at bits which were genuinely funny (the dynamic of the three very different personality types between Kirk, Spock and McCoy was particularly fun). Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely laughs at bad acting (Uhura was particularly bad. Uhura? More like… some pun involving her name that also sounds like wood nomenclature. You come up with something. It’s late and I’m tired). Amateurish execution? Ohhh yeah. There’s a very very short exchange of fisticuffs where it looks like slow motion. It’s not. It’s just poorly staged, comically bad timing from the Shat. And Ricardo Montalban as Khan? Fun to watch, but boy howdy does he like to chew the scenery. Keep him away from Uhura and her wooden tendencies is all I’m saying.

(Those are clearly the teeth of a man who loves chowing down on a good piece of pinewood.)

But man, those laughs came less and less frequent as the movie went on. By the end, the audience was dead silent. Won over. Completely invested. And I’ll be honest, the last few scenes, I got that warm fuzzy feeling (I’ll even go as far as to say I felt emotions) and the hairs on my arms stood up (though that may partly be related to it being fucking cold in that cinema. The kind of cold where you’re left with one sack, as your balls huddle together for warmth). For all its trivial faults and cheap effects, this is a film that does what it sets out to do. Fault the execution of its parts if you want, but the sum of those parts? Man, that shit adds up to a solid movie. From what I was feeling, I am 100% sure that the applause as the credits began to roll was genuine appreciation, not just something that we were ‘supposed’ to be doing.

Spare me the big budget, the fancy costumes, the big names. You don’t even need that much of a gimmick (heck, this movie is almost a bottle-episode). Just give your characters some honest motivation, and don’t sell them out just to please some bullshit target demographic.

Just keep them honest. Earn your ending. Do that, and you win at movies.

For those of you who have no interest in Star Trek, or spaceships, or lasers or technobabble, that doesn’t matter. I think this is still a film for you. It would be a shame to spoil it, so I’ll be tactful: this is a film with many clear and well executed themes. It deals with the cost of revenge and the value of trust/friendship, and it says some surprisingly poignant things about growing up and confronting fears, and the consequences of pride/ego. Change some names, scale things down (or even up), and transplant this to an American city, and it’s not as far off from an episode of The Wire or Breaking Bad as you may think. And again, I won’t spoil anything, but personally, I think the ending is beautiful.

This is not something I was expecting to feel when I turned up for free beer/pizza and a sci-fi romp with friends. But here we are. Give me two hours in space and I’ll give you a little less cynicism.

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4 Responses to Outgrowing cynicism: an accidental review of Wrath of Khan

  1. sj says:

    I think I need to see this in a theatre.

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