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Thursday, September 15, 2016


Originally part of the Wonders in the Dark top 100 science fiction films list, where it was #75.

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In the wake of yet another new film (released in July) and much scuttlebutt regarding a new TV show reboot, this movie remains the cleanest, clearest reiteration of the ethos of the original show to date. Creator Gene Roddenberry himself may have wanted the show and films to reflect the more sober traits of his original conception – de facto egalitarianism, benevolent imperialism, the headiness of exploration itself, as exemplified in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and the Next Generation series (1987-1994, plus films) and other recombinations of the franchise through the decades, but what he got, and what fans carry deep in their hearts for the entire Star Trek universe, is much closer to what’s captured in the energy, interpersonal dynamics, and downright fun of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
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When the movie was first released, it was without its numerical signifier. The fact makes me think the animating principle behind its making wasn’t too far from the reboot mentality we see so rampant now, including with its own namesake. So divergent is the second film from the first in terms of tone, look, and character, you can practically hear the movie saying “scratch that, how bout this.” But the way the movie was cooked up doesn’t sound like a formula for greatness – in fact, it smells a lot like low self-esteem. Hire a guy, director Nicholas Meyer (a relative newbie, versus the venerable old-school hero-hire of The Motion Picture‘s Robert Wise), who had no previous love for the TV show, marry him to a budget that was a fraction of its predecessor’s, then cobble bits and pieces from five different commissioned scripts into a makeshift spine for a story – an estranged son here, a world-building bomb there, the death of a friend somewhere in the mix. Sounds like a recipe for something lumpy and slapdash.
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But Meyer was smart – he hadn’t seen many episodes, so he hunkered down in a Paramount screening room and watched the whole stack of ’em, and came away with three fundamental framing insights. His first takeaway is right there in the first image of the movie: he divined that the first thing springing to mind when fans think of the show, almost at a subconscious level, is Spock’s ears – so he parked one of them front and center in the first shot, as Spock studies a screen on the bridge of the Enterprise. Meyer’s sense that fans of the show had a strong emotional connection to the one character who shows zero emotions became a principle that guides the movie’s emotional through-line right into the end credits. The second insight was the show’s DNA-deep connection to both pirate and submarine fare, that the heart of the premise was “gunboat diplomacy”. So he and writers Harve Bennett (who also produced the movie) and Jack Soward crafted the story into a Sea Hawk or Captain Blood style adventure, with its central figure, Kirk, a 23rd century Horatio Hornblower. The movie eventually focuses on two ships at war that are technologically crippled, banking slow in deep space, and wrecking each other’s broadsides like futuristic textbook plates at West Point, Mars Campus. All of which ultimately strips away the usual reliance (pun partially intended) on technology to save the day and pushes the driving force of the drama instead toward a game of sheer wits. Federation tech school jargon that became endemic in later iterations of the TV show can sometimes disengage the adventure. Here, without it, it’s just this guy in this disabled ship against this guy in this disabled ship, and it’s beautifully simple.
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But the most significant takeaway is the true key to the success of the movie: there’s a central triangle that informs everything else about the show, one formed by the personalities of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Solving a problem supplies these three characters with something to do, but the meat of the movie is really the comfortable camaraderie among them. You know right away they have long backstories together, and that they love each other, a sense you get even if you haven’t seen any of the old episodes. This dynamic puts it in fine company with another favorite, Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks’ movie that famously feels less about the plot than it does about a group of characters, or more accurately a group of actors, getting to hang out together. The loping, genial vibe of that entire movie is built to keep perfect time with John Wayne’s languid gait and drawl. Likewise, Wrath of Khan jettisons the stultified, ponderous, 2001-lite tone of the original movie, and aligns itself more with the rhythms of the key central unit, that at-once meditating, opinionated, action-ready triangle. The new dynamic pulls the fun and friendship angle from the ’60s show and drops it into a movie that is itself a continuation of a story from the ’60s show – it allows the deepest fondness for the past to be the sturdiest foundation of what is to come in the film. The ethical debate after the three view the Genesis video is the heart of the movie in terms of the old show – the fact that they can be friends and still have these angry moments – that they care enough to argue about it at all. In the three years of that original five-year mission that we got to see, that kind of bond was forged to the point it can never be realistically questioned. It just is.
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The movie’s major motif is death/rebirth, “life from lifelessness”, youth/old age – essentially hanging a lantern on the hairpieces. The innately downbeat essence of it all works so well within the otherwise action-anchored frame thanks to how fluidly and humorously those themes are set up in the first part of the movie. The Kobayashi Maru sequence is the perfect short film to give us everything we need to know about what the movie will “say” and how it will say it: failure on the bridge, the simulation of high-profile death, a test of the “no-win situation” once circumvented by the same man who now administers the test, the subtle touch of Kirk’s possession of a book that begins “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Then in the next few scenes we learn it is, of all days, Kirk’s birthday, that he’s been promoted out of his essential calling in life, that he’s feeling useless, that he’s surrounded by a crew that’s less than half his age, that he goes home to an apartment with no mementos of a family life, but is rife with antiques – things harkening back to the past, things which he’s lost or never had – that he’s only on the ship that day as a sort of hood ornament on the showroom’s classiest car, and, of course, that he and the crew soon become embroiled in the rescue of a machine that literally makes newness from death. The movie is so single-minded in its rollout of these mortality-related themes in the first half hour that the rest of the plot is infused and illuminated in ways that help it transcend mere adventure.
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Then, at last, these thematic elements get fire-tested when the plot proper kicks in and Kirk gets a rude visit by the loose cannon result of his own mistakes, a situation ingeniously unspooling out of the final moments of the original series episode Space Seed. It was fifteen years prior, and the Enterprise had stumbled on a derelict basket in the reeds, the Botany Bay, holding the sleep-chambered remnants of a genetically-enhanced breed of human from the 1990s, über-humans, led by a hulking dynamo of wily charisma, Khan, played by… a hulking dynamo of wily charisma, Ricardo Montalban. Once awakened, so commences Khan’s takeover of the ship, the ensuing battle of brawn and brain, and the eventual banishing of Khan and his followers onto a remote planet to fend for themselves. We see from the film’s re-introduction of that hearty band that the titular wrath of Khan is fairly well justified: the planet has turned on its axis, has become an uninhabitable wasteland, and many have died, including his beloved wife. The Khan that results, and the vengeance he swears on Kirk, is indeed what has “sprung from the seed” Kirk planted those years ago. Khan feels forsaken, abandoned by Kirk, and fully justified in meting out his fury – visceral stakes that play parallel to the emotional stakes infused in the revelation of a son Kirk has also effectively abandoned. Khan swipes a Federation ship, the Reliant, and confronts Kirk in his own living room, the bridge of the Enterprise. When Kirk rises into frame, seeing the figure on the screen, we see the look on his face and we can practically watch the entirety of Space Seed play across his eyes in fast forward. He’s positively wobbly-kneed. Meyer, et al, have allowed Kirk, maybe truly for the first time, to be, in these initial Khan scenes, more than a little unsure of himself. On the show, we rarely had doubt that he knew his way out of any situation. Here, his character is shown to be more last-minute and desperate in moments of crisis than ever before. There’s a keen trace of the previous summer’s Indiana Jones in Kirk’s expression when he turns from the first encounter with Khan and says he “just got caught with his britches down.” I wonder if some of that film’s embracing of a character “just making it up as he’s going” didn’t rub off on the writers of this film. So it’s the head-to-head of two alpha figures, one a juggernaut amalgam of Ahab, Lear, and Lucifer, and near-one-dimensionally bent on revenge, and one a hero shot through with age-driven self-doubt. It’s a thrill to watch Kirk stumble. A movie with a nemesis strong enough that, for even five minutes, the audience is thrown into doubt about the hero’s ability to win, is a great feat rarely seen in most modern action movies.
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One of the things that keeps the movie lovable is its undeniable cheese factor, most colorfully embodied in the dueling hamminess of Shatner and Montalban. Shatner is restrained for the most part – Meyer admits he went for more takes than usual with him, not because Shatner wasn’t being acceptably Kirk, but because he knew he’d get a more real performance from Shatner only after he got bored with the lines. Meanwhile, Meyer allows Montalban to fully embrace the cheese that is the beating heart of Khan. There are many great moments of Khan seething out his lines, a villainous whisper, but even those moments are infused with a bigness that cannot be contained. Montalban’s performance as Khan in the Space Seed episode is almost at times too over-the-top to watch – it’s not a bad performance, just one that wants to spill outside confines of a mere TV production. These sorts of broad strokes will always fit better in a movie. But his performance, above and beyond anything else in the movie, is what ultimately makes it as fun as it is on repeat viewings. Shatner’s performance is tamped down in The Motion Picture as well, but so is that entire movie – there’s no real sense of fun, Wise bringing his best Andromeda Strain game face to the proceedings, stealing it almost entirely away from the adventure category. But in Khan, Kirk is tamped down in a way that allows there to be balance against the unstoppable energy of Montalban’s performance. The biggest exception is perhaps the most famous pop-culture moment from the movie: Kirk shouting “Khaaan!!” It’s become a cultural catch-all for any argument brandished against Shatner’s acting. But allow me to posit a defense for this notably ridiculed moment: it’s not Shatner going over the top, it’s Kirk. He, in that moment, already knows he’s going to be rescued, he’s already set it up with Spock to beam them out in two hours. But he has to convince Khan that he actually believes he’s doomed along with the rest inside the center of a dead planet, so Kirk goes over the top to communicate with Khan at the only pitch he knows Khan will hear – big. You can’t blame Kirk if he goes over the top: he’s not an actor, Jim, he’s a starship admiral. In any case, there’s probably a justification at the ready for any “blemish” called out from a fan’s beloved movie. I’m willing to enjoy moments like this in any of the original crew films (yes, even Star Trek V!), not for the budget-forced or ego-excessive flaws they’re perceived as, but for the fun they’re supposed to inspire, hamminess and all.
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By way of conclusion, a bit of perhaps sentimental testimony: I was eleven, sitting in the movie theater, watching these characters that’d become my friends in the old TV reruns, now giant, now loud, now in real, exploding, one hundred percent danger instead of just TV danger. I’m still stunned when Spock takes that short moment to let his salvation plan get 3D in his brain, then leaps up to make it happen. I want to tell him to stop! – but somehow I know this is how it’s got to be. And the palm-to-palm farewell. I admit I still get choked up. Today, it’s not just that a friend is gone; I know full well there’sStar Trek III and beyond. Today, it’s that my age makes me relate less to Spock’s singular act of sacrifice, and more the deep-down-in-the-screenplay meditation on the pangs of getting older, and the changes that hit that don’t have automatically built-in sequels. What moves me most now is watching Shatner’s humbled Kirk, God bless ‘im, pondering his own regrets, coming face to face with old mistakes, and embracing the opportunities that come so rarely to renew an old lost love. For me, and apparently many others, the movie, for all its audience-friendly action and its fairly simple black hat/white hat set-ups, is deeply philosophical, mature and completely satisfying.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


Originally part of the Wonders in the Dark top 100 science fiction films list, where it was #93.

I saw Dr. Strangelove for the first time in my mid-teens. This was the ’80s and my number one preoccupation in life was to not get blown up by a nuclear bomb. It was inevitable as far as I was concerned, the only question was when. The fear may not have been as palpable as, say, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or during the years following, when the psychological terror of coming so close to nuclear winter was metastasizing into the permanent background of daily life. For me, it wasn’t the news so much as it was popular culture that stoked my nerves, buffeted as I was on all sides by the latent nuclear threat in movies like WarGames (1983) and Red Dawn (1984) and, especially indelible, the terrifying, too-close-to-home imagery of The Day After (1983). I was more than once thrown into a homework-defeating panic over being incinerated where I sat. Alongside that, quite salvific given my dark imagination, was my burgeoning love for comedy – Abbott & Costello gave way to the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks gave way to Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis gave way to Jacques Tati, and all of it cinched together with the constant drumbeat of nose-thumbing meta-media like SNL, Letterman, Mad Magazine, and Looney Tunes, all of which encouraged the embracing of an already-sarcastic approach to culture and authority. Into this mix of legit fear and un-won adolescent mockery came Dr. Strangelove… and it was the greatest, most sophisticated, out-of-reach piece of art I’d ever laid eyes on.
I’m clearly not alone. It’s the perfect comedy, as agreed upon by the readers of this very site in their Comedy Countdown back in 2012, and as honored at that time by a typically comprehensive, surgical essay written by Roderick Heath, an essay that practically negates the need for another word to be written about it. (Yet here I am.) Needless to say, if there’s anyone wanting an encyclopedic, end-all-need examination of the film, please refer to his titanic essay
As for what follows, it’s all been covered before, cause how could it not, but the observations below are the simple, perfect nuts and bolts of the thing that have kept me enamored of it for decades. Kubrick siphoned comedy up from the depths of a quite serious source book (Peter George’s Red Alert), then restrained the comedy by scrapping an already filmed over-the-top pie fight in the War Room. In between these two major tonal adjustments, resting perfectly on the pinpoint nexus of dark and funny, is where the movie lives. We know it’s serious because of what the characters are saying; we know it’s funny because of how they’re saying it: the most internationally destabilizing act possible, instigated by a gone-mad Air Force general, alongside all of the commentary on that act, by the men whose job it is to keep it from happening at all costs and then clean it up if it does, must be believed because of the dry authority behind it, but cannot be believed because the implications mean the destruction of all life on earth.
Among the film’s chief accomplishments for me is that Kubrick and writer Terry Southern (reworking a script by Kubrick and George) incorporate almost every kind of comedy to serve its ends: It PARODIES the by-then well-established political/military procedural, slickly epitomized by concurrent dramas like The Best ManAdvise & ConsentThe Manchurian Candidate – and, presciently acts as the perfect send-up of its serio-heady doppelgänger, Fail-Safe, which was out later the same year (and was based on a book so similar to Red Alert, that George sued for plagiarism). One wonders if Kubrick, beyond simply divining the absurd guts deep inside George’s book, and ever the obsessive micro-manager, saw Fail-Safe looming and changed his tack to up-end any likely comparisons. In any case, it’s as much a parody of that brand of movie, with its detailed focus on the minutia of political and military hubris, as Airplane! is a parody of the Airport series that spanned the decade before it, and, more generally, the by-then prominent, if already moribund, star-studded disaster movie. Strangelove also lays the foundation for Airplane!'s style of verbal delivery, which relies for its laughs on the actor’s ability to maintain an air of deadly seriousness while uttering the most absurd lines of their career. But whereas a movie like Airplane! is an example of a pure parody, it could never be accused of SATIRIZING anything, which Strangelove most assuredly does. It would be a stretch to say the Zuckers and Abrahams set out to skewer the airline industry for its incompetence and institutionalized malfeasance. No, they were going for laughs alone. Dr. Strangelove, on the other hand, goes for laughs riffing on our understanding of political dramas as taught to us by the ones surrounding it, while also taking direct aim at the evil that lurks within the very construct of government, national security, and the political philosophy that cries “Fight fire with fear of fire!” Then, as if to short-circuit any accusation of pomposity, the movie also employs ample WORDPLAY – it’s wall-to-wall quotable, withdetailed specificity running alongside clever turns of phrase and on-the-nosecharacter names, all working like separate EQ knobs on a mixing board until the combination is harmonious – and finally, like a cherry on top, there’s a steady dose of PHYSICAL HUMOR, from Turgidson’s tumbling pratfall, to spritzing soda in Guano’s face, to, yes, fighting in the War Room.
However, from Rod’s essay, a tidbit: “One aspect vital to appreciating Dr. Strangelove is the degree to which it is not a comedy at all.” Of course, it’s like plucking a verse out of holy writ to make your own lesser point, a sacrilege in any case. But I’m evoking it for the most humble of admissions: that I don’t really understand why Dr. Strangelove is on this list at all. I leapt upon it during the dog-pile phase of title assignments because I love it so much, and I looked forward to writing something about my personal experience with it. That is, until I was hit by the gut-punch of my own ignorance re: its genre elasticity. Though it’s not often thought of as a science-fiction movie, this list and many sources seem quite content to place it in that genre. I simply have difficulty making the leap. Imagine my surprise when, in my online hunting and pecking, I discovered film received from the World Science Fiction Society a Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation in 1965, its legitimacy pronounced by its being surrounded on the chronological list by a clutch of Twilight Zones and Star Treks. I can see the reasoning: the movie deals with the resultant mayhem so predictable anytime man tries to wrangle huge advances in technology inside the structure of ages old institutions, full as they are of hubris, inertia, and corruptible men. It also, though forced, can fit itself into the sub-sci-fi, disaster/ apocalypse genre. The way I accept that one is by thinking of the film as a prequel to a post-apocalyptic movie. When the final sequence of a film is a montage of actual nuclear explosions, one does not have to strain to imagine how these same characters, or at least the ones that might survive, would manage in the new paradigm. But as for me, I’m willing, if anyone wants to join me, to forget labels at all, and simply view the movie as a love letter from a few darkly funny men to the world, one that says, “Well, here we are, this is apparently how we are, and this is apparently how we end… but how ’bout a little laugh before we shuffle off this mortal coil.”
A final obvious point still worth celebrating: there isn’t a flawed performance in the movie, and one actor in particular had three chances to fail. Peter Sellers completely manifests three different energies within the movie – embodying, as they loosely do, the id (barely-contained Dr. Strangelove), the ego (equilibrium-obsessed Pres. Muffley), and the superego (idle-until-guilting Capt. Mandrake) of all of humanity, each playing out their part in this ultimate laboratory test of human maturity under pressure. But while Sellers is beyond perfect in each of his three roles, I think the highest-wire achievements belong to Sterling Hayden – who must somehow believe every word of his own outrageous, fluid-based self-justification – and George C. Scott – who must somehow believe every one of his pouty, hyper, arm-flapping, tumbling physical expressions. Together, the verbal and the physical, along with Kubrick’s slide-rule visual perfection, are absorbed into the dark and the funny, a cook so pure that it distracts us until the very end from the ultimate dark realization: there’s little chance that scrawny humanity, with its twin passions of technology and war, will successfully avoid getting its hair permanently mussed.