At first, it was going to be a return to the small screen. “Star Trek II” was the name of a TV show. And as they’re putting it together, they’re starting to realize that it’s not a TV series like they thought at first but, instead, should be a big-screen big-budget motion picture to compete with “Star Wars.” Because LOOK AT ALL THE MONEY!
So they make a movie instead in 1979, and they spend a lot of money on it and they hire a huge famous director… but they really don’t do anything like “Star Wars” at all. And that’s to their credit. They decided that they weren’t going to imitate it in terms of structure or style or storytelling. They made a “Star Trek” movie, definitely… although I’d argue that Wise is also sort of obviously madly in love with “2001” to some extent. And that movie, that film that is sort of uncompromised and a best-effort and genuinely sort of ambitious and daring… tanks.
Relatively speaking. It wasn’t so embarrassing that people were fired, but it wasn’t the cultural sensation Paramount was hoping for. Gee, can you imagine a summer where a “Star Trek” film came out and made $250 million? Crazy, right? Never happen. But at Paramount, they had to be thinking that Lucas was doing something right, and it was something they were doing wrong.
Because “The Empire Strikes Back” came out, and it was another monster hit. So you’d better believe that when they went to camera with a second “Star Trek” movie, they were a lot more open to the idea of turning up the space opera and turning down the Roddenberry. Literally, with the replacement of the show’s creator by new producer Harve Bennett, who was the one who picked the episode “Space Seed” and suggested creating a sequel to it, bringing back a villain from the show so that they could play off of an established history. Sort of like having an Empire that… you know… strikes back.
The result is what gave them the rest of the franchise. It was a turning point, and at the moment they absolutely had to do it, they stuck the landing.
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The film was shot on the cheap, re-using sets and props from the first movie, but repurposed, and it feels far more like a TV production than the first film did. Doesn’t matter, though, because there’s so much more energy to this entry in the series, and that energy is what makes this such an engaging movie. Over half the film was shot on one basic set, but you’d never notice it while watching. The entire film exists as a polar struggle between two enormous personalities, and that wrestling match of ego is riveting, a testament to just how much fun it is to watch actors absolutely chew the scenery with abandon.
This is one of those movies that just plain works, from start to finish, as a movie. Regardless of how it fits into the “Star Trek” franchise, this is a plain ol’ fashioned crackin’ good yarn. Great villain. Great conflict. And pitch-perfect character writing all the way down the line. William Shatner has never exuded more confidence as Kirk, from the opening scenes discussing the Kobiyashi Maru to the actual battles of will with Khan to the scene pictured next to this article, where his 20 year friendship comes to a tragic end. I have mixed feelings about Shatner as an actor overall, but there’s a reason his Kirk is iconic, and his work in this film is a big part of that. Ricardo Montalban was one of those guys who should have been a giant movie star, except there was no room in the Hollywood system for a guy with his ethnic background to ever truly break out as a leading man. He plays single-minded vengeance here so well that it’s that rare mix of genuine menace and just plain pleasure.
The BluRay transfer here is the definitive version of the film so far on home video, and with the exception of some highly over-jacked DNR in the first third of the film, it’s a great high-def transfer overall. As strong as the picture is, it’s the sound that really makes this one a stand-out, the remastered surround lending new weight to the space battles and that rousing score.
Keep in mind… the point of revisiting these films was to play them for the first time for the nascent “Trek” nerd in the house. One thing I didn’t stop to consider when I put the film on for Toshi, though. We had just watched the V’ger movie, so I was getting questions about V’ger, nonstop, questions I guarantee no one who wrote the movie ever considered.
“Daddy, who is V’ger? What does he do? Does he have a house? Does V’ger have a toothbrush? Do you think V’ger has a bed like my bed is a big bed now, right? What do you think V’ger likes to eat? Do you think V’ger would come to my party?”
He loved Spock in “The Motion Picture,” and he seemed to think that Spock was the guy who was in charge of everything. That, plus his reaction to the JJ Abrams film in the theater, had him stewing in a powerful love for Spock.
And, you know… Spock sort of… well, I assume you’ve seen the movie. So you know exactly what he does in this film. I didn’t really think about that until after I hit play on this particular film. “Oh, wow… I wonder how Toshi’s going to react to that happening to Spock.”
As it turns out, he was so sad he cried. But not until he asked me to clarify. “Spock is dead forever?”
“Yes,” I said, very serious. “To save everyone else.”
He nodded, serious, big eyes already wet, and said, “I think Spock was good to do that. I think that’s why Kirk, he like him to work for him on the Enterprise, right? Because he would save all the people?” And when I confirmed his guess, he seemed pleased with himself, then turned back to the TV. He stood at attention for the scene where Spock’s tube is shot into space. And he yelled at me to stand up, too.
For the rest of the day, Toshi played “Trek” with the same vigor as before, but all of the scenarios he played out seemed more catastrophic than before. The Enterprise blew up time after time, and Toshi told me again before bed that night how sad he was about Spock, and how much he hated Khan.
I told him to not worry too much, since we’d be watching “The Search For Spock” the next day, and that simple assurance… that there was some hope, that there was something worth searching for… was enough to let him coast off to an uneasy sleep.
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