Here’s probably the least controversial statement to ever hit the web: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN is a really great film. This weekend I had the pleasure of seeing the 4K restoration of the film’s director’s cut at the Star Trek Mission New York convention. The screening also gave those in attendance the great opportunity to hear the film’s director Nicholas Meyer discuss the film in a Q&A. Meyer’s humor and insight into storytelling match the same type of work he put into STAR TREK II, IV, and VI. This Q&A and the film’s restoration emphasize the ways in which blockbuster film-making has both changed and stayed the same in the 30 years since the film’s initial release in 1982. It highlights the direction modern blockbusters should be taking if they want to put out a quality product that maintains the spirit of an existing property while still blazing an original story for a potentially new audience.

By now, we’ve seen plenty of films in the last few years (like SUICIDE SQUAD and FANTASTIC FOUR) where the expectation to meet deadlines superseded the expectation of a quality product. Meyer also faced similar challenges. During the Q&A he told stories of the film’s tumultuous pre-production, such as the unfinished scripts and rushed production to meet the release date. “You booked the movie to open, but you don’t have a script?” Meyer, in the Q&A, claimed to have asked after getting the directing job. What was once shocking to Meyer has now become the industry standard in modern big-budget studio films. From a historical perspective, WRATH OF KHAN was in a unique place in the film landscape. The success of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS had popularized the idea of the summer blockbuster, but studios were not yet at the point where their entire financial stability rested on the success of multi-million dollar film enterprises. This meant that Meyer was given something that many modern blockbuster filmmakers, who work under the same pressures, are not given: creative liberties. 

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As Meyer himself said it on Friday night before the screening: “I made the best film I knew how to make, and I was lucky because I was mostly left alone.” Therein lies the secret to THE WRATH OF KHAN’s longevity: it feels like a modern blockbuster, but tells a story that goes against many of the common practices of modern blockbuster filmmaking.

I’ve discussed on this site before the importance of allowing creative freedom when crafting a remake, but the same pertains to a film like this. That freedom applies to both sides of the production: the studio and the fans. Probably the best advice for any director came from Meyer’s statement: “My job is to make you want what I want.” Unfortunately, directors have to try to appeal to both fans and studio bean counters and find themselves at a creative crossroads. From this struggle for balance came the birth of a new franchise concept: the Legacy-quel.

Right now, Hollywood is beginning to find the benefits of, as Screencrush’s Matt Singer dubbed it, the Legacy-quel (legacy sequel). The idea of the legacy-quel gives studios the chance to have their cynical cash grab cake and eat it too. Rather than remaking a film from a beloved franchise, a Legacy-quel allows them to make a soft reboot that features returning players to turn over the reigns of the story to a new cast. Odds are you’ve probably seen one: TERMINATOR: GENYSIS (which is actually the way that movie is spelled for some reason), JURASSIC WORLD, STAR TREK ‘09, and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, which is easily the most successful of the lot.

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The Legacy-quel’s ability to please both the young and the old fans makes it a practically fool-proof concept. The studios appeal to the original audience as well as a new one, rather than create a poor remake that ends up entertaining no one. While this idea seems great, it still ignores Meyer’s philosophy of changing the audience’s expectations rather than conforming to them.

Ironically, THE WRATH OF KHAN almost seems like a Legacy-quel in its opening scenes. It introduces characters like Saavik (Kristie Alley) and Scotty’s (James Doohan) nephew Peter Preston (Iake Eissinmann). In most Legacy-quels, these two characters would act as our protagonists. The audience would follow their adventures and, in seeing them measure up to the original crew, be met with the audience’s collective approval (see THE FORCE AWAKENS as a perfect blueprint for this type of Legacy-quel structure). THE WRATH OF KHAN even opens with Saavik in the captain’s chair of the U.S.S. Enterprise with James T. Kirk (William Shatner) nowhere in sight; the audience is lead to believe right from the beginning that this will be our new hero.

The film, however, has other intentions. Rather than exploring the next generation, THE WRATH OF KHAN takes a look back at these original characters to find out how they have changed since the series ended in 1969. Kirk’s primary arc in the film is grappling with his own mortality. Here is where Meyer’s philosophy of changing audience desires comes in. It’s difficult to imagine fans clamoring for an introspective character study on aging from action hero Kirk, but that conceit is part of the reason THE WRATH OF KHAN works as a film. Can you imagine what THE FORCE AWAKENS would have been like if it had been about a somber Han Solo in the throes of a mid-life crisis?

As silly as it seems, the concept works because Meyer is allowed to commit to the idea. Kirk, the cavalier man of action who believed there was no such thing as a “no-win scenario” finds himself faced with evidence to the contrary. That evidence comes in the form of a previous victorious solution (his truce with Khan Noonien Singh, played with delightful intensity by Ricardo Montalban, from the original series episode SPACE SEED) ending up spectacularly imploding. It’s enough to shake the typically unflappable Kirk’s confidence until he finally faces his first unwinnable scenario in the form of Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) sacrifice to save the Enterprise.

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This is why STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS’ attempt to essentially remake half of the episode SPACE SEED and half of THE WRATH OF KHAN is unsatisfying. The power of THE WRATH OF KHAN comes from its motifs on aging and mortality. You can’t get that same level of thematic power when baby-faced Chris Pine Kirk and Zachary Quinto Spock are having adventures in the prime of their lives. Instead of finding a new story to tell, the filmmakers of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS played it safe and created a film based on what they thought the audience wanted, a common criticism lobbed at the latest installment of that other Star-numbered franchise. INTO DARKNESS even went as far as to recreate practically down to the word scenes from THE WRATH OF KHAN.

This choice ignores the fact that every moment from KHAN has been earned after decades of being with these characters. Kirk’s eulogy for Spock in THE WRATH OF KHAN has the weight of a decades-long friendship bearing down on every syllable. It’s the best performance of Shatner’s career as Kirk because it’s the most natural: we believe the years are getting to Kirk because we’ve lived those years alongside him. 

It’s impossible to imagine a studio allowing a film like this to be made now because the focus on the “new” aspects of a Legacy-quel is what will guarantee the longevity of a franchise. Meyer’s film, in contrast,  showed the importance of the past. It was, after all, the past that made us love the films. While THE WRATH OF KHAN may indulge us in the exploration of our old favorites, it pushes them in new directions. It never allows the viewer to forget the passage of time in both our own lives and the world of the film. The audience has grown with Kirk and his crew. THE WRATH OF KHAN is a reminder that new ideas are vital for creativity, but a new idea doesn’t require the total replacement of the old ones that built the foundation.


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