JB: We should probably move on from The Motion Picture before Trekkies who have spent decades trying to forget it feel compelled to get Klingon on our asses. But, since you brought up the concept of unintentional silliness, I can’t leave The Motion Picture without mentioning that shocking first close-up of the freakishly toe-headed crewmember, which is so abrupt and awkward that it feels like a gag out of Young Frankenstein, nor can I resist the urge to call attention to the (accidental? purposeful?) sexual innuendo of Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) solo encounter with the mysterious entity pronounced “Veejer.” That’s right, “Veejer.”
The, um, climax of The Motion Picture is preceded by Spock’s exploration of a series of cylindrical canals that lead toward what looks like a horizontal space vagina—a space vagina that contains a mysterious “sensor” that shocks Spock with electricity when he tries to mind-meld with it. This is unintentional comedy, I assume, and yet Spock’s narration of his encounter with Veejer might as well be commentary from the peanut gallery on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Says Spock: “I intend to calculate thruster ignition and acceleration rate to coincide with the opening of the Veejer orifice… I have successfully penetrated the next chamber of the alien’s interior… I’m passing through a connecting tunnel, apparently a kind of plasma energy conduit.” You can’t make this stuff up. I can’t figure out if the writers of 30 years ago were as clueless as Fox News analysts of today doing reports on protesters “teabagging” the White House, or if this was intentional symbolism of some sort. (“Veejer” does take on the form of a woman.)
In any case, the Star Trek series got its groove back with Wrath of Khan, which is certainly the most celebrated of the Star Trek films and arguably the best film of the series, particularly if one agrees with Ebert’s assessment that the Star Trek movies (like the Star Wars and James Bond movies) are only as good as their villains. Indeed, Ricardo Montalban’s performance as Khan is tremendous—reviving a character from the TV series and infusing him with the enormousness and flamboyance of a Shakespeare villain, plus the determination and bloodlust of Captain Ahab. Khan is indeed the best of the Star Trek villains, and he brings out the best in William Shatner’s Kirk. Together, these heavyweights are like stars of a space soap opera, puffing out their chests, clenching their jaws and playing to the back row of some distant galaxy. It’s unrestrained, sure, and even silly, if you want it to be. But I could say the same about Humphrey Bogart’s performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Orson Welles’ performance in Citizen Kane, or any number of classic performances. The reason it works is that there’s no other Star Trek film in the series that’s so sure of itself.
EH: As I hinted above, Khan is not my favorite Star Trek movie, but it’s definitely up there at the top (not that there’s much competition, honestly). And a big part of why it’s so enjoyable is Montalban, whose Khan is not only the best villain in the series but the only one worth a damn until Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare-quoting Chang, who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time in The Undiscovered Country to seriously challenge Khan’s title as Star Trek villain supreme. Khan’s evil brilliance would be definitively established if his only appearance was that creepy and disturbing sequence in which he implants Chekov (Walter Koenig) and another officer with wormy parasitic insects that burrow into their ears. For a few squirmy, uncomfortable minutes, Wrath of Khan becomes a surprisingly effective horror movie, and it establishes right away that Khan is not a villain to be fucked with.
The rest of the film doesn’t quite reach those heights again, but you’re right that the operatic conflict—and Montalban and Shatner’s epic quest to out-ham one another—makes this a compulsively entertaining spectacle. The film features some of the best action sequences of the series in the space battles between Khan and the Enterprise crew. And considering the black and white morality of these films on the whole, it’s striking to see the casualties of battle treated more or less equally no matter whose side they’re on. In one scene, director Nicholas Meyer cuts directly from wounded crew members on the Enterprise to Khan on the collapsing bridge of his own ship, where he regretfully watches his right-hand man die. The surprising nuance of this moment is refreshing, and the way it treats the loss of “bad guy” lives as tragic in its own right is quite different from the traditional action movie attitude towards human lives, where the enemies are just cannon fodder. The more action-oriented installments in the Star Trek series usually display the same mentality, so this film is an interesting exception in that respect.
Of course, for all its good points, Khan can’t entirely escape the camp factor, and there’s plenty to laugh at for those so inclined. Like Shatner’s manic overacting: “Khaaaaaaaaaan!” Or the gratuitous shot of Scotty (James Doohan) playing bagpipes at Spock’s funeral. What, the accent and nickname aren’t over-the-top enough? Could they not fit a kilt in the budget as well? The funeral scene is like a case study in everything that Star Trek can get right, and everything that it can get so wrong. It’s a heartfelt scene, centered on that haunting image of the crew aligned in rigid rows of mourners on either side of Spock’s sleek black coffin. That image has a certain inherent grandeur and grace that the direction and editing seem intent on sabotaging. It’s typical: these films never trust the emotional or visual simplicity of their best moments. Every emotion, every idea, has to be triple-underlined and then preferably shouted out directly in dialogue by one of the tactless actors. So instead of being a stark, affecting farewell to one of the series’ most iconic characters, this scene is a barrage of emotional clutter: the overbearing music (“Amazing Grace,” of all things), the rhythmically repeated shots of Saavik’s (Kirstie Alley) tear-stained face, the Kirk speech, those damn bagpipes. Watching it, I can see what the scene might’ve been, can enjoy the dramatic compositions, but the compelling images are surrounded by sentimental muck.