Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dreamworks Animation Studio is one of the most successful producers of animated movies in the world, but they are by no means consistent with their output.  Up through the release of the first Shrek film, Dreamworks' intentions seemed to be to challenge the Disney formula and create darker, edgier, and more adult-oriented films (The Prince of Egypt, Antz, etc.). But after Shrek? There was no more Disney formula to challenge; Shrek pummeled Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire at the box office that year, and essentially started a new trend in animation.  This trend includes, but is not limited to:

1.) an unnecessarily celebrity-studded voice cast
2). pop-culture references
3.) non-musical narrative
4. CGI animation ONLY

Looking for the perfect example?  Go and watch Shark Tale again.  Every single trope of the 2000s era of animation is embodied by that mass of celluloid.  By 2005, Disney was the one aping their former rival, with the somewhat embarrassing release of , the studio's low point of their 2000s slump.  Now where am I going with all of this?

It amazes me that a studio born of Jeffery Katzenburg's ill will against Disney actually produces movies with genuine heart and beauty nowadays.  The years after Shrek were a weird time for animation, and though Pixar films kept up their integrity, all other animation studios were constantly trying to capture that certain Shrek-ness (Hoodwinked).  But somehow, someway, things changed.  First, Dreamworks' own Kung Fu Panda changed things up by relying on characters, story, and visuals to carry it through without a pop-culture joke in sight.  While Dreamworks' output is still inconsistent, films like Megamind and How to Train Your Dragon really cemented its status as one of the great animation studios not just in terms of profitability, but in quality.

So here we are, in our first Pixar-less year since 2005, and besides The Lego Movie, animation hasn't had much box office presence (show of hands... who actually went to see The Nut Job?).  I was looking forward to seeing How to Train Your Dragon 2, but I hadn't seen much promotional material and wasn't really sure what to expect.  What Dragon 2 delivers is everything you should expect from a great sequel; expansion of the world, further development of the characters, and advancement of the first film's story while not undoing the point of the first film.  It's a far cry from the Shrek-inspired films of the 2000s, and compared to them, it's a freakin' masterpiece.

No, you know what?  It's a masterpiece all on its own.  This isn't just a kid's movie with some cheap adult humor or references; its a damn good movie that a person of any age can watch and enjoy.  We catch up with the now twenty-year-old Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, pretty much born to play this role)who has completely changed his Viking village's way of life by integrating their former enemies, the dragons, into everyday life.  Hiccup's father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is preparing Hiccup to take his place as leader of the village, but Hiccup would rather explore the world and chart new territory with his personal dragon, and best friend, Toothless.

Things change when Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) stumble upon another Viking culture nearby that has enslaved an army of dragons.  The leader of this clan is Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who at first seems to be just a run-of-the-mill power-hungry dictator, but turns out to be more sinister than Hiccup could have expected.  Along for this ride are his "friends" in the from of the jock-like Snotlout (Jonah Hill), bickering twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (T.J. Miller and Kristen Wigg), the dragon fanboy Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and  Hiccup's former mentor Gobber (Craig Ferguson).

Dragon 2 combines so many different tones and story threads that it's a true testament to the filmmakers that the thing isn't a mess.  It flows beautifully between hilarious and melancholy, exciting and calm, breathtaking and tear-jerking.  The stunning visuals draw you in with their incredible scope, and the colors and designs are so warm and inviting that you just want to live there.  3D was a major selling point of the first film, giving the viewers that "feeling of flight," but honestly, that film could give me the same feeling if I were watching it on an iPhone.  Just kidding.  Oh please, for the love of God, never ever watch any movie on your iPhone.  The point is, the framing, tracking, and length of the shots are what create the feeling of flying in How to Train Your Dragon, not necessarily the 3D effect.

The same is absolutely true for its sequel.  An early scene with Hiccup riding Toothless through the clouds is eye-melting in how beautiful and visceral it is.  Throughout any of the flight scenes, the speed feels real and the action is that much more exciting.  It also helps that the action scenes are grounded in great character moments between Hiccup and his Dad (and another character who will not be mentioned here DESPITE being completely ruined in the trailer).  I was genuinely surprised by just how well the dramatic moments work, never veering too melodramatically and never playing it too safe.  This is sort of like Dreamworks' own Lion King, if that makes any sense.

There are heavy moments to be sure, and spoiling them here would be no fun.  But there's humor here as well, and while I didn't feel that all of the comic relief characters were necessary, there are parts that made me laugh really hard.  The greatest laughs come from the subplot involving one of Drago's henchmen, Eret (Kit Harrington) and Ruffnut, who has an instant crush on  him despite the other boys' continued attempts to impress her.  Astrid unfortunately doesn't have much presence in the film, which is a shame because she was one of my favorite characters in the first film.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 can now join the great (and exclusive) pantheon of sequels that are just as good, if not better, than their predecessors.  Personally, the first film represents the very best that Dreamworks can do in the modern era of animation (meaning CGI only animation, celebrity voices, etc.), and the second represents the very same.  Chris Sanders (creator of Lilo and Stitch and the first How to Train Your Dragon) handed over the reigns to his long-time collaborator Dean DeBlois this time around, and none of the heart or creativity from the first film got lost in the transition.  It's a shame that the film hasn't been turning heads at the box office, and will ultimately be another minor disappointment (financially) for the studio, joining the ranks of Mr. Peabody and Sherman and Rise of the Guardians.  Hopefully it doesn't discourage them from making ambitious and thoughtful animated gems like this one.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

The Toho Company has produced 28 films featuring their star of stars, Godzilla.  The 1954 original was the first of its kind; a movie about a giant creature that's come to destroy us all, born out of the fires of our own self-destruction and brought to cinematic life through a guy in a lizard suit smashing miniature buildings and airplanes.  At first, Godzilla was a symbol of nuclear holocaust and echoing Japan's suffering after World War II,  But, as time progressed, Godzilla became sort of an antihero in his own movies, taking down other creatures that have come to destroy Earth.  They can be a lot of fun, especially if you watched them as a kid (which I did, if you couldn't tell).  Unlike the '54 original, these are generally not very good movies, Japanese original or American recut/dub.  Some of them, such as King Kong vs Godzilla (1962), are so bad they're good, and others like Mothra (1962) are pretty entertaining, even unironically.  However, few of them resonate the way the original did, no longer portraying Godzilla as a hulking, unstoppable, mysterious, and even frightening force of nature.

The very first all-American Godzilla came out in 1998, and at first, it seemed like it would be the one to brought the titular character back to the big screen as a genuine walking disaster.  As it turned out, walking disaster better describes the movie itself; bad CGI, pointlessly tedious human drama, lame jokes galore, and a horrible performance from Matthew Broderick all sunk the colossal critical failure, (though it turned a healthy profit).

So finally, here we are in 2014, and what a trailer we get!  Here he is; GODZILLA (with awesome Japanese characters in back of the title).  He's coming back to the big screen to end civilization as we know it!  The trailer sells the film like a horror; bleak color palette, incredibly eerie sound design, a voice-over by new Best Actor Ever Bryan Cranston... Ho. Lee. Shit. You could say I was excited, or you could say I had literal crap in my pants.  "Godzilla as a horror film? The way it should be?  The way I've wanted it to be for a long time?" I thought.

Therefore, maybe my ultimate dislike for the film comes from that it is so not that.  I thought I was getting Godzilla: The Terrifying Monster and we got Godzilla: He's a Superhero! It's a disaster film, sure, but not one done in the style of the original film; dark, sobering, and scary, only with today's visual effects.  Its tone may be that of a serious drama, but the story is more like the cheesier Godzilla films of the '60s and '70s.  Spoilers ahead now; there are monsters attacking, and Godzilla has to stop them.  While it seems like Godzilla is here to destroy us at first, one Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe) is convinced that Godzilla exists to bring balance and destroy these monsters that threaten our world.  The monsters themselves are not, I believe, based on any existing Toho monsters. They seem to be made just for this film, and frankly, I don't really like their design.  And that's a huge problem, because we see much more of them than we do Godzilla.

The first act of the film is really pretty solid.  Bryan Cranston plays the scientist that no one will believe (an essential part of any disaster movie), and one day at the nuclear power plant he works at, a strange earthquake has adverse effects on the entire facility.   The scene is really quite good, and I was really on board when I thought that Cranston would be our main character.  It turns out that like Godzilla, we actually don't see a lot of him.  We do, however, get to see a lot of his young adult son.  He snatches main character status away from Cranston after the opening prologue, a development that I'm sure upset many a Breaking Bad fan.

The son is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a soldier who spends a lot of time onscreen, but doesn't have much of a story or character arc.  Did the original film have characters with extensive character development? No, but their screen time was limited.  In addition, that film is only about an hour and a half vs this film which is over two hours.  That extra time we spend with Taylor-Johnson and his family just feels like padding.  I'm not going to bash his performance like I've been seeing others do; he might be a bit wooden, but his acting is not bad.  He's just not given much to do.  Neither is the cast around him, but they're all trying pretty hard to fight against the boring dialogue they've been given.

There's even an entire mid-movie subplot where a little boy is separated from his parents at a train station and Taylor-Johnson protects him during a monster attack.  You're thinking, "Ok, now the movie's plot starts.  He's going to have to stay with and protect this boy, and hopefully he will be reunited with his par... Oh, there they are. Huh."  It lasts about 20 minutes, and there go the last chances of this film having any real tension or human emotion.  The movie needed a little humor, a little color, and a little more mystery.  Things are constantly being explained and people are always saying what they're doing and what they're gonna do.  It's not The Last Airbender bad, it's just a bit lifeless.

While I'll give Godzilla's final showdown credit for finally delivering on some pretty awesome giant-sized fight scenes, it felt like too little too late.  I'll admit I saw this in a lousy theater, with hardly any base to the sound system and a screen that was just too high up for comfort.  Did that detract from my experience? Maybe.  Did my expectation dampen the film that was before me? Definitely. So needless to say, I'll be giving this one another chance when this hits the home market.  But for now, I'm just not impressed, and more than a little disappointed.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Star Trekking: The Search for Spock

Coming off the heels of a great film like Wrath of Khan is no easy feat, and I believe the creative team behind the Trek films had two options: 1.) continue the story right where the last one left off and bring back Spock or 2.) continue the adventures of the Enterprise crew without Spock.  That second option was not happening, and thank God it didn't.  "But Spock is dead!" you say.  "How can he come back? And why bring him back when he had such a great death?" You can take it as a cop-out, or as fan service, but I just can't imagine more Star Trek stories without the pointy-eared bastard.

The crew of the Enterprise returns to Earth after their battle with Khan.  The Genesis Project seems to be a success, tera forming an entire planet within a matter of moments.  Information about this new technology comes into the hands of Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), a Klingon commander who believes that Genesis may have been created as a weapon.  Meanwhile, Dr. McCoy is behaving strangely, occasionally acting and speaking like Spock.

Spock's father Sarek (Mark Lenard) approaches Kirk, who is still grieving the loss of his friend. Sarek asks Kirk confusing questions about where Spock's katra (essentially, his soul) is.  Sarek explains that a Vulcan can transfer their thoughts and memories to a loved one near the end of their life, but Kirk has no idea where it is.  It doesn't take him long to realize that the katra is within McCoy, and they need to get him to the planet Vulcan so that Spock can be properly put to rest.  If they don't do it soon, McCoy won't be able to handle the katra inside him and he will die.

While all this goes on, David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), Kirk's son, along with Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis, replacing Kirstie Alley and doing a better job playing a Vulcan) are researching the Genesis planet and find something peculiar; due to the Genesis device's regenerative effects, Spock's dead body recomposed and caused him to be reborn.  They find him as a child and learn that he his growing at a rapid rate.  In addition, the planet is aging too quickly to remain stable, and will destroy itself within hours.

All of this action keeps the film feeling busy without being particularly engaging, which unfortunately makes it a far less satisfying film than its predecessor.  Being a direct sequel is great and all until you realize that this film only exists to be a follow-up to Wrath of Khan.  The story about the Enterprise crew commandeering the ship from Starfleet, and the ensuing battles, are only there as time fillers for the true reason the film was made; to bring back Spock.  However, the film is not without its merits.

The cast has a lot of fun with their parts, feeling truly like a family for the first time since the original series.  William Shatner and Deforest Kelly do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the acting, and they pull it off very nicely (like they have for all three films so far).  They share moments that one could imagine coming straight out of the TV show, and it makes me think how great a sequel TV series featuring the original characters might have been.

In fact, from (obvious) set design to the dialogue, Search for Spock feels like a movie version of the show, but in a tongue-in-cheek way that doesn't really emulate Wrath of Khan's more serious tone.  Wrath of Khan made Star Trek cinematic. Search for Spock makes Star Trek feel like it was "made for TV" again.  Though this direction adds a bit of charm, I like Star Trek when it takes itself a bit more seriously, even when the subject matter is painfully silly.

Silly is actually the perfect word to describe Search for Spock.  If you take this movie too seriously, you will probably lose your mind;  Spock reforming as a child is the most ridiculous yet brilliant way to explain his resurrection, and I'm honestly still making up my mind as to whether or not I like the concept.  It works a lot better than something like Captain Barbossa's resurrection explanation in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but that's a topic for another day.  Just think about it; Spock melting into a gelatinous ooze... morphing into a fetus... eventually growing into Spock again... it's just weird.  Though I typically like weird, this might be a bit too much for me to swallow.  It's also just a bit too convenient.

Leonard Nimoy, who at the time had been tired of playing Spock, initially only did Wrath of Khan because his character would die at the end.  However, he liked that film so much that not only did he want to come back as the character, he was willing to direct the next film.  For a first-time director, he does a great job of getting emotion from the actors and directing the action set pieces.   However, the story needed work to make it feel more like its own film and less like an epilogue, which it often does.

Christopher Lloyd plays Kruge well, though he was a bit more restrained than I was expecting. His portrayal of Doc Brown is one of my favorite screen characters of all time, so it's odd to see Lloyd playing a relatively standard Klingon general here.  His backstory and motivations are muddled, and nothing about him resonates as being more than just your standard, heartless villain.  Still, the make-up on the Klingons is pretty great, and remains iconic.

James Horner is back to do the score, reusing themes and leitmotifs from Wrath of Khan, and once again, it just sounds great.  Being a direct sequel, it seems fitting that the music and art design should match the predecessor, unlike the transition between the first and second films, where I felt that a major remodel to just about everything was beneficiary.  Designs like the Klingon's Bird of Prey ship are pretty great, and even though some of the visual effects look a bit wobbly (the destruction of the Genesis planet), much of the film is pleasing to look at.  Was I ever wowed?  I don't recall.

By the end of Search for Spock, I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. While I wasn't struck with the awful boredom that The Motion Picture left me with, I wasn't as impressed as I was at the end of Wrath of Khan.  Of course, I knew it wasn't going to be that good, but I was still expecting more than a movie's whose purpose was to do nothing more than to bring Spock back.  Is it even really Spock?  It's Spock's body, with a copy of his memories, but the Spock we all know is DEAD.  Or is his katra really his soul? Not really knowing is a bit disturbing.

What elevates it above being disposable is the cast's interactions, entertaining space battles, and an effective moment from Kirk when something pretty awful, perhaps more awful than when Spock died, happens to him.  For all its faults, it did intrigue me enough to continue with the series, and see what lies ahead for the Enterprise crew now that it's been fully reassembled.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Godzilla (1954)

"Godzilla was baptized in the fires of the H-bomb. What could kill it now..?"

With the with newest Godzilla film out of the way this summer, it seems like a good time to expose my love for Toho monster movies and Tokusatsu in general (Japanese shows or movies featuring special effects, if you want a literal translation).   It is a genre that started with a bang back in 1954 with the very first Godzilla movie, also called Gojira.

The history of Godzilla is extremely fascinating, but it's also extremely long, so here's what you need to know: the film was born out of two things; one was the desire for the Toho film studio to create their own monster in response to King Kong's immense popularity in Japan, and the other being the desire to create an allegory for Japanese life after the American nuclear bombs decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Combining horror, disaster, sci-fi, and silliness, director Ishiro Honda and special effects man Eliji Tsuburaya didn't just create the first movie in the longest-running film series in history, they created an icon.

The plot revolves around mysterious disasters taking place in Japan near the ocean and on small islands.  Ships are being attacked and villages are destroyed; no one can explain the phenomenon, but there are rumors that it is a giant sea creature of ancient folklore.  The creature is revealed to be Godzilla, a gigantic dinosaur awoken by nuclear testing.  Apparently Godzilla has been affected by the tests, causing him to emanate his own radiation and even breathe fire (or atomic breath, as it would later be called). 

A scientist named Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) may be the only person who can kill the creature.  He has created a device that can cause a chemical reaction in water that disintegrates oxygen atoms, thus causing any organisms in that water to die of asphyxiation.  Serizawa doesn't want his secret device to be exposed to the world for all the harm it could cause; it could become the next big weapon used by the government to incite a holocaust, and Serizawa couldn't live with himself if it ever did.

While there are other characters in the film, portrayed by  Akira Takarado, Momoko Kochi, Takashi Shimura, and Haruo Nakajima, the only character with much motivation or story is Serizawa.  The majority of the destruction scenes are spent with characters we barely know or don't know at all, and it becomes clear that the film is not a character study, it's a study of destruction and its affect on a society.  Japan underwent incredible trauma from the atomic bomb drops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and if you'd like a more direct depiction of that horror, I'd suggest checking out Barefoot Gen (1983). But as far as parables go, Godzilla excellently portrays the horrors of nuclear devastation using dark imagery and great model work. 

The film really shines in its famous destruction scenes, with Godzilla smashing through buildings, melting telephone poles, and crushing little model cars. We all know that Toho's monster movies never have realistic-looking sets; it's so obviously a man in a lizard suit smashing toys apart that it can be unintentionally funny.  But the work that went into the detailed model sets is really quite impressive, allowing the filmmakers of 60 years ago to accomplish shots that would have been impossible to achieve any other way (other than the too-time-intensive stop-motion techniques that brought the original King Kong to life).  There's also a charm to model sets that is completely missing from modern monster movies, all too concerned with making everything look "real" with glossy CGI and over-the-top action.  Not saying I hated Pacific Rim, but a charming film it ain't. 

The destruction scenes may be fun and all, but I doubt the message about the horrors of atomic warfare would have resonated to strongly if it weren't for the sobering scenes of the aftermath.  Overcrowded hospitals, people suffering from radiation sickness, and lingering shots of buildings reduced to rubble really help hammer in the theme, and add a bit of adult seriousness that is lacking in all of its future sequels. 

Godzilla has just the right blend of sci-fi silliness and serious post World War II subtext to make it memorable, and its easy to see why it spawned such a legacy. While many people have never seen the original Japanese version of the film, I'd highly recommend it over the American recut starring Raymond Burr that was released with new scenes for the English-speaking public.  That version undercuts the nuclear holocaust theme a bit too much for my taste, though it isn't absent entirely. A dark film that doesn't shy away from approaching genuine horror, and takes itself much more seriously than you'd expect, Godzilla himself may be a staple of pop culture, but it's nice to know that his first movie can be considered a genuine classic. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I'm sure even non-film buffs have noticed that Hollywood's been just a little afraid to let new ideas and fresh stories out of the gate.  Sequels, prequels, remakes, re-imaginings, "STOP, STOP, STOP," you cry!  Well... hear me out.  Not only do I like this weekend's sequel to a prequel/remake/re-imagining, but it's truly one of the best science fiction films I've ever seen. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intense, emotional, thought-provoking, dark and heartfelt movie that exceeds all expectations and standards set by its predecessor, and especially past sequels to the Apes franchise.

It's been ten years since the humans were nearly wiped out to extinction.  A virus created in a laboratory has spread throughout the world, and only those with a genetic immunity have been able to survive. Meanwhile, Caesar (Andy Serkis), a hyper-intelligent ape who was the subject of experiments at the very same lab, has been living peacefully in the forests of what used to be San Francisco.  One day, human survivors (Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman, among others) stumble upon the ape tribe, causing a panic.  It turns out that the humans have a barely-functioning city not too far from the apes' refuge, and if something isn't done to bring peace to the two species, all out war is inevitable.

The first film in this new series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, did a great job of setting up its characters and sci-fi elements while paying homage to the original Planet of the Apes, a classic if there ever was one.  Will (James Franco) is a scientist who raises Caesar like a son, giving him love and affection until the day they are forcibly separated, causing Caesar intense rage and motivation for starting an ape revolution. Andy Serkis gave an amazing performance and Rupert Wyatt directed it fantastically. I was worried when I heard that he wouldn't be coming back to direct the sequel, but WOW did I have nothing to fear.

The writing/producing team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver helmed both Rise and Dawn, and I seriously think they could be the next great Hollywood writers (I guess we'll find out when we see Jurassic World; I think I just got excited for that).  With Rise, they craft a tight, complex, and intelligent screenplay that keeps the audience on a tightrope, making them petrified that they could fall at any moment.  The characters are all trying to do the right thing, but prejudice, grief, and insanity are constantly getting in the way.  The story has energy and a fast pace, but not a rushed one, and the writers have many thing happen through actions rather than constant dialogue (I can forgive a bit of exposition-dumping in the first act).  Fans like myself can also spot the references to other Planet of the Apes films, which is much appreciated. The less I say about what actually happens, the better.

While I'm not an advocate for CGI effects (just because they seem to be the only means of special effects movies modern films use), HOLY CRAP did the motion-capture effects look great.  I'm not saying it always looks "real," but it definitely feels real, and if you really gets sucked into the story, the effects disappear completely.  That's a testament to the effects artists as well as the actors, who had to cry and have serious conversations with people wearing tennis ball-covered green jumpsuits and dots all over their faces.  It helps that Caesar is such a great character, given a wide range of emotions that make him sympathetic, charming, and even scary. Dawn is a true achievement in visual effects, and I hope it receives all the recognition it deserves from the academy (sound design, too, is hopefully going to win this one an Oscar). Also as a side note, I saw this in a non-3D RPX theater, and I couldn't be any happier that I did.

Michael Giacchino has provided some of the best scores in recent years (the new Star Trek films, The Incredibles, Up), and here he bangs out another memorable soundtrack.  Orchestrated like a traditional film score, Giacchino homages the original Jerry Goldsmith Planet of the Apes music, but never goes quite as wild or experimental.   There also aren't any leitmotifs that are really memorable, but it still sounds better than anything in The Avengers. Go on, hum the main theme to the "greatest superhero team-up ever." I dare you.

Lastly, I'll talk about the direction, which brings the quality of the film up so much from an already high place that I just want to stand up and applaud.  Matt Reeves (Let Me In) lets shots linger, emotions register, and action play out without shaky-cam, hurried editing, or cheap close-ups.  It feels like a sincere auteur made this movie, and I hope Reeves turns out to be just that.

I couldn't help but feel like this was what Battle for the Planet of the Apes (the fifth and WORST film in the original series) wanted to be, but didn't have the budget or the time necessary to really fulfill what it needed to do; show the first interactions between the intelligent apes and the humans after the fall of civilization.  This gives people like me the movie they've been waiting for all along and didn't realize it, and gives the casual filmgoer an incredible sci-fi story and thriller that improves upon the predecessor.  If this generation of films is to be marked by Hollywood's franchise-building, brand recognition-fueled, cash-grabbing ways, then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proves that maybe that's not always such a bad thing.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Star Trekking: The Wrath of Khan

After the relative disappointment of Star Trek: The Motion picture in 1979, with its massive budget and lackluster returns, it's sort of a miracle that a second Star Trek film was green-lit at all.  But green-lit it was, and in 1982, fans got the film they should have gotten in the first place: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The behind-the-scenes events between first and second films in the saga couldn't have been more different.  The first film was a preproduction nightmare; ten years of rewrites and changes between God-knows-how-many-writers.  Wrath of Khan? Two writers and only one major rewrite.  The Motion Picture had a budget that spun out of control, costing the studio $35 million. Wrath of Khan had a paltry budget of $11.2 million, but hardly shows it.  Reception to The Motion Picture? Lukewarm.  What did people think of Wrath of Khan? You get the picture.

The film opens with a "Kobayashi Maru," a simulation for new Starfleet commanders that is (unknown to them) a no-win scenario.  Admiral Kirk (William Shatner), now on the edge of retirement, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), now captain of the Enterprise, are mentoring the trainees, including the Vulcan named Saavic (Kirstie Alley).  As becomes important later on in the story (and in the reboot film years later), Kirk doesn't believe in no-win scenarios.  He's cheated death, but never really faced it.  This day happens to be Kirk's birthday, and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) celebrates by bringing him a special Klingon wine.  Kirk feels old, and McCoy tells him to stop treating his birthdays like funerals; get out there and take the helm again.

Meanwhile, Chekov (Walter Koenig) is on an expedition to find a planet with no life in order to test a terraforming device known as Genesis.  While on a planet that seems barren and lifeless, Chekov and his unfortunate companion are attacked by a group of people left to die there long ago, and now they want revenge.  What does Chekov have to do with this? The leader of this group is Khan (Ricardo Montalbon), who was a one-off villain from the series in the memorable Space Seed.  Khan and his followers (super-humans as a result of experiments gone wrong) have suffered for over a decade in desert-like conditions, only surviving because of their genetic enhancements.

More specifically, Khan wants revenge on Kirk, who left him and his followers there after they attempted a mutiny aboard the Enterprise back in the season one episode.  The planet was once perfect for preserving life, but soon after it became an unbearable wasteland, and Khan and his people have been suffering ever since.

Now, armed with the knowledge of the Genesis Project, Khan has the perfect weapon he needs to carry out not just his genocidal plans (extinguishing everything considered below his strength and intelligence), but his revenge on Kirk as well.  99% of people know how this film ends, but just a warning, spoilers ahead.

Wrath of Khan impressed me at every turn.  It is in every way the opposite of The Motion Picture; engaging, exciting, character-driven, and most importantly, it feels like Star Trek brought into cinematic form.  What the writers did was ingenious; incorporate an old villain from the TV series and expand on what's already established.  It feels like a sequel to that specific episode, but not a retread by any means. Unlike The Motion Picture, it feels like we are catching up with out old friends after all these years instead of just coldly watching from behind a glass window.  I was also happy to see that the character dynamics are back (and so is the humor).

Essentially, there's an issue that is only briefly explored in the film that humanity faces; the Genesis Project can create life where there is none onto the surface of an entire planet in a ridiculously short amount of time, thus recreating the biblical genesis.  The implications of playing God and creating life are brought up by McCoy and Spock, but they don't necessarily argue.  In the show, Spock would have thought that the device was perfectly logical; it can make a desert planet inhabitable and useful for starving populations and such.  But here, he seems to agree with McCoy, who thinks the idea is ludicrous and immoral.  Spock has changed to thinking a bit less like a computer and more like a human, and that subtle touch is much appreciated.

Character development for Kirk is absolutely excellent, and Shatner has never been better in the role. He shows a wide range of emotions, doesn't ham it up (except perhaps for the famous "KHAN!" moment), and is given a fantastic arc.  Being depressed about getting old is such a relatable emotion, and for the adventure-hungry Kirk to experience that is very in-character.  Things keep escalating as he finds that more things about his past are coming back to haunt him, not just in his old enemy but in his newfound discovery of a life he could have had with Carol Marcus, an old love interest who has since become a renowned scientist.  As the story unfolds, we learn that she raised Kirk's illegitimate son by herself and never told Kirk she even had him.  Yup, Captain Kirk had a son this whole time. Holy shit.

When Kirk finds out the news (while trapped in a space station by Khan), he bows his head in a quiet scene with Carol and says he feels "old."  It's a tear-jerking moment that sums up the movie's theme perfectly.  It's the worst thing that could happen to happen to Captain Kirk, at least at that moment.

The third act has been completely ruined for me by countless parodies and references, including the homage in Into Darkness.  Well not completely; it's an excellent scene in its own right, but it did little for me emotionally because I knew Spock was going to die and I knew exactly how.  He dies saving the Enterprise from the Genesis device, which Khan activates in a last-ditch effort to kill Kirk (while simultaneously committing suicide).  Spock enters the radiated room so he can fix the thing that does the other thing that makes the ship move, and then dies has he and Kirk share one last conversation.  The scene's impact is lessened when trying to watch this retrospectively not only because I know how the scene plays out, but because I know that Spock is coming back. The next movie is called The Search for Spock, so I'm pretty sure I'll be seeing Pointy again soon.

Still, it's a great ending, and it rounds out Kirk's development perfectly.  Ironically, facing Spock's death helps him to feel young, looking toward a melancholy but hopeful future.  He thought his life was over, that he was past his prime; but this experience has reinvigorated his thirst for life.  Re-edits were made to the film after test screenings left the audience a bit depressed, so the new ending leaves us with the possibility that even though Spock is dead, there's hope for his return.  I am unsure if the scene where Spock mind melds with McCoy was added in as well, but if it was, it was a seamless edit.

Music and visuals are so important to any film, but sci-fi is especially reliant on them to inspire spectacle and aw in the audience.  This was about the only thing that the first film did right, with its phenomenal score by Jerry Goldsmith and its gorgeous visuals.  Wrath of Khan's new score is a mix of the classic TV show theme combined with an all new theme, reinforcing the feeling that you are watching a big-screen version of a Star Trek episode.  James Horner provided this score, and even though he gets rightly criticized for re-using his own themes (and even stealing others), there's no denying that his music can be incredibly captivating.  I honestly can't decide whether his or Goldsmith's is the better theme, but both are terrific.  The visual effects for Wrath suffer from a decreased budget, but they're by no means bad.  Besides some wonderful practical effects involving a disgusting ear slug, and some great matte paintings, there's nothing particularly memorable about the effects (but also nothing of note that made me cringe).

Lastly, I'll talk about Ricardo Montalbon (though I won't be talking about his co-star, Ricardo  Montalbon's Chest).   He has a blast in this part, and gives every word he delivers an energetic flair.  Whenever he's onscreen, you stop whatever you're doing and listen to him.  If you were to call him one of the greatest screen villains in history I certainly wouldn't disagree; he has just enough depth and just enough menace to be three dimensional and threatening, not to mention a little psychotic. It's also interesting to note that despite how personal his vendetta is, he never even shares a scene together with Kirk (in the same room anyway).

It's no surprise, given its legacy, that Wrath of Khan is as good as it is.  With some of the best character development the series has ever had, a great story that expands upon the show, and a return to charm and fun that I can only hope is present in the rest of the film series, it's a winner all around.