Thursday, May 27, 2004

Meyer's major big screen success had been Time After Time, with Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen and David Warner, which brought a fictionalized H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper to 1970s San Francisco in a time machine. He wasn't familiar with Star Trek either (his question, "is that the one that has the alien with the pointy ears?" became his opening shot: on Spock's pointy ear.) But he had strong opinions, some of which turned out to be emphasizing what was already there. He told Shatner that he saw Kirk as a kind of Horatio Hornblower (Shatner told him that's interesting, that's what Roddenberry said to begin with). In his commentary he makes much of all the naval accoutrements he added, but in fact the naval analogy was in Star Trek pretty much from the start.

Meyer wanted to ground Star Trek in recognizable reality. For the most part, this worked, but in other ways it's fortunate he was reigned in. In Allan Asherman's "The Making of Star Trek II" book published when the film came out in 1982, Meyer defends his desire to show a "No Smoking" sign on the bridge: "Everybody had a fit about that. 'How can you do that, it's the future.' They've been smoking for four hundred years. You think it's going to stop in the next two?" Not something to repeat on the DVD commentary a mere 20 years later.

Meyer's script added some inspired business---Kirk getting eyeglasses that he has to use in a crucial scene on the bridge---and a literary sense. Some of it he claims was inspired window-dressing: he thought Kirk should get a real book for his birthday and the first one he picked up was Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities." He soon discovered that, as he says, it is the one book which people know the first line and the last line. It would also be one of the elements of the serendipity that came together thematically even after he had left the project.

Meyer also used literature to sharpen the Khan character. He gave him a wound (the death of his wife) and its cause (Kirk marooning them) and turned him into an Ahab, not only in motivation and action, but in style. He wrote a Melville character, complete with pieces of Ahab's speeches from Moby Dick. (Here's an embarrassing confession for you from an English major: I didn't actually read Moby Dick all the way through until after I'd seen this movie, though I read it for an entirely unrelated reason. And so I was astonished to read Melville's Ahab copping some of Khan's best lines!)

Seeing the film again on DVD, it became clear that the element that most allows many of these pieces to fit together was Ricardo Mantalban's performance. As Meyer points out, you see everything in his face---every thought, as well as every emotion. His larger than life character is matched with a larger than life style.

This works with Shatner's Kirk pretty well, too. Shatner was still finding his movie-Kirk character in this film. He's good in the old action hero Kirk mode, not too bad in the human moments, but awkward in others, especially when he's trying to be the personable, humorous Kirk. He would get much better. But Shatner's style is larger than life to begin with. Khan is even larger, so Kirk looks subtle by comparison, which serves him well in the film's most crucial scenes.

Meyer did a terrific job directing Mantalban. He got him to seem threatening by underplaying, by being quiet and almost courtly. Even his most vengeful speeches are low-key in comparison to the fury he expresses; it says a lot for Khan's confidence. It is that blithe confidence, that maniacal serenity, that of course is his undoing.

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