Brian Watanabe wrote the screenplay THE ROGUES GALLERY, which turned into the film OPERATION: ENDGAME starring Rob Corddry, Maggie Q, Ellen Barkin and Zack Galifianakis. Amazing cast aside, it wasn’t quite the film he intended. But that’s another story.
Legendary screenwriter, William Goldman, called sequels, “whores’ movies.” If that’s true, apparently we all love a good whore. It’s yet another summer of sequels and after reading Offender Anderson’s post about seeing STAR TREK II at the Hero Complex Film Festival, I thought I’d write a follow-up to my original blog, “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK vs. THE GODFATHER PART II: WHICH IS THE BEST SEQUEL EVER?*” So I’m “rebooting” the previous post by asking, is STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN the best sequel ever? Humor me as I explain in screenwriting terms, why this isn’t as crazy (or nerdy) as it sounds (alright, it’s still pretty nerdy).
THEME: Life, Death & Bromance
Now, I’m no Trekkie. In fact, I’m actually an old-school STAR WARS geek**. But there are a variety of reasons why STAR TREK II may be the best sequel ever. This video is just one of them:
Beyond Shatner’s memorable howl and Ricardo Montalban’s spectacular chesticles, what makes this film resonate is how it anchors itself in relatable themes. Sure, there’s pointy ears and popcorn, but there’s also aging, death and sacrifice (but in a fun way!). The story centers on Kirk feeling old, saddled by a desk job. He’s thrown into battle with a newbie crew against an uber-villain with a really impressive bench press. Kirk’s mid-life crisis is compounded when he discovers he has a full-grown son with a perm.
But what makes audiences really invest in this story is a theme rooted in the original STAR TREK series: friendship.
This nerd trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and how they face death together, is what elevates this film from so much summer schlock. It turns out the secret sauce of this phaser-filled, fantasy set amongst the stars is how grounded it really is. This movie has heart. And as many sequels have proven, you can’t CGI heart.
STORY & STRUCTURE: 5 Scripts. 5 Elements.
But having heart doesn’t mean there’s a lack of explosions. In fact, ST2 is an epic adventure, packed with story. Director Nicholas Meyer wisely decided to use the five best elements from five previous drafts of the script. Those five elements were: (spoiler alert) Spock dies, new characters Khan and Lt. Savvik, Kirk’s son and the Genesis planet (dovetailing with the theme of life and death).
Meyer interwove those elements together creating a rollercoaster story structure. Count the great scenes: the original crew, dying like red-shirts during the Kobayashi Maru. Chekov getting the tequila worm from hell dropped into his ear. The crew getting flame-broiled, including that kid from ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN. Captain Terrell vaporizing himself (foreshadowing Spock’s sacrifice). The Genesis effect creating life as Spock dies. Set-ups and pay-offs. Twists, turns and reversals. It was also clear that Nick Meyer had a vision. He saw ST2 as a Horatio Hornblower sea epic, from the uniforms and sub-like battles to the epic James Horner score. And that’s the problem with so many sequels. Some directors may have a great eye, but they lack true vision.
CHARACTERS: Kirstie Alley & the Chest of Khan.
One of the keys to STAR TREK is the polarization of its characters. The nerd trinity of Spock (alien logic), McCoy (human passion) and Kirk (Shatnerness) always created conflict. Great sequels introduce compelling, new characters and the youthful Lieutenant Savvik was the perfect polarizing foil to this aging trio. Personally, I prefer to remember Kirstie Alley like this. But that’s just me:
Straight from the cornfields of Wichita, Alley also illustrates the alchemy of casting. While Kirstie moved on to a long, productive career, eating her feelings like a true Vulcan, her replacement in STAR TREK III, Robin Curtis, didn’t.
Then there’s Khan. Known as Mr. Roarke from FANTASY ISLAND and for peddling fine Corinthian leather, Ricardo Montalban’s turn as the Captain Ahab-like Khan was iconic.
But more importantly, Khan was a three-dimensional, sympathetic antagonist. The poor guy was marooned, his planet was destroyed, and his wife was killed by a demon tequila worm. He had every right to seek revenge on Kirk. In fact, you could flip the script and view Khan as the protagonist of ST2 and it would still be a great film. Since Khan never saw his great white whale, Kirk, die, his story ends with revenge indeed being served cold.
But what really makes ST2 a candidate for best sequel ever is this show-stopping plot twist: Spock dies. The tragic and heroic end to the Kirk/Spock bromance is key. In this film, Kirk doesn’t just go through a character arc — he is transformed. The final lines of the film are:
You okay, Jim? How do you feel?
Young. I feel young.
Farm boy to hero. Good son to Godfather. Old to young. Complete character transformation is a hallmark of great films. Now make no mistake, with Shatner’s most Shatneresque performance ever and the usual cheese associated with a genre flick like this, ST2 isn’t CITIZEN KANE. But unlike ALIENS, EMPIRE, GODFATHER II, TOY STORY 2, THE COLOR OF MONEY, T2 or DARK KNIGHT, STAR TREK II was leaps and bounds better than the original. This fact alone puts it in the discussion for best sequel ever.
It all comes back to William Goldman. He once said, “Give the audience what they want, just not how they expect it.” STAR TREK II did exactly that, reviving a flagging franchise. Will the upcoming rebooted, reimagined, STAR TREK 2.0, pt. II, trump Khan? I have no idea. But I’ll be there, jockeying for cup holder space with my 3D glasses on. It’s the whore in me.
*Note: There was no original blog. But wouldn’t it be cool if there was? Just imagine it existed for this “sequel” theme. While you’re at it, imagine it was awesome. Thanks.
** Episodes 1-3 may be the worst sequels ever. But I’ll save that for my fictional Part III.