My personal choice for best movie of all time is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Many would say that the best movie of all time is, by definition, Citizen Kane, that the matter is no longer even open for debate. And make no mistake, I think Citizen Kane is a fine movie. It was expertly done, tells a good story, and was a source of substantial innovation. But I don't join the bandwagon of people who say it's the best movie of all time.
There are also a lot of people who will rank Wrath of Khan at the top of SciFi movies, but I disagree with limiting it that way. I do not mean to say here something so trivial as that I like SciFi movies, Wrath of Khan is the SciFi movie I like best, and therefore clearly it must be the best. Rather, I mean to say that I watch all kinds of movies, and that this is simply “the best.”
First of all, the story is a powerful story. It is full of timeless themes: the quest for adventure, the defense of family, matters of youth and aging, anger, revenge, sacrifice, and even technology at its worst and best.
Wrath of Khan managed to do what Star Trek: The Motion Picture had previously attempted and failed. It took the soul of a well-loved television series and brought it back onto the screen. That was itself quite a landmark. In so doing, it changed the endgame for the television series forever and established the notion of television as multimedia franchise opportunity.
But more than that, it was transformational in a different way. Before this movie, the standard model for beloved characters appearing in movie sequels was like James Bond or Superman, where the character never aged even if the actor did. Aging was not spoken of. Actors were replaced when used up. Wrath of Khan went where none had gone before. They used the time that had elapsed between the television episodes and the movies to their advantage. This movie broke the taboo on aging and did what Star Trek as a TV show had been famous for, it made it ok to talk about something that previously people had only danced around.
Ironically, Citizen Kane was praised for its innovative use of special make-up effects to allow actors to appear to age. One thing that Wrath of Khan does the best is make innovative use of not making people up, or at least not overly, and instead using the actual aging as raw material. So I would say these two masterpieces share in common their having made important innovations, even if in very different ways, in the big screen portrayal of aging.
Khan had been a powerful superman kind of character in the TV show to which this movie was sequel. Rather than either get a new actor or pretend there was no aging, the movie capitalized on the length of time in order to underscore the degree to which time can intensify an emotion. Khan's hatred of Kirk has simmered for far too long, and the result is powerful. But Kirk's friendship with Spock and McCoy and Scotty has also continued over the years, and the power of that friendship is likewise drawn onto the screen. The actors' fears of being old, of being put out to pasture, and their struggle to stay relevant is capitalized upon in order to play Star Fleet officers with exactly the same set of concerns.
The movie was also a transformation in other ways. On the show, one always knew that as the hour closed, things would get better. Even people who had died during the show were often brought back to life. But in the movies, it was not so clear. No one ever quite knew if there was to be another movie. There is a definite feeling of “playing for keeps” in this movie that leaves television behind and forces us to grow up, all of a sudden, and to boldly go where we have feared to go before. As Kirk admits he has always only cheated death—and never really faced it—he brings us to a new understanding of the words “final frontier.” He faces problems we all must face, and in the best tradition of the television series, he brings us along to witness and learn from his experience.
The movie is also well-paced, and full of history-making special effects. For example, the movie-within-a-movie of the Genesis Project was the first ever fully-computer-generated movie sequence. And, aptly enough, the production of this movie shared in common with the Genesis device it portrayed the fact that it was a one-way ticket into the future—once released it could not be undone; the sequence itself was too expensive to redo, and yet it was also unpredictable so no one knew how it would come out until they saw it in action! It had to just be tried to find out how it would work. (Proof of this claim is easily visible in the movie if you watch carefully where the viewer's viewpoint, or “camera,” follows around the equator of the quickly evolving planet and at one point accidentally passes through a mountain rather than over it. The creators couldn't go back to refilm it, so at the last moment on the screen a hand-drawn valley is opened up for the “camera” to miraculously pass through. It's easy to spot once it's pointed out. One could easily call this detail a flaw, but I find that it is more of a badge of honor that helps to underscore the truly revolutionary nature of the computation that was done to create this sequence.)
Performances by Shatner, Nimoy, and Montalbán are top-notch. The movie is well-paced and uses a nice mix of serious and humorous elements. It builds on the TV series but does not require that; knowledge of the series merely gives the viewer's understanding a bit more texture.
The plot begins with abstract ethical dilemmas posed by the Kobayashi Maru test used for training in Star Fleet Academy and leads quickly into real life dilemmas, culiminating in Spock's personal solution to the Kobayashi Maru toward the end. It shows us honor, sacrifice, and even hope in a way that is simply hard to top. It goes, quite literally, light years beyond Citizen Kane.
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Originally published February 18, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.
Tags (from Open Salon): not citizen kane, best movie, best picture, favorite movie, all time, entertainment, open call