1979's STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE made $82 million, but was the rare blockbuster that not many people liked. People have warmed up to it in the ensuing decades but at the time, it was deemed too slow and too difficult to follow, with too abstract an antagonist in "V'ger," and not always in the spirit of the TV show. Filled with innovative visual effects, it cost $46 million to make, an astronomical sum in 1979, and though it turned a sizable profit, Paramount was hesitant to go along with series creator Gene Roddenberry's idea for a sequel. When Roddenberry was more or less ousted from the picture, producer Harve Bennett promised Paramount he'd keep costs low, and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN was shot for a mere $11 million. It opened June 4, 1982, and made back its budget and change with a $16 million opening weekend on its way to $78 million overall (oddly, still less than the take of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE) and was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1982.
|Ricardo Montalban as Khan|
STAR TREK II humanizes these familiar characters in ways we hadn't previously seen. Of course, fans found the crew of the Enterprise akin to old friends at this point anyway, but the stakes are higher than they've ever been: Khan's mad, destructive quest for revenge is personal. Kirk has much to lose with Carol and their son David (Merritt Butrick) in jeopardy. And when Spock makes the ultimate sacrifice ("the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one"), it's the most emotionally devastating moment in the entire STAR TREK canon. And, it should go without saying, STAR TREK II gives us arguably Shatner's most "Shatner" moment:
It's hard to find a celebrity more eager to mock himself than Shatner. Never taking himself too seriously and always in on the joke, Shatner is completely self-aware when it comes to his hammy tendencies. He's such a willing punchline that it's easy to forget that he can be a terrific actor when he wants to be. STAR TREK II features his best performance as Kirk and gives Shatner a wide range of emotions to play, and he brings his A-game. There's none of ironic silliness that comes with putting Shatner in anything today. At the end of the day, Shatner is Shatner and we love him for it (even if his STAR TREK co-stars haven't had many nice things to say about him over the years), but it's interesting to ponder how his career might've panned out if he'd taken himself and his abilities a little more seriously. Very early in his career, he held his own with a large cast of Hollywood legends in 1961's JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. The guy's got the chops, and STAR TREK II gives him plenty of opportunities to prove it. He's matched by Montalban, who turns in the performance of his career as Khan. Montalban's scenes were shot last because he was busy working on the TV series FANTASY ISLAND. The tense standoff scenes between Kirk and Khan, where they communicate via screen on each of their ships, demonstrate the power of good editing and good acting when you consider that Shatner and Montalban's portions of those scenes were shot four months apart. Shatner and the Enterprise actors (except Walter Koenig's Chekov, who has scenes with Khan on Ceti Alpha V) were done with their work by the time Montalban arrived. Shatner and Montalban never even saw each other during filming.
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN is considered by many to be the best of the films that feature the original crew, though STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) and STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991) are held in high regard as well. STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984) is solid entertainment, and most have even come around to appreciating STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. That leaves the Shatner-directed STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989) as the odd man out, a misfire that pleased even less people than THE MOTION PICTURE. Perhaps STAR TREK V's day will come, but don't count on it.
Opening the same weekend was the Steven Spielberg production POLTERGEIST, directed by Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, SALEM'S LOT). Budgeted at just under $11 million, it made $76 million to become the eighth highest-grossing film of 1982. Spielberg co-wrote the script with Michael Grais and Mark Victor, and depending on who's telling the story, was either a "supervisory" figure on the set or was the de-facto director. Spielberg himself has described the working relationship with Hooper as "collaborative," while some cast members say Spielberg was present nearly every day of the shoot and was calling the shots even when Hooper was on the set. Just as many say Hooper was the director. The controversy was enough for the Director's Guild of America to launch a largely inconclusive investigation, and to this day (and for other, more tragic reasons as well), many of the people associated with POLTERGEIST have elected to not discuss the film at all, which is uncommon for something held in such high esteem.
|Zelda Rubinstein as "cleaner" Tangina Barrons|
During this same period, Spielberg was known for pushing the PG rating about as far as it can go, and in a couple of years, films like INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and the Spielberg-produced GREMLINS were PG-rated releases that were instrumental in the MPAA's creation of the PG-13 rating in 1984. The PG-rated POLTERGEIST is probably still worthy of a PG-13 today, with some truly intense sequences throughout and one scene of a guy peeling off chunks of his own face that has to rank as one of the most horrifying visuals ever seen in a PG-rated film.
|Heather O'Rourke (1975-1988)|
The summer of 1982 was huge for Spielberg with the success of POLTERGEIST and the planned July re-release of 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. But the next week would unveil Spielberg's crowning achievement to that point, and what would become not just a surprise smash, but for a decade and a half, the highest-grossing film of all time.