Great Scenes: Spock's Solution

May 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

There are many memorable lines in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Many people might consider Shatner’s impassioned roar of defiance – which has since been parodied and incorporated into an internet meme with dozens of variations, as well as in popular culture in general – as the line to take away from the movie. But, actually, the best line comes from non other than Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley).

As the Enterprise seemingly defies the impossible, managing to escape from the Genesis shockwave in just the nick of time, Kirk goes on the com-line to congratulate Mr Scott. But it’s not Scott on the other end of the line, it’s Bones, and it is at that point in which he delivers the pivotal line of the movie:  “Jim, I think you better get down here…”

It’s a brilliant line, and impeccably delivered by Kelly. But it’s not just Kelly who’s sublime, it’s just about everyone else, too.

The very next shot, as Kirk receives this line, is of Spock’s empty chair, an image which is incredibly powerful in virtue of his absence and from our knowledge of what has happened to him, but also because – and this is key – what we now know, Kirk knows.

This is the pivot, the emotional turning point. The director has successfully nailed down the exact moment at which Kirk realises something terrible has happened, and we share with him this realisation.

Throughout this whole scene we have James Horner’s incredible score, which wonderfully choreographs and frames everything. His composition is so powerful, in fact, that I truly believe that you could get a good idea of what was going on just from the images on screen and the music behind it.

In between Horner’s beautiful and exhilarating soundtrack and Meyer’s tight directing, there is also a script which is pitch-perfect. Kirk’s last conversation with Spock is emotionally crippling – especially Spock’s line, in which he barely croaks, “I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?” to which Kirk can only reply with a simple, understated, one-word sentence: “Spock.” Death scenes have a notorious tendency to look horribly contrived and ridiculous; here we see what can be achieved if you do it right.

Of course, without the actors, a script is just words on a page. Shatner and Nimoy are just phenomenal, beyond doubt. Their final scene together is pure acting gold and surely the best work they’ve done between the two of them. Shatner’s reaction as he sees Spock’s empty chair and sudden rises up from his own, shakily instructing Savik to take the conn, is superb. In parallel to this, Nimoy also does some great work earlier on in the scene: when Spock realises that he must sacrifice himself to save the ship, Nimoy does so little and yet so much, just by lowering his eyelids, looking down and then, calmly, walking off-screen.

Another brilliant moment is when Kirk reaches the engine room and Spock gets up from the floor: he straightens his uniform before awkwardly, cautiously, turning towards Kirk and proceeds to walk towards him, bumping into the clear glass separating them. Even to the end, Spock – clearly blind, skin charred – attempts to retain his sense of formality and composure. His attempt to do this is so typical of the character that it is all at the same time heart warming, poignant and deeply affecting.

Shatner and Nimoy embody the characters of Kirk and Spock so categorically and definitively that I couldn’t imagine anyone else acting in those roles. On screen, in that moment, the line between actor and character momentarily disappears. There is only Kirk, Spock and the barrier separating them, between life and death.

I’d also feel negligent if I didn’t mention how good the rest of the cast are (even Merritt Butrick!) when the clock starts ticking down and the crew slowly realise that they’re not going to make it. Again, the tension created is a total collaboration between director, conductor, script writer (and, I’m sure, many others), but one weak link in the acting chain and the scene could have fallen flat. Everybody on the bridge exhibits such tension in their body language – Shatner, again, conveys this perfectly in his crossed legged, crossed arm posture – that it’s contagious. We feel the tension along with the doomed crew.

I have heard one complaint regarding this scene, one which I had never even considered during the number of times I’ve watched this movie, and that is related to Spock somehow fixing the warp core by stuffing his hands into a hollow alluminium tube and jiggling it about a bit. If you look at it objectively, it can look a bit ridiculous, but my response to this has always been that it serves a purpose dramatically – and let’s not beat around the bush, it was probably budget-related, as well.

I could bore you some more with more minutiae about this particular scene which I find fascinating, but I won’t. Needless to say, it’s an excellent piece of work and probably one of my favourite scenes of all time, not just for Star Trek, but for film in general.

[N.B. I am aware that in the YouTube I uploaded, and in the “scene” I am referring to throughout the article, that it is technically not just one scene, but two scenes – the Enterprise’s escape and Spock’s death occupying separate identities. For the purposes of this piece of writing I have sandwiched the two scenes, being as they’re so dependent on one another for their emotional impact.]

(931 words.)

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