The Star Trek Re-Watch – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
One of the positive consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been the ability for people to explore television shows and films they never got around to see. This of course comes with the caveat that one actually has time to do so. Depending on certain circumstances (i.e. children or lack thereof and the essential nature of your job) this may or may not be the case. Nevertheless, millions of people who didn’t have free time before now have the opportunity to watch every episode of The Wire or the entire Harry Potter series.
With that in mind I thought it was high time to explore some gaps in my film and television lexicon. So of course I completely scrapped that idea and decided to re-watch every one of the thirteen Star Trek films that have been released since 1979. We continue on our journey down the warp lane with what many consider the best film in the entire franchise, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Director: Nicholas Meyer Written By: Jack B. Sowards Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and Ricardo Montalban
Plot: Fifteen years after he was left on Ceti Alpha V, Khan Noonien Singh is discovered by Commander Chekov and his Captain Clark Terrell. The genetically altered remnant of the late 20th century and his comrades steal the U.S.S. Reliant and learn of the Genesis Project – a scientific experiment conducted by Dr. Carol Marcus and her son David that can literally create life filled biospheres from lifeless planets. Through trickery and guile Khan is able to lure his nemesis Admiral James T. Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise to the potential Genesis Planet, there to exact his revenge.
Re-watch Review: I don’t think it can be overstated how important Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is to the legacy of Star Trek. After the tepid and lackluster 1979 film, Paramount was bound and determined to return Star Trek to its roots. With that in mind radical changes were implemented, including a budget less than a third of the original, utilizing models and the first computer generated sequence in the history of cinema, and excluding Gene Roddenberry completely from the production. The results speak for themselves. Wrath of Khan made eight times its original budget and was resoundingly well received by fans and critics. The film is often credited with rekindling interest in the IP as a whole and for good reason.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan fundamentally improves on the original on every single level. The costume design – particularly the Starfleet uniforms – is top notch, with Khan and crew’s swarthy rags contrasting well with the modern threads of 23rd century Federation citizens. Despite the vastly reduced budget the special effects are exponentially better than the first film. The space battles between the Reliant and the Enterprise are especially good as is the cat and mouse game between the two ships in the Mutara Nebula. While the computer generated representation of the Genesis Effect comes off somewhat dated, the actual Genesis cavern is anything but.
While Jerry Goldsmith provided a workmanlike score in the original, James Horner’s score is iconic and remains the best of the thirteen films to date. To this day I can’t hear the entrance music of the U.S.S. Reliant when Khan attacks the Enterprise without immediately thinking of the movie. It’s instantly recognizable, operatic, and possessing a swashbuckling quality that also contains some intimate moments, especially Kirk and Spock’s final scene. The music blends perfectly with Gayne Rescher cinematography and William Paul Dornisch’s top-notch editing.
You can’t talk about Wrath of Khan without addressing Nicholas Meyer’s direction which is pitch perfect. Aside from later directors Leonard Nimoy and Jonathan Frakes, I don’t think anyone on a directing level has been able to understand Star Trek at it’s core like Meyer did. Meyer’s film inherently has a real sense of adventure and optimism. Yet there’s real stakes here and the fact that Spock dies at the end only underscores that even more. Meyer himself contributed to the script (albeit without taking screenwriting credit) but it was producer Harve Bennett who took the TOS’ episode “Space Seed” and extrapolated outward. Bennett recognized that the first film was lacking a true villain and to that end…
Enter Ricardo Montalban as Khan. Aside from maybe – maybe – the Borg in First Contact, no one can hold a candle to Montalban when it comes to Star Trek villains. He commands the screen everytime he’s on it, chewing scenes like a delectable slice of pizza. It’s clear he’s having a ball throughout this whole film, whether he’s trying to outsmart Kirk or quoting Moby Dick. Yet surprisingly he provokes somewhat of a sense of empathy too. He lost everything and Kirk never even bothered to check on him. Yet much like Ahab, Khan is eventually undone by his own hubris and obsession. Montalban proves the perfect foil for Shatner’s Kirk and their dynamic is even more impressive considering they never actually physically appear in the same scene together throughout the whole movie.
The biggest problem with Star Trek: The Motion Picture was it felt so damn sterile. The Wrath of Khan is anything but. There’s so much damn emotion and pathos in this movie. It’s a movie about fathers and sons, roads not taken, and the reality of growing old. Thirty-eight years later Spock’s death scene and his farewell to his friend James T. Kirk still gets me. What strikes me about Spock’s sacrifice is the fact that yes, it was the logical thing to do (the needs of the many, etc.) but it was also the human thing to do. Spock saves his friends. It’s the perfect balance of his Vulcan side and his human side. I also find it the height of irony that the film ends with a literal rebirth – the Genesis Planet and Spock himself – yet also in a real world way, generates the rebirth of the franchise itself.
Almost four decades after it’s release Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan still resonates with Star Trek fans. Yet despite being the undisputed best film in the franchise, it’s also an almost perfectly constructed film. Khan is a master’s class in script economy, plot, special effects, score, and character development. While in subsequent years, the franchise would release some excellent films, none of them ever quite measured up to the magic of The Wrath of Khan.
My rating System:
0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan rates: 9/10
Next Up: Star Trek II: The Search For Spock!!!!