By Marc S. Sanders
I was only a mild fan of the original Star Trek television show. Some storylines were flat and simply a bore. It had some thrilling moments though, including episodes that I’ve watched on repeat. (The Squire Of Gothos was always my favorite.) Unfortunately, the first big budgeted Trek film followed suit of the weaker, less interesting aspects of Gene Roddenberry’s series. Thankfully, Paramount Pictures with producer Harve Bennett had enough faith to try once more and get it right. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is one of my favorite science fiction films of all time.
Bennett invested time in rewatching the entire series looking for the return of a formidable foe against the crew of the famed Starship Enterprise, and he settled on the power mad muscled genius, Khan (played with gravitas and impressive pecs by Ricardo Montalban) from the series episode Space Seed.
Khan, along with his wife and crew were left marooned by Captain James T Kirk (William Shatner) on a barren planet for their crimes. Fifteen years have passed and Chekhov (Walter Koenig) along with his Captain (Paul Winfield) unexpectedly come upon the villain’s vessel. Now Khan has taken control of their starship with a vow for revenge upon Kirk.
Caught in the middle of this conflict is a new age device called “Genesis” which has the potential to create life from non life. Find a planet devoid of any living organism and allow the device to go to work. In Khan’s hands though, it could serve as a terribly destructive weapon.
Regardless of its ending, The Wrath Of Khan offers the best performance by Willam Shatner with his memorably storied character. There’s more depth than ever in Kirk. He is now ranked as an Admiral who in turn is denied of directly commanding a starship, his greatest career accomplishment. He’s fearful of aging as his birthday approaches. He also meets up with a past flame whom he shares a son with. There’s plenty of dimension devoted to Kirk, and it all works. None of it feels mired down. This is a story devoted primarily to Shatner’s character with the others in tow. He looks so comfortable in the role as he walks the halls of the Enterprise. Because he always looks like he knows where he’s going, so does the audience. He’s very casual in his manner. The setting of the starship has life when Kirk is populated within it.
Furthermore, the friendship he has with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) feels solid. When Spock gifts Kirk an antique copy of Charles Dicken’s A Tale Of Two Cities, you feel cozy in the history of these two people. It’s further noted in Kirk’s relationship with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly). It’s important to realize that this film is only the second film following three seasons of an episodic television show that more or less just showed villains of the week. We never had an opportunity to really get inside Kirk’s head before. So despite the vastness of Star Trek, it’s main players were arguably still quite green.
Director Nicholas Meyer (the best one of all the films), turns two sea captains upon one another amid an ocean of space as they play battleship. You get a strong idea of the tactician that Khan is. Montalban is great as a Captain Ahab seeking to destroy his Moby Dick, suitably relying on quoting Melville’s classic novel. Meyer is so good at drawing from the best of both sides. The adversity between Khan and Kirk works very effectively that you hardly realize that Shatner and Montalban never appear on the same set together. Both primarily work from their Captain’s chairs. The set ups play with much strategy and good back and forth dialogue as they communicate by screen images. Call it their “Zoom Session” if you must. Ultimately, this film demonstrates that how a movie is only as strong as its villain.
The Enterprise setting also looks superb with its elevators, curved and endless hallways, engineering platforms & alcoves and submarine like doors. The command bridge looks realistically functional too. Everything on the Enterprise seems like it has a working purpose. When crew members are running towards something or climbing a ladder, Nicholas Meyer makes it feel like you know where these people are going and what they are trying to do.
Composer James Horner also needs a good amount of credit. At times, his music comes off frightening. As Khan makes various approaches with his ship, Horner has this claw like thunder clap cued in to the danger. His more upbeat tempos feel like proud militaristic marches for the Starfleet characters. You get that feeling especially in the opening credits. During a sequence where the two ships are flying blind through a nebula, the music is eerily string like and quiet. Horner studied this film to get the absolute best notes.
The ending is heartbreaking and suitable to the character arc that Kirk experiences. While it is surprising, it’s also pleasingly foreshadowed, wrapping up the internal dilemma that Kirk grapples with over the course of the film.
I would argue that Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan turned out to be the most vitally important chapter in the famous franchise’s history. It succeeded in acting, writing, effects, setting, score and direction. Had this film not generated a response from audiences, I have to wonder if any more of Star Trek would ever have been seen again.
One thing for sure, you don’t have to be a die hard fan to really appreciate a great film like The Wrath Of Khan.