Note: My review of the first film in the Star Trek series (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) can be found here.
There’s an absolutely fascinating history behind the second Star Trek movie (it’s far too long to recount at length here, but I’d urge you to check out the film’s Wikipedia page even if you’re not a Trek fan – it’s full of riveting details about the production). Following on from the critical drubbing and middling commercial performance of the first film, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry – whose proposal for the second film involved time travel, Klingons and JFK (yep, I’m glad this never came to fruition too) – was ousted from the production and a course correction was put in place, with all new behind-the-camera personnel. Nicholas Meyer was drafted in as director and – as a non-Trek fan who had, apparently, not seen a single episode of the original series – was willing to take the series to places where, ahem, no one had gone before.
And it works brilliantly. Though a sequel to original series episode Space Seed – and giving the final lines of that episode a wonderful sense of foreboding – The Wrath of Khan works perfectly well even if you haven’t seen the preceding story unfold. In fact, it may work a little better, considering the plot hinges on Khan recognising Chekov – who he didn’t actually meet in the original episode (oops!).
The Wrath of Khan seems to address nearly every criticism levelled at the first film. Where the first film’s threat felt almost existential for much of the story, the second gives us some very personal stakes involving the crew – and it’s a story that’s continued from an episode of the original series too.
The first film’s pace was laborious and self-indulgent; Wrath of Khan moves at a reasonable clip – and with purpose. Though The Motion Picture had scenes where the crew were in danger, we never got the sense that any of the familiar characters were truly under threat.
Even the awful 70s loungewear uniforms the crew sported in the first film are gone, replaced with uniform designs so iconic that they remained in use for the rest of the films featuring the crew of the original series. This means that these Starfleet uniforms held their own from parts two to seven of the movie franchise – not a mean feat, considering those films were released across a span of twelve years.
The crew – seeming detached, bored and grumpy in the first big screen outing – get back to feeling like old friends here.
In short: everything the first film got wrong, The Wrath of Khan gets right.
Famously, Leonard Nimoy only signed on to play Spock again if he was killed off; the film delights in playing on that, over and over again. We open with the original crew on the Enterprise, being captained by a young, female Vulcan – Saavik (played by Kirstie Alley in her first ever film role). The mission goes awry and the crew, Spock included, all seemingly perish. Kirk then makes his appearance; what we’ve actually just seen was a run through of the ‘no-win’ Kobayashi-Maru simulation – a training exercise to teach Starfleet cadets that there are some situations where loss, perhaps even death, is inevitable; the true test is how they conduct themselves under duress in such a situation. It’s an excellent piece of foreshadowing and a brilliant opening scene; far more eventful in its action and dialogue than we expected after the – ahem – Motion Picture.
It doesn’t take long to get a lot darker either; on a mission to find a suitably dead world to test a terraforming invention called the Genesis Device, a Starfleet vessel – with ex-Enterprise officer Chekov (now a Commander) among its crew – discovers a tiny pocket of life on the target planet. Needing a completely lifeless world to test the device, the ship’s Captain – Terrell – and Chekov beam down to investigate, and stumble upon Khan and his people, exiled fifteen years prior after a doomed attempt to take over the Enterprise (in the aforementioned original series episode, Space Seed). Khan, recognising Chekov as an Enterprise crewmember – and harbouring a serious grudge against Kirk, blaming him for the death of his wife – formulates a plan to take his revenge, using some seriously icky mind control methods to kick off his intended payback.
The stage is then set for a showdown; there’s an awful lot that happens before we get there though, with some truly memorable moments and a lot of character development along the way. The laborious, self indulgent and uneventful story of The Motion Picture is banished from our thoughts; this is a Star Trek that feels fast paced and deadly – it reminds us that these characters and their universe can be exciting, action-packed and sometimes even terrifying.
The script is wonderful. We’re told and shown that the crew are definitely not spring chickens any more; Kirk in particular is forced to acknowledge his aging – and this is driven home with a revelation that he’s a father. Not only that, but he’s the father of a young man; it really impresses upon us the fact that we’re no longer watching the adventures of a young, dashing, reckless Captain – even if it takes Kirk a while to realise that himself. It’s important to note that, though this is the case, The Wrath of Khan really feels like a swashbuckling adventure; perhaps this is the most telling difference between the first two films: The Motion Picture feels like a journey that does finally pay off – but the journey itself contains little of interest, even though the destination is pretty satisfying, with a great reveal as to what – perhaps who – the antagonist (V’Ger) really is. In The Wrath of Khan, both the journey and destination are equally gripping.
Ricardo Montalban is a physically and cerebrally menacing presence as Khan – reprising his role from the original series. Though formidably intelligent, he’s blinded by his arrogance and convinced of his superiority – several references to Ahab’s doomed pursuit of Moby Dick, which Khan quotes directly, are scattered throughout the film. I was particularly impressed with the look of Khan and his crew; they have a sort of post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque vibe that fits with their need to scavenge from whatever parts and materials they have available; the level of detail here is pretty impressive, even though the film makers had a massively reduced budget to work with. I need to get in the obligatory mention of Montalban’s ridiculously impressive pecs here too – so glorious, in fact, that they’ve long been rumoured to have been some sort of prosthetic chest piece. They’re not – they’re 100% Montalban’s!
It’s surprisingly graphic in its violence; the mind control eels give us a few particularly gory moments and Khan himself is responsible for – and on the receiving end of – some unusually bloody (for Trek, at least) scenes.
An interesting fact: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan features the first entirely computer generated sequence in a film; the scene featuring the simulated terraforming of the Genesis Device is a famous one, used multiple times here and even in subsequent Star Trek films. The non-CG special effects have aged pretty well too, in all honesty – they’re a lot more consistent than in the previous film, despite the fact that they were produced at a fraction of the cost.
Spoiler alert: Leonard Nimoy did get his wish. Spock dies in a breathtaking act of heroism and sacrifice; the climax of the film is gripping and brilliantly played by all involved. I genuinely don’t think that William Shatner has ever been as good as he was in this scene and the funeral that follows; though his scenery chewing scream of ‘Khaaaaan!’ – brilliant in its own, Shatner-esque way of course – gets the attention, it’s in Spock’s death scene that he truly excels. The other crewmembers are no less excellent – as an example, in the end McCoy’s endlessly prickly relationship with Spock can be truly seen for what it’s always been: two friends ribbing each other good naturedly.
I remembered that The Wrath of Khan was a good film. Everyone will tell you that; it’s the film that saved the franchise from itself and kickstarted the ‘only the even ones are good’ theory of the series. What I wasn’t prepared for when I watched it this time around was just how good it actually is; perhaps it’s my own advancing years that allow me to appreciate all of the nuances in the story – and of old friends getting together for another, perhaps final, adventure – that much more, or perhaps it’s the fact that I can now appreciate how well constructed the script is, with all of its foreshadowing, themes and repeated motifs. Either way, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is an astonishing film; though I was never a true Trek fan when I was younger, I always appreciated this film – now that I’m a fan with a deeper knowledge of the universe and its inhabitants, it has a deeper resonance than ever.
It ends on a hopeful note; an open-ended scene that gave Leonard Nimoy an opportunity to return if he chose – with Nimoy delivering the iconic ‘final frontier’ narration (you know the one!). Spoiler (though this is hardly a secret now, given his subsequent appearances and even the name of the next film in the series) – he did come back. And hopefully, I’ll get the chance to cover Star Trek III: The Search For Spock soon. Watch this space.
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