Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Written by Jack B. Sowards

After what was the disappointment of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, how in the world could I possibly be excited about the prospect of its sequel, The Wrath of Khan? I am sure many fans were wondering the exact same thing back in 1982 when the film was released, but just like them, it’s because of the brand, because of the characters. While I’ve not seen the (Original) Star Trek be a smashing success as of yet, the reputation of this film and the brand in general, along with a couple promising moments in the first film, give me room for excitement that there could be a great Star Trek film on the horizon. The Wrath of Khan is precisely that film for basically doing every single thing different, and much better than the original film, which was a veritable bore and slogged its way through 130 minutes without anything but cardboard characters and the absence of a prominent villain.

The Wrath of Khan once again features Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) commandeering the Enterprise, now manned by a freshman crew being put through their paces under young rookie captain Saavik (Kirstie Alley) in order to race across the galaxy to save the Genesis project, a powerful new technology, from falling into the wrong hands. All the usual suspects are on hand (DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig) to aide in putting a stop to Khan’s (Ricardo Montalban) revenge mission against Kirk, whom he accuses of marooning him and his crew on a desolate planet, left to die.

The best place to start with this film has to be Khan himself, since the film is named after him of course. Our concept of Kirk, as a brash but well-intentioned, good-hearted captain, is shattered by the allegations laid upon him by Khan, a frenzied madman who has had to live out 15 years on a nothing planet. I think Ricardo Montalban is both perfect and horrible casting. He’s perfect in that he is endlessly believable as a madman. He’s horrible because, well, his performance is a rather rotten over-the-top trainwreck. In some ways, however, I learned to love him for this. One of the features that is beginning to charm me about Star Trek is its silliness, and Montalban fits right into that mold with his turn as Khan. I like that Star Trek doesn’t take itself too seriously to this point. it’s definitely something which differentiates itself from a lot of the science fiction of the time.

And speaking of the film’s science fiction style, I love how wholesome it is compared to something like Star Wars. Okay, so it’s not that Star Wars isn’t wholesome, that’s probably the wrong word, but I love how Star Trek is positioned as this group of people who are going forth to explore the galaxy for science, to explore and improve relations and communities, including their own. Timing has a lot to do with this, as in Star Trek, we’re still exploring the galaxy, learning new things, experiencing new things. With Star Wars, the worlds already seem established, so while we as the audience might be experiencing something for the first time, it’s just some place, some thing to the characters. I am buying into the love for Star Trek for the simple reason that it’s the thinking man’s space adventure. We get to learn new things, see new things! It’s more than just an action movie set in space! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I love Star Wars too. I think I just find that very refreshing about this series, and I hope it continues down that path (as I expect it will).

I think that while The Wrath of Khan shows the potential of the film series, and proves a good if not great Star Trek film is possible, it also continues to show how much it leans on the original series to fill in its blanks. For instance, Khan is plucked right from an original series episode, with his story continued here. Prior knowledge of his character and situation would certain enhance the experience and story here, but while I lack that experience, the filmmakers are still able to fill him in as a character, making The Wrath of Khan something that can be easily consumed by newbies like myself. I know I’m not a fan of the original series (for having not seen it), but I can still greatly appreciate how this film series is tied into that series, and works as a continuation of the story and universe already built there, as a continuation of the characterization of the heroes already built there. So many times outsiders complain of films in series which don’t “stand on their own”. Why should they? They are parts of a greater story after all. That’s exactly the way they should be.

Once again here I find myself well into my review and I haven’t even really touched on much in the way of specifics, just mere generalizations more about the series overall than The Wrath of Khan specifically. It really works, and is light years better than The Motion Picture because it resolves just about every problem I had with the original. It’s faster paced, features fleshed out characters who have great interactions and utility within the film, it features a truly threatening villain, and even looks and feels more cinematic than the first. I think the result here is a much more polished, enjoyable film, one which becomes difficult to pin down just how much I liked it. Was it great because it’s great? Or was it great because it’s so much better than The Motion Picture, a film I really didn’t like? I’d like to think the former, so until something proves me wrong otherwise, we’ll go with that.

I love how everyone has something to do. It seems like each of the crew members have a least one moment when they’re doing more than just following orders. They have their own opinions, they prove that they have value-add to the crew and to the mission, and especially the relationship between the main players, Kirk, Spock, Bones is enhanced and fleshed out. It’s even funny at times! We get our first look at the Kobayashi Maru exercise! There is so much packed into this movie that there’s even real, legitimate stakes! SPOILERS AHEAD: We find out Kirk has a son! Spock dies! While I know with 4 more original series films Spock can’t really be dead, it’s not lost on me the affect this might have originally had, when true, passionate fans wouldn’t have that same assurance. It’s shocking! And it’s brilliant!

I cannot stress enough the difference in quality between the first film and this second film. I really do hope that this success can be sustained, and I am genuinely intrigued by where the story will go from here, especially with Leonard Nimoy himself getting behind the camera as director of the subsequent two films. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At least with The Wrath of Khan, I can say that my confidence in the series has been confirmed. I won’t say renewed, I always had confidence, but The Motion Picture certainly brought a sense of doubt into the equation, even if only momentarily. Let us go forward now, boldly.

★★★★ – Loved It

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