Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Clockwise from left: Terrell (Paul Winfield), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Saavik (Kirstie Alley), Chekov (Walter Koenig) and James T. Kirk (William Shatner) fight to survive”The Wrath of Khan.”

Directed by Nicholas Meyer. Screenplay by Jack B. Sowards; story by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards; based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry. Produced by Robert Sallin. Music by James Horner. Photographed by Gayne Rescher. Edited by William P. Dornisch. Production designed by Joseph R. Jennings. Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Bibi Besch, Merritt Butrick, Paul Winfield, Kirstie Alley, Ricardo Montalban.

Once upon a time, there was a franchise called Star Trek, and it was in deep trouble. The original TV show Star Trek had vanished from the airwaves in 1969, after three years on the very bottom of the Neilsen charts. But its loyal fans refused to forget it, and they remained stubbornly vocal. When Star Wars was released in 1977, Paramount Pictures was eager to cash in on the growing sci-fi craze, and so they dusted off the old property and gave it a go in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It made some money, but was generally regarded as a failure: the film was lengthy, the plot was thin, the direction weak, the tone pretentious and cold. A sequel seemed like a doomed prospect, to be sure. And then a man named Nicholas Meyer stepped in.

Meyer, an novelist and relatively green film director, had his work cut out for him. He had never seen an episode of Star Trek. He had to deal with a super-tight budget, and he had to succeed where the first film’s much more seasoned team of veterans had failed. He had to deal with temperamental actors who were very possessive of their characters, and who hated the scripts they had seen. He had to bow to several demands, most notably from a lead actor insisting that this was his last time playing his character. He had to rewrite the screenplay over a weekend, direct a large-scale sci-fi epic for the first time, instill confidence in his cast and crew, and not incidentally sign his name on a film that would stir tremendous controversy in a huge fanbase. Oh, and he also had to make a good movie…out of a sequel.

The result, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is a good movie. Not just a “good Star Trek movie.” It’s a rare and generous franchise picture that transcends its own origins, telling a compelling story which slips through our ironic defenses. It has heart, wit, comedy and drama. And it’s an ambitious and sophisticated entertainment that embraces the world of Star Trek as a canvas to tell a story that is bold, operatic…and very human. Not only is The Wrath of Khan generally regarded as the finest film in this eleven movie series, but it is frequently made a point of reference (as well as Godfather II and Aliens) when discussing sequels that equal and possibly outclass their predecessors. When director Bryan Singer talked about his planned follow-up to the disappointing Superman Returns (2006), he explicitly stated his desire to “go full-on Wrath of Khan.” When your film’s title evolves into an adjective for superiority, I posit you have achieved something.

Meyer’s accomplishment was that he was able to take the mythology of Star Trek (which was already growing unwieldy and obscure) and couch it in terms that could be digestible to the casual viewer. It sounds easy, but it’s harder than it looks—later films in the series would illustrate that with their reliance on gimmickry, rigid continuity and static characterization. It’s brutally hard to tell an accessible story in a universe with a lot of demonstrable history, but Meyer found a way to do so, by embracing that history yet speaking for (and to) the agnostics in the audience, assuring them that they need not obsessively know the particulars.

Meyer also wisely chucked everything from the first film that didn’t work: the slow pace, the reliance on special effects, and the dampening of character interaction (which undermined the very appeal of Star Trek). Even the pastel footie-pajama uniforms were ditched, replaced by service jackets that suggest a more professional military organization. In fact, many touches of the film recall the military, specifically the navy: protocol, commands and whistles underline the action, as well as James Horner’s musical score, which uncannily evokes visions of sailing ships. Meyer, a noted student of the books of Forrester and O’Brian (authors of the Horblower and Aubrey series, respectively), retranslated the Trek canon into a language he understood: that of the rip-snorting, combat-driven naval adventure. There are other references, too, to Dickens, Mellville and Shakespeare—Meyer is nothing if not literate, and those help further the idea that this is not an insular universe, but rather a persuasive extension of our own.

And then there is Meyer’s smartest choice, to bring back a villain who appeared in a single episode of the television series, and pay him off on the big screen. Khan (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically-engineered superhuman from the past, made a lasting impression on the series with his mix of strength, intelligence, ego and charm, and was last seen deposited on a planet, amicably, so that he could embrace the challenge of taming and civilizing a new world. Wrath of Khan, however, rediscovers a villain who is weathered and filled with bitter hatred for Adm. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), the man who, through neglect, he holds responsible for the death of his wife and current life in hell. In a film full of subtle acting in supporting roles, the plum part is Khan, and Montalban chews the scenery with vigor, giving a mythic quality to his rage and pathos that informs one of the great movie villain performances of all time.

The plot: a scientific expedition comes across Khan’s planet, where the supervillain commandeers their ship and sets a trap for Kirk, who is savoring a chance to escape his desk job on Earth by overseeing a training cruise on the starship Enterprise. The ship is staffed mostly with cadets, as well as the familiar faces: Sulu (George Takei), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), etc. When Kirk’s former lover Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) calls regarding an emergency, they’re the only ship in range, so what can you do? (This device is beloved by Star Trek writers, and why not? It gets the plot started.) This leads Kirk straight into the path of Khan, delivering a crippling blow to the U.S.S. Enterprise. Soon both men are playing a deadly strategy game where, yes, the fate of the universe hangs in the balance (there’s a scientific MacGuffin at stake named Genesis that can literally rewrite a planet’s eco-system).

This could be the recipe of a vapid, thinly-drawn space opera, but Star Trek II‘s screenplay (by Jack B. Sowards and an uncredited Meyer) is more distinguished, deploying character development that brings the well-known archetypes of Star Trek into sharp relief. Even newcomers to Star Trek are familiar with the outlines of the characters: the impassioned Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly), the logical Vulcan Spock, the decisive Kirk. There’s even a scene early on that honors the TV series’ beloved trope of the three of them debating an ethical puzzle, with Kirk arbitrating between Spock’s coldness and McCoy’s passion. Star Trek II, however, explores what’s found when these traits are pushed: McCoy, though underutilized, becomes legitimately horrified at the nature of the McGuffin, while Spock is forced to make a decision that bravely follows his logic to its ultimate conclusion. And Kirk, the great man and savvy leader, is crippled by humiliation and grief, brought to a point where he says, “I know nothing,” and his entire world is shattered.

Structurally, this is a sound framework, but it doesn’t quite explain the way Meyer masters the material: not only does he tell the story, but he does it in a relaxed, confident way that never doubts for a moment it is possible to stretch these characters to fit these more complex parameters. Most sci-fi sagas couldn’t handle an opening that hinges on two characters sitting down in an oppressive apartment and discussing their issues, but The Wrath of Khan can: we buy the characters, we buy the environment, and we especially buy the import with which McCoy tells Kirk to get back into space and out of depression, “before you really do grow old.”

If The Wrath of Khan can be boiled down to a single thematic idea, it would be the horrific notion of aging. Most characters in franchises tend to be immortal, locked in the same patterns as time marches on, but Star Trek II demolishes this conceit by having a main character who resents his birthday, feels spent, and even needs (gasp!) reading glasses at a crucial moment. The villain, of course, is a man from the past who has been twisted by the Admiral’s mistakes, and another key character, David (Merritt Buttrick), turns out to be Kirk’s son, who has nothing but contempt for his long-absent father. Also, the promising Vulcan cadet Saavik (Kirstie Alley), proves to be a constant reminder of youth, a silent contrast to Kirk that he finds only more grating when she pesters him with regulations.

Even Kirk’s admission that he once cheated on a Starfleet test isn’t simply a show of his glib attitude, but a rejection of the life lessons it was meant to impart. And it sets up how unprepared he is the moment someone he cares for makes an difficult choice without him. These disparate elements conspire to supply a heroic figure with the notion that his life is not just spent, but also a sham. The film is not a quagmire, though, but instead a celebration of seasoning and a rail against irrelevancy. It sees both sides of the paradigm and works through them. There is tragedy and loss, but life goes on (as is made clear by the film’s climax, which sees the birth of a new world). We like our heroes to face and overcome challenges, and it is only more resonant when they are the same challenges that we face ourselves, and when they are dealt with respect to that truth.

There are a lot of flavors in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There is adventure and action (the film’s scenes of ship-to-ship combat remain the finest in Star Trek’s 45-year history). There’s memories of past love, which affect Kirk first as a rebuke to the man he is, and then finally as a reminder of who he can be again. There’s more than a little humor, and there’s drama that is as pointed as it refreshingly terse. And friendship and loyalty, the backbone of all emotion in Star Trek. There are even sequences that evoke horror, such as the first discovery of Khan’s followers, and a tense scene in a space station that recalls Alien (1979). What the film does not have is irrelevant passages, or needless technobabble, or motivations that feel foreign to us. The storytelling is as tight and engaging as can ever be found in a “franchise” picture. Viewers can watch the film without any knowledge of Star Trek, and understand everything that occurs, because the characters and plot are unified, and the notes they each sound are clear.

The film’s most delicate moment, between Kirk and Spock, is naturally it’s most legendarily spoiled. It’s very hard to come into this film without knowing of something major that happens, because in a way that moment has become part of the pop cultural fabric, just like (to a much greater extent), the Rosebud sled, the identity of Kyser Sose, or “Luke, I am your father.” Yet this moment, despite its familiarity, and despite the fact that future adventures clumsily deaden its lasting impact, still packs an unmistakable wallop. That’s partly because it’s so well prepared, with groundwork layed since the very beginning of the film, but also because it’s a moment that underlines the very strange yet heartfelt friendship between two people, which is central to what Star Trek is ultimately about: the complex human condition, seen from a removed perspective that is nevertheless sympathetic and invested.

The film is cheaply-made but not poorly-made. Although the photography is limited by TV-style set ups and lighting, the widescreen image still captures a good amount of sweat and grit that correctly conjures realistic stakes. The special effects are not very elaborate, but they get the job done. There’s even some neat proto-CGI work when the three heroes watch Carol Marcus’ proposal tape, as animation depicts a dead moon reanimated to new life, made all the more eerie by its lack of realism (The team that completed this sequence would later form Pixar Studios).

As for the cast, these are the roles they were born to play. Nimoy by now craved freedom from the role of Spock, but you can’t fake the sincerity and gravitas he brings to the part. Shatner, though not one of our great actors, every once in a while proved he was capable of a challenge, and Star Trek II is one of his most subtle and genuine performances (the iconic moment where he screams Khan’s name aside). That is good acting, and I think it is another feather in the cap of Meyer, who would later return to direct the well-regarded Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He is probably the only film director who knew instinctively how to direct Shatner; Nimoy did as well, but that was only after years of friendship with the man, which allegedly might have been a high price to pay.

When all is said and done, the ultimate achievement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was that it saved a franchise from itself. Niche properties, even juggernauts, frequently suffer from being too “inside baseball”—that is, trying to be an elaborate mythology instead of a pop entertainment, like a club that you have to already be a member of in order to join. In time, all long-running properties eventually stop being about themes and start being about themselves, and corrective measures are necessary in order to swing the pendulum back and invite in a new generation of fans. There is nothing wrong with taking your art seriously, but there comes a point when that history becomes a burden, previous stories become oppressive, and in some way you must throw everything out and start again. The  irreverence for the source material that Meyer brought to the series created a balance of sensibilities that caused Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to be one of the most successful films in the series. This philosophy worked again (in more dramatic fashion) with 2009’s “reboot” directed by Trek novice J.J. Abrams. For a long-running franchise, fans are nice, but fans and popularity? Now you’re talking.

There is a reason why properties like Star Trek run for as long as they do, and that is because they are versatile. Sequels and series and remakes have and always will drive the entertainment industry, because they are the closest executives come to greenlighting a “sure thing.” Often, sequels repeat themselves, and stretch their formulas till they snap. But every once in a while a property will adapt and evolve, and justify an existence that stretches into the eternal present: it’s a phenomenon that jumps from James Bond to comic books to Doctor Who, and that’s because every edition isn’t just a self-contained story, but instead a piece that informs a wide body of work, while still featuring vivid characters that compel us to return time and again.

And so it was. The series continued strong from this point, cycling through eight additional films, four television series, and a marketing bonanza that still populates basements, convention halls and garage sales and always will (I still treasure my memory of my cool blue Star Trek: The Next Generation lunchbox).  Even the four-year lull between the last television series and Abrams’ new movie doesn’t seem like much of a gap, because these things never die, they just come back stronger and more beloved. Kinda like…

Nevermind. That’s another story.

GRADE: A-

NOTES: Carol Marcus has a line that maybe is my favorite in all of Star Trek. You’ll know it when it comes.

Nicholas Meyer’s book A View From the Bridge discusses his involvement in Star Trek’s history, and is a good read, even for those who just want the insight of a witty raconteur. For the same reason, his audio commentaries and novels are well worth whatever price must be paid to track them down.

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2 thoughts on “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

  1. http://tinyurl.com/wintgray02859 February 6, 2013 / 6:03 am

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  2. James Shiels. November 23, 2013 / 9:33 am

    This has all been said before, personally after watching the film again, it is the theme of facing death in a smilar manner to how we face life,that attitude requires guts, this theme and idea that resonates throughout the film, from the very beginning of it. In dialogue Kirk mentions this idea in a question to savick at the beginning. The film becomes slightly ironic later because what Kirk has been preaching to his cadets, this idea, is turned on its head because for the first time kirk has to face a death that really matters to him, spocks death, he then is filled with doubt, about his own teachings because all along “he had tricked his way out of death.

    However, his son reminds him this idea of having the guts to face death in the same way we do life, is still a good idea. This from his son, helps kirk a lot,in the last scene his is more at piece because BY HIS OWN TEACHING THAT HE THOUGHT WAS INVALID, he realises it was valid and it has helped him get over the death of spock. However, because during his life he had “tricked his way out of death”,his character, not what he was teaching, thinks that maybe “there are always possibilities and if genesis is life from death i will return to this place again. Therefore within the character of kirk BOTH HIS TEACHINGS AND HIS CHARACTER AND EXPERIENCE OF TRICKING OUT OF DEATH HAS BEEN RESOLVED, because the character of kirk things that he may have a chance of tricking out of death, in someway spock could still be alive because of the newly formed genesis planet, but also at the same time HIS TEACHINGS WHERE VALID because people are not facing life as they faced death, after the death of spock.

    Now tell me do you get ANY MORAL RESONANCE LIKE THAT AFTER WATCHING STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS?

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