After the decidedly mixed critical and audience reaction to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount decided that the franchise needed to be downsized and reworked. Much of the blame for The Motion Picture's reception was placed on Gene Roddenberry, whose constant rewrites had caused the film's budget to inflate considerably. Roddenberry was more or less placed on the sidelines for the sequel, and creative control was handed to producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer (who proceeded to ignore most of Roddenberry's complaints and suggestions).
Given all of this, it's no surprise that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan feels like a direct reaction to the perceived shortcomings of The Motion Picture: it's tighter, leaner, faster, grittier, more character-driven and more action-packed. What is surprising is that the film manages to do all of this without violating everything the series stands for. This is still a thought-provoking, philosophically-charged piece of science fiction, but it jettisons the ponderous tone of its predecessor and throws its big ideas into a rousing action movie anchored by an immediately gripping revenge story.
The film is less a sequel to The Motion Picture than to the classic Star Trek episode “Space Seed,” in which Captain Kirk (William Shatner, Miss Congeniality) did battle with the villainous, genetically-enhanced “superhuman” Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban, Fantasy Island). At the end of that episode, Kirk left Khan and his followers stranded on the harsh desert planet Ceti Alpha V, trusting that Khan's superior intelligence would help him survive. The Wrath of Khan begins fifteen years later, as Khan finds an opportunity to escape the planet, hijack a Federation starship (the U.S.S. Reliant) and seek revenge on the man who ruined him. Dozens of Khan's followers – including his wife – died on Ceti Alpha V, and Khan holds Kirk personally responsible.
Meanwhile, Kirk (who is now an admiral) is aboard the Enterprise, overseeing a three-week training voyage alongside Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). While some of Kirk's old crew members are aboard, the ship is largely populated by young up-and-comers like Saavik (Kirstie Alley, Look Who's Talking), a Vulcan commander-in-training. In the film's opening sequence, Saavik is tasked with taking the infamous Kobayashi Maru test, in which she is forced to find the best way to handle a no-win scenario. Eventually, the film will provide its own real-life no-win scenario, and the choices that must be made will be much harder.
Kirk has always been a confident, unflappable hero, but The Wrath of Khan takes the character to some interesting new places by pushing him into a corner and putting his ego in check. The prospect of aging seems to bother Kirk, and the film suggests that his position of high authority – in which he merely observes while others work – has perhaps dulled his sharp instincts. When the first real moment of crisis arrives, Kirk's instinct is to take command of the Enterprise and run things himself. He makes a crucial error, and when he manages to wriggle his way out of it, he rejects the praise he receives: “I did nothing – except get caught with my britches down.” Time and time again, the film forces Kirk to confront emotions he's never had to confront before. Seeing a decision he made come back to haunt him, reconnecting with his old flame Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch, Steel Magnolias), learning that he has an adult son (Merritt Butrick, Fright Night II), being forced into a no-win scenario... these situations inspire new feelings in Kirk, and Meyer draws a great performance out of Shatner in the process.
Ricardo Montalban's Khan – justifiably celebrated as one of the all-time great Star Trek villains – is equally compelling. Meyer fashions Khan after Captain Ahab, making him an intelligent, experienced man whose unquenchable lust for vengeance (“Do you know the old Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish best served cold?”) is simultaneously his greatest strength and most exploitable vulnerability. The film isn't particularly subtle in the way it draws the literary comparison – the final act has Khan shouting Ahab's most memorable lines – but it's still a riveting futuristic riff on one of the most fascinating figures in literature.
Nautical themes appear elsewhere in the film, too: Meyer alternately treats the film as an Errol Flynn swashbuckler and a tense submarine thriller, with Khan and Kirk locked in a deadly conflict as they sail across an ocean of stars. This notion is further accentuated by James Horner's vibrant score, which retains some of the majesty of Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful work on The Motion Picture but adds a much greater sense of thrilling energy: his main theme is pure swashbuckling joy, and often performed at a speed that suggests the orchestra can barely contain their excitement.
The film's most fundamentally Star Trek-y element is the Genesis Device, a powerful piece of technology capable of filling a barren planet with organic life. There's just one problem: if the device is used on a planet where life already exists, it will create an extinction event. While it's a useful plot device that gets used to keep the plot moving in a variety of ways, it also creates a compelling series of knotty ethical questions within the film. The scene in which Kirk, Spock and Bones (DeForest Kelley, House of Bamboo) debate the moral implications of the device feels like something that could have been pulled directly from the original series.
The Wrath of Khan is an exceptional entertainment for most of its running time, but reaches real greatness in its closing scenes. If you've seen the movie, you know the stuff I'm talking about. The decisions made in these moments put a fitting bow on the ideas Meyer and co. have been exploring, but also generate a great deal of raw emotional power. It's moving because of our pre-existing relationships with these characters, because the actors display more vulnerability than they have ever displayed before and because Meyer stages these scenes with such quiet beauty (just look at the shot in which a pane of glass allows one character's face to be superimposed over another's). Is this the best Star Trek movie? I waffle back and forth on that one, but it certainly leaves the biggest emotional impact.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Year: 1982