Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan saved the Star Trek franchise, or forever condemned it. Hopefully, that doesn't come across as heresy: like pretty much else willing to concede the existence of Star Trek movies prior to 2009, The Wrath of Khan is my ready pick for the best feature film in the franchise, and quite the equal of all but the very best episodes of any of the five TV series. But it changed things in Star Trek, both because Gene Roddenberry was jettisoned as executive producer and replaced with the more studio-friendly Harve Bennett (who held onto the job for a four-movie stint), and because director Nicholas Meyer, one of the half-dozen people responsible for the script, wanted to make a submarine movie.
Bennett's function, relative to the man he replaced, is simple to demonstrate: he made sure than the lugubrious philosophisin' that made Star Trek: The Motion Picture such a pointedly action-light film in 1979 would be kept well in check, probably not realising and certainly not caring that florid moral arguments were a vital component of the classic Star Trek TV show. This de-emphasis on ideas almost certainly was to Star Trek's benefit in the long run as a commercial film series, but it did, to a certain degree, leech it of something essential that made Star Trek different from other science fiction properties; not that this kind of moral element was outright banished from the films, mind you, but it certainly only existed in a very muted form from this point onward.
Meyer's actions, meanwhile, turned Star Trek into a franchise about military men. Cinematically, at least; on TV, both Star Trek: The Next Generation (which Roddenberry had an active hand in for most of its run) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (which he did not live to see realised) were able to keep in line with the series' brainier - more pretentious, if you'd rather - elements, keeping the spirit of inquiry alive in the franchise until whatever it was happened that Star Trek: Voyager was on about. No mincing words: it was a fantastic franchise about the space military, when it was being handled well, and Meyer, in The Wrath of Khan, did a better job exploring that element of the series that the pacific Roddenberry preferred to leave in the background than anyone else who ever touched a movie or TV episode. It's just that the series' mission statement, "To seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before" - which puts in an appearance here, having been kept out of The Motion Picture - rings a little hollow given that only one out of eleven sequels ends up having more than a cursory nod towards "exploration", while blowing shit straight to hell using photon torpedoes becomes quite a trustworthy standby.
Enough of that, it matters more in the future. In the present of 1982, when The Wrath of Khan bowed, all we have to go on is a movie that is exciting in all the ways that The Motion Picture was ponderous, while doing a much better job of integrating the characters that the show's cultish fandom already loved into the action, and introducing those characters in a way that's welcoming to newbies (full disclosure: The Wrath of Khan was the first Star Trek story that I ever saw, absent maybe one or two forgotten Next Generation episodes. Thus is born the fanboy). Taking place an undisclosed length of time after The Motion Picture, but 13 years after the series, it makes for a much more sensible place to begin the cinematic adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise and her crew, by virtue of moving forward in real time (in The Motion Picture, a largely successful but weird and pointless attempt was made to disguise the cast's age), and giving a simple, easily understood, and perfectly reasonable explanation for why everybody is where they are. After the completion of his mission, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) took a promotion to admiral that he's since lived to regret; Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has been promoted to captain, even as the Enterprise has been taken from her duties as ship of the line, and turned into a training vessel for cadets, still staffed by most of her old crew heads. In fact, the only old character who's not aboard the ship at the movie's start is Commander Pavel Chekhov (Walter Koenig) of the U.S.S. Reliant, on a exploratory science mission to find a barren planet to test a radical new terraforming technology called Genesis.
A profound bit of bad luck, coupled with out-of-date starcharts, lands Chekhov and his captain, Terrell (Paul Winfield), on the wrong planet in the Ceti Alpha system, a desert wasteland that's meant to be free of all life, but is in fact home to a tiny population of rag-tag humans, led by the very pissed-off Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), who'd previously encountered the Enterprise - but not, infamously, Chekhov, because it makes so much sense to commit an easily-dodged continuity error in a movie whose target audience is the most notoriously nitpicky and obsessed in television - 15 years prior, in a solid episode of the original series, "Space Seed", that only stands out as top-tier because it led to this very movie. Using his genetically-enhanced intelligence, Khan is quickly able to take over the Reliant and the science space station Regula I, hunting for the Genesis device, and putting into action a tremendously angry plan of revenge against Kirk, peppered with lovely little references to Moby-Dick and everything.
What makes The Wrath of Khan the best of all 12 Star Trek movies, in my opinion and that of so many people that I think we can almost safely assume that it's a fact, is that it spends its entire length doing two very different things, doing both of them very well, and marrying them so tightly that you don't really think about them as being separate. One of these things is a terrific spaceship-bound thriller that openly admits its debt to the great submarine thrillers of yesteryear (a connection in good standing with the franchise: one of the best original series episodes, "Balance of Terror", is plainly modeled on Run Silent, Run Deep), and includes the best spaceship combat scenes in the whole of the series, big screen or little. It even points this latter fact out, by acerbically mentioning the idea of two-dimensional vs. three-dimensional thinking, diplomatically refusing to mention that Star Trek itself is pretty thoroughly two-dimensional most of the time.
The other is a film about aging and dying. This, in particular, is what makes it better than The Motion Picture: by openly confessing to the actors' ages, the film very actively becomes about their ages, and the first important character scene in the movie finds Kirk quietly celebrating his birthday with his dearest friends Spock and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley). There's a through-line that is placed into the movie with absolutely perfect timing, about "no-win scenarios": the first scene presents this in the form of the Kobayashi Maru simulation, where officer candidate Saavik (Kirstie Alley) finds that Starfleet has a training program specifically designed to confront its officers with the idea that there may come a time when they have no opportunity to survive, and then at roughly one-third marks, this sequence is referenced again, in terms of how Kirk bested it, refusing to believe in no-win scenarios. And then the film ends with just such a no-win scenario, only a little bit spoiled by the script calling attention to this metaphor openly and shamelessly; but we should not demand of our popcorn movies that they present themes with the complexity and obscurity of Continental philosophers.
Shockingly, everything in The Wrath of Khan is in service to that theme, of becoming aware that there's more past than future, and deciding how best to live in the present. Revenge is Khan's driving motivation; a fixation on the past. Kirk's arc is entirely based on learning how to turn down the cocksure bravado that makes him ignore the future. The film's most famous sequence - oh, you know the one - is very much about how to live a purposeful life and die a meaningful, dignified death. All of this is deeply sober, and it's not depressingly only because it's worked through in the context of an action thriller in which a madman tries to blow up everything.
Meyer, after Robert Wise the best director to ever touch a Star Trek picture, and the mind behind the best stories in the film series, pushes all of this forward with excellent focus and discipline, never letting the pyrotechnics overwhelm the very tender feelings of the script, but also not losing sight of the need to make his movie exciting and tense. It was only his second work as director in a curiously small career, but it's powerfully self-assured and proficient. Considering how much of the film takes place on a very small number of sets (several of them recycled into other sets), it' a miracle that the film moves as fast as it does, and feels as kinetic. He has help getting there, of course: sharp editing by William P. Dornisch and one of the rarest things you could ever hope to find in a motion picture, a great James Horner score. It was early in Horner's career yet, and he didn't have a chance to start copying himself (though there is a huge amount of John Williams and a healthy serving of Jerry Goldsmith in his Wrath of Khan music), and the result is perhaps the single best score of his entire career, with a triumphant main theme almost the equal of Goldsmith's The Motion Picture motif, and several rhythmic action cues without which the action wouldn't be nearly as exciting as it so very much is.
Also helping Meyer out, unexpectedly, is the cast. We don't typically look to Star Trek and expect to find more than proficient acting (Nimoy excepted, and only sometimes), but a lot of people are in peak form here, none more than Shatner, whose performance is so far divorced from his usually robust, ham-saturated take on Kirk that it's tempting to wonder if a different actor managed to take his place. The quiet moments of amused introspection kill, his gulping of the word "human" in his eulogy at the end is heartbreaking, and even his bigger moments work perfectly in the way the film needs them to. Take his giant "KHAAAN" moment - have you watched it lately, in context? Because one thing it sure as hell ain't, is campy. The word is practically being torn from Shatner's tongue, as the tendons in his neck vibrate in uncut fury.
All of this is so good, and builds so perfectly to the climactic sequence (which itself has some outstanding acting from both Shatner and Nimoy), that I kind of wish they'd just ended it here. Oh, the sequels are sometimes wonderful and all, but it sort of cheapens this film's emotional arc to press the "genre films cancel death" button. Meyer was right to be aghast at the sequel hooks planted without his input: though it doesn't undercut the sincerity and impact of the film's treatment of death in the same way that the copycat moment in Star Trek Into Darkness does - at least the death here isn't reversed until the next film - it absolutely pulls the stakes down, in an absolutely deadening way. Since I'm complaining, here are a few more: the visual effects (outside that one groundbreaking use of CGI) are noticeably smaller than they were in The Motion Picture, owing to budgetary restraint, and even by the standards of Star Trek, the film does a terrible job of giving anything interesting to most of the ensemble, though in the director's cut (an incremental improvement over the theatrical version), James Doohan at least gets a little more depth in his portrayal of Scotty.
Still, "there are some flaws" is a very survivable bit of criticism for a popcorn movie, and especially for a Star Trek picture, where even the very best tend to have a distinct feel of television kicking around at the heels. None of that in The Wrath of Khan. This isn't great "for a Star Trek movie", it's one of the best sci-fi adventure films of the post-Star Wars era, tensely mechanistic and weepily humane in equal measure and in perfect harmony.
Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)
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