Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Movie Review: Classic Storytelling

For this fan, the greatest Star Trek movie of all time is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Obviously this does not include the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness, which will be released on May 17, 2013. As it stands today however, there are none that even come close to Khan. I have probably watched this particular movie more times than any other.

It is not that I think The Wrath of Khan is the greatest film ever made. But Khan was the first movie I ever owned, having purchased it way back in 1983, to play on my brand-new VHS machine (with wired-remote!). I have watched it at least once a year ever since.

The Star Trek franchise has had so many lives, it is hard to keep track. The original television series ran from 1966 to 1969. The show was set to be cancelled in 1968, but a grass-roots campaign brought it back for a third and final season. Like a lot of people, I became a fan during the show’s syndicated run in the ‘70s. After the enormous success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Wars (1977), Paramount wanted to get in on the lucrative science-fiction film action. They owned the rights to Star Trek, and decided that a Trek feature film might just do the trick.

What a disappointment Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) turned out to be! There was more action in the first five minutes of most of the old TV episodes than in the entire two-plus hours of that movie. I’m sorry, but I thought it was terrible, and it really seemed to me as if the “re-boot” of Star Trek had begun and ended with this boring, and reportedly very expensive movie.

They got it right with Star Trek II though. The film was everything a fan could ask for, and more. It featured a great story, plenty of action, and perhaps most importantly, it revealed the characters (including Spock) as being all too human. Add to that the appearance of Captain Kirk’s (William Shatner) son, David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), and one of the greatest villains he has ever faced, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), and you have one hell of a flick.

William Shatner has never been better as Kirk. As we discovered in TMP, he has been promoted to Admiral, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is now a Captain. The film opens with Kirk and Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelly) stopping by a training scenario, on what appears to be the Enterprise. Here we witness Lt. Saavik’s (Kirstie Alley) attempt at the Kobayashi Maru. I still remember how shocking this scene was in the theatre. It appeared as if the ship had been destroyed, and Captain Spock was among the dead.

One of the best things about the Wrath of Khan story is the acknowledgment of the passage of time. They are all getting older. After the Kobayashi, McCoy visits Kirk to bring him a birthday present. It is a pair of glasses, as Kirk is allergic to the medication to correct his eyesight. He also tells his friend to get back his command, before he really does get old.

Fifteen years earlier, we were introduced to Khan Noonien Singh in one of the best episodes of the original series, “Space Seed.“ He was the “product of late twentieth-century biological engineering,” and very nearly took over the Enterprise. The decision was made to deposit Khan and his lot on the harsh, yet survivable environs of the deserted planet Ceti Alpha V, since there was really no place for them in 23rd century society.

Khan was perhaps the greatest rival Kirk ever faced, and Montalban was surely the greatest acting rival Shatner ever faced. I have heard that the Shat was somewhat miffed at the scene-stealing Montalban, and with good reason. You simply cannot take your eyes off of him.

Through an unfortunate miscalculation, First Officer Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) land on Ceti Alpha V, and set in motion the events that bring Khan and Kirk together again. At stake is the Genesis Device, a piece of technology that can re-form a dead planet, such as a moon – into a living, breathing planet. In the wrong hands, this could be the ultimate doomsday weapon, and Khan sets out to acquire it.

What makes Khan so great is that this is only the beginning. The creator of Genesis, Doctor Carole Marcus (Bibi Besch) is an old flame of Kirk’s. In fact, we discover that they had a son together, David. Carole asked Kirk to allow her to raise him alone; she did not want David “gallivanting around the stars with his father.” Kirk acquiesced, and meets his now-adult son for the first time here.

People always remember Shatner’s over-the-top shouts of  “Khan! KHAN!” when it seems as if all is lost. For me, it is the following scene, when it is just Carole and him alone, talking for the first time in years. She asks him how he is feeling, and he responds, “There’s a man out there who I haven’t seen in 15 years who is trying to kill me. You show me a son who would be happy to help. My son. My life that could have been, but wasn’t. How do I feel? Old. Worn out.”

It may be corny, but it sure feels genuine. Gene Roddenberry sold Star Trek as “Wagon Train in outer space,“ and it pretty much stayed that way until this movie. In Khan, it is personal, and the whole thing was done so well that it reignited the franchise.

I have often wondered why Trek never returned to classic story-telling like this. They were right in not going back and pulling out old villains for Kirk to meet again. While it added a wonderful level of depth to Khan, it would have just been a stunt if the producers had repeated the strategy. Having said that, there are rumors that we may see an “old friend” (as Khan calls Kirk) in the upcoming Into Darkness. What I mean by “classic story-telling” is just that though, the themes of aging, birth, death – the timeless myths and fables of mankind.

Fans may take issue with the following, but in my opinion, there is only one other Star Trek tale that is as good as Wrath of Khan. It is “The Best of Both Worlds” (1990), from the syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is the famous “Borg episode” in which Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is assimilated. Besides the threat to all life as we know it from the Borg, Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is facing a crisis of a more personal nature. Young go-getter Lt. Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy) is gunning for his job. The very nature of the story revolves around him being forced to step out of his captain’s shadow. Like Kirk in Khan, Riker must save himself in order to save the galaxy.

When done right, as it was for the first time in Wrath of Khan, the results are unforgettable. Star Trek II was actually the first of a trilogy, followed by Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Spock very famously “dies” at the end of Wrath of Khan. Since it has been 30 years now, I do not really consider it to be a spoiler to tell you that he came back.

In a film filled with great lines, there is one from Khan in which he recites a Klingon proverb: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The Wrath of Khan felt like revenge for Trek fans, because it was so damned good. In fact, one might be surprised at the parallels a motivated fan could draw between it, and such acclaimed films as My Darling Clementine (1946), Seven Samurai (1954), and Das Boot (1981), just to name three.

I could call Wrath of Khan my ultimate guilty pleasure, but that would assume that I felt guilty about liking it so much. For this unrepentant Trekkie, and at least until I see Star Trek Into Darkness, The Wrath of Khan is the greatest Star Trek movie ever made.

Greg Barbrick

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