Star Trekking II: The Wrath of Khan

Posted: May 7, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews, Retrospectives

*Warning: Spoilers ahead.

star-trek-2-the-wrath-of-khan-movie-poster-1982-1020195939Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Star Trek: The Motion Picture may have been a box-office success, but its reception was quite cold. Producers decided to go in a different direction with the sequel, moving towards action and adventure as opposed to the more cerebral first film. The result was a unanimous success. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would be far more well-received than it’s predecessor and more financially successful. Today, the film is considered to be among the best of the series, with some even placing it among the best science-fiction films ever, and is commonly considered to be what caused such a renewed interest in Trek. The film also holds the less impressive distinction of being the only pre-Abrams Star Trek film I’d seen prior to this project. While most of the series’ films have been relatively contained within the series, Wrath of Khan has had a far larger pop culture impact which led to me seeing the film a few years ago. I really enjoyed it then, and not only has my appreciation been renewed on this rewatch, but also increased.

The film opens in the late 23rd century, with an older Enterprise crew. Admiral James T. Kirk especially feels his age catching up to him. The essential crew members, Kirk, Spock, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, and Scotty are training younger cadets to takeover the ship. However their efforts are interrupted by the re-emergence of Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), an old enemy whom Kirk had defeated years prior, and has returned for vengeance. Things are made more complicated by the fact that Khan has come into contact with the Genesis Device, a new technology capable of bringing mass life, but also mass death in the wrong hands.

To actually write it out, the story sounds a little generic. A crazed mad man lusting for revenge, a doomsday device, a group of heroes banding together to stop evil, etc. For stories like this to really work, the execution needs to be top-notch, and it is here. For starters, the pacing is damn near perfect. Neither Kirk nor the audience are thrown into the presence of Khan. In fact much of the third act is dedicated to smaller character interactions which serve the dual purpose of easing the audience into the film, as well as setting up elements which are to be paid off later. This allows the film to slowly build to the goods while still being engaging. Once Khan is introduced, the tension really sets in, and only builds as the film goes on. Director Nicholas Meyer does a great job building the tension and crafts some very thrilling set-pieces when Khan and Kirk engage in some space battles. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the action scenes are of the slow burn type, which are often harder to pull off. Meyer does a great job pulling them off though, and squeezes a lot of tension into these scenes. It helps that the film is aided by James Horner’s thrilling score.

Another major advantage The Wrath of Khan has is an awesome villain. Khan is a very intimidating villain who is built up very well. There’s a sense of awe around him, and watching he and Kirk engage in a series of contests is really engaging. Ricardo Montabal does a great job selling Khan’s vengeance. It’s easy for a revenge plot to feel tired, but Montabal brings such passion to the role that it’s really compelling. On top of that, the man just has so much personality that Khan is just fun to watch. The rest of the cast do a pretty good job playing their iconic roles, and their interactions with each other, specifically Kirk, Spock, and Bones, are a lot of fun. If anyone from the original cast stands out, it’s William Shatner. It’s easy to rag on Shatner, and I have a feeling there’ll be some weaker moments from him to come, but he really sells the character here, particularly during the famous funeral scene.

This brings me to another positive about The Wrath of Khan; the film has quite a few awesome and highly memorable scenes. The opening with the Kobayashi Maru test, Khan unleashing the insect creatures on Chekov, Kirk and Khan’s first space battle, Kirk, Bones, and Saavik exploring the empty ship of the Genesis Crew, and the infamous, “KHANNNNN!” The final third of the film is mostly dedicated to an elongated struggle between Kirk and Khan with the two ships going through a nebula. It’s an exciting and very well-executed sequence which leads to a really satisfying end to Khan. Additionally, the third act has what might be the most famous scene in all of Star Trek, the death and funeral of Spock. First off, every element of Spock’s sacrifice is handled perfectly. He sees the situation, quickly asses it, and realizes what he must do. There’s no extended monologues or dramatic looks, it’s all action. His final words are also direct to the point, and contain the great line, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” It’s an unforgettable moment, and one which holds a lot of emotional resonance.

Despite being more focused as an action/adventure film, Wrath of Khan is still an intellectually stimulating film with a lot of the story having another, thematic meaning. The best example of this is Spock’s death. Early in the film, we learn of the Kobayashi Maru test, which is used to place Captain’s in a no-win situation. We later learn that Kirk hacked the system in his youth so that it was winnable, thus avoiding facing the intended scenario. When Spock sacrifices himself, it is the first time Kirk has had to face true loss, and it is more poignant to him because he wasn’t ready for it. This also brings to mind the idea of decisions from the past returning to haunt Kirk. This is personified in both Khan, an enemy from Kirk’s past, and Carol Marcus, a lover from Kirk’s past. Khan can also be seen as a reflection of Kirk. Both are leaders, brilliant tacticians, and both reject the idea of losing. This attitude destroys Khan and his people while also leading to the death of Spock. Are any of these ideas as profound or lofty as what was found in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Not really, but they aren’t trying to be. The themes here are meant to bolster and enhance the surface story and are pretty seamlessly integrated into the narrative.

The Wrath of Khan is not a perfect film. There are a certain amount of coincidences and conveniences one needs to accept and the integration of Kirk’s son feels largely forced. Granted, this mostly seems like set-up for a future movie so is somewhat forgiveable, but a final scene between the two feels especially unnecessary given everything else going on. Still, these quips are largely minor, especially when the rest of the film succeeds so thoroughly. It’s no wonder that this film has transcended Star Trek fandom and become a part of pop culture. The fact is, The Wrath of Khan is an extremely well-made film with strong characters, strong filmmaking, and some unforgettable scenes. I’m skeptical on whether or not the subsequent Star Trek films will be able to live up to this film, but if The Wrath of Khan, is as good as it gets, well that’s pretty damn good.


Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think, and join me next time where I look at the first film directed by a cast member, Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

  1. le0pard13 says:

    My all-time favorite Star Trek film, bar none. Fine review, Daniel.

  2. Great job, Daniel. A fun film; I loved seeing it in the cinema.

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