Director: Nicholas Meyer
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Ricardo Montalban
Runtime: 116 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Widely regarded as the best of the entire franchise, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan happily revitalizes Star Trek formula established by Gene Roddenberry’s pivotal television series, emphasizing the undertonal space-buccaneer themes to create a full-fledged swashbuckler in the stars. Incorporating adventure and humor and stressing the character dynamics that would accompany future films, for loyalists of the Enterprise’s original crew, this sequel is the bible against which all other Trek films would be judged.
After the lukewarm reception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount Pictures put less confidence in the prospects of a sequel. The slow-moving visual splendor of the first failed to elicit the desired comparisons to the grand spectacle of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the conflict-less plot left audiences feeling empty. Removing the show’s creator Roddenberry from a position of creative influence and ignoring his script for the sequel, the producers sought an entirely different approach for the follow up, reducing the big-budget potential blockbuster to little more than a B-movie where the filmmakers were preoccupied with meeting their meager budget of roughly $11 million—$35 million less than its predecessor. In turn, the creator of the show was reduced to the ambiguous position of “executive consultant”.
In his place, Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett signed on as director and producer, respectively, and accumulated the many drafts of proposed scripts from various writers, including the credited Jack B. Sowards. While Industrial Light and Magic scraped together what they could from the previous film to make sets and effects for this sequel, Meyer polished the final draft of the screenplay in an uncredited re-write from bits and pieces of the various scripts that had surfaced since production began. Having little more history with Star Trek that sitting down with a few episodes prior to writing, Meyer picked up on the naval hints of Roddenberry’s ship-in-the-stars setup and went from there.
Much of the rewrite process involved finding a villain from the show that would give the feature an appropriate, exciting conflict. Almost picking at random, “Space Seed” stuck with Harve Bennett, who made the episode’s genetically-engineered supervillain, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), the film’s antagonist. In the episode, the Enterprise comes across a ship of passengers cryogenically frozen on Earth in the 1990s and sent into space; for three-hundred-years they drift until the Enterprise unthaws them. Turns out they’re supermen from Earth’s “Eugenics Wars” who took over most of the planet and then disappeared (so, of course, he’s named Khan to reference his Mongolian counterpart). The episode ended when Kirk thwarts Khan’s efforts to take over the Enterprise, and then leaves Khan and the crew of his ship, the Botany Bay, marooned on a desert planet to make a new life for themselves.
The film’s plot involves scientists testing a desert planet for possible use of the terraforming “Genesis Device,” which will bring abundant new life to any planet. Trouble is, they’re testing on the planet where the Botany Bay was marooned. Khan captures the scientists and their starship and begins his vengeful hunt for Kirk. What ensues is an angry battle compiling impressive-if-low-budget special effects, the original crew’s best acting, clever dialogue, and a fast-paced scenario. Underneath it all are themes of death and rebirth, giving the entire procession an air of high drama, complete with Spock’s sacrificial death in the finale. Meanwhile, Roddenberry protested the clear militaristic, specifically naval suggestions present throughout the picture, including a sort of reverse-Moby Dick scenario with Kirk serving as Khan’s white whale (despite using the adventures of Horatio Hornblower as inspiration for his television show).
While fans clamor over the rather narratively significant choice of Khan as the villain, the decision is quite arbitrary when revisiting “Space Seed”. In the film, there seems to be a deeper implied history between Kirk and Khan, though they never once appear face-to-face besides on viewscreen, whereas the episode itself failed to make that pivotal connection between the two characters. So while the angle of the central conflict to The Wrath of Khan feels somewhat synthesized, what the film cultivates naturally are the relationships of the main crew, namely between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Kirk finally becomes the intelligent-yet-brash decision-maker, with Spock as his center of ever-empowering Logic, and McCoy presents his moralist slant—traits that combine to reflect the essence of humanity. When one is taken away in the end, the blow is marked with tragic impact. This character-trifecta dynamic was hinted at within the show, all but nonexistent in The Motion Picture, and was rarely given the chance to flourish as it does here.
That the film is considered the best of the Star Trek films is something that will always earn vigorous debate. The Voyage Home has a more significant social message, and First Contact with the beloved crew from The Next Generation contains directorial bravado like the franchise has never known. But The Wrath of Khan broods over old age and lost time, suggesting that perhaps William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and the rest are passed their prime and should end while they’re ahead—otherwise some bigger fish (like Star Wars) will come along an swallow them up. But as the final frame of the film suggests, this adventure gave a regenerative quality to the franchise, earning it a then-record-breaking opening weekend of $14 million, and establishing its series of movies as profitable.
Moreover, The Wrath of Khan does something that movies based on television shows have tried to do, but have often failed at in the ongoing war between film and TV to establish one or the other as the superior medium. Meyer captures the show’s mildly campy quality while at once elevating the material for later films to build upon. Whereas The Motion Picture tried much too hard early on to raise Star Trek into realms too heady when compared to the series, The Wrath of Khan takes a natural step up from the show, easing the viewer into the filmic medium by embracing the sheer entertainment value of Roddenberry’s original creation. Doubtless this is why so many Trekkies ignore the existence of The Motion Picture altogether, and why the subsequent entries in the series naturally became films worthy of pronounced cinematic merit.
More from this series:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)