Synopsis: Feeling that the future holds nothing close to what the past once did, Admiral James T. Kirk begins to believe that galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young. Yet on a routine inspection of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Kirk’s Starfleet career enters a new chapter as a result of his most vengeful nemesis: Khan Noonien Singh, the genetically enhanced conqueror from late 20th-century Earth. Escaping his forgotten prison, Khan sets his sights on both capturing Project Genesis, a device of god-like power, and the utter destruction of Kirk.
eyelights: the warmth between the main characters. the shocking finale. the new uniforms. the new bridge design.
eyesores: Khan’s “fake” pecs. Kirk’s poodle-fur hairpiece. KHAAAAAAAN!!!
“How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?”
‘Wrath of Khan’ is over-rated. Let me blunt: While ‘Star Trek II’ is a good movie, its merits aren’t nearly as remarkable as most fans emphatically like to assert.
Cue the hate mail.
Look, I’m a fan. I’m a fan of ‘Star Trek’. I’m especially a fan of the original series and the motion pictures starring the original crew. Including ‘Wrath of Khan’. And I do love ‘Star Trek II’. I really do. It’s just that people rave about it as though it were the ultimate ‘Star Trek’ movie – which I think is a tad hyperbolic.
‘Wrath of Khan’ was released in 1981 after many changes on its creative team: Paramount Pictures were unsatisfied with ‘The Motion Picture‘ and its box office returns; they only agreed to make another ‘Star Trek’ film if it was made on a considerably smaller budget, and if it was a bit more of a crowd-pleaser.
Exit Robert Wise and Gene Roddenberry, enter Harvey Bennett and Nicholas Meyer.
Neither Bennett or Meyer had ever watched ‘Star Trek’ before but they brought their respective filmmaking skills to the franchise. Meyer also brought a very different vision to his film, bringing in a more military and nautical motif to Starfleet: The Enterprise and its crew now looked very different.
After watching the whole original series, the story that Bennett felt presented the most potential was “Space Seed”, in which Captain Kirk exiled Khan Noonien Singh and his crew on an uninhabited but habitable Ceti Alpha V. He saw in Khan the perfect villain, something he found missing from ‘ST:TMP’.
‘The Wrath of Khan’ finds Chekov, now the First Officer of the Reliant, exploring Ceti Alpha V, thinking that it’s Ceti Alpha VI. In the process, he and Captain Terrell inadvertently provide Khan and his crew with an escape route off of their planet – which has since become desolate, killing many of Khan’s people.
Naturally, he wants revenge on Kirk for stranding them there.
His plan revolves around an invention called the Genesis device, which permits its user to terraform a planet to make it habitable to humans. Using the Reliant and its crew, he attacks Regula One, the space station conducting the Genesis experiments, in order to draw Kirk and the Enterprise into his trap.
The picture is centered on this cat-and-mouse game, on a duel of skill and will.
But, above all else, it’s focused on the relationships between its characters – in particular, on the friendships between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. There are the rest of the crew, naturally, all of whom get more substantive screentime than in ‘ST:TMP’, and also a few bonds from one of Kirk’s past relationships.
These are the heart of this ‘Star Trek’, which is warm, human, in the same way that ‘The Motion Picture’ was cold, technological. This time, the dynamics between the characters is affectionate, familiar, tight; it’s like a small family. Also, Uhura is back to her alluring self, after seeming a bit detached in ‘ST:TMP’.
Thankfully these make up for the picture’s radically-reduced budget, in comparison to its predecessor, which meant reusing shots from the previous film and cutting back on the “wow” factor that permeated it. Here, simple things like matte paintings and prosthetics aren’t quite as convincing as they very well should be.
For good or bad.
In any event, let’s take a look at some of the most notable aspects of ‘Wrath of Khan’:
- The motion picture score: Jerry Goldsmith was replaced with John Horner due to budgetary limitations. Horner was instructed not to use Goldsmith’s music, so ‘Wrath of Khan’ has a completely different opening theme; it has flourishes of the original TV show’s theme, but the bombastic ‘ST:TMP’ theme is gone. Horner’s score has more horns, which seems fitting given the more nautical Starfleet. It’s a great score, but it’s quite the departure.
- The Kobayashi Maru scenario: I love that the picture begins with the Kobayashi Maru. For one, it’s a great addition to the Star Trek mythology, and it makes complete sense for the character of Kirk. Secondly, it’s startling the first time you see the movie because you wonder why there a female Vulcan (or Romulan) as the Captain of what you think is the Enterprise. And it’s even more shocking when the whole crew gets decimated (“It can’t be… what’s going on?!”).
- Lieutenant JG Saavik: She’s an intriguing character, not just because she looks striking, but because she’s either Vulcan or Romulan and appears to be Spock’s protégé. But, if she’s Vulcan, why does she react slightly emotionally, like saying “damn” when things don’t go as planned? It seems out of character for a Vulcan. In fact, she doesn’t seem at all as emotionless as Spock or other Vulcans; she even cries at the end. So what’s her story? Is it an oversight by the filmmakers? Or just bad choices on the part of Kirstie Alley, who isn’t exactly stellar in her first big screen role?
- The character dynamics: Spock is now the Captain of the Enterprise and Kirk is still an Admiral, doing work he’s unexcited about, like overseeing training sessions. He’s unenthused, feeling old. To make matters worse, it’s his birthday, which leads Spock to give him a copy of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and, later, McCoy to give him Romulan ale and a pair of reading glasses. Together they discuss his middle age crisis. It may seem angsty, but these are great bonding moments between friends and it helps to engage us emotionally with them; it makes them relatable.
- The new uniforms: I love these red, military-style jackets; they’re absolutely brilliant and they give the crew a little more gravitas than the flamboyant original uniforms or the loungewear from ‘ST:TMP”. Granted, the pants are hemmed a bit weird, kind of like sweatpants, but I guess they’re an extension of the ones from the original show. Otherwise, though, it’s an awesome outfit.
- William Shatner: First off, what’s with his poodle-hair wig? Secondly, we all know that Shatner has, to be polite, his own unique style of acting, but could it get any worse than “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!”? Geez, Louise. He does have his good moments, though. He’s not unwatchable.
- Ricardo Montalbán: Wow, what a difference 15 years makes! I’m surprised that the Enterprise crew can recognize Khan, given how ragged he is now. He looks wicked cool, but so much older. Montalbán still over-acts, as he did in the original show, but it’s a good theatrical performance; he makes quite an impression. It’s just not realistic, is all.
And as far as his pecs (which he claimed were real despite persistent rumours to the contrary) go, I tried to see if the chain around his neck moved, and it doesn’t; it looks fixed in place – just as it would to conceal a prosthetic chest. Having said that, his chest seemed to move naturally. But, yeah, it does look pretty fake.
- Kirk’s son and ex: What a terrific piece of casting this was: Bibi Besch is absolutely credible as one of Kirk’s exes: she’s beautiful and yet very smart and capable. He wouldn’t have paired with anyone less. And Merritt Butrick looks exactly the way their progeny would. And I love that their introduction never became sappy; there’s tension and Kirk remains a bit detached, for the exact reason why he was never a father in the first place – his true love is Starfleet.
- The Genesis project: I don’t know if terraforming is a concept that existed prior to ‘The Wrath of Khan’, but it’s the first time I’d heard of it, and ‘Star Trek II’ is likely what cemented the concept in pop culture. It’s an amazing idea, filled with so many possibilities. Granted, it seems far-fetched as depicted here, but many things seemed far-fetched 50 years ago that are now a reality. So, who knows, maybe it will be possible one day.
- The ethical dilemmas: Star Trek is always at its best when it discusses societal concerns and it does so here. With Genesis, there is the question of who gets to wield the power of creation and in which context it is appropriate to be used: Although Genesis can be used to create life, it can also annihilate in the process. In the wrong hands, whether malicious or irresponsible, it could be devastating. These questions are discussed, even debated, at various points in the films. It’s smart sci-fi.
- The question of mortality: Admiral Kirk is feeling old, but it may not have as much to do with age as he imagines. He and McCoy discuss his gloominess in the face of his 50th birthday and, consequently his life purpose. It’s a significant discussion that hits right home. What is one’s purpose in this life? And this extends further to the theme of the “needs of the many outweigh those of the few, or the one”. The notion that a life is sometimes most valuable in the bigger picture is a rare concept in our society, and it serves to question our desire to cling to life at all cost, beyond nobility and dignity.
- The Botany Bay: I love that we go back to the Botany Bay – what a great way to tie the show and films together. But it seems far too coincidental that Chekov would find it. I mean, it’s bad enough that he wasn’t on the show when “Space Seed” was produced, so he and Khan couldn’t recognize each other. But let’s say he was: Why didn’t it occur to him, when they were going on Ceti Alpha VI, that Ceti Alpha V was nearby? Wouldn’t he have advised his Captain of the fact that the Enterprise had marooned humans there years ago?
And why is he on the landing crew with the Captain? Is the crew so small that both the Captain and First Officer would go together (I know, I know… Kirk and Spock did it all the time, but it shouldn’t be a Starfleet procedure – you always want to leave someone in charge on deck)?
- The Ceti eels: This one’s an interesting plot device, but it doesn’t make much sense: The larvae taken from eels are small enough to crawl in someone’s ear, but also large enough to wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex? In any event, it’s a memorable part of the film because it’s cringe-worthy – both having to watch these things creep into their subjects’ ears, but also to think that it would make one malleable. Ugh. Unfortunately, the prosthetic ears that are used to depicts this look like crap.
- The special effects: ‘Wrath of Khan’ was clearly made by an inferior production; the effects aren’t nearly as amazing here as in ‘The Motion Picture’. Even simple things like the warp effects are toned down. In this case, the warp is completely different; it’s not as exciting, more realistic. But still, couldn’t they just afford to make it the same? Why change it at all?
- The third act: From the moment that Kirk is drawn into Khan’s trap, the picture kind of loses its depth, being more focused on the cat and mouse game. There’s one excellent moment when Kirk speaks to his ex about their son, and why she chose to keep his existence to herself all these years, but that’s about it – until the finale, naturally. Frankly, it’s those more human moments that make Star Trek so good. The rest is decent, but it’s vacuous without the emotional content. So, while some people might enjoy the chase, and it is rather good, it isn’t nearly as poignant.
- Peter’s death: When his star recruit Peter is felled in Khan’s attacks, Scotty shows up on the bridge with him in his arms. WTF! Even if he was dead already, it doesn’t make sense. And if he wasn’t, it makes even less sense: Take him to sickbay, you ninny! I mean, it’s a dramatic moment, but it’s utterly insipid. Why would he go all the way there? What purpose would it serve?
- Khan’s death: I was disappointed that Khan doesn’t see his failure in his final moment; he dies before seeing Kirk escape, thinking he’d succeeded.
- Spock’s death: Firstly, it’s amazing to watch Spock put his life on the line silently, diligently, because he knows that only he can save the day; although he doesn’t want to die, his actions were the most logical, contextually-speaking. His self-sacrifice is awe-inspiring, especially since he needs to subject himself to much agony to do it. This makes his death even more poignant, because you don’t want a hero of this stature to die; he’s more than just a cherished character at that point.
But then there are those final moments with McCoy, when he dupes him to get his job done, and with Kirk, in which they reaffirm their bond. But what makes that part heart-wrenching is that they are divided by a transparent wall, so although they are together, they are apart. It’s a rough moment. Of course, since Spock is probably my all-time favourite fictional character, maybe I’m a bit biased.
The only thing I would have done differently about this whole sequence is to show that Spock has become blind differently: Having him bump his head almost elicits chuckles, which is antithecal to the moment. Maybe having him feel his way around would have been better – Spock probably would have done that anyway, knowing he was walking towards a wall. Even in death, he would remain logical.
- David and Kirk: After Spock’s death, how can David tell Kirk that he was wise in telling Saavik about the way one faces death, and that he should consider his own words, when he wasn’t around to witness that exchange? Oops. This is a bit of a goof on the part of the filmmakers. It’s a terrific moment, but it’s false. It would have been helped if we knew of a way for David to be aware of this. Alas…
- Spock’s funeral: What a way to cap the picture, with Spock being launched into space, and Nimoy’s voice recreating the original opening of the show: “Space, the final frontier…”. Nice. My only comment is that maybe Kirk shouldn’t have said that Spock was the most human person he’d known. Granted, it sounds like a Kirk thing to say, but it seems to me that Spock would have been insulted.
‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ isn’t nearly as awe-inspiring as its predecessor; it’s more about plot and action than about atmosphere and artifice. But, in its own way, it’s an excellent entry in the ‘Star Trek’ series, redefining it in long-lasting ways, building on the characters, and giving audiences many thrills.
Ultimately, if ‘Wrath of Khan’ is noteworthy for anything, it’s for jump starting one of the best story arcs in science-fiction motion picture history, ending with ‘The Voyage Home’. It’s not an epic trilogy, but it’s a threequel that binds the Enterprise crew’s cinematic voyages together the way no other entries have ever done since.
And it all began with this Nicholas Meyer and Harvey Bennett’s adaptation of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.
Date of viewing: June 14, 2016