A film review by Craig J. Koban
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN
25th Anniversary Retrospective Review
1982, PG, 116 mins. Kirk: William Shatner / Spock: Leonard
Nimoy / Khan: Ricardo Montalban / McCoy: DeForest Kelley
/ Saavik: Kirstie Alley / David: Merritt Butrick / Carol:
Directed by Nicolas Meyer /
Screenplay by Jack B. Sowards
1982, PG, 116 mins.
Kirk: William Shatner / Spock: Leonard Nimoy / Khan: Ricardo Montalban / McCoy: DeForest Kelley / Saavik: Kirstie Alley / David: Merritt Butrick / Carol: Bibi Besch
Directed by Nicolas Meyer / Screenplay by Jack B. Sowards
I find it particularly fitting that there is a scene in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN where Spock gives Kirk a copy of Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES as a birthday present. The novel itself is about patriotism, redemption, and resurrection, themes which all have relevance to the two characters in the film.
Other scenes in the film also contain subtle literary metaphors. The film’s main villain, Khan, has copies of MOBY DICK and KING LEAR on the shelves of his cabin and has a predilection to spouting out paraphrased lines that harkens to Melville and Shakespeare. At one point, while chasing Kirk through the universe, he proudly states, “I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and 'round perdition's flames before I give him up.” When he finally has him where he wants him, he echoes The Bard by shouting, “From hell's heart, I stab at thee. For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”
I think that the key to the original STAR TREK TV series - and the subsequent films that germinated in its wake - are held solely within its character dynamics. Yes, Gene Roddenberry’s immortally popular science fiction creation has all of the requisite elements of many similar sci-fi extravaganzas (fantastical scenery, high tech gadgets, exotic alien landscapes, and interstellar war), but the essence of the series is really in the people in front of the camera.
Other works of space fantasy, like the STAR WARS sextet, were concerned more with pure escapism; those films were about looking at and experiencing their imaginative sights and in drinking in their atmosphere. What STAR TREK does is a bit different, which is why comparisons between the two landmark franchises seem redundant. The best of STAR TREK – TV shows and movies – worked most expeditiously when they honed on Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, whose relationships to one another were what really counted. All of the lavish visual effects and strange, extraterrestrial events that happened around them – however magnificent – never overcame the strength of their oftentimes strained friendship and competitive rivalries. Although Spock’s highly analytical and logical mind would always argue the opposite, the potency of STAR TREK has always been its sense of humanity.
Perhaps that is what the first STAR TREK film - released with gigantic fanfare and some major fan disappointment in 1979 – lacked. I found the film to be an enormously ambitious undertaking, and under the astute and assured eye of Robert Wise, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was a meticulous and oftentimes ponderous space odyssey. On a visual and technical level, it still remains one of the film series’ most sophisticated entries. However much I appreciated and wholeheartedly admired the results of that film, it never really felt like the finest episodes of the old TV show. I have seen every single one of those episodes several times each and THE MOTION PICTURE never really encapsulated what STAR TREK felt like to me. In short, the film was an impressive science fiction epic done with a consummate technical bravado, but its spunk and emotional energy seemed vacant. The old characters were there, but they seemed more at the service of that film’s visuals and story. The 60’s TV series knew that the opposite was always true: the characters were what propelled the series, not what was around them.
Perhaps that's why critics and fans of the STAR TREK films often vote THE WRATH OF KHAN as its best entry. By eliminating some of the more ponderous and tedious aspects of the first cinematic outing of the Starship Enterprise, STAR TREK II wisely focused on character-driven momentum and the inner drives of its personas. Everything else that happens in the film – from its large scale ship-to-ship battles in outer space, to its planet-birthing missiles, to all of its scientific speak – all are tertiary elements. What we have instead is story of simple, evocative, almost Shakespearean gravitas. We have Kirk, approaching a sort of mid-life crisis and dealing with his own insecurities with his newfangled Admiralship, counterbalanced with the obsessive, revenge fuelled tenacity of the evil Khan, who makes it his personal mission in life to make Kirk suffer at all costs. Whereas most maniacal sci-fi villains are content with ruling the universe, Khan has simple aims: hurt the hero all any manners possible. Surely, it's simplistic, black and white storytelling, but STAR TREK II is able to get incredible mileage from these sort of age-old themes.
Even more significant is that this was a rare sequel that was not bigger and costlier that its antecedent. The first STAR TREK film was beset by outlandish cost overruns, even by late 1970’s standards, and its production became a hot-button talking point in the industry. The film was popular enough, but it never really was the gigantic smash hit that Paramount studios was aspiring for. This, of course, makes STAR TREK II – in pure hindsight – a real gamble of a motion picture. Considering the huge cost expenditures and modest box office receipts of the first film, the thought of making another STAR TREK film seemed risky.
The first key to resurrecting TREK for the big screen was in finding a launching pad for the story. Trek Producer Harve Bennett viewed all of the episodes of the original 60’s series and finally settled on 1967’s “Space Seed” as a source of inspiration (STAR TREK II most likely marked the first time that a movie was a direct sequel to a TV show episode). Roddenberry himself had written his own sequel to the first film, involving a plot he had touted before in which the crew of the Enterprise travel back in time to the JFK assassination and, as a result of their actions, corrupted time. Unfortunately, the studio dismissed the idea and Roddenberry was removed from the production to serve as a Creative Consultant. With Roddenberry serving as an advisor, Bennett and company began to craft a new screenplay with “Space Seed” as the basis.
A screenplay was formed cannibalizing elements from three other separate scripts. Realizing that the script would continue to need embellishing, Bennett hired sci-fi novice Nicolas Meyer to re-write it and to helm the new film. The choice of Meyer seemed like an odd one. Being a self-professed STAR TREK virgin (when hired, he stated to have only a layman’s perspective on the Trek universe), Meyer was able to bring to the project a fresh, outsider’s perspective to re-vitalizing TREK, which is what the series needed at this point in time. What he astutely understood about the series was its decided nautical underpinnings. Realizing that Roddenberry himself had often characterized STAR TREK as “Horatio Hornblower in space,” he proceeded to read many of the Hornblower novels to re-capture the seafaring atmosphere of the Trek series. Within weeks, Meyer hammered out a script that would be made into THE WRATH OF KHAN.
Another obvious Meyer touch was his use of literary themes, which permeate STAR TREK II and eventually would see the light of day in other future TREK films. This is not surprising, considering the fact that one of his early film successes, TIME AFTER TIME, featured a time traveling H.G. Welles searching for Jack the Ripper in modern-day San Francisco. STAR TREK II has its fictional influence from the pages of MOBY DICK, where the emotional fragility and fanatical impulses of its characters could be felt in TREK’s heroes and villains. THE WRATH OF KHAN kind of emerges as a clever and effectual re-tooling of MOBY DICK with lightly peppered helpings of Shakespeare. Khan is such a grandiose, passion-filled figure of hatred that he is not too broad of a figure to willfully quote 19th century literature and – yes – Klingon proverbs while engaging on a mission to kill Kirk. Like Ahab, Khan allowed his lust for vengeance to get the better of him, and his single-minded blindness of his quest leads to his meaningless demise.
Kirk, as a foil to Khan, is also characterized with literary conceits. When he receives a copy of A TALE OF TWO CITIES at the beginning of the film from Spock, he sees that it has some meaning for his own life. He begins the film with a slight grim sense of melancholy, but as the story progresses he is able to see that the possibilities for the rest of his life opens up a whole new door. This is clearly indicated at the film's conclusion when he evokes the words spoken by Sydney Carton in A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Readers of the book recall that Carton sacrificed himself at the guillotine to save his beloved’s lover, thus promising her a healthy, happy life. In TREK II one of Kirk’s most loyal companions and friends makes an equally selfless gesture to not only save Kirk, but the entire crew of the Enterprise. However much the actions of Spock saddened Kirk at the end of the film, he realizes the significance they had in allowing him to face mortality and look toward the future with optimism.
It is the thematic density that really sets THE WRATH OF KHAN apart. It essentially is about life, death, rebirth, and the relationships between all of the characters and how their emotional attachment to each other – both hostile and good-natured - typifies them. Kirk and Khan are defined through their battles with one another. The film follows closely after the events of THE MOTION PICTURE and we see that Kirk (William Shatner, arguably giving his least stiff and wooden performance as the most famous captain in pop culture history) has now become an Admiral, but his new position seems to bring him emotionally down. Spock (the brilliantly calculating and perfectly stoic Leonard Nimoy) has returned to captain the Enterprise under a new, wet-behind-the ears crew. While Spock and Kirk reign in the new cadets, a sister ship, the USS Reliant, is scouting for a lifeless, barren planet in order to test a new Federation device, simply known as Genesis, which is capable of making a lifeless planet look like a youthful Earth. Space Station Regula One harbors the Genesis device under the watchful eyes of David (Merritt Butrick) and Carol (Bibi Besch), the latter being a former lover of Kirk (who, as far as Starship Captains go, really got around) and the former being a product of that fling.
While Reliant scouts one particular planet that they think is sterile, a two man landing party heads down and is surprised to find Khan Noonien Singh (the brilliant Ricardo Montalban, in one of the most deliciously villainous performances ever) and the remnants of his crew. You see, in ‘SPACE SEED” Kirk exiled Khan and company to a barren planet after they attempted to take over the Enterprise. Khan's despotic anger for Kirk as intensified over the years, not only as a result of his banishment to a lifeless planet, but because his wife died as a result of it. Using his “superhuman” intellect and strength, Khan is able to secure control of the Reliant and engages on a two prong mission: find the Genesis device and lure Kirk away from Earth in order to seek revenge. All of those culminates in a climatic space battle between the two, which ends in the demise of one vital Enterprise crew member, whose actions helped to defeat Khan and save the lives of everyone aboard.
It would not be spoiler material to point out that it was Spock himself that gives his life in the end to save his friends. Rumors circulated early on the everyone’s favourite Vulcan would die in STAR TREK II. Meyer toyed with audience expectations by staging a fake death right up front in the film during what is later revealed a as training exercise. This, of course, makes his final climatic moments all the more emotionally charged and sad. The moment where Kirk says good-bye to his loyal confidant and friend is the series’ high point, and there will not be a dry Trekkie eye in the room when Kirk gushes through a tribute to his fallen patriot. It is easily the best moment of any STAR TREK film. Shatner has received considerable scorn over the years for the way he overreaches playing Kirk (which, to his credit, is why the character remains appealing and ripe for instant hero worship), but in STAR TREK II Meyer has reigned in a solid, emotionally fuelled, and vulnerable performance from him. He’s pitch perfect during the tender moments with Spock, but he is still allowed his moments of over-the-top, Shatnerian glee, especially when he screams Khan’s name in a fit of frustrated rage.
Again, like the best STAR TREK of old, the Kirk, Spock, and McCoy (played by the dependable DeForest Kelley) stand out apart from the space spectacle, and this time it's given even greater depth. They all wonderfully act as a foils to each other: Spock is all-logic and no emotion; Kirk is about using emotions and his gut; and McCoy is the prideful pragmatist. All three together make up for the respective one’s fault’s and oversights. I guess that’s why visiting each STAR TREK film and TV show is akin to meeting up with old, beloved friends. They trio have such an easygoing and palpable chemistry that you never once question the authenticity of their relationship. STAR TREK never gains the respect it deserves as being a decent drama that allows solid character actors to work efficiently off of one another.
Then there is Khan, in a scene-stealing, scenery-chewing performance of pure hatred and ambivalence by Montalban. What’s interesting is that Khan never is reduced to a one-note, black hearted villain. He is, in some capacities, a sympathetic antagonist who did get a raw deal from Kirk (Kirk thought the planet he sent Khan to was hospitable, but he and the Federation never bothered to do their homework to investigate any evidence to the contrary). Montalban plays Khan as a deadly figure of deeply introverted pride and focus. He was loyally screwed by Kirk, to be sure, but like Ahab he lets his thirst for finding and eradicating Kirk overwhelm his existence. He finds that nice and very difficult balancing act between being theatrical and larger than life with possessing real, emotional weight as a wounded character. There is no doubt that – in the annals of the genre – Khan stands high as one of the most calculating and memorable of villains. Oh, by the way…his chest is real.
On a technical side, STAR TREK II was a real low budget affair. Filming most of it with refurbished sets from the first film, and often using stock footage from THE MOTION PICTURE for effects shots (some instances are a bit obvious), the makers of THE WRATH OF KHAN kept the budget to $11 million (approximately $35-40 million today, still incredibly cheap) and shot the film using Paramount’s TV division, not the theatrical one. They re-used models, interiors, and effects, but this alone does not discredit the film as a whole. After all, it is a strong work because of its character driven elements; special effects and eye candy are superfluous to those aspects. STAR TREK fans agreed, and the film went on to gross nearly $100 million at the box office. The cheapest Trek film, ironically, also became the most beloved and one of the most successful.
Not all of the film works efficiently. Some story elements seem borrowed from some of the more perfunctory aspects of the TV show (how can it be that – if one considers the vastness of the Federation fleet – the Enterprise is the only vessel within interception range to come and save the day?). A sub-plot between Scotty (James Doohan) and his rookie recruit is by-the-books in terms of its predictability. Also, the climatic battle between Kirk and Khan and their respective Starships never really is all that exciting, as is the case with most of the other ship battles in the STAR TREK films. The STAR WARS films, by comparison, knew that the best way to handle space dogfights is with breakneck speed and slick, fast paced editing. In TREK the ships are slow and cumbersome, which makes the scenes too static and lumbering. Also, if scientists are able to devise warp factor light speed and life creating bombs for planets, then you’d think that they would also be able to concoct one weapon that – if used once – could destroy an enemy ship, not to mention seat belts on the ships, which seem curiously absent during the most life-saving moments. For a film series that prides itself on scientific precepts, STAR TREK has always had some nagging inconsistencies.
Nevertheless, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – 25 years after its release – still deserves its rightful accolades as one of the finest films of the highly lucrative series. It creates a resonating level of tension and intrigue, as well as having solid pacing and plotting. Even more obvious and noteworthy is the heart, emotion, and poignancy the film has with its human elements, always the most pivotal traits of the best TREK TV shows. The film has sci-fi tendencies and leanings, but the emotional epicentre is still the trio of Kirk, McCoy, and Spock, not to mention the inclusion of Khan into the fold as a villain of unmatched vileness and tenacity that only enriches the proceedings. His never-ending desire to rid the universe of Kirk has more than one allegorical connection. Ultimately, it is the richness of the characters – not its technical merits – that makes THE WRATH OF KHAN stand curiously apart from typical offerings of the genre. In a modern age where hundred-million-dollar budgets and eye-fatiguing effects are the stars, it’s still gratifying to look back at STAR TREK II and see a rare sci-fi film that places more stock on the mindsets of its human – and alien – characters.
I think Spock would agree…albeit begrudgingly.
STAR TREK (2009) 1/2
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of all of the STAR TREK films:
1. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) 1/2
2. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) 1/2
3. STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996) 1/2
4. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)
5. STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)
6. STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)
7. STAR TREK (2009) 1/2
8. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)
9. STAR TREK: GENERATIONS (1994)
10. STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)
11. STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002)
12. STAR TREK: INSURRECTION (1998)