"...do you know the old Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It is very cold in space."
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Directed by: Nicholas Meyer
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Walter Koening, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Kirstie Alley, Ricardo Montalban
10 out of 10 Stars.
Released in 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was such a miraculously vast improvement over the first film, it blew audiences and critics away. Although there have been follow-ups in the past that have proved superior to their predecessors (Bride of Frankenstein, The Godfather II, and The Empire Strikes Back come to mind.), The Wrath of Khan has since become the standard by which all future sequels, Star Trek or otherwise, would be judged. It has become such a geek Holy Grail unto itself considering the fact that numerous segments of the film have been parodied on Family Guy. And you know when a movie has become an institution when a director like Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) uses a term like “go Wrath of Khan on it” when he describes the intention for his own sequel. Because the legend looms so large, critiquing this movie now would seem redundant, however, I’m not preaching to the converted. This review is for those not familiar with the Star Trek films, and what that audience needs to know is that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is where this franchise really begins!
Director Nicholas Meyer makes that quite clear with the words that grace the screen after the opening credits: “In the 23rd century…”. The crew of the U.S.S Enterprise, under the command of Capt. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and new first officer, Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley in her first film role), are on a three-week mission to test a crop of new trainees. Along for the ride are former captain, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), and Dr. McCoy (the late, great DeForest Kelley). The combination of overseeing a new Enterprise and his birthday are making Kirk more reflective, and leaving the once-confident hero a bit melancholy. Things are only about to get much, much worse. Ricardo Montalban (in a legendary performance) returns as Khan, a role he first played on a Star Trek episode entitled “Space Seed”. Khan and his brood of 21st Century genetically-engineered warriors were exiled by Kirk to a barren wasteland fifteen years earlier, and are accidentally stumbled upon by the crew of the U.S.S. Reliant. Khan discovers that the starship is on a mission for a secret scientific experiment called Genesis, a project that could either bring universal change or “universal Armageddon“. Hijacking the Reliant and the details of Project Genesis, Khan launches an Ahab-like quest for revenge against the man who banished him.
For this installment, executive producer Harve Bennett takes the franchise under his wing and, with a lot of help from screenwriter Jack B. Sowards and director Nicholas Meyer, succeed in bringing Star Trek to the big-screen in areas Robert Wise failed. The difference in quality between Star Trek II and Star Trek I is so astounding, it’s as if they were two separate, but unequal versions of the original show. Whereas the first movie moved along at a snail’s pace, showing off (poorly-executed) special effects instead of the show’s memorable characters, The Wrath of Khan is a lean and mean, thrilling, emotionally-driven space adventure, populated with a confident cast giving everything they’ve got. In addition to being an action flick, there are multiple themes abound in the film, all of which are visually woven together by Meyer with ease. Star Trek’s original actors have shrugged off the space-sickness of the first movie and are noticeably re-energized as they bring their iconic characters to life in a way not seen since the TV series went off the air. Leonard Nimoy, who looked visibly apprehensive the first time around, best exemplifies this newfound confidence with a much more commanding portrayal of the stoic, logical Mr. Spock.
Now, we all like to make fun of William Shatner these days, and I‘m no exception. His Priceline.com commercials, excursions into “singing”, and acting (pause) style are the stuff of kitsch lore. However, it is really easy for that to overshadow some great work he has done. In recent years, Shatner has been nominated for and awarded Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG honors for his work on the hit show, Boston Legal. His performance as Kirk in Star Trek II should be equally acknowledged. Facing retirement and with his past coming back to haunt him- Khan, an old girlfriend, and a son he barely knows- the cowboy swagger Capt. Kirk exhibited in the show has given away to a character more internal, humble, regretful, and at times angry. Shatner excels in conveying those emotions and in bringing them all together as well as bringing back a little of the young, cocky Starfleet commander we know and love (“I don’t believe in a no-win scenario…I don’t like to lose.”). Kirk is the heart of the movie, because Star Trek II transcends the television series by being more than simple, escapist, good vs. evil entertainment. The film is a fable about life and death and how we deal with what’s behind us and what lies ahead. That is what kept Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in the hearts of fans and movie-lovers for nearly three decades, and why it still lives long and prospers above the hype.