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Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Directed by: Nicholas Meyer

Premise: A sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the second film in the original series. Admiral Kirk (William Shatner), Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) face the onset of old age while observing new starfleet recruits on a training mission. During the voyage the crew of the Enterprise is confronted by Khan (Ricardo Montalban), an old enemy of Kirk who is bent on revenge.

What Works: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released three years after The Motion Picture and those familiar with the original Star Trek film from 1979 will find this a startling change in tone. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was directed by esteemed moviemaker Robert Wise, whose diverse filmography included musicals like West Side Story, science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and horror pictures such as Audrey Rose. His Star Trek film was a cerebral exercise that was reminiscent of intellectually and philosophically loaded pictures like 2001: A Space Odyssey. The results of that approach were mixed. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is ambitious and beautiful to behold but it is also sluggish and it hasn’t aged very well. (It can be convincingly argued that The Motion Picture was saved by Jerry Goldsmith’s outstanding score.) Director Nicholas Meyer took a new approach with The Wrath of Khan and the film was more directly influenced by the original Star Trek television series as well as by Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; The Wrath of Khan has the sense of fun and adventure of those films, it balances between human drama and action very well, and the story is told in a brisk manner. The result of this change in style paid off for the filmmakers, as The Wrath of Khan is often cited as the best Star Trek movie and its success shaped not only the rest of the original Star Trek film series but the entire Star Trek franchise of television shows and spin off films that would come later. Aside from all the reasons why The Wrath of Khan is important as a footnote in the Star Trek series and the science fiction genre, this is also a movie that stands on its own merits. This is a very entertaining film with great characters and a smart story. The main cast of the USS Enterprise is very well written, especially the triangular relationship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and the three of them deal with issues like duty, old age, and mortality. Although this is primarily an adventure film, The Wrath of Khan manages to be thoughtful on its feet, giving enough of a philosophical subtext while moving the story forward. The filmmakers show a mastery of tone including light humor amid the action without getting hokey. The filmmakers also include appropriate moments of darkness, such as the “eel scene” or the discovery of murdered bodies on a space station, sequences that draw from pictures like Alien and Halloween. These darker and in some cases horrific moments give The Wrath of Khan some gravitas and push the film toward more mature territory. Also notable are the picture’s special effects. Like many of the science fiction pictures of the 1980s, The Wrath of Khan has aged well in part because of the use of physical models in the filmmaking process. Although the computer graphics of contemporary films have recently caught up with the detail and texture of the props and miniatures used in films of this time, pictures like The Wrath of Khan do look better than a lot of films produced in the interim. The success that Wrath of Khan has on all levels of its filmmaking and storytelling makes it not only an exceptional piece of science fiction but a solid picture of any genre.

What Doesn’t: How viewers feel about the switch in tone between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan may depend on what he or she wants from a science fiction film. The Motion Picture was proper science fiction in that it dealt with the intersection of humanity and technology. The Wrath of Khan has less science in its science fiction and the technology constitutes a setting for what is otherwise an adventure film. Although The Wrath of Khan is generally tightly scripted the film has some inconsistencies, namely the scene in which the creature that has burrowed inside of Chekov’s (Walter Koenig) ear wiggles its way out for no apparent reason.

DVD extras: There are at least two different cuts of Star Trek II: the 113 minute theatrical cut and the 116 minute director’s cut. Neither version is significantly different from the other. The Blu-ray edition only includes the theatrical cut as well as commentary tracks, featurettes, and a trailer. The two disc DVD edition features the director’s cut.

Bottom Line: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the Star Trek films because it merges the philosophical subtext that a science fiction film ought to provide with the entertainment values that made Star Trek interesting in the first place. It remains one of the highpoints of American science fiction and fantasy filmmaking and its influence can be seen in television shows like Firefly and films like X2 and the 2009 reboot of Star Trek.

Episode: #408 (October 7, 2012)