Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Rated PG (for violence and some language)
Release Date: June 4, 1982
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Ricardo Montalban, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Bibi Besch, Kristie Alley, Merritt Butrick, Paul Winfield
(Some brief thoughts about the Director’s Cut, recently released on blu ray, follow this review in a post script.)
If the aspirations for Star Trek: The Motion Picture were philosophical and existential, then for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan they were literary and mythic.
It went for bold (and even for broke) at a time when the future of the entire franchise weighed in the balance, a fragile position from which playing it safe would’ve seemed the wisest move. Star Trek was, in a sense, facing its own Kobayashi Maru, and the mission found its Kirk – the one who could change the conditions of its most crucial test – in Trek-novice director Nicholas Meyer.
William Shatner, the oft-mocked melodramatist, rises to the occasion, grappling with a character confronted by the life that could’ve been, but wasn’t. He delivers not only the best work of his career, but (infamous “KHAAAAAN!” scream aside) he gives a superb, nuanced, near-flawless screen performance by any standard. He had to, if for no other reason than Ricardo Montalban owns every moment of an Oscar-worthy turn that, due to genre bias, was robbed of a nomination. The fact that no one’s ever said Montalban steals the movie is a real testament to just how good Shatner is.
And then, on top of all that, to have the logical Spock end up serving as the film’s emotional core – in a moment that stands as the defining one for the entire franchise – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan didn’t just become the best Trek ever told; it took one generation’s cultural phenomenon and immortalized it across generations.
There’s no doubt that after the mixed reaction to Star Trek’s cerebral debut on the big screen, the primary goal was actually less high-minded and much more practical. Newly-promoted producer Harve Bennett (given the reins after Paramount removed series creator Gene Roddenberry) was tasked to recapture the magic of what made the series so popular, and to do it on one-quarter of the first movie’s budget.
After five script drafts of trying to thread that seemingly impossible needle, Bennett wasn’t pleased with how the material was coming together. The only element he was certain of was his crucial, core decision to give the Enterprise crew an actual flesh-and-blood villain to contend with (something the first film lacked). The one that popped out to Bennett during a marathon review of the entire TV series was Khan Noonien Singh, played by Montalban, a genetically engineered super human foe that Kirk faced in the Season 1 episode titled “Space Seed”.
After a brief flirtation with up-and-coming director Ron Howard (a huge Trek fan), Bennett hired Nicholas Meyer to helm the reboot, primarily for his impressive writing work in the highly regarded The Seven-Percent Solution, about a cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes who goes under the care of Sigmund Freud while trying to solve a case. Meyer made an uncredited (and unpaid) overhaul of the script and, in the process, layered it with thematic, literate, and theatrical elements that elevated the story to what is still universally regarded as the best Star Trek movie ever made.
Rather than belaboring a re-establishment of the Star Trek universe (despite how different it had become from Star Trek I) or getting bogged down in exposition about Khan, his crew, and the details of that episode, Meyer’s script instead approached the story and characters as a novelist would. Within the first scene alone, Meyer laid the groundwork of “no win scenarios”, age, and dealing with death, all referenced with subtle (even playful) winks but would later payoff in rather dramatic fashion during the film’s second and third acts.
He also drew overt parallels to great works of literature ranging from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” to Melville’s “Moby Dick” and even, with Genesis and creation, the Bible itself. These allusions informed the characters of Kirk, Spock, and Khan, their journeys, their motivations, their angsts, and their arcs. It had a stylistic influence on the dialogue as well, which rose above being smart and witty to a level of poetic expression that was, at times, as literary as it was sentimental. These actors were given the kind of scenes and exchanges often found only in theatre, and certainly almost never in sci-fi (or when it is, it’s pretentious).
In referencing such classic works (and in such clever ways), not only did Meyer elevate the material but he also allowed these familiar tales to establish depths and dynamics much more quickly than conventional storytelling could have. By the time he was done with his rewrite, Meyer had taken a glorified TV episode and crafted it into something truly substantial, boasting narrative and character stakes of a riveting scale.
The old supporting cast had a much greater presence this time around, too, despite also needing to balance the new additions of Khan, Captain Terrell (Chekov’s leader on Reliant), Kirstie Alley’s Vulcan officer Lt. Saavik, and Kirk’s old flame Carol Marcus who, along with her son David, was the lead scientist behind the Genesis device. Chekov’s role is most prominent of the second tier (and Walter Koenig is strong in it), but the rest of the crew – Scotty, Sulu, and Uhura – each get their moments.
Dr. “Bones” McCoy continues his role as the cranky moral conscience for Kirk, but DeForest Kelley and Shatner share such a distinct chemistry that Kelley is able to make Bones a full-fledged person with opinions and views, not just a catalytic sounding board for Kirk (which is mostly how he’s written). Their shared winks and sly smiles to each other remain those priceless intangibles that say everything about the closeness shared between them (and, no doubt, the actors as well).
The story, too, is so ingeniously constructed, working perfectly to heighten tension and suspense while also heightening the various layers working in subtext. Plot, character, and theme are brilliantly intertwined all the way through to absolutely absorbing effect, driven by Khan’s superior intellect and Kirk’s ability to match it (eventually, anyway, as he also gets “caught with his britches down” on occasion).
It’s a thrilling cat-and-mouse game of vengeance, with Khan less interested in acquiring the ultimate power of Genesis than he is to wield revenge on Kirk in as cruel a way possible. It’s truly palpable, made all the more impressive by the fact that Kirk and Khan are never once in the same room, only briefly facing each other through on-screen communication.
Their intergalactic chess match is shrewdly played on both sides, as brainy as it is brawny, with a climactic standoff between their battered vessels, adrift in a nebula, that allows Kirk (with the guidance of Spock) to maximize his strengths of employing cool-under-pressure psychological warfare and thinking outside the box.
It’s all amped up by Khan’s deeply felt personal rage towards Kirk as it devolves into a relentless, psychotic obsession, articulated with Montalban’s thespian flare and Meyer’s ingeniously tweaked citations of Melville’s Captain Ahab.
Composer James Horner’s contributions, too, can’t be overstated. The first major work of his career, Horner’s rousing nautical score seamlessly weaves a heroic cue for Kirk and an aggressive cue for Khan back-and-forth throughout their standoffs, helping us to more easily track who has the upper hand at each and every stage. More touching cues countered these, most especially the one for Spock that also served as the theme of his friendship with Kirk.
And then there’s that ending. The one that had grown Trekkers crying and even casual fans moved through breathtaking gasps. The one that still gives me chills no matter how many times I’ve seen it (which may only be second to the Indiana Jones trilogy). It was an overwhelming gut-punch, resonating because of Spock’s decision, yes, but more so because of how nobly his selfless valor is expressed (“The needs of the many…”). The heartbreak is amplified by the fact that Kirk and Spock are separated by glass; Jim stunned, speechless and powerless, as Spock affirms the eternal bond of their friendship.
Then, too, is how it causes Kirk to face death in the most personal of ways (and, in effect, allows Khan his victory), a level of tragedy that (only a few scenes earlier) Kirk had, with his smirking swagger, boasted about having always cheated; “I don’t like to lose.” But this time he couldn’t cheat. This time he did lose, even in triumph. And it was at the expense of his closest friend. Kirk’s crushed. He’s humbled. And yet, it’s also how he grows. The beautiful pathos here is that Meyer allows Kirk’s greatest loss to resurrect his own sense of purpose, identity, youth, and possibility.
The whole scene (and its moving epilogue) is the most iconic moment of Star Trek’s fifty year history. It is the apex of the whole saga’s ongoing mythos. The immediate subsequent films would live up to this moment’s legacy, but nothing would – or will – ever match it.
Director Nicholas Meyer and producer Harve Bennett – two men who had never seen a single episode of the original series before prepping for this movie – brought their literary and cinematic instincts to bear on the Star Trek universe in a way that only fresh eyes could. After requesting the series vets to submit what they felt a Star Trek story really needed…
…Meyer took those “must haves”, applied them, but then ultimately also followed his own axiom: rather than giving the audience simply what they want, it was his job to sell them on what he wanted – which included taking the biggest of risks. The kind that diehard Trekkers said they’d never accept. But Meyer did so with the conviction that, as a storyteller, he could do anything he wanted so long as he did it right.
The fact that Star Trek is still around today, thriving at warp speed with popular new incarnations, is proof that Meyer most definitely did.
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (Currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)
- Post-Script: regarding the Director’s Cut, which recently debuted on blu ray. It’s only three minutes longer, but every additional second makes the movie a lesser one. Each bonus scene is either poorly played, belabors already established beats, or actually undercuts the surprise of future revelations. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but the Theatrical Cut is definitely the superior one, which makes the so-called Director’s Cut nothing more than a crass marketing tool rather than a fulfilled artistic vision. It’s a journey that only Star Trek completests should boldly go on.
Or better yet: just watch this YouTube video that shows and gives context to these additions, but (thankfully) outside the context of the full viewing experience.
- With the perceived success from both fans and critics, most people don’t realize that Star Trek II still didn’t make as much money as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Yet despite Khan’s $79 million falling short of TMP’s $82 million, Star Trek II was far more profitable given that its budget was a little over $11 million compared to TMP’s $40 million.
- Given the film’s far lower budget, the production was forced to re-use a lot of props and visual effects from the first film, as well as leftovers from the failed series reboot attempt called Star Trek: Phase II. Examples include:
- The opening Klingon visuals in the Kobayashi Maru are from the first film, as is the footage of the shuttle docking with the Enterprise, the Enterprise leaving space dock, and other random shots of the Enterprise.
- The bridge’s computer display of the Enterprise showing its shields being raised are graphics developed for Star Trek: Phase II.
- Science Station Regula 1 was a space station model from Star Trek I, just turned upside down.
- Chekov and Terrell’s environmental suits were the space suits from TMP.
- The film takes place in late March of the year 2285. This specificity was determined by having the story open with Kirk celebrating his birthday (his 52nd), which is on March 22.
- The film’s original subtitle was “The Undiscovered Country”, which is derived from Hamlet, before it was changed to “The Wrath of Khan”. That rejected subtitle would famously be used for Star Trek VI, also directed by Nicholas Meyer.
- Prior to prepping for Star Trek II, producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer had not seen a single episode of the original series.
- DeForest Kelley was so displeased with the early script drafts that he was seriously considering not signing back up for the second film.
- In one of Bennett’s early drafts, titled “The War of Generations”, Kirk and crew is tasked to confront a rebellion on a distant planet that is led by Kirk’s son. Kirk comes to discover that the real mastermind who fomented the rebellion is Khan.
- Co-screenwriter Jack B. Sowards’ initial draft had “The Omega System” which was the Federation’s ultimate weapon. Deemed too negative for a progressively evolved Federation, art director Michael Minor is the one who suggested changing the ultimate weapon into terraforming tool, which is what became the Genesis device.
- The sequence for the Genesis effect was the earliest fully realized CGI animation in film history. The division of LucasArts that produced the sequence would eventually become its own studio – called Pixar.
- Khan’s muscular physique was so striking that it became popularly assumed that Montalban’s chest was fake. After those rumors became so rampant as to be accepted as common knowledge, director Nicholas Meyer went on record to confirm that the chest was all 100% Montalban, who worked out regularly.
- Amongst the collection of antiques in Kirk’s apartment is an early Commodore computer.
- People who go back to watch the original “Space Seed” episode – which comes from the series’ first season – see that Walter Koenig’s Chekov was not yet a member of the series, despite Khan recognizing him in the movie, even by name. Koenig likes to theorize that Chekov was actually a lower level ensign on the Enterprise at the time, and crossed paths with Khan off-camera.
- The film’s story takes place 15 years after the events of “Space Seed”. It also debuted in theaters 15 years after the original episode aired. That episode ended with Spock pondering how fascinating it might be to revisit Khan’s new civilization in the future to see how it evolves.
- In the series second pilot episode titled “Where No Man Has Gone Before” that introduced Captain Kirk, helmsman Gary Mitchell (who would become the story’s villain) admits to collaborating with a “little blond technician” to distract Kirk with a romance. Fans have come to theorize that the blond technician, who is unseen, was actually the young scientist Dr. Carol Marcus.
- Of all six Original Cast feature, Star Trek II is the only one in which a Federation starship fires phasers. In the other five films, Federation ships exclusively use photon torpedoes.
- It wasn’t until this film that the Original Cast Star Trek universe was established as taking place in the 23rd Century. Prior to Star Trek II, the Stardates were numbered so as to have kept the time period intentionally vague.
- The web site Trek Core noticed what must certainly be an error on the Director’s Cut blu ray and not intended by Nicholas Meyer. It’s an insert glitch in the opening scene that must’ve simply gotten past the eyes of those involved. To read about it in detail, click here. Unfortunately, the error appears on both the Director’s and Theatrical cut on that blu ray edition.