On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
by NIR SHALEV
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a great example of incorporating several themes into a story but concentrating them mainly in various characters’ actions. At the film’s start, we see a version of Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) who appears to be bored. He claims that he’s feeling old and has, therefore not flown into space and embarked on several adventures. In a manner of killing time he trains cadets who desperately want to join Starfleet. One day, his best friends Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) persuade him to get over the rut he’s in and simply go on a space adventure. He agrees to do so and immediately feels happier.
The next part’s a tad expository but I’ll get it out of the way as quickly as I can.
Elsewhere in space, a crew of Starfleet officers land on a seemingly dead planetoid, for research purposes. There they encounter the awesome, super-intelligent, superhuman known as Khan (Ricardo Montalban) and his people. Khan takes command of that Starfleet ship and uses his superior intellect to coax the starship Enterprise to come to him.
Kirk has no idea that Khan is pulling him into a trap and also has no idea that Khan’s alive. You see, 15 years before Khan and his people were labeled as criminals by Starfleet (for reasons that The Original Series goes into and I won’t) and were exiled to a far away solar system. But a planetoid close to theirs blew up, sending theirs out of orbit and destroying its environment. The end result was that many of Khan’s people died, among them his wife. Starfleet never sent any recon missions to investigate their well-being and Kirk hadn’t even thought of Khan since his exile. But Khan lived on that relatively dead planetoid for 15 years, waiting for the opportunity to meet and kill Kirk. And now he gets a chance to do so.
The film’s first action sequence, almost an hour into its runtime, showcases a really cool, short but exhilarating space battle between the two huge starships. It’s shot like a submarine battle, as it should be, and terrific damage is dealt to the Enterprise. Kirk is now aware of Khan’s existence and vengeful intentions, and is also aware that Khan is in possession of a device known as Genesis, a machine that can terraform any planet/planetoid that is dead or dying. Spock refers to The Bible, claiming that the Genesis device is essentially the same thing: the dead come back to life and the living can be destroyed. In mere hours.
So Khan wants to kill Kirk and has already crippled his ship, he is in possession of the Genesis device, and he has two crews that work for him. How will Kirk get out of this pickle? Well, using his noggin, of course. But I won’t get into it. On the off chance that someone reading this hadn’t yet watched the film, I will not spoil the third act because it’s awesome.
I mentioned themes before and how characters’ actions utilize them and are based on them. Well, Khan’s revenge is a clear-cut case of cause and consequence. Cause: he was a criminal so Starfleet had banished him. Consequence: his planet was almost destroyed, naturally, but Starfleet never checked up on him and his people. Second consequence: Sweet, unmerciful revenge on Khan’s behalf. There’s another example of cause and consequence which deals with the fact that Khan is a product of the 20th century and having thawed nearly 300 years later, his grasp of starships and the like is very limited or, essentially non-existent. But because of his “superior intellect” he is able to make do rather quickly. The consequence? He’s thinking like a man who’s from the 20th century, be it a superman or not. He still has many great flaws.
There are the themes of friendship and family, which are spoken of throughout the film and are showcased brilliantly and beautifully in the third act; the theme of being able to take away and give life, which is astounding to even Spock and Bones; and also the theme of loyalty, explored when the Enterprise is first attacked by Khan and is severely damaged, and most of its new recruits run for their lives instead of remaining in their designated stations and doing their jobs. There’s also the theme of fatherhood but I won’t go into more details on that. Exploring this film for the first time or through several viewing is what it’s all about, and is a truly rewarding experience through and through.
It’s nice to see a smart sci-fi film that masquerades as an action adventure, one that showcases the most important aspect of screenwriting 101: the fact that characters create actions. In Wrath of Khan, characters are developed thoroughly and they never act uncharacteristically. Kirk thinks like Kirk should: he takes risks but had thoroughly thought them through beforehand; Spock thinks logically throughout the film but because he’s a half human he’s entirely capable of sacrificing himself, showcasing the brave and honorable act of selflessness; Bones is sometimes funny but only when he needs to be, and is always honest and performs his job in an ethical manner; and no one else on the Enterprise breaks character or thinks illogically. They can’t afford to.
Then there’s Khan. He’s just… awesome! He lives and breathes revenge and believes that there’s nothing in the entire universe that can stop him from killing Kirk. Montalban does a really good job of showing just what an evil man Khan really is. He is willing to destroy everyone that’s in his path just to kill that one man, even ignoring the fact that he has the Genesis device and could deal some serious damage with it elsewhere, like say, oh, Earth. But no. His single-minded approach to exacting revenge, although awesome, is a large part of his downfall. Now, that’s not a spoiler! Kirk and his crew deliver four more films after this and Khan isn’t in a single one of them. But I digress….
Wrath of Khan stands the test of time in both the special effects and storytelling departments. It’s also well shot, lit, and composed; James Horner’s score is exciting; the performances aren’t hammy (for the most part); and the battles between Khan and Kirk have become legendary. This is truly the greatest Star Trek film ever made and will possibly always be the best one. It’s not an action film, it’s not fast-paced, and it’s not a special effects extravaganza. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that this isn’t Star Wars. There’s no decades-long battle between The Empire and The Rebellion, no Jedi warriors and no telepathic/telekinetic powers. It’s not a space opera and it doesn’t feature silly sidekicks. It’s all about exploration, critical thinking, seeking new life and learning from it and other alien ecosystems, the effects of cause and consequence, both action-oriented and philosophically, and just good ‘ol storytelling.
I’m not a Trekkie and had barely watched any episodes of The Original Series, but I recognize personalities and characteristics that make sense and act rationally. The technobabble isn’t hard to follow either and I like sci-fi. Star Trek is very good sci-fi. But Wrath of Khan is just plain great.
The special features from the 2009 DVD that I own are a Commentary Track with director Nicholas Meyer and writer/producer Manny Coto; James Horner: Composing Genesis; Collecting Star Trek’s Movie Relics; a Tribute to Ricardo Montalban; and Starfleet Academy: The Mystery Behind Ceti Alpha VI. There’s also the Blu-ray version which contains different special features.
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