Earlier this week we talked about the first Star Trek movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and now we’re moving on to arguably the best Star Trek movie featuring the original cast, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan! As I mentioned in my review for The Motion Picture, I had the opportunity to go see this movie on the big screen and it was awesome! It’s been a number of years since I’ve watched any of the older Star Trek movies so seeing one in a theater was a treat. I was a bit harsh on The Motion Picture (some would say deservedly so, others would argue against that) and I really think that seeing Khan right after watching The Motion Picture really serves to highlight a lot of my issues with The Motion Picture, maybe not as a generic Star Trek story, but as a movie in general. Let’s get into it!
To clarify and expound on what I said above, The Motion Picture is a fine Star Trek story that would have worked fine as an episode or double episode of the show and I think that was the problem – it felt like just another episode of the show – whereas Khan felt like a movie and more of a cinematic experience and a lot of that comes down to what’s at stake and how it relates to the characters we know and love. In The Motion Picture, there were definitely stakes, V’Ger was on the verge of destroying the world, but we never saw that power demonstrated. Also, even though a crew member was taken and effectively killed by V’Ger, we had only just met that character and weren’t really given any reason to care that she was gone and the only character that she had a personal connection with was…. another character we had just met and had no real reason to give a damn about. Now, take Khan. Right up front we are introduced to Scotty’s nephew who is on his first mission as a trainee and is then killed in the first battle with Khan. I will concede that he was a character that we barely knew just like the two from The Motion Picture but the difference here, is that he was related to Scotty and when he died, we felt Scotty’s pain and anguish. That familial relationship with an established, beloved character gives the audience an emotional connection and gets you invested. The story with V’Ger is cold, cerebral science fiction while the story with Khan is heated and emotional. One could argue that a more cerebral story is a better fit for Star Trek but I think that the emotional investment that comes with a revenge story makes for a much better cinematic experience. Of course the example of Scotty’s nephew pales in comparison to the overall story of Khan seeking revenge on Kirk and his crew for marooning him on Ceti Alpha V. Honestly reaching back to the show to pull in a previously established story line was a brilliant choice. Khan was a fantastic character and a great villain for the heroes of the Enterprise to fight against.
Keeping in line with the conversation over stakes, the idea of using Genesis to literally scrub clean any life on a planet is much more impactful that the generic idea of the destruction of Earth. Yes that might sound callous but how many movies and shows have we seen where the villain just want’s to destroy Earth? It might be much more trite a concept in 2017 that it was in 1979 but it’s still fairly bland. To me, showing the audience what Genesis is capable of via the simulation that Carol Marcus recorded and then showing us the effect it had on the Genesis cave all while driving home the point that it will destroy any life that already exists where Genesis is activated and then letting our own imagination run wild at the thought of a man like Khan Noonien Singh having that power? Damn…. That’s where the magic happens. Letting the audience think through the implications is usually far more effective storytelling tool than explicitly showing them what could happen.
Aside from the stakes and story telling getting upgrades, damn near everything else about this movie is an upgrade over the previous installment – the characters, the character moments, the humor, the set design, the uniforms – all more vibrant and colorful than what we got in The Motion Picture. Comparing the two, it feels very apparent that The Motion Picture is just a flat, cold, monotone (and in a lot of ways monochromatic) movie. It struck me time and time again rewatching Khan just how better written the characters are and it’s not just the big moments like Spocks sacrifice. It’s in moments like when Scotty tells Kirk that he “had a wee bout, but Dr. McCoy pulled me through” and then when Kirk turns to McCoy, McCoy whispers “Shore leave”, the implication being that Scotty got piss drunk on shore leave (like a Scotty do) and Bones helped him with the hangover. I don’t remember any nuanced character moments like that in The Motion Picture.
At my screening of this movie, there was a 15-20 minute interview with William Shatner conducted by Scott Mantz that ran before it and in that interview, it was mentioned that the director took care to craft the space battles like an old timey naval battle or submarine battle so while watching the movie again, I made a note to look out for that and it is very much there. So often today, space battles are shown as fast and furious affairs with fast moving ships created with super slick CGI but not here. In this movie there are really two space battles and both of them are slower, more deliberate, and methodical. The first one being when Khan has taken over the Reliant and is drawing the Enterprise to strike as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The second being the game of cat and mouse inside the nebula. Both are wonderfully crafted, wonderfully choreographed, and executed brilliantly.
Of course, you can’t talk about The Wrath of Khan without talking about the death of Spock at the end. (Spoilers I guess?) It is still, to this day, one of the most memorable and impactful character deaths ever. The shot of Kirk and Spock’s hands on either side of the glass as Spock passes away will forever been iconic as will Kirk’s eulogy for his friend. Even knowing that it’s coming, it still hit’s you pretty hard. And I think what hit’s harder than Spock’s actual death scene, is seeing Kirk choke on the word “human” during his speech. Great acting and a perfect moment in a fantastic movie.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is an amazing movie and one of, if not THE, best Star Trek movie. It has action, drama, suspense, humor, and character in droves. I loved it and felt privileged to see it on the big screen again.
Final Rating: A
Until next time, Thank You for reading and…
SEE YOU AT THE CINEMA!