The Wrath of Khan is considered by many to be the best film out of all of Star Trek. My personal favorite is actually Star Trek: First Contact, and I know that might seem like heresy to Star Trek, but hey, I grew up on TNG. I actually had the experience of seeing that film in a theater, and I was absolutely thrilled by the end of it. I was only an infant when Star Trek 2 first came out, but I imagine I would have gotten the same thrill out of it had I been able to see it then. I never really got around to seeing Star Trek 2 until I was in college. But it surprised me greatly, and I firmly believe it’s the best of the TOS Trek series. It doesn’t have quite the effects budget of the first film, but the even better alternative is that it has a strong, tight and compelling story. It also has a tremendous bigger than life villain, as well as being the most fun of all the Star Trek films.
Is it a perfect film? Almost. There are a few small things that don’t quite gel with me in this movie. One of them is the Kirk, Spock, McCoy dynamic. It is good here, but some of the things I never understood…Why does McCoy go into a rant on Spock debating the Genesis device when it’s pretty clear Spock was speaking in scientific terms as opposed to morality issues regarding the device. It’s true that McCoy likes to read into things, but there’s a lack of motivation behind his words, and the scene falls flat for me. Some of which might be due to editing. The second thing that’s a bit of a let down for me is some of the production design and effects work. Again, it’s good, but you can see more of the budget constraints on this film compared to the first Star Trek, and I find some of the sets in this film to be a little hokey and not terribly well lit. I think mainly of the space station science lab when Kirk’s away team arrives, and we see Khan has killed most of the staff. The lighting of that sequence just doesn’t seem that atmospheric and eerie enough. But those are minor complaints.
Quite frankly I would watch Wrath of Khan 100x over than the first Star Trek film. The thing that was missing most from the first film was a driving force, which in this film is Kirk who leads the story. This is Kirk’s film, and everyone around him plays their parts as support for his personal journey. There is more emphasis on Character in Star Trek 2, as well as better editing of sequences, which keep the pacing focused, driving the story forward. When I rewatched the film today, there was one aspect I found still got to me, and that was the death of Spock. Originally when The Wrath of Khan originally came out in 1982, pretty much everybody had heard Spock was going to die. So what Nicholas Meyer did in the film was kill everyone off in a fake out death scene in the beginning. This was done not simply to throw people off, but to get the build up out of the way so people would forget about Spock and focus on the story. Admittedly the same thing happened to me rewatching the film, as I forgot that Spock was supposed to die until it actually happened. It just goes to show how incredibly smart and well thought out the story was. For much of the film, Spock is simply there as support for Kirk, so there isn’t too much focus on what happens to him. To this day, it’s still a terrific death scene, and Leonard Nimoy’s performance is one of the best he’s ever done in all of Star Trek. I’ve always liked that while Kirk and Spock are the best of friends, when Spock is near death, he still stands and adjusts his shirt to present himself to his captain…a great touch. Everything comes home for Kirk in that moment, where this time he can’t beat the no-win scenario without someone else taking the sacrifice.
The adventure is most compelling here, as the emotional center of the film is Kirk facing his aging body and feels something deeper is missing from his life. The challenge here is that Kirk has spent most of his life cheating death, but it’s also the one thing he’s most afraid of, trying to deny it within himself. He struggles with feeling that he now has to accept old age almost considers his life as captain to be over. It’s this human journey that makes this one of the most emotionally engaging Trek adventures. Kirk has that admission once he realizes he can’t beat the no-win scenario, he finally admits that he knows nothing. What I like even more is that the story keeps it simple here by focusing on Kirk, and of the subplots, such as the Reliant finding Khan all tie into Kirk’s journey. Humorously, as well as being true to the story, Kirk keeps managing to get the best of Khan throughout the film. But Kirk always managing to beat him relates to his problem in that it was only easy for him because he knows things about starships that Khan doesn’t. Still that doesn’t stop Khan from being a greater threat, having killed Federation civilians mercilessly, and doing some crippling damage to the Enterprise. Khan also seems to fall in the vein of literary villains, who have memorized books like Moby Dick word for word, but never actually learned anything from the story! To be honest, he’s not my favorite of all the Trek villains, but he is a lot of fun, and Ricardo Montalban does a great job hamming it up. Khan himself is a rich character, and a joy to watch at times. It’s interesting too that Khan and Kirk have a relationship in the film, but never actually meet in person accept when talking to each other through the Enterprise viewscreen.
I also don’t want to go on without mentioning Kristie Alley as Savvik in this film, and she’s just terrific. I really miss that she didn’t come back (for whatever reason) to do Star Trek 3 and 4. Her replacement, Robin Curtis, does a decent job, but Kristie Alley really owned Savvik as a character, who while being a Vulcan, we still sense a slight bit of pride to her actions. She is not completely emotionless. I also can’t think of his name, but I really like Khan’s right hand man, his most trusted comrade who also begs Khan to let go of his need for vengeance and take the Reliant wherever they want to go. Khan fights him at times, but he keeps vigilant admiration and respect for his leader. Khan is even saddened and angry about his death near the end of the film. We sympathize with several other minor characters in this film, including Scotty’s brash young nephew in the engine room. It’s a minor role, but his death garners plenty of sympathy from us.
The Wrath of Khan is a great enjoyable film, and one of the finest in all of Star Trek. While I have some quibbles about the movie, they are seriously minor to how great this movie really is. It’s an engaging, moving, well told story, and one of the best adventure films of all time.