Though I am a fan of both movies and science fiction, my experience with the Star Trek franchise has been rather intermittent. I caught the occasional episode of the original series (in syndication), The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine (and enough of Voyager to know not to), but I was never a regular follower of the series. And with the movies, I’ve seen them on a fairly haphazard basis, with no rhyme or reason to the order that I’ve seen them in. Thus, for quite a while I had seen the first and the fourth, Generations and First Contact, the reboot, and a few bits and pieces of the others but nevertheless having significant gaps. One of the most significant — arguably the biggest, from what fans have told me — is that until this week I had never seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Series creator Gene Roddenberry was moved into an advisory position for this film, after the lackluster reception of the (frankly rather boring) first film. Nicholas Meyer took over as director, and crafted a film that’s a little less philosophical, but has more action to it, and an entertaining villain.
All of the familiar series regulars are present, from Nichelle Nichols to James Doohan, but the focus of the story is mostly on Kirk and Spock (William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy). A few additional characters are also thrown in with the heroes, including Bibi Besch and Merritt Butrick as an old flame of Kirk’s and her son. Besch’s character is a scientist working on a research project called Genesis, which is capable of terraforming planets in a matter of minutes. Also joining the crew is Kirstie Alley in her film debut as the Vulcan Saavik, who is in training to become a Starfleet captain herself. Alley does a decent job portraying the character, though it could be argued that a Vulcan generally doesn’t offer much challenge in the way of emoting; Saavik has a little bit of range, but not as much as Nimoy’s Spock.
The most important addition to the cast, however, is Ricardo Montalban as the villain Khan. Khan is somewhat charming in his own way, charismatic and menacing at the same time. And Montalban is clearly having fun hamming it up as the villain; it takes some serious effort to out-ham William Shatner, but Montalban manages it quite well. Montalban creates a character who is very clearly consumed by hatred and vengeance, and in so doing elevates the movie as without his portrayal, I do not believe the character would be nearly as compelling or convincing in his motivations. The significant weakness of the villain and the film is that it is drawn from an episode of the original series, “Space Seed”, and although the film fills in many of the details, it still feels as if there is an assumption that the audience has seen the episode in question. If I have, I don’t remember it, and given that the films had a wider audience than the series, it’s doubtful most of the audience has either. As the impetus for Khan’s vengeance happens entirely off-screen, as far as the movie is concerned, it loses a little bit in translation.
There’s a meme or something I’m supposed to do here, isn’t there? Oh, right.
That was correct, wasn’t it? I don’t always keep my memes sorted.
I also felt that the subplot concerning Kirk and David didn’t mesh well with the rest of the film. There are a lot of themes thrown about in The Wrath of Khan, but the primary ones, of vengeance and doing one’s duty, fit together well; a father-son reconciliation doesn’t seem to fit in quite as well.
Nevertheless, the film as a whole is fairly entertaining. Khan, as mentioned, makes an entertaining villain, and his cat-and-mouse games with Kirk make for some interesting battle scenes and schemes, though the two never appear on screen together (unless one counts viewscreens). The special effects a step up from the television series, though perhaps not on par with the sequel series, and render the movie very enjoyable to look at. Of particular note is a scene near the end involving a nebula and a newly-forming planet.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is often touted as the best of the Star Trek movies. As I still have some gaps in that viewing, I can’t vouch for that one way or the other. But in the larger scope of space opera, I can say that although it isn’t one of the great science fiction films, it’s still a pretty good one. Plot issues aside, it’s an entertaining romp with a dynamic lead on both sides of the hero/villain divide.