Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

StarTrekIIPosterThough 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.

Rating: 4 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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17 Responses to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

  1. scophi says:

    Once again, my maverick-ness shines through. Although this movie is a favorite among Trek fans, I just didn’t like it. And I say that with a full head of Trek experience. I have seen every Trek episode and movie made. But this one just didn’t do it for me for two reasons.

    One, it wasn’t Roddenberry enough. I know that sounds funny, given that he was one of the screen writers, but it wasn’t representative of what made the series great. The hard-hitting Trek plots are cerebral and focus on issues of morality, social development, and cultural belief systems. They hold up a mirror that let’s us see how we treat our fellow man and how we can do better. This movie, while offering the briefest hints of that toward the beginning, is primarily a cat-n-mouse hunt based on revenge. To me, that’s not the spirit of Trek.

    Two, it’s the first part of the Spock’s death story arc, which I believe was well conceived, but poorly executed. While the death scene itself was satisfactory, the following two movies were absolutely horrible. I argue that The Search for Spock was a worse movie than The Final Frontier…not by much, but enough to ruin the arc. The Voyage Home tried to make up for the third movie’s failure by being light and humorous, something that should be used sparingly, not predominantly.

    For my money, the best Trek movies so far have been Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: Insurrection. Although the first movie failed in direction, the screenplay was the story of humanity. What does it mean to be human? Is logic all there is? Is there nothing more? Where do we go from here? These are very fundamental questions. The other movie (Insurrection) painted a picture of our darker human past and asked what values we now place on societies and culture. Does might make right? Do the needs of the many truly outweigh the needs of the few or the one? These are Trek-worthy questions.

    Well, I’m not here to change anyone’s opinions. I was just providing an alternative viewpoint. Thanks for the review!

    • Thanks for the alternate view point, Scophi. I can certainly see what you mean about Star Trek II not being true to the “spirit” of the original series. I definitely get that; it’s more “adventure” than “morality play”.

      I wouldn’t hold the sequels against it, though… the “resurrection” part of the “Spock death and resurrection” plot was only devised after this one was successful, so any failings on that part are more to do with the sequels than this film. It’d be like blaming The Matrix for The Matrix Revolutions sucking.

      Also going to have to disagree on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Sorry. That film was simply dry as toast. πŸ˜€

      • Scophi says:

        I promise I’m not just being contrary, but I thought Matrix Revolutions was a good movie. Not sure why people rip on it. I thought it was a fitting conclusion.

        You know, it occurs to me that I may be reason bad sequels keep getting made. πŸ™‚

  2. I’ll balance out that first comment. BIG fan of II. Just watched it the other day as a matter of fact. Khan is one fo the best villains ever (ok, top twenty, not top ten) This flick is great fun and carries a lot of nostalgia for us children of the 80s.

    And for anyone who wants to differ?

    πŸ˜€ !

    • scophi says:

      I don’t think you’ll find many who disagree with you. And I do like Montalban as Khan. He did a good job. (Probably the voice :)) I am aware that my opinion is in the minority, even though I too am a child of the 80’s (well, 70’s and 80’s).

    • And here I was worried you were going to take me to task over 4-starring this instead of 5-starring it. πŸ˜€

  3. I’m a fan of “Khan”. It also had one of the best director’s commentaries of any films.

    Most likely the main reason you feel the Father-Son subplot detracts from the main story is because the whole screenplay is a mishmash of five screenplays put together.

    As for the out-hamming Shatner, you can thank Meyer for that. He purposely made Shatner do take after take in order to exhaust him and downplay his acting. But even with all that we still get the classic “Kahnnnnn!” line echoing through the asteroid and space.

    Having been a big fan of The Original Series I had watched “Space Seed” before I saw the movie, so I see your point about the assumption the filmmakers made about the audience knowledge. Very astute.

    I’m happy you enjoyed the film.

    • Yeah, I read about the screenplay and Meyer forcing Shatner to do more subdued takes. Probably a good move on Meyer’s part to do that, as it saves the more emotive acting on Shatner’s part to where it’s more effective.


  5. Spikor says:

    This is one of those movies that I’ve seen every bit of, but never watched from start to finish. Granted, that holds true for all of the first 5 Trek movies. I’ve seen all the others in theatres.

    One of these days I’ll watch it from beginning to end… Every time I try to start it, it just seems like a waste, since I know the story, and I know the good/bad scenes already…

  6. Interesting to see a review from an “outsider” on this one. And glad you enjoyed it regardless!
    I thought the overriding theme across the movie was rebirth, which is certainly appropriate since it jump-started the franchise after the terminally boring Motion Picture. All the disparate elements come together in that theme, father and son, revenge and redemption, sacrifice and new life.

    I disagree about the need to see “Space Seed” beforehand. I hadn’t the first time I saw the movie, and I’ve only seen the episode once since then. It’s hardly essential to the film other than it put Khan on CETI ALPHA FIIIIIIIVE!!!

    One of my favorite quotes from the movie is an exchange between Kirk and Bones:
    Kirk: “We’re going where they went.”
    Bones: “And suppose they went nowhere!”
    Kirk: “Then this will be your big chance to get away from it all.”

    • I liked that exchange as well. Really, the banter between Kirk, Bones, and Spock is always one of the highlights.

      Since I enjoyed the film, I’ll agree that it’s not absolutely essential to see “Space Seed” first… but I do think I might have enjoyed it more had I done so (though granted, that’s armchair quarterbacking if ever there was such a thing.) Since most of Khan’s backstory is off stage, it feels a lot like he’s just dropped in, like any number of other villains who supposedly have elaborate histories with the heroes but which are completely unexplored.

      Good call on the theme of rebirth. Pretty easy to see when you mention it.

  7. Pingback: The Good Stuff of the Week – 1/28 | The Soap Box Office

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