Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(or, as my mother knows it, “the one with the ears”)

  • star_trek_ii_the_wrath_of_khanYear:  1982
  • Director:  Nicholas Meyer
  • Series Rank:  #1
  • Year Rank:  #5
  • Oscar Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • The Enterprise Crew:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Kirstie Alley
  • Villain:  Ricardo Montalban

I have been writing in various ways about this film for a long time.  Before I was even doing regular posts about film, I included it in a piece about a dozen neglected films and my Top Sci-Fi films.  Then, at the start of my Oscar posts, I included it as one of the Top 100 films to fail to earn a single Oscar nomination.  Later, it would win five Nighthawk Notables and be my “under-appreciated” film of 1982 where I would write a full review of the film which I will try not to re-iterate, but will rather attempt to write something about this film that I haven’t focused on before, so you should go there for a in-depth look at the climax of the film.

If you’ve never seen it, the film starts with an air of mystery.  You have to remember what it was like the first time seeing it (see endnote).  When we had come to the Enterprise at the start of the first film, Will Decker was the captain.  Here, in the first shots, there appears to be a new captain by the name of Saavik, a Vulcan from the look of it (see second endnote).  She seems capable, and is helped out by the veteran crew members, but in an attack by Klingons they all seem to die.  It’s only after that when we begin to realize that this is a training exercise and that the Enterprise does have a new captain and it’s Spock.  Kirk is on board for a training cruise, but things go wrong out in space and he’s forced to take command of the ship (in a scene that provides nice character moments as well as avoiding the sniping that we had to endure between Kirk and Decker in the first film).  Things have changed of course – Kirk is not adjusting well to not being in command of a starship, Chekhov is now the first officer on a different ship and the extra crew members outside of the main core of seven that we saw in the first film (Janice Rand, Christine Chapel) have been left out of this one.

The storytelling, which had been such a weakness of the first film, is a strength here.  There is no wasted time.  In the first one, when the incredible score came up, we had endless shots of the Enterprise before Kirk boarded.  Here, with an even better score (the main title theme is better in the first film, but the whole score is magnificent in this film and is one of my most all-time listened to soundtracks – certainly it ranks with Glory, The Power of One and The Last of the Mohicans as my most all-time listened to non-John Williams, non-LOTR soundtrack), they keep the shot shorter and more forward with the story.  Even better, this film has provided us with a villain.  V’Ger was an interesting concept, but it made for really slow story-telling.  By giving us Khan, who was one of the best villains on the original show, we have a character that links us more directly back to the show (Decker’s father had been a guest star but that’s never made clear to non-Trekkies) and he’s great fun to watch.  He’s smart, he’s strong, he’s clever and he’s determined to have his vengeance.

The space battles in this film (there are two really good ones) work for a couple of reasons.  The first, of course, is that while the budget wasn’t as big as in the first film, technology had continued to advance and they look really good.  They look exactly like what we would expect from two such large ships firing on each other.  Yet, no Star Trek film after the first one would be nominated for Visual Effects until the series was rebooted in 2009.  The Academy especially missed the boat on this one, as the effects look really good.  But those battles aren’t just about the effects – there is the strategy that makes the battles interesting as well.  Kirk manages to get caught unawares and still come out of it alive in the first one and Spock’s observation in the second one provides the knockout punch (and is a great tactical maneuver for the screenwriters to have thought of).  This film never pauses for long moments like the first one.  If the action isn’t keeping us going, the humor fills in (Spock has Saavik pilot the Enterprise out of Spacedock even though she says she has never done it before, prompting McCoy to ask Kirk if he needs a tranquilizer) or the great character moments pop up (the scene between David and Kirk at the end of the film).

This is a complete film and still one of the best Sci-Fi films of all-time.  It has a great story, it has a great villain, it introduces a fantastic new character, it has humor, it has pathos, it makes you want more (and they even managed to perfectly work in the way to give you more – lots of sequels back then had to work around things to get the story to continue, but by having Spock press his hand up against McCoy, a moment that was not addressed in this film, it was setting things up for the future).  This film cost less than a fourth what the previous film had cost but is so much better in every way.  Sadly, no other Star Trek would equal this level of artistic success, though it would come close a couple of times (this is the only Trek film I rate at ****).

Endnote:  Over at Shelf Awareness, a question that is asked of authors a lot is “What book would you look to be able to read again for the first time?”  That question is relevant to the start of this film, and I recently compared it to Chasing Amy because both films have scene that work really well (in Amy, it’s the “Star Wars” scene with Hooper) but both of them also have essential surprises that only surprise you once.  I do wish I could go back and watch this film for the first time again and get that wonderful sense of amazement at the beginning, and then relief when it is all revealed to be a training exercise.

Second Endnote:  Veronica and I have been watching these films on Blu-ray.  But, the Blu-Ray doesn’t contain the Extended Directors Edition, which thankfully I own (ironically, that edition was released on Blu-Ray the day after I wrote this post).  I had to watch that version again while I was working on this post.  The reason I did that is because I kept informing Veronica about certain things in the film – that Peter Preston is Scotty’s nephew (information contained in the Directors Edition), that Saavik is not Vulcan, but half-Vulcan and half-Romulan (information from the novelization).  The reason I had to re-watch the Directors Edition is because I know so much about this film from having seen it so many times (and reading the novelization a lot as a kid) that I was trying to figure out what information I knew from where.  If you get the chance, watch the Directors Edition – it is a few minutes longer but all of those moments are added to the betterment of the film.

Third Endnote:  I actually went back and got the novelization out of the library after watching the film (I no longer own it).  It’s interesting because Saavik, who was created by Nicholas Meyer for the film, gets a lot more attention in the novel, probably because Meyer could do what he wanted with her.  Before I got into serious literature, I read a lot of novelizations and I still rank this as one of the best.