Sci-Fi Month: "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Sci-Fi Month: "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 113 minutes
Release Date: June 4, 1982
Directed by: Nicholas Meyer
Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley

Three years after the release of mixed reviews for "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," Paramount Pictures followed up with "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." This time, the conscious intent of the filmmakers was to make a rollicking sci-fi adventure that dispensed with drawn-out, overly thinky plotlines and massive special effects tour de forcity. This time, so went the thinking, the movie was going to act as a summer blockbuster should, only with the transcendent "Star Trek" ethos in the lead. The audience seems to have agreed, since the film grossed $14 million over its first weekend; neatly recovering its entire production budget of an estimated $11 million. Between the international box office and home rentals, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" would go on to gross very nearly $210 million, demonstrating clearly that audiences around the world agreed that the franchise was on the right track.

In contrast to its predecessor, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" has a plot that's extremely tight and fast-paced. It reaches back into the old "Star Trek" canon to resurrect a favorite old villain: Khan Singh, played again by the inimitable Ricardo Montalban. Kahn, having been exiled with his crew to a harsh, remote desert world in the original series, now burns for revenge against his nemesis, Kirk. His chance comes when he captures Checkov (Walter Koenig) and subjects him to a brainwashing effort so severe that it lives on in the nightmares of just about everyone who has seen it. Checkov then becomes the bait to lure Kirk (William Shatner) and the Enterprise into a trap.

Meanwhile, a team of Federation scientists including Kirk's long-lost son has been testing a new kind of device known as Genesis for terraforming barren rocks into livable worlds. Used as a weapon, however, the Genesis Device has the power to more or less instantly obliterate all of the life on an entire world. Kirk and his crew must stop Khan from getting his hands on Genesis, regardless of the cost.

Every element of this production comes together and hangs well. The old camaraderie is present from the earlier installments of the franchise, the plot is tight and narrowly focused and Ricardo Montalban brings such an over-the-top villainy to the role of Khan that he absolutely shreds the screen wide open in every scene. It's a rare actor who can successfully adapt to the modern screen such ancient themes as hatred, revenge and the will to power, but every last line spoken through Khan seems to have been firmly inside of Montalban's wheelhouse. He filled every inch of the role and made the audience feel his character in the marrow of their bones. William Shatner, for his part, builds very well on the elaborate back story between these two characters; Khan and Kirk. They're old enemies, and the tension between the two veteran actors comes through on screen brilliantly.

Usually, a director is taking a terrible chance by putting two larger-than-life personalities on the same screen. The temptation of one actor to upstage the other can lead to destructive conflict and a failed project. In this case, however, the arc of the film's plot hinges on the conflict between these two, which makes this particular dynamic highly productive in driving the dynamic tension on the screen. Director Nicholas Meyer seems to have known a good thing when it dropped into his lap, and so let the rivalry grow into the mainspring of the action. This lends the performances great power and make lines such as: "from hell's heart I stab at thee!" chilling, rather than funny.

Writer and executive producer Gene Roddenberry first conceived of "Star Trek" in the early 1960s. From that time, the franchise has passed through many hands and been interpreted in different ways. Roddenberry's contribution to the world of "Star Trek" was always his soaring vision of a world set free. The enthralling vision of a world without hunger, hatred or disease, wherein all people would be equal and at peace. Unfortunately, this vision has always been difficult to capture on celluloid, which is why Roddenberry's most productive efforts have always been on projects where he was constrained to come back down to Earth and tighten up his focus somewhat. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" exemplifies this process of focusing the vision of a visionary, and it's from this dynamic that much of its power flows. Nowhere else in the franchise is the potential energy of "Star Trek" converted so well into on-screen force.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5