Director: Nicholas Meyer
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Kirstie Alley, James Doohan, Bibi Besch, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Paul Winfield and Richard Montalban as Khan
Plot: Admiral Kirk (Shatner), growing tired in his old age, visits the Enterprise and the trainees set to inherit her, when a dangerous old enemy returns for vengeance.
Star Trek’s second feature film movie is easily the highlight of the first generation’s adventures. Everything about it resonates a step up the ladder, a true attempt at filling the big screen and moving away from its television origins. While The Motion Picture that came before Wrath of Khan aced the visual upgrading but fumbled with the narrative, the second feature film is a definite improvement on a holistic level. The story is a boiling pot of suspense, the thrills are nail-bitingly effective and the performances, always on the verge of becoming melodramatic, are better here than they have ever been before.
As new director Nicholas Meyer attempts to revitalise the Trek movie run, it is easy to forgive that he back-traces slightly and picks up a few plot points from the last film. The cast are ageing and as the film opens, we are discovering the shifts in power that have happened since we last checked in. Kirk is back to Admiral status, although this time he, surprisingly, has taken to the role, seeing himself as too tired and senile to be an effective Starfleet captain anymore. His position in this movie is one of the reluctant hero, rather than his usual brand of cock-sure, perhaps impulsive, cowboy. As the rest of the crew struggle with Spock’s hand-chosen recruits (well-meaning but lacking in crucial experience), Kirk is willing to let them take the reins. However, across the galaxy, the U.S Reliant, Chekhov having transferred over to that vessel, are searching for a lifeless planet to test a new device, the Genesis Project. The lifeless planet they pick, actually turns out to be the home of one of Kirk’s oldest enemies, Khan, a genetically-modified super-soldier, who Kirk abandoned on a planet with enough materials to create his own civilisation. Khan, seeking revenge and seeing the possibility of turning the Genesis Project into a super-weapon, makes an assault on the Genesis labs. This brings Kirk coming to rescue and finding the enemy he showed mercy to, returning to inflict emotional and destructive torment on his crew. There is a clear upgrade in writing here. Even early on, there are the telltale signs that the quality has leapt up a beat. The introduction of Khan, as he takes Chekhov hostage and chews the scenery for a solid five minutes rivals most action movie villains in terms of pure dread and suspense. No longer are we going through the motions with the villain of the day, but waist-deep in the main event. To recount any of the plot further is to rob the reader of the tense cat-and-mouse game that plays out between Kirk and Khan, both leader figures, even if they approach their duties in vastly different ways. However, the entire affair is a constant game of one-upmanship, as we see the very best of Kirk, including a running narrative plot point about the Kobayashi Maru and how Kirk reacts to a no-win scenario.
The major surprise is just how great the acting is, especially from William Shatner himself. There is a clear change in how he approaches the character of Kirk between the movies and the television show. On the series, he allowed some of his more Shatner traits to bleed through, aware that his melodramatic approach to his characters was easier to digest for the viewer tuning in for a quick Trek slice of adventure. However, with the movies, especially Wrath of Khan, where his character’s emotional arc is taking a constant beating, we see a more reserved, quieter Shatner. He is a man with the weight of the world of his shoulders. This is very important for the story, because, for large moments at a time, we can see a possibility where Kirk might not make it out of this situation alive. In fact, the entire cast are on fine form here, aided by the fact that the writers are pushing them into places they don’t usually go. After a space-fight with Khan, the story slows down to show us the corpses of the crew on the lower decks, something the series would never show us. Scotty, distraught over the death of his engineer intern, is hard-hitting, putting the stakes exactly where the movie needs them to go. There are still moments of levity from the actors though, including the briefest flicker of appreciation from Shatner when a trainee Vulcan makes up a regulation to get her own way. Perhaps, some might question why it is Spock who feels side-lined on this movie. As Kirk, Bones and Saavik, the Vulcan trainee, head down to the Genesis lab to take on Khan, the Vulcan Science Officer is left quipping on the bridge. It is all very Spock, but it does feel a little like leaving your best character at home. However, do not be alarmed, because Leonard Nimoy eventually gets to the best scene in the entire movie, a sucker punch of a moment that really does separate Wrath of Khan from the contenders of Star Trek perfection. Nimoy is outstanding here, a career best turn with so few little words. It is a scene that will stay with you, especially now after the great actor’s death, for quite some time.
Final Verdict: Wrath of Khan is Star Trek at its very best, an edge-of-your-seat thriller galaxies away from the camp TV show of old.
VERY best of TOS films! great review Luke!