Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is ridiculously awesome

Star Trek - Wrath of Khan 01If Star Trek: The Motion Picture is universally considered a misguided misstep for the beloved franchise, The Wrath of Khan is the opposite, a universally beloved movie that almost every Trek fan considers the best.

That feeling extends outside of Trek fandom, too. Even non-Trek fans concede that The Wrath of Khan is not just good Trek, it’s just plain good, a movie that transcends its franchise and is simply one of the best of the sci-fi genre.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ranked list of these movies that didn’t place it on top. Sure, there are some bullshit measurements that don’t make a ton of sense. IMDB has Star Trek Into Darkness rated higher than Khan, which is so absurdly stupid I don’t even know how to wrap my head around it, but by and large, this is the one. It’s the Empire Strikes Back of the Trek universe in that it’s the one movie that doesn’t seem to have any detractors at all, a dark, gripping saga with a downbeat ending and genuine consequences and a heaping helping of awesomeness.

So yeah, everyone thinks The Wrath of Khan is great.

Well, so do I. Sprawling, epic, operatic, and yet intensely personal, The Wrath of Khan is about as perfect as sci-fi epics get.

Like The Motion Picture, Khan spends a good chunk of its early running time getting the band back together again. Here’s Kirk in his new situation, here’s Spock leading the Enterprise, here’s Bones being grumpy, here’s Scotty talking funny, etc.

Unlike The Motion Picture, however, here this stretch is fun and engaging. It feels less like necessary fan service and more like you’re hanging out with old friends, watching as they get giddy at the idea of reliving their glory days. I’m no big Shatner fan, but he’s terrific here, disliking his cushy job as admiral and feeling invigorated to be on the Enterprise again.

Star Trek - Wrath of Khan 03Also nice, and something that holds true for the entire movie, is that the whole supporting cast is given things to do. Everyone has a moment or two. That’s just not true for ST:TMP, which was focused on the Big Three and Decker, with everyone else relegated to the background. In Khan, though, the entire cast are stars.

Then there is the writing that first shows itself in these first third sequences. It only reveals itself on repeated viewings, but Khan is surprisingly layered. It draws influences from great literature rather than pulp sci-fi, evoking aspects of Melville, Milton and Shakespeare without being heavy-handed or pretentious about it. The script is also quite circular, and in a deliberate fashion. Almost every early line of dialogue looks forward to a later line of dialogue or action or event, and it’s done seamlessly. You never feel like, “Oh, that line is setting up some big twist.” It just happens.

Even when you KNOW how things are going to pan out, it all still works. They reference Spock’s death early on, for instance. That could be a bit of too-obvious foreshadowing on repeat viewings, but here it’s not. It just fits.

Thematically the whole thing is pretty beautiful, too. The discussions about the needs of the many playing into the choices both Spock and Khan make; the contrast between Kirk’s joy at getting back with the crew and Khan’s antagonism; and even the contrast between Kirk distance from his blood family while being so devoted to his real family, i.e. the crew. It’s all so good, little stuff like a clumsy matte painting are barely even worth a passing mention.

While the “here’s how they all get back on the Enterprise” stuff is happening, we also visit a far-flung planet with another ship, the Reliant, and Trek’s resident Ruskie, Chekov. Unlike ST:TMP’s early setup and villain introduction – hey, this cloud just blasted some nameless aliens, isn’t that neat? – this one actually works, and it works well. Everyone likes Chekov, the Reliant is a cool ship, and the introduction of this movie’s big threat is cool because Ricardo frickin’ Montalbán is bad frickin’ ASS.

Star Trek - Wrath of Khan 06So, let’s not let this sleeping giant lie any longer.

Khan. Khan, Khan, Khan, Khan, Khaaaaannnnnn!!!

This is the sort of villain movies are built around. He’s why this movie is so successful from an artistic and enjoyment standpoint. Sure, the ol’ Trek crew is neat and the story is solid and the special effects are still potent to this day – seriously, those starships are AMAZING – but Khan. Khan is a charismatic madman played by an actor who is so deep in the part you’d think he was born for no other reason than to play it. Montalbán comes dangerously close to mustache-twirling, but never crosses that line. He’s one of those bad guys that steal every scene. In many ways, he makes the movie.

Let’s be honest, Trek is known for many things, but the quality of its acting is not one of them.

But Montalbán KILLS it. This is legendary shit. This is the kind of role that makes a movie.

The story is relatively sparse, but unlike TMP it also doesn’t come across like an episode padded out with extended “ain’t this lovely?” sequences. (And to reiterate, I absolutely love those universally hated sequences in ST: TMP; they’re meditative and cerebral in a way I really like).

Star Trek - Wrath of Khan 04Khan wants revenge on Kirk for stranding him on a planet 15 years prior, which ended up killing many of Khan’s people. The dead include Khan’s wife, the busty redhead from Space Seed, the original series episode that this movie serves as a sequel to. Kind of reasonable that Khan hates the hell out of Kirk, then, even though people who saw the episode know that Khan deserved it.

His first step is to use some gross ear bugs to get control of Chekov and Captain Did You Know This Guy Was Once Nominated For A Best Leading Actor Academy Award? (Seriously, He Was), a scene that gave me a lifelong fear of earwigs.

Khan then tries to steal the Genesis Device, which can terraform worlds, he lures the Enterprise into a trap, and then begins the real meat of the movie: the cat and mouse game between him and Kirk.

This is all so good. So it doesn’t need to be Trek to be cool. It could be anything. It could be Johnny Rex and His Space Dick Misfits. If presented like this, it would remain as universally beloved as it is. The initial battle between the starships, Kirk’s subterfuge, Khan’s own subterfuge, Kirk leading his enemy into the nebula and the game of tag that ensues, the slow, tense battle that evokes WWII submarine films – jeez, what’s not to like about this? It’s perfect. When I think of Trek-style battles, this is the definitive one. There are none better.

Star Trek - Wrath of Khan 05And then we get to the end. The iconic moment. The noble sacrifice.

We have to give all credit to this scene to Leonard Nimoy, not merely for his performance – the moment when he blindly walks into the glass before talking to Kirk is heartbreaking and a fabulous acting choice – but also because he did not plan on coming back for the movie until they lured him in with a dramatic death scene. That’s what got him to sign up. Without him caving in, this scene doesn’t exist.

Thank you, Mr. Nimoy, because this scene is one of the most memorable in all of sci-fi filmdom.

I’m not even a big Trek fan and I can recite every line and replicate every gesture. It’s classic stuff. The often over-acting Shatner is great here, too, along with when he offers a eulogy to his old friend. This is monumental. (His scream of “Khan!” earlier in the film, on the other hand, is pure Shatner ham.)

Everything about this, Spock’s wordless choice, the reaction of his old friends, his interaction with Kirk.

Star Trek - Wrath of Khan 02I use the word again: perfect.

And so is this movie as a whole.

I’d like to dig up some criticism in order to provide balance or make it appear as if this is an objective assessment, but the truth is there isn’t much, if anything, to criticize. Maybe I can pick at the “long lost son” story, but it was actually well written and presented. A scene or two have so/so FX, but this was the early 1980s. You can forgive all that. Some of the matte paintings are dodgy as hell, but after The Motion Picture they got hit with budget cuts, so that’s understandable.  Otherwise … I got nothin’.

Trek fan or not, The Wrath of Khan is nothing short of AWESOME.

61 Comments

  1. Matt Timson

    Still the best.

  2. Matt Timson

    (Not you, Eric. You are literally the worst)

  3. Chris Knight

    The only good thing about wearing glasses is getting to use the “I…see your point” line at every opportune moment.

  4. Eric San Juan

    Guh. These stupid posts are still going live at stupid times. Stupid blog.

  5. Tom McGrew

    Love Wrath of Khan. It’s Shatner’s finest hour — never better. And while the KHAN!! bit is wonderfully hammy, it’s his anguished performance that really drives home the final stretch of the movie — Spock’s death scene, the eulogy. First rate. Also, Horner’s score. For my money, actually better Jerry Goldsmith’s.

  6. Eric San Juan

    In some ways, Khan shouldn’t work for general audiences because it’s rooted in semi-obscure Trek lore, but it’s written so that you don’t need to know a damn thing about the episode it jumps off from to be engaged. The setup is REALLY well done.

  7. Tom McGrew

    I think that’s the reason *why* it works so well. While it’s known for being a narrowly focused actioner, it actually does a great job of giving you a sense of the scale of the Trek verse and some of its less savory Federation politics.

  8. Damian Potesta

    They were probably counting on the general audience not remembering Space Seed because Kahn recognizes Chekov even though his character wasn’t in the original episode.

    1. Eric San Juan

      Hah! Damn, I didn’t notice that, and I re-watched “Space Seed” when I re-watched Wrath of Khan. Shows you how good I am at Trekking.

  9. Eric San Juan

    Zaki, feel free to post links to your marathon here as I do them. Fun to compare and contrast!

  10. Damian Potesta

    Can’t wait for your Star Trek 5: What Does God Need With A Starship review

    1. Eric San Juan

      Oh man. Oh man! It’s coming. I actually finished watching First Contact two nights ago and writing it today, so I’m well ahead. And YES, I guess I’m doing Next Generation, too …

  11. Damian Potesta

    Can’t wait for your Star Trek 5: What Does God Need With A Starship review

    1. Eric San Juan

      Oh man. Oh man! It’s coming. I actually finished watching First Contact two nights ago and writing it today, so I’m well ahead. And YES, I guess I’m doing Next Generation, too …

    2. Chris Knight

      I’m going to bet money on Eric actually liking Star Trek 5, if only for the three main characters.

    3. Eric San Juan

      Nice bet! No comment, though. Damian?

    4. Damian Potesta

      Sure….

    5. Damian Potesta

      Chris Knight and not because of the chunky middle aged woman feather dance during the second act?

    6. Chris Knight

      Knock it all you like. It’s vastly better than any of the next gen movies.

    7. Damian Potesta

      Not First Contact.

    8. Damian Potesta

      The other two, I’ll agree.

    9. Damian Potesta

      Three

    10. Eric San Juan

      No no no, Damian, way better than First Contact!

    11. Damian Potesta

      Ugh, it’s like trying to convince a Mississippi politician that discrimination is bad.

    12. Eric San Juan

      With analogies that good, I can’t win!

    13. Damian Potesta

      Says it all.

  12. Keith Howell

    Have you listened to the directors commentary to hear Nicholas Meyer explain exactly how he got such a real and powerful performance from Shatner? He said he would wear Bill down by making him do take after take after take after take. And as he wore him down, Bill would start to lose his shtick and self awareness until FINALLY he would get a real moment of authentic emotion and BOOM….”cut. Print.”

    1. Eric San Juan

      I did not listen to the commentary — I Netflixed — but I did hear that story in the last few days, via Scot Foley, I think. It’s enough to make me want to buy the blu-ray to hear more. As Spock would say, Fascinating!

    2. Keith Howell

      Note in Undiscovered Country that by that point Shatner was Shatner and had the power to just do what he wanted to do. So we got shtick. 🙂

    3. Eric San Juan

      Tell me, brutha. Like I said earlier, I’m actually on the Next Gen movies now, just posting the blog slower. For now, ’nuff said. We’ll talk when we get to it!

    4. Keith Howell

      I can only watch First Contact there. All the rest just irritate and bore me.

    5. Eric San Juan

      The fun part (for me) is, the only Next Gen movie I saw was Generations, with my friend Bobby. I fell asleep in the theater, so I don’t even remember it! So it’s all new to me. I DID watch most of the TV series, though.

    6. Keith Howell

      I was there for all of them and I regretted them all except First Contact. 😀 I continue to be cracked up by how only a couple of original cast were willing to cash that paycheck for a cameo moment. Lol.

    7. Eric San Juan

      When you are set for retirement, would YOU take a small bit more in exchange for a few more weeks with Shatner?

    8. Keith Howell

      Yes. 🙂 MO money MO money

  13. Keith Howell

    Have you listened to the directors commentary to hear Nicholas Meyer explain exactly how he got such a real and powerful performance from Shatner? He said he would wear Bill down by making him do take after take after take after take. And as he wore him down, Bill would start to lose his shtick and self awareness until FINALLY he would get a real moment of authentic emotion and BOOM….”cut. Print.”

    1. Eric San Juan

      I did not listen to the commentary — I Netflixed — but I did hear that story in the last few days, via Scot Foley, I think. It’s enough to make me want to buy the blu-ray to hear more. As Spock would say, Fascinating!

    2. Keith Howell

      Note in Undiscovered Country that by that point Shatner was Shatner and had the power to just do what he wanted to do. So we got shtick. 🙂

    3. Eric San Juan

      Tell me, brutha. Like I said earlier, I’m actually on the Next Gen movies now, just posting the blog slower. For now, ’nuff said. We’ll talk when we get to it!

    4. Keith Howell

      I can only watch First Contact there. All the rest just irritate and bore me.

    5. Eric San Juan

      The fun part (for me) is, the only Next Gen movie I saw was Generations, with my friend Bobby. I fell asleep in the theater, so I don’t even remember it! So it’s all new to me. I DID watch most of the TV series, though.

    6. Keith Howell

      I was there for all of them and I regretted them all except First Contact. 😀 I continue to be cracked up by how only a couple of original cast were willing to cash that paycheck for a cameo moment. Lol.

    7. Eric San Juan

      When you are set for retirement, would YOU take a small bit more in exchange for a few more weeks with Shatner?

    8. Keith Howell

      Yes. 🙂 MO money MO money

    9. Bobby Carle

      I remember Eric clapping when Kirk was killed.

    10. Eric San Juan

      Bobby, that’s probably true. I used to hate Kirk

    11. Ed Sanders

      Well for Doohan and Koenig in Generations why wouldnt they cash the check? Isnt that what working actors do?

    12. Ed Sanders

      Those parts were written for Nimoy and Kelly originally but they passed because it was just a glorified cameo.

  14. David Carr

    It’s not mentioned enough, but James Horner’s themes and his 11 minute piece for the Battle in the Mutara Nebula has to be one of the greatest 80’s movie scores.

  15. David Carr

    It’s not mentioned enough, but James Horner’s themes and his 11 minute piece for the Battle in the Mutara Nebula has to be one of the greatest 80’s movie scores.

  16. Keith Howell

    Yeah. I used to listen to that soundtrack frequently

  17. Keith Howell

    Yeah. I used to listen to that soundtrack frequently

  18. Jeff Combs

    I loved this movie. And you may not be a big Shatner fan but I think he’s awesome. There is an Erik San Juan who is a talented artist and he has a series of drawings he calls his “Beat Down Crew” and included are Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damm, Tyler Durden (Both Brad Pitt and Ed Norton) and an old school wrestler I don’t recognize among a couple others. And there’s Shatner in Kirk regalia on the end, smirking. He’s definitely on my Beat Down Crew too. He’s a straight pimp. Shatner will beat your ever-loving ass.

    1. Eric San Juan

      Dear god man, what are you posting!?!?!

  19. Jeff Combs
    1. David Carr

      I think my head just exploded.

  20. James Hanson

    I pulled a 180 and now I like this one

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