If 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.
Also 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.
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).
Khan 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.
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.
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.