Director: Nicholas Meyer
Reviewed: 11 June 2013
Admiral Kirk reads novels by Charles Dickens. Super-villain Khan quotes Herman Melville. Captain Spock arches an eyebrow containing volumes. Space ships move slowly, and James Horner's score heightens the emotions. Although I am no Trekkie and have limited knowledge of the television series, I am can boldly declare "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" to be the best of the film series. Its plot concerns the U.S.S. Enterprise embarking on a voyage with a crew of trainees (and the usual cast of familiar faces behind them) to investigate a transmission from a far-off scientific research lab working on The Genesis Project, a device of transformative power with the ability to introduce life to any moon or desolate planet in the galaxy. Of course, the device could also be used as a weapon to extinguish life on any planet. As Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) travel the heavens, a chance investigation by the U.S.S. Reliant plays into the hands of the diabolical Khan (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically engineered criminal exiled in a desert wasteland for fifteen years by then Captain Kirk. Khan seizes the opportunity for escape, mind control, baits a trap for Kirk, and attacks ruthlessly.
After a dynamic introduction, the film foregrounds the conflict between Kirk and Spock's philosophies, as well as the acknowledgement that nearly all of the major players are older and studying their own mortality. Horner's score is still a magnificent blend of percussion and wonder, and the film comfortably unfolds at its own pace. In contrast to "Star Trek Into Darkness," director Nicholas Meyer takes the time to show the leaders touring the sick bay, seeing the aftermath of some of the attacks. The stakes are quite high in this film with The Genesis Project representing both the best and worst of humanity, potentially, as well as Kirk's own confronting of his past and choices made. Kirk's quarters acknowledge the explorers of the Enterprise alongside the context of explorers of the past. Pistols of pirates are prominently displayed next to knightly armor, giving the feeling of this being a ship at sail, an exploratory vessel, where the captain reads and thinks and reflects into his journal.
And Montalban and the ear-bugs! I cannot say enough about them. Montalban is iconic and magnetic as the soft-spoken, hissing Khan who delivers intense monologues but never gets to share a physical scene with Kirk. His chest prominently displayed and surrounded by former Chippendale dancers, he captures the pathos of a grieving husband, a wronged man desperate with revenge. Montalban's voice often plays a scene more quietly than histrionic, a wise choice. And the ear-bug scene still delivers a primal, oozy wince from me, even though the special effects from 1982 do not hold up as well.
The film's climax involves a moment of genuine sacrifice from a member of the Enterprise, and it still registers as a genuine movie moment for me. The acting and the editing are superb, as well as the subsequent funeral in space, complete with Scotty playing bagpipes, a strange collision of cultures that works. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" is not about Khan as much as it is about that intrepid exploratory crew aboard the Enterprise, that amalgamation of personalities working together, forming friendships, taking time for conversations, and healing from pain. Shatner may have become a stereotype of himself later, but I think that his work here is brilliant. The film's final moments offer hope, and not just of a sequel.