Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (United States, 1982)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Poster

In the wake of the somnambulant Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the fledgling Star Trek movie series was in need of some zest, which is exactly what The Wrath of Khan provided. While retaining the thematic elements of the late-'60s TV series and utilizing the much-loved original USS Enterprise crew, Star Trek II added hefty doses of action, adventure, and suspense, injecting life into a concept that had been left moribund by its first big-screen feature. To date, this is the best Star Trek movie, and, arguably, the strongest any motion picture version of the franchise could hope to be.

Gone are the pastels and clinical whites of The Motion Picture, replaced by a more pleasing burgundy uniform. The ship also seems smaller and homier than three years ago, although there's a definite warlike aspect to its comforts (witness the detail shown as the Enterprise prepares for the film's climactic battle). The characters also seem more relaxed here, and the three-pronged friendship/rivalry between Admiral Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) harkens back to the best moments of the series. Director Nicholas Meyer (Time after Time), in conjunction with writers Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards, has taken pains to resurrect the humanity of Star Trek.

The film is a sequel to a first season episode of the series ("Space Seed"). Here, the evil genius Khan (Ricardo Montalban, in a deliciously over-the-top performance) and his followers have escaped from the barren planet where then-Captain Kirk stranded them some fifteen years ago. Khan, once a brilliant, charismatic leader, has become an embittered maniac, dedicated only to revenge. He blames Kirk for the death of his wife and the waste of his own life, and intends to extract payment -- in blood. After hijacking a Federation starship, Khan steals Genesis, a potential doomsday weapon created by Kirk's son, David (Merritt Butrick), and ex-lover, Carol (Bibi Besch), and lures the Enterprise into a carefully-orchestrated trap.

The Star Trek regulars do what's expected of them. William Shatner, not generally regarded as a top-flight actor, fits comfortably into this role, mixing heroic arrogance with surprising vulnerability. Of the seven Star Trek features in which he has appeared, Shatner does his best work here. Leonard Nimoy, as usual, plays Spock with a touch of sardonic wit, and DeForest Kelley proves to be his perfect, illogical foil. Familiar faces James Doohan (Scotty), Walter Koenig (Chekov), George Takei (Sulu), and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) are all on hand, although only Koenig has more than a few token scenes.

In addition to bringing back Montalban's scenery-chewing Khan (this is a fun performance to watch, principally because it's so campy), Star Trek II introduces three significant new characters. The first is Saavik (played by soon-to-be Cheers regular, Kirstie Alley), the sexy, half-Vulcan protege of Mr. Spock. Then there are a couple of figures out of Kirk's past -- a son and an ex-lover. However, while Alley steals scenes as Saavik, both Bibi Besch and Merritt Butrick are flat and unappealing, causing the entire "Kirk's family" subplot to flounder. Fortunately, it's afforded only token screen time.

The Wrath of Khan is a top-notch, fast-paced adventure that can be enjoyed equally by fans of the series and those who have never seen an episode. There are several tense, well-executed battle sequences that feature impressive special effects and a soaring score by James Horner. The ending, which I won't reveal (although everyone probably knows it by now) is tender and poignant -- proof that Star Trek can still touch the heart. The Wrath of Khan shows the potential inherent in the Star Trek concept as applied to the big screen. It's unfortunate that none of the other films in this long-running series have come close to the level achieved by this marvelous example of entertainment.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (United States, 1982)

Ranked #113 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1982-06-04
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1