Jammer's Review

"Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"

****

Theatrical release: 6/4/1982
PG; 1 hr. 56 min.
Screenplay by Jack B. Sowards
Story by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards
Produced by Robert Sallin
Directed by Nicholas Meyer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

August 15, 2002

Kirk stares at the reading glasses with a certain trepidation, looking upon his birthday gift on the cusp of brooding.

"Dammit, Jim, what the hell's the matter with you?" grumbles McCoy. "Other people have birthdays. Why are we treating yours like a funeral?"

The moment comes in an early scene that represents one of the most important decisions made at the outset of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — and one of the most important decisions in the entire Star Trek canon. These characters — who became iconic and generally simplified throughout the episodic TV run (as well as Star Trek: The Motion Picture) — have suddenly become real people with real fears. Their limitations, human vulnerability, and the realization of their mortality come crashing down on us. We realize that Kirk has become the microcosm of an aging institution: The Star Trek franchise has grown older, and knows that its subjects must as well.

Bones bluntly tells Kirk that it was a mistake he let Starfleet kick him upstairs into the bureaucratic admiral's desk job, and that he should get back his command as soon as possible, "before you become part of this collection — before you really do grow old." Later, in the aftermath of a surprise attack, Kirk will reluctantly put on these glasses so he can read a computer console. He won't want to do it (amusingly muttering "damn" under his breath), but he'll do it anyway.

Star Trek II is often heralded as the best of the Trek films, and for good reason. Here's the Trek movie that joins epic sci-fi with straightforward simplicity; serious intentions with the winks of irreverence; and sincere emotional payoffs within the structural confines of a scenery-chewing popcorn revenge picture. Why does this work? For one, it has an engaging story that rarely labors. But in the final analysis, I think it comes down to the issue orbiting Kirk — the fact that aging has given him the realization that life is perhaps not as simple as he once thought it was. A crucial decision Spock makes at the end of the film will cement this fact.

In the DVD commentary, director Nicholas Meyer says that his original title of the film was Star Trek II: The Undiscovered Country. It's a title that would not be used (though it would eventually resurface for Meyer's return to the franchise in Star Trek VI), but it would've made a lot of sense here. The undiscovered country in Hamlet is death, and that's exactly what much of Star Trek II serves as a reminder of (also life, which is presented as the flip side of the same coin, which it is).

The movie begins and ends on notes that remind us that things are not the way they used to be. If the TV series was self-contained and episodic, Star Trek II argues for a film series that would take on a new tone where actions have consequences, characters become more complicated, and movies are chapters rather than episodes. As the story's opening minutes show an aging Kirk who feels painfully old even though he may not be, the closing minutes show him somewhat rejuvenated, but only after paying a costly price.

Time has not stood still. Kirk now instructs a new generation of rookies who will crew the relaunch of the Enterprise under Spock's command. Chekov has moved on to first officer of the Reliant. But even if time has marched forward, Kirk and his crew find themselves plagued by a figure from Kirk's past — the obsessive Khan, who wants his revenge ... served as cold as possible.

If the beginning and end of the film serve as a meditation on mortality and the passage of time, the middle is more an exercise in storytelling simplicity. Khan is not a particularly complex character, which is part of what makes him effective. His exile has embittered him beyond all reason; he simply blames Kirk and takes his thirst for vengeance to the point of monomania. "He tasks me," Khan says to his most trusted lieutenant. "He tasks me, and I shall have him." He steals the Reliant and cleverly stages a crisis to lure the Enterprise into a trap. He also hopes to gain control of Project Genesis, an experimental science intended to create life, but with the potential side effects of an Armageddon weapon.

Khan is still the best and most memorable of the Star Trek villains, in no small part because of Ricardo Montalban's performance, which has just the right balance of obsessive quirkiness and scaled-back restraint. Khan's dialog is colorful and entertaining; like all great villains, he's often even more fun to watch than what's going on around him, as when he gloats to Kirk about beating him. Montalban doesn't go overboard, but rather just far enough; if it's scenery chewing (and sometimes it is), it's of the most effective kind.

Khan's surprise attack on the Enterprise reveals Kirk at his most trusting and least cautious, and it's a mistake that hangs over Kirk's head for much of the movie. Refreshing, how the story presents Kirk as human and fallible; we can sympathize with his dilemma. When Scotty's nephew dies from battle injuries, it's a human toll for Kirk that's not only a result of Khan's deviousness but also Kirk's own command decisions.

The cat-and-mouse games involving the two ships provide plenty of interest. One of the most satisfying scenes comes when Kirk and Spock use the Reliant's prefix code to drop its shields in what is to Khan a counterstrike as surprising as the attack he launched upon the Enterprise. There's also the final hunt through the murky Mutara Nebula — still a virtuoso sequence — which seamlessly integrates special effects into the story, supplying enough tension and suspense to play as a good submarine movie. The effects hold up well, in part because they are straightforward rather than elaborate, and because the Enterprise retains the scale and elegance it had in the first film: Rather than darting through the frame like a fighter jet, it's a huge ship that moves slowly. I like that the battle sequences are characterized by big ships that look as if they must tack in order to turn. James Horner's terrific score (for this film as well as the third installment) is perhaps the franchise's best overall (with all due respect to Jerry Goldsmith); I'd still like to see Horner return to score a Trek film.

To many, where Star Trek: The Motion Picture went astray was in its efforts to deliver an epic sci-fi story at the expense of character interaction when what most people wanted to see were the familiar characters in a story that was suited to the Star Trek universe. This is, in short, precisely what The Wrath of Khan seeks to set right and why it remains the generally regarded favorite. Fans want to see scenes like the one where Spock and McCoy argue philosophical points over Project Genesis — a classic, if brief, Spock/Bones exchange if I've ever seen one. Similarly, Kirk and Spock have a scene that resonates early in the film, where Spock famously explains that "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" — a philosophy that, at the end, he will apply in practice with the utmost Vulcan logical detachment.

The film also develops Kirk in ways we were perhaps not expecting. We learn not only about his qualms with age but of his past with Carol Marcus and the fact that they have a son, David — who doesn't much like Kirk today. Shatner is often derided for his penchant for overacting. (Indeed, one of my all-time favorite franchise moments of melodramatic camp comes in this movie when Kirk shouts "KHAAAAAN!" into his communicator.) But it should be noted that Shatner gives one of his best performances in this movie. He's restrained and credible in his most crucial scenes, like the one with Carol inside the Regula tunnels where Kirk quietly takes stock of his situation regarding David and ponders "my life that could've been."

Also well conceived is the film's running theme on the Kobayashi Maru simulation exam — something that pays off with true story significance. The no-win scenario opens the movie with Saavik at the helm of a simulation that ends in disaster. We're told that back in Kirk's training days he beat the exam. How? By cheating, of course — reprogramming the simulator to make it possible to rescue the survivors. It's of no small irony that Kirk's face-off with Khan forces him to attempt cheating death again for real. He finds, however, that life deals him all-too-real consequences.

This of course brings us to the defining moment in Star Trek II — Spock's decision to sacrifice himself to save the Enterprise from the Genesis Device explosion. It's a decision he's able to reach using pure logic, and yet it's impossible not to be moved by it based on the pure selflessness of his act. Fittingly, by using Vulcan logic, Spock is able to do something that is nothing short of heroically human.

Spock's death would be heartbreaking to anyone familiar with the Trek universe. It's almost unthinkable: How could they kill Spock, perhaps the franchise's most beloved character? Spock's death and subsequent funeral are scenes that manage to generate substantial, genuine emotional power. And it's Shatner who must carry these scenes, because the audience is in Kirk's shoes, saying goodbye to a well-known friend.

It's also through Kirk that we see how Spock's death filters through the movie's other elements, like the Kobayashi Maru scenario: Kirk cheated that scenario but now finds — as he reveals to David — that he was not prepared for such a loss. Even if Kirk doesn't believe in losing, there are indeed no-win scenarios in life. And yet the movie finds for Kirk a sort of personal redemption in the notion that as he loses his friend, he regains his son. And even as Spock lies dying, the Genesis planet is being born; Meyer cuts between this death and birth in a sequence that reinforces the movie's central theme of the cycle and duality of life and death.

Released in 1982 when I was very young, and seen over the years on TV and VHS, The Wrath of Khan is one of those movies where I can't remember a time when I hadn't seen it. For me, this DVD release mainly constitutes a format upgrade (Dolby Digital, widescreen, superior image quality, etc.) and a chance to revisit a film I've seen so many times and know so well.

Unlike last year's reissue of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this DVD cut sports nothing that qualifies as "significant" in terms of changes from the theatrical cut. The snippets of footage that have been edited back in have already been made available in various TV editions. (Perhaps most noteworthy are those lines that establish the doomed young cadet as being Scotty's nephew, omitted from the theatrical cut.) Considering how few there were, it's a wonder why such brief scenes would be cut from the film in the first place, but restoring these minor points does not represent a significant change. Most (like me) are likely to be attracted to this release because of the restoration and sound mix for DVD, and the separate bonus materials.

But it also provides a chance to look at this film in a little more depth. What I find myself discovering is the Trek film that best captures the spirit of the original cast and series, and a film that by its end even manages to say some things that are somewhat profound.

Previous: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Next: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Section Index

35 comments on this review

Dan - Mon, Sep 10, 2007 - 6:29am (USA Central)
My first Trek experience in the cinema and I cried like a baby when Spock died. This would be a great film even if you didn't have any emotional attachment to the characters, the fact that we do knocks this way out of the park.
robgnow - Sun, Aug 3, 2008 - 6:47pm (USA Central)
When I first saw this, it was a special treat from my dad, who took me. As Spock lay dying I glanced at him to see tears in his eyes and when we reached Kirk's emotional eulogy (...his was the most... human), I cried, too.
It was embarassing until we reached the bright, sunlit lobby of the theatre and I saw just how many grown men were still wiping at their faces.
This is the most emotionally-resonant that Trek has ever been, and the most devastating. If I'm in the right frame of mind, I can still be moved to tears during Kirk's eulogy (I'm 41 now) even knowing that it all gets 'undone' in the next movie.
Daniel - Mon, May 11, 2009 - 3:38pm (USA Central)
It is a credit to the greatness of this movie that the movie I believe to be the second greatest Star Trek movie, number 11 (second only to this one, of course), achieves part of its impact from skillful borrowing of this movie's terrific material.
I am thinking of the following scene in movie 11: Kirk has been brought before the Commander of Starfleet to address the allegation that he violated an ethical rule by changing the conditions of the Kobayashi Maru test (by installing a subroutine in the test, a test written by Spock, no less), thus allowing him to win the test, and allowing him to escape having to face the no-win scenario.

Kirk, haled before the Commander, demands to confront his accuser (that would be Spock, who programmed the test). The dialogue that ensues is a terrific gloss on the Kobayashi Maru material in film #2: Kirk states (as he did in movie 2) that he does not believe in the no-win scenario (no surprise there), but that the test itself is a cheat, since there is no way to win by playing under its rules. Spcok wryly, with steely annoyance, dismsses this (quite valid) point, stating that Kirk missed the point of WHAT facing a no-win scenario is supposed to impute to a cadet, pedagogically: it is supposed to reveal whether, in the face of certain death, a Captain will freak out, or go down with the ship, or perhaps run...... The problem with the test (and what should have been Kirk's rejoinder) is that life is not a simulation, and the test does not play out exactly the same way for all who take it (some get further along than others, presumably; this variable makes the existence of a valid control group impossible; we will never know how ANY would-be captain X would respond to situation Y, as opposed to how Captain Z would). This does not mean the test has no instructive value, but points to the fact (part of Kirk's unspoken argument) that the test is flawed.
What a delight to see this discourse in movie 11 - a discourse that extends and enriches a subtle philosophical discussion that in film II ultimately manifested it dramatically.
But if the concept of the test were not already established - if Meyer (who did an uncredited re-write of the entire script) did not place it there, there would be nothing to add upon. Bravi ti hun for having come up with a script of such intelligent and accessible construction
David - Tue, Mar 9, 2010 - 8:09am (USA Central)
IMHO,it was a mistake to kill Spock at the end of this wonderful movie. This set the stage for the third movie, which I think was a weak movie. The Voyage Home could have been done either way.
Matt - Mon, Aug 30, 2010 - 11:37am (USA Central)
1982 was an amazing year for the science fiction/fantasy genre as it gave us classics such as E.T., Blade Runner, The Dark Crystal, The Secret of NIMH, Poltergeist, & (Carpenter's) The Thing.
Not all of these made money at the box office, but all of them have become classics that have stood the test of time.
In the midst of this very formidable competition came this great film, which not only set the course (if you'll pardon the pun) for the remaining original series Trek films (of the 4 that followed only the dismal Trek V didn't follow up on the events of "Khan") but also revitalized Trek altogether.
Roddenberry may have been kicked upstairs but he eventually used the clout of the success of Treks II through IV to create TNG (which would've never gotten the green light prior to Trek II). Hence, we have this film to thank for TNG and the following series.
reviewreviewer1 - Fri, Dec 10, 2010 - 9:37pm (USA Central)
I am not enough into Trek yet, and only saw Space Seed, and not this film, and only read about it, so taae this for what it is, but why hasn`t aanyone comented on how this film cheaply ruins the beautifull ope ending of Space Sed, I mean realy?? In the end of Space Seed Kirk and Kahn were respectfull rivals, and we had a beaurifull sense of wonder what would happen too Kahn, and then in II we see, oh uh yeah there was the most implausible, convinient and rare disaster pssible so Kahn suffered instead of livingheapily ever after, and Kahn is Kirk`s rival againm cause Kirk for no reason didn`t check on him,, I mean that is a great hour of t flushed down the toilet if you ask me, who agrees?/?? Also again take this for what it is!!!
Stubb - Wed, May 4, 2011 - 2:48pm (USA Central)
Since we've all beaten this film to death over the past 30 years, I'll only say this: I cannot believe how well this film (and screenplay) have aged. This may be my favorite sci-fi screenplay of all time (not just ST), if only because in over 50 viewings I have yet to find a single element about it that I don't like. From a story, dialogue, and action perspective, it's about as close to perfect as a script can get.
Jay - Sat, Oct 1, 2011 - 5:34pm (USA Central)
Since Kirk knew that rescue was just "hours, not days" away, why did he shriek "Khaaaaaaaan" as if Khan's claim that he was stranded forever was remotely true...was it just for show? It was of course for dramatic effect, but it was also ridiculous.

But that aside, still the best film of the franchise, and I doubt it will ever lose that title.
Jay - Sat, Oct 1, 2011 - 5:38pm (USA Central)
Plus, I hope the fact that Reliant can "outrun us" and "outgun us" (us being the Enterprise) has to do with the lingering damage the flagship suffered, rather than being generally true.
Priestley - Sun, Jan 29, 2012 - 2:02am (USA Central)
Being an ex-Star Trek nerd (now I'm just a nerd), i think Star Trek: The Motion picture and Wrath of Khan somehow recreate the two different approaches to Star Trek taken in the first two TV pilot episodes, The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before. One is cerebral (and maybe even profound) and the other is more action packed and entertaining. As a kid, I loved Khan and hated TMP, but as an adult, I think TMP is genius and Khan rather silly.

You can also see Star Trek 2, 3 and 4 as three parts of the same movie because it involves a continuing storyline.

Er, now I realise why I don't have a girlfriend.
Admiral Archer - Sun, Jan 29, 2012 - 8:51am (USA Central)
I believe that STAR TREK is not simply one thing or another. It is not specifically Science-fiction, nor is it specifically action-adventure. In that sense, I have come to believe that Star Trek is unique on several levels. For instance, I used to think that DS9 and Voyager were not Star Trek, because they were not set on a ship with the name Enterprise, their intros did not include the "To boldly go" monologue, and the general premise of each series was considerably different than what I considered iconic Trek, aka TOS and TNG. However, after thorough consideration, this is not correct. DS9 and Voyager each include special elements and the soul of what made Star Trek so wonderful in the first place.

The same is true with the films. TMP was a much more cerebral film, much more thought provoking and philosophical. TWOK was the traditional swashbuckling Kirk-beats-em-up style film. And to me, which film you like best indicates what you prefer to see in Star Trek. If you prefer TMP, chances are you also prefer more thoughtful, philosophical stories that deal strictly with the human condition. If you prefer TWOK, you enjoy Star Trek for it's unique action-adventure style, and the general family feel of the crew. There are several other parallels; for instance, in the case of pilot episodes,"The Cage" was far more cerebral and thought-provoking, much like TMP; however, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" was more about swashbuckling action, and the sense of family that the rest of TOS had. Another similar comparison is, indeed, TOS and TNG. TNG was considered "boring" by many, much like TMP and "The Cage", for the same reasons of more intellectual, philosophical stories. TOS, on the other hand, fits better with stories like "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and TWOK. Depending on which of these types of stories you prefer, you may like Star Trek for varying reasons. I myself tend to lean toward the treaditional Sci-fi type stories, such as The Cage/TMP/TNG, but again, that's just the kind of Star Trek fan that I am.
FanWriter45 - Sun, Jan 29, 2012 - 8:56am (USA Central)
Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer...

They are both great directors. But, being a great director doesn't mean that their Mothers brought them up with something basic, like etiquette and tact. Nick should have been a little more respectful to Mr. Wise.

Yeah, Nick. Your movies will entertain. But Robert's are American Icons. "West Side Story" "The Hindenburg" "The Day the Earth Stood Still" "The Andromeda Strain" among so many others...
Grumpy - Tue, Aug 21, 2012 - 8:11pm (USA Central)
When was Meyer disrespectful to Wise? You know, they did a joint dvd commentary for "The Day the Earth Stood Still," fwiw.

I wonder: if Spock had remained in command (instead of throwing a bone to his friend, still brooding about his birthday), would he have raised shields? How would Khan's surprise attack have played out?
Grumpy - Fri, Jun 7, 2013 - 3:34pm (USA Central)
Stubb: "...in over 50 viewings I have yet to find a single element about it that I don't like."

For #51, pay attention to the scene when Reliant is heading to the first battle. Chekov and Terrell stand in the background... after they should've been left behind at Regula One. And why did Khan leave them as moles anyway? Did he lack confidence in his first attempt to kill Kirk, so he used them as backup? And how did they cross interstellar distances with the Millennium Falcon's hyperdrive... er, Enterprise's warp drive inoperative? And Spock's hours/days code is notoriously silly. Plus, the travel pod docks in Engineering but they go aboard in the torpedo bay!

All of which serve as reminders that, as Pauline Kael is credited with sayin, "Great movies are rarely perfect movies."
Paul - Fri, Jun 7, 2013 - 4:04pm (USA Central)
@Grumpy: The Enterprise crew routinely traveled great distances at warp and impulse in TOS and the movies. If you watch Star Trek IV, it seems like they were planning on traveling from Earth to Vulcan on impulse, until they learned of the emergency. TOS and the early movies were not known for good science.

If you really want to identify a flaw in WOK, it's Saavik. Kirstie Alley played the character as a half-Romulan -- that's how it was written. It's why she swears, it's why she cries and it's why Bones (in the turbolift) says "Wonderful thing that Romulan Ale," which makes no sense as the movie was cut.

Why they took out that bit of backstory of Saavik never made much sense to me. She even looks different than most Vulcans. Oh, and in ST: III, Kruge simply calls her a "woman", after he identifies Spock as a Vulcan and David Marcus as a human.

Oh, and why did Scotty bring the dying engineer's assistant to the bridge? Shouldn't he have gone to sick bay?
SPOCKED - Sun, Oct 6, 2013 - 7:55am (USA Central)
My memory of opening day: I was in line for the first show on opening day in Groton, Ct. for TWOK. I remember by the time we arrived any hopes of being first in line were quickly dashed hours before showtime. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and there was a sort of "party" atmosphere which just made the long wait a lot less tedious. As far back as we were, any ability to judge the actual length of the line became impossible (later in the summer I returned for another viewing and found myself at the end of a line that stretched around the side of the building). At some point, when the theater realized they had enough people in line for every scheduled showing, someone came out and asked if we wouldn't mind if they started the first movie immediately... and the massive audience, already in a good mood, roared its approval. Soon after, the line started moving and I was very happy to find that my pals and I had still arrived early enough to make it into the first audience. At 23 years of age and a life long fan of the series, all I knew going into TWOK was that Ricardo Mantalban was reprising his role as Khan, a character from Space Seed I knew very well. My point being, of course, the comparative lack of forehand knowledge and storyline detail. I hadn't even seen a television trailer, if there were any, before arriving. I wasn't "spoiled," in other words. Indeed, I got my first close up look at the movie poster inside the lobby with its few bits of story elements which were just enough to whet my appetite for what was to become the audience participation and movie experience of a lifetime.
K'Elvis - Thu, Jan 16, 2014 - 1:53pm (USA Central)
I've always interpreted Saavik as half-Romulan, even if that part was cut out - just because it wasn't explicitly stated doesn't mean it isn't true. The novelization has her being half-Romulan, and the way Kirstie Alley plays her, it seems there is a lot of barely contained emotion, as if she is only trying - not all that well - to contain her emotions.

Amazing Grace always feels wrong if it is not played on the bagpipes. When we were watching the movie in the theaters, we didn't know that Spock was going to come back, it's a different experience than rewatching today when you know he comes back. Still, even knowing that you just need to watch one more movie to get him back, we can still share in the emotions of the crew. I think it is the little tremble in Sulu's voice that gets to me.
Datalore - Wed, Aug 27, 2014 - 4:18pm (USA Central)
I think the biggest compliment I can give this film is that I've watched it with people who no nothing of Star Trek, and they still enjoy it.

It's not just a great Star Trek movie, it's a great movie!
STEVEN LYLE JORDAN - Thu, Aug 28, 2014 - 4:38pm (USA Central)
We know that Wrath was developed from the original series episode Space Seed, in which Khan and his followers, products of the Eugenics Wars, were discovered in a stolen sleeper ship hundreds of years after they (take note) lost their war to rule Earth. These so-called physical and intellectual supermen then tried to take over the Enterprise, but (again) lost, and were banished by Captain Kirk to a small uninhabited planet “to rule.”

Which should tell you right off that these guys weren't the great s#!+s they thought they were.

Fast-forward about 25 years, to a movie that depicts the Enterprise being used as a training vessel (yeah… for the most celebrated ship in the Federation fleet, and recently refit to-boot, that makes sense), and the Reliant, a survey vessel from the same Federation that is apparently not smart enough to notice that the solar system they’ve entered, which has been mapped by Federation ships before (including the Enterprise) is now missing a planet. In fact, another planet has supposedly been moved out of its original orbit (something else the crew of the Reliant should have noticed), but instead of changing the temperature severely, the planet gets stoopid dust storms. Naturally, they find the surviving members of Khan’s group, but can’t say the words “Beam us out!” fast enough to avoid being captured.

Khan—the leader of “superior intellect”—has responded to the decaying quality of “his” planet, and the death of his non-genetically-improved wife, by apparently going insane, caring about nothing save the death of the man who bested him, James T. Kirk… even if it means the death of the last of his followers in the process. Instead of accepting change and hardship, he’s gone from super-intelligent leader to vengeful sociopath despot.

A great deal of my angst over this movie is in its bad story and sloppy editing, leaving characters hollow and pointless, and diminishing any salient story points to utter twaddle:

- Saavik has her part Romulan heritage left on the cutting room floor (yeah, didn’t know she was supposed to be half-Romulan… did ya?);
- Characters like Scotty’s nephew become nameless footnotes, lessening the impact of their later death scenes and wasting perfectly good pathos;
- Chekov and Terrell can’t just beam out of Khan’s world before Khan’s guys can cross a few dozen yards of sand to catch them;
- Khan “remembers” Chekov, despite the fact that they never met in the original Trek episode;
- Khan, the man of “superior intellect,” apparently responded to the loss of his wife and the change in his planet by going insane with thoughts of revenge on Kirk… but none of his “superior” followers, including his son, have the stones to explain his obsession to him, or take steps to prevent their all being destroyed by the man;
- “Superior intellect” Khan on the Reliant could have had earworm-controlled Captain Terrell greet Enterprise and bring them within transporter range; whereupon Khan could have beamed over with his crew, taken over a superior starship and killed Kirk and crew personally. Instead, he pulls a sneak attack with a science vessel against a heavy cruiser, which he doesn’t know isn’t staffed by a shipful of professionals. The man exhibits the plotting ability of Daffy Duck.
- Khan’s son is the only one of the baddies group, other than Khan, who utters a word through the entire movie (besides “Aaugh!” when the Reliant is attacked—apparently genetic supermen make great redshirts);
- Khan’s followers are no better than slabs of meat (even the women), and in the end, we feel nothing about their being blown up… even Khan’s son’s death elicits no more than a yawn from the audience;
- We discover Kirk had fathered a son and never met him, nor kept in touch with him or his mother… and we’re supposed to actually care;
- The scientists are smart enough to hide the Genesis device on what appears to be a lifeless moon. The scientists then demonstrate they are not smart enough to hide with the device;
- One of the worms Khan dropped in Chekov’s ear could have been dropped into the ear of just one of the scientists in order to find the genesis device, preventing the need to torture the rest of them.

At the end, Starfleet-hater David tells Kirk that he’s “proud to be your son.” Why? All Kirk did was show up too late to save his scientist friends, beat up his son upon their first meeting, best Khan by conning him into making bad strategic decisions, get his ship beat to hell and a few random trainees killed or traumatized for life, and lose his best friend while saving his own skin. What’s to be so proud of?

And let’s face it, the whole Moby Dick theme (with lines from Melville’s book intentionally altered to use celestial references that Khan couldn’t possibly know) is just mondo lame… even when it’s presented by Ricardo Montalban, the one man in the universe who seems to be able to out-overact William Shatner.

Throughout, we suffer through cheap cinematic gags, like the radio dialog obviously written to make sure the slower viewers can follow the action from one scene to another; horror-movie shtick like Bones being distracted by a loose lab rat (Federation scientists still use lab rats?), then backing into the bloody dangling arms of a scientist, accompanied by a bloody close-up and embarrassingly-cliche “boo!” musical cue; the (eww!) worm-in-the-ear bit; the big ancient book and granny-glasses as elephant-obvious metaphors for how old Kirk and crew are getting; and the ridiculous new Star Fleet uniforms, obviously designed to look good in technicolor, maybe in a dress parade, and when a cadet wants to leave a bloody handprint on the breast, but not good for much else.

And I don’t even want to get into the most blatant sci-fi gag, the only thing more predictable than a death of a Star Trek redshirt: The death of a Black man in a science fiction movie; not to mention that Black man being Paul Winfield, the single most doomed Black man in SF movie history! The only cinematic gag I appreciated was James Horner’s music, which was tailor-made for dramatic presentations like this (all the same, you could make a drinking game out of the signature musical elements Horner loves to reuse, in every SF and adventure movie he does).

So, we come to the part that everyone says is the best part of the movie: The starship fights. Okay, considering this is the first time in the history of the franchise that we see the Enterprise (or any other starship in the Trek franchise) taking serious modern-special-effects battle damage, the battles were notable and memorable. Beyond that… meh. We see two starships close enough to spit at each other, but which still miss each other with regularity. We see those ships in a nebula, in reality a collection of mass and gasses that are spaced light-years apart… but here, a nebula is depicted like a technicolor fog bank a few miles wide. We get the whole “Khan displays two-dimensional thinking” bit, and we’re supposed to buy the premise that a “superior intellect” leader who could rule a world (albeit temporarily), steal away on a sleeper ship, steal a starship, who has presumably thought about attacking and killing Kirk for many moons, who knows how space works, and who’s probably heard of submarines, has never figured out three-dimensional warfare. We see the old TV-series holdover of having bridge equipment blow up when a piece of ship dozens of decks away gets hit with a phaser blast… so you know they’re connected.

And finally, we have the Tech-Of-The-Day, a device the size of a man that can change the life-potential of entire planets; and the stereotypical “countdown to disaster” when the genesis device is started—but they never just go off, do they? No, we have to suffer a melodramatic countdown for it to happen. But the Enterprise is crippled… oh noes! Will they die? No, because Spock manages to get the engines fixed mere seconds before it’s too late. Whew. And oh, yeah, Spock is now going to die of radiation poisoning. On a ship that runs on antimatter, in which everyone in engineering is dressed like the Michelin Man to protect them from something, but no one goes where Spock dares to tread without a suit, and after we’ve seen radiation sicknesses cured with hyposprays in episodes of the original series…

You see where this is going, I’m sure. Khan isn’t consistent to Star Trek, not the original series et al nor the particular episode in which it was birthed. It’s not consistent with science fiction, not even the Trek brand of sci-fi. And on top of that, it’s just not well put-together cinematically. Everything in this movie just comes off as being contrived in order to push some incredibly obvious emotional buttons, while ignoring how much (or little) sense they make. It’s showy, it’s pretty, it has more colorful Star Fleet uniforms… and it’s stupid. It’s about as realistic as The Blues Brothers, complete with stupid Nazis.

And this is the movie that fans declare is the best Trek film ever.

IqnaH QaD. (Go look it up.)

It’s funny how Trek fans, who like to proclaim the intellectual superiority of their program of choice, are amazingly unsophisticated when it comes to their preferred Trek movies. The even-numbered movies that most cite as “the best” are in fact the worst when it comes to science fiction realism, Trek continuity and downright story quality. And Khan leads the pack of guilty movies (okay, it’s second, right after The Voyage Home, and barely preceding the disaster right after that, The Final Frontier… but it has the virtue of being iconic of all of them).

The Wrath of Khan was a redshirts movie: Let’s do stupid stuff and beat up on each other, yargh! It was designed to impress Star Wars fans, who (let’s face it) weren’t nearly that concerned with trifles like science and storylines. It was fluff… pure, unadulterated fluff. It was designed to sell tickets and T-shirts (which it did, and very well).

You want good Trek movies? Star Trek: Generations is probably the best, in my opinion; followed by Star Trek: Insurrection. These movies had action, but they also had stories consistent with Trek continuity and the pseudo-science fiction universe that Trek was based within, paid close attention to the established behavior of Trek characters and didn’t go in any phenomenally stupid plot directions. Were they perfect? No; but let’s face it, Star Trek has never been a “perfect” show. But Star Trek has (almost) always had a way to look at the future that was thoughtful, humble and optimistic, and both Generations and Insurrection embodied that attitude.
Grumpy - Thu, Aug 28, 2014 - 7:27pm (USA Central)
Obviously some world-class trolling there. I mean, not everyone has to agree what's good or bad, so when criticism crosses into "anyone who likes this is unsophisticated," there's no other word for it. Trolling. And trolls must not be fed.

I'm reminded of Film Crit Hulk's essay about "tangible details." filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/hulk-essay-your-ass-tangible-details- and-the-nature-of-criticism/
The point being that lists of reasons for an opinion are usually post-hoc rationalizations. A clue is when the reasons come from outside the text. For instance, "Star Trek II sucks because it ignores Saavik's Romulan heritage" is not an opinion anyone could form while watching the movie.
Grumpy - Thu, Aug 28, 2014 - 7:39pm (USA Central)
...Therefore, anyone who cites that (or similar tangible details) must either 1) have other, unexpressed reasons for holding that opinion or 2) does not sincerely hold that opinion at all. Thus, trolling. But it inspired me to revisit the "tangible details" essay, so it's not all bad.
Elliott - Fri, Aug 29, 2014 - 11:42am (USA Central)
@Grumpy ;

I happen to think the majority of Steven's claims are overstated to the point of losing whatever original point he was trying to make, but that does not make him a troll. TWoK is a really great action movie with excellent characterisation and some very moving scenes, but he's not wrong in saying that it many ways fails to capture the spirit and tone of Star Trek. TWoK is a the perfect Star Trek movie for mass audiences, and that's why, I think, Mr Jordan finds the sci-fi elements of the film to be unsophisticated. And compared to the best Trek film, TMP, he's right!

Now, I can't get behind his claims about the acting, the themes, or character arcs--those were handled extremely well. I also think Generations and Insurrection were fucking awful--though Insurrection at least managed to be more of a Star Trek movie than the action schlock most of the TNG films put out.

I don't like this idea of dismissing the dissenter as a troll.
Robert - Fri, Aug 29, 2014 - 1:08pm (USA Central)
@Elliott - TMP.... best ST film?!!

I will agree with you about TWoK though. It's scifi-lite wrapped into an action movie. But the truth is that after a brilliant sci-fi series you don't want a 2 hour sci-fi movie... what you want is for 2 more hours with characters you love, and the easiest way to do that is to make it a product the masses will like (so the franchise doesn't fall apart) to while still giving the fans their favorite characters.

I actually think that when you try to make something that is truly a sci-fi plot line into a 2 hour movie it ends up losing something (namely you spend so much time on the concept you don't end up with an amazing character piece). Since in the end what I really want is 2 hours with my characters, I actually don't think Generations is a fail. Data and Picard's storylines in that movie are actually pretty good. It probably wasn't "theatrical" enough to be a movie (if it was a 2 part episode in S7 people would have rated it 4 stars)... but I like it.

First Contact took TWoK approach, and that's why it is my favorite TNG movie. It really had nice pieces for almost every character and did nice things for the ST mythos in general (Vulcans at first contact, the new Enterprise, etc.) It wasn't awesome sci-fi, but it was good to the characters and the universe. That's probably why I think ST6 is my favorite.

As for Insurrection, it wasn't bad... but it probably would have worked better as a 2 part episode also.
Robert - Fri, Aug 29, 2014 - 1:13pm (USA Central)
As for Nemesis... since they finally decided to use the Romulans (TNG's Klingons basically)... they needed to make Nemesis into TNG's Undiscovered Country. Instead we get a random race that happens to live with the Romulans that we've never seen before, a human villain (that is a clone of Picard) and a cross between Lore and a Pakled? Sigh....

It's STILL more watchable (to me) than TMP or STV... but only barely.
Baron Samedi - Fri, Aug 29, 2014 - 2:18pm (USA Central)
@Grumpy thanks for the link to the Hulk essay, it was an excellent read and quite relevant to the rant you were responding to.
Grumpy - Fri, Aug 29, 2014 - 5:07pm (USA Central)
Pardon me for being dismissive. I cannot diagnose true trolling without knowing a poster's motivation. Film Crit Hulk "never met nor read a critic who write a piece one way or other for sole purpose of just trying to get rise out of people," but we know Internet commenters might. I have no way of knowing if Mr. Jordan is pulling such a stunt, but after reading his points one by one, I decided I could safely dismiss them all. Not because his conclusion challenges the conventional wisdom (I agree ST2 is overrated, and I've nitpicked its flaws) but because his reasoning is so far out that a point-by-point rebuttal would waste my time. Especially if it's a prank.
Elliott - Fri, Sep 5, 2014 - 12:55am (USA Central)
@Robert :

First Contact is the only decent film in TNG's output and it's all about the details; structurally, VIII and IX are nearly identical:

1) Philosophical A-Plot, Action B-Plot, splitting the crew
2) Action schlock and corny 1-liners
3) Picard being Bruce Willis
4) Dubious villain
5) Data struggles with emotions
6) Non-regular female lead opposite Picard

The reason First Contact succeeds where Insurrection fails is all in the details of these components:

FIRST CONTACT
1) The philosophical-historical plot is well-handled, true to Gene's vision, amiably portrayed and imbued with a real sense of adventure befitting the big screen; the B Plot is sort of dumb, but at least has the big-budget gizmos and shininess to make it enjoyable.
2) The schlock is at least dressed up nicely with beautiful special effects and makeup on the Borg.
3) Picard finds himself the action hero by circumstance and his violent impulses are justified by a psychological aberration connected to the B Plot
4) While the Borg Queen's motivations are, as I said, dubious, she gets some good dialogue and is put to critical use. Plus the Zombie-Movie vibe of the other Borg make up for her shortcomings
5) The movie does right what "Descent" did so wrong, so it's a retread from the series that *improves* upon it.
6) Alfre Woodard's Lily is a magnificent presence on screen and a perfect "everyman" character for the non-Trek audience to relate to. She has an arc, learns a lesson and teaches a lesson through a believable, flushed-out character.

INSURRECTION:
1) The A plot is atrociously underdeveloped and weak, making the Federation look like weenies and the Ba'ku like horrible monsters (and fails to realise this irony). The B plot is anæmic with floppy battles and rote action.
2) The 1-liners are everywhere and incredibly irritating. The schlock is unimaginative and low-budget, almost B-Movie in its execution.
3) Picard inserts himself as the action hero with only the flimsy excuse of "rebellious instincts" for any kind of justification. All he does is shoot things and dive into lakes and blow stuff up. Not the Picard I know.
4) Ruafo is an absolute joke and a waste of Abraham's talent.
5) Data's big arc is learning how to play...I don't have the words to sum up why that's such an insult to this character, but good God, WHAT AN INSULT TO THIS CHARACTER
6) JC Penny Lady (to borrow from RedLetterMedia) is incredibly boring and, like the main moral plotline, we're expected to just swallow whatever new-age bullshit "wisdom" she spouts out. And of course, she was so boring that they had to tack on a romance with Picard which was just as hollow and meaningless as everything else.

In short, for the most part, First Contact felt like an action movie for the TNG crew that *earned* its action, getting there by exploring who the characters really were and what the show was about. Insurrection (much like the Abrams' movies, but with no budget) feels like a generic action movie with a tacked-on (and really poorly thought-out) morality tale that happened to involve the TNG crew.
Robert - Fri, Sep 5, 2014 - 9:23am (USA Central)
Generic action movie != unwatchable though. There are a few unwatchable Trek movies :)

FC is obviously far and away the best TNG outing though, agreed.
Elliott - Sun, Sep 14, 2014 - 5:49pm (USA Central)
@Robert :"TMP.... best ST film?!!"

Hell, yes! Without reservation, it's my favourite film.

I'd rank them, at least right now like this :

I
II
VIII
VI
IV
III
IX
VII
V
XI
XII
Elliott - Sun, Sep 14, 2014 - 5:51pm (USA Central)
Dammit, missed Nemesis:

I
II
VIII
VI
IV
III
IX
VIII
V
X
XI
XII
Elliott - Sun, Sep 14, 2014 - 5:52pm (USA Central)
Note to commenters: check your work on uneditable sites ...

I
II
VIII
VI
IV
III
IX
VII
V
X
XI
XII
Dave in NC - Sun, Sep 14, 2014 - 8:11pm (USA Central)
I just wanted to say that I love that you all used Roman numerals.
William B - Sun, Sep 14, 2014 - 8:45pm (USA Central)
Without having rewatched,

II
VIII
IV
I
VI
III
VII
XI
IX
V
X

(not listed: XII (not seen yet))
bhbor - Sun, Sep 14, 2014 - 9:59pm (USA Central)
I'm starting to feel like "Master and Commander: Far Side of the World" belongs in this list as a kind of spiritual 'prequel' to the Star Trek franchise. I'm not sure if anyone else agrees, but I think that this movie is VERY Star Trek in nature: federation esque-identity with a military hierarchy set on foreign waters (analogous to space travel), tight relationship between senior officers, a genuine sense of adventure and scientific exploration (the Galapagos island scene is as good as any away mission) and gritty political intrigue that casts world-powers as close competitors in the Alpha-Quadrant, er uh Pacific ocean.

I believe a kind of Star Trek movie marathon would start well with this flick! Call me crazy!
Peremensoe - Tue, Sep 16, 2014 - 4:10pm (USA Central)
bhbor, you should check out the book series (by Patrick O'Brian) that movie was based on. The movie (which was great, as far as it went) used portions of a few volumes--the two named in yhe title, plus a couple others--but there are TWENTY books (plus an uncompleted one) in all!

Submit a comment

Above, type the last name of the captain on Star Trek: TNG
Notify me about new comments on this page
Hide my e-mail on my post

Section Index

Copyright © 1994-2014, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of any review or article on this site is prohibited. Star Trek (in all its myriad forms), Battlestar Galactica, and Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc., NBC Universal, and Tribune Entertainment, respectively. This site is in no way affiliated with or authorized by any of those companies. | Copyright & Disclaimer