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

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17 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.

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