|Source: Paramount Pictures|
For most Star Trek fans and fans of science fiction in general, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is considered one of the great science-fiction films of all time. It has been credited with re-surging the Star Trek film franchise after receiving a lackluster critical reception to its first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture,in 1979. Even though box office receipts were strong for the first film there was an overall sentiment that the story, pace, and feel of the piece left critics and fans somewhat underwhelmed. After surviving a ten-year hiatus from the cancellation of the original television series to the release of the first feature film (including a short lived but underrated animated series), there was a huge expectation put on the first film to deliver all of the elements that people loved about Star Trek and those expectations, in most people's opinions, were left unfulfilled. In spite of these mixed reactions the film made enough at the box office to justify the studios decision to move ahead with a sequel, but this time with some restrictions put in place.
The first major change from the previous film was a decision by Paramount brass to reduce Gene Roddenberry's role to "Creative Consultant". This move was done in the hopes that it would bring in some new creative talent which could provide new energy to the next entry. The studio had given the majority of creative control to Star Trek's creator (Roddenberry) in the first outing but now they were counting on a better reception of the next film. The first new addition to the production team was Producer Harve Bennett, well known for producing many successful television shows. The studio's mindset was such that since Star Trek had began as a TV show so a successful television producer was be a wise choice to put the movies in the right direction. Since Bennett did not watch the show when it originally aired in the 1960's he sat himself down at the studio and watched all 79 of the original episodes to get a better feel for it and to try to single out what elements he thought might be interesting to revisit. The 1967 episode "Space Speed", which guest starred Ricardo Montalban as the villain Khan Noonian Singh, stuck out to Bennett as a great story that left room for further exploration.
The next key component in bringing a newer, fresher. approach to the next Star Trek film would be choosing the right director. By chance encounter, and by suggestion from Karen Moore who was an executive for Paramount Pictures at that time, Harve Bennett had a meeting with Nicholas Meyer. The original intention for meeting with Meyer was for assistance with some script issues that had been causing delays and difficulties with the pre-production. Meyer was not only able to help develop the script, he was able to make rewrites that improved the script. His vision was so well received that it was decided he would be the best man to direct the film. Once the script delays were finally straightened out it was then onto to the production itself which would have major budgetary restrictions from the studio that Meyer would also have to contend with.
The plot of Star Trek II is simple but very effective. The United Federation of Planets is combing the galaxy for a lifeless planet to test a new experimental device they have developed named "Genesis". This device has the ability to create life on a lifeless planet. In searching for a planet that would meet their needs, the star ship Reliant, commanded by Captain Terrell (played by Paul Whitfield) with his first officer Pavel Chekov (played by the returning Walter Keonig), beam down to the planet Ceti Alpha VI to confirm no life forms occupy the planet. Much to their shock and dismay they discover that they have in fact beamed down to Ceti Alpha V (Ceti Aplha VI had exploded years before, unbeknownst to the Federation) where they find the surviving members of the decimated space ship USS Botany Bay and their leader, Khan Noonian Singh (marvelously played by a returning Ricardo Montalban). Once Terrell and Chekov are captured by Khan they are also brainwashed and ordered to assist in seizing control of the Reliant so that Khan can seek revenge on his nemesis, Captain (now Admiral) James T. Kirk, for marooning he and his crew to death on a desolate wasteland. His subsequent discovery of the Project Genesis device serves as the perfect tool to lure Kirk out into space where he will fall into Khan's trap.
Meanwhile, Admiral Kirk is over seeing a training voyage for his former first officer, and now captain, of the USS Enterprise, Mr. Spock. Kirk is only serving as an observer aboard the Enterprise, but when a distress message from Dr. Carol Marcus of the space station Regula One is sent to Kirk he then must take back command of the Enterprise to investigate. The ship and crew arrive are ambushed by Khan en route to Regula One. They are left crippled into a game of cat and mouse with Khan being the pursuer. It is up to Admiral Kirk, his friend and confidant Mr. Spock, and the ever reliable Dr. McCoy to be at their best to not only stop Khan from destroying the Enterprise and her crew, but also avert disaster on a galactic scale by preventing Khan from seizing control of the Genesis Device.
Star Trek historically has always interlaced itself with ties to classic literature and this movie takes that concept to another level. The basic theme of Khan seeking revenge on Kirk is predominately based on Captain Ahab from Herman Melville's classic novel "Moby Dick". To drive home the parallels there are numerous scenes where Khan is quoting the novel verbatim. There is also a nice touch early on when Chekov and Terrell discover the Botany Bay and spot a shelf full of books in one corner where "Moby Dick" is prominently featured on the shelf. The moments when Khan quotes the doomed Captain Ahab throughout the film are executed at seemingly perfect timing in relation to the action going on in this story.
The other very interesting subplot that runs through this film is the subject of mortality and the acceptance of aging. The early part of the film has Admiral Kirk celebrating a birthday while at the same time lamenting the reality that he is no longer the spryly, adventurous star ship captain that he once was. This is happening at a time when he is being asked to oversee the transition of new recruits who will be taking over the Enterprise, a ship that he so very much still loves. So this transition for Kirk is a "passing of the torch" in a sense, but Kirk is not at a point in his life where he is ready to take that step. Throughout the course of the conflict with Khan, Kirk slowly regains his feeling of relevance in the universe while discovering in the process that he is the father of a child, David Marcus (played by Merritt Butrick), who was kept from him by David's mother, Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), an old flame from Kirk's past. His is also being carefully studied by the promising young cadet Lt. Saavik (played by a young and then unknown Kirstie Alley). Savvik is part Vulcan and is very familiar with Kirk's storied past so she watches him closely to better understand what makes him the great star ship captain that he has become.
The subject of mortality is really driven by what is the film's greatest shock to the viewer- the death of Mr. Spock as he sacrifices himself to save the ship just as Khan plans to detonate the Genesis device which would destroy the Enterprise and all of her crew (I sincerely hope that this is no longer applies as a spoiler since the movie is 35 years old now, but my apologies if it is). Kirk mentions to Lt. Saavik at an earlier point in the film that he has always found a way to "cheat death", but he when he sees his dearest friend during his last moments he is forced to face the harsh reality that death cannot truly be cheated and now he must face that reality at the cost of his closest friend. Both Shatner and Nimoy deliver this sequence so perfectly that it is difficult to not feel the genuine pain Kirk is feeling in one moment where he is truly left helpless, a position that Kirk has never let himself be placed in to that point.
There are not really any negative points to associate with this movie. The only thing that tends to surprise people when first viewing the movie is the somewhat terrifying sequence of Khan placing the Ceti Alpha Eel creatures into Chekov and Terrell (this is how he is able to brainwash them into obedience as I had previously pointed out). The scene is pretty intense, particularly in comparison to other Star Trek films, but is effective nonetheless. The score for the film was composed by James Horner who, mostly for budgetary reasons, was replacing the first films composer Jerry Goldsmith. Horner does a great job of installing a haunting element into the music while still balancing the majestic, sweeping tones of an outer space adventure. Director Nicholas Meyer does a marvelous job of not only keeping a tight pace with the film, he also does a terrific job of pushing the established actors of the franchise to bring out some of their finest dramatic efforts. This is particularly evident with William Shatner since the plot of the story is very much centered around Admiral Kirk and the toll the encounter with Khan takes on him. But he is not alone- each of the primary characters are given moments that highlight their compassion and vulnerability quite well. Take note of the scene following Khan's surprise attack on the Enterprise when we see Mr. Scott carrying the deceased body of his nephew Peter Preston (played by Ike Eisenmann) who was one of the youngest new cadets aboard the ship. It was a rare moment to see Mr. Scott so emotionally effected and it really hits home with the viewer. Another impressive point to note is that, in spite of the tension between Kirk and Khan, they never actually share a scene together (the closest they come is communicating via view-screen or audio), a most astounding feat that is occasionally overlooked. This is in addition to the aforementioned sequence at the end when we witness Spock's death. The funeral sequence following Spock's death allows for the rest of the crew to express their grief and is without question one of the most somber moments in all of Star Trek.
In the end Star Trek II accomplished it's primary goal- it grossed a very impressive $97 million dollars at the box office with a budget of just $11.2 million. This was a wonderful surprise for Paramount who was additionally pleased with the positive critical reception the film received, having gotten such an opposite reaction for the first entry. A lot of people were upset and dismayed by the death of Spock, some even going so far as to send death threats to Leonard Nimoy or others associated with the movie! Fortunately for everyone involved the director asked to have a quick sequence added that would leave the possibility of Spock's return in a future entry (just before entering a hazardous compartment in the ship Spock does a special mind meld with Dr. McCoy, simply saying "remember"). The decision to add this sequence was made following an early test screening where audiences felt the end was too dark and somber. There is also a nice little sequence that shows Spock's casket safely landed on the new planet that is formed after Khan sets off the Genesis device. These little elements give a more uplifting element to the end of the story which is welcoming after all of the darkness that the rest of the story is embedded in*.
For me Star Trek II is an excellent movie and a flawless entry in the series. Even though my personal favorite Trek film will always be Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that is mostly for the nostalgic value I will always have for that film (it was the first movie I saw in a theater at the tender age of five). Star Trek II definitely set the film series in a better direction and would spawn four more successful sequels following its release. I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone, even if you are not a Star Trek fan this is a film that transcends its genre.
Many thanks to Neil for making sure we keep the information provided for the films we love much accurate. It is greatly appreciated.
Roy's Reel Rating (Out Of A Possible Four):