Star Trek II – The Wrath Of Khan (1982) ***
A genetic superman seeks revenge against Admiral James Kirk.
The real strength of this film is the acting and making the best of the words written for the characters. All the major characters are decent in this and it’s one of Shatner’s best performances (since he’s also done some damn fine work in TOS). It also can’t be denied this film has good pacing and a good dose of energy. It’s the pacing, the performances and some nice visuals that make much of this film work.
But from early on I get one overriding feeling from this film: it feels like they really want you to forget TMP ever happened. There are certainly no references, even indirect ones, to previous events. But there is a pervasive sense of change. Whatever could be changed from TMP was changed. The edict seems to be not that TMP missed a bit in a few places, but that it was a total bust, which it certainly was not. Sometimes change is good and it works, and sometimes it doesn't.
It starts out promisingly with a forceful version of the familiar Star Trek
fanfare and then launches into a very nice opening score…befitting a seafaring adventure. Nice bit of music, but it doesn’t convey the idea of “strange new worlds “or “where no man has gone before.” It sounds more like Captain Blood, The Buccaneer, Horatio Hornblower
or maybe even Master And Commander.
Maybe it would work for an adaptation of some military SF such as Honor Harrington,
but it’s not Star Trek.
TMP had a terrific opening sequence with three incredible Klingon ships taking on some alien unknown and getting wiped out in the process. TWOK’s opening scene is...cadets in a training simulation. The whole thing is WTF!
as the ship is apparently disabled by one lousy Klingon torpedo that also manages to kill the entire senior staff. Funny, I remember the TOS Enterprise
being able to take all kinds of punishment as well as the TMP refit able to withstand a volley from Vger that had already destroyed three Klingon ships. (Of course this is such a cool idea they’ll repeat it in Generations
to wreck the Enterprise
We next get some decent character moments between Kirk, Spock and McCoy and they’re soon laying it on thick that Kirk is having midlife crises of sorts. He apparently feels old when he’s probably no more than about fifty. Fifty today isn’t old (unless you’re not well) and it shouldn’t even be an issue in the twenty-third century. Hell, Picard will be gallivanting around on the E-D and he could have been pushing sixty.
But the real thing that’s bugging my ass this early in the film is the idea of the Enterprise
as a training vessel. Putting clues together from within the film the refit E isn’t more than about ten years old since its refitting in TMP. But then, of course, they’re ignoring everything from TMP. Whereas TMP left us with the promise of new adventures on the final frontier TWOK has everyone and everything just about ready to retire and be scrapped. Yep, a real positive way to start out the story.
Some people complained about the TMP uniforms, and while I can’t agree that they’re bad I can agree a bit more colour and perhaps a crisper design would have been welcomed. TWOK’s answer is to give us Buckingham Palace. Again they’re a design that could work in some other SF property, but it’s totally inconsistent with the general look that had already been established for Starfleet personnel: comfortable everyday services wear. Certainly not retro dress outfits. Again it’s not Star Trek.
At this point what strikes me is that we seem to be seeing a version of Star Trek
as filtered through someone’s eyes perhaps not familiar with what had come before and they’re convinced Star Trek
has to be something else to be accepted. Hello???
We’re here because Star Trek
was successful being what it is and not something else. This is akin to Tim Burton making a couple of movies that are unmistakably his but they also just happen to have Batman in them. This is someone’s idea of a seafaring adventure dressed as sci-fi that just happens to have Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise
The first good thing I get to see in this picture is the starship Reliant.
Finally, after decades of waiting, we get to see another Starfleet starship that isn’t identical to the Enterprise
and it’s to be a good-looking design at that. The other neat thing is the nice looking Regula One station. The next scenes revealing Khan and the creepy Ceti eels are accompanied by nicely eerie music. It’s a scene that can make your skin crawl. But I am also confused: where did all those kids come from? Khan’s followers were a mixed bag of races all approximately the same age as him. Now they’re all blond California surfer dudes and beach bunnies who’ve had a bad hair day at the mall. And despite being reduced to a bare level existence Khan has still somehow managed to get plastic surgery to enhance his chest. Hoookay… BTW I’m not bothered by Khan recognizing Chekov because just because we hadn’t seen him yet in TOS’ first season it doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been aboard where Khan could have run into him.
Some other little details: what is with all the CRT monitors? In TOS we had futuristic looking flat panel displays for viewscreens, something that certainly would be futuristic in 1982. Hell, in the real world we didn’t get flat panel displays until the early 2000s. But in TWOK tube screens are everywhere. Yet another bit of retro tech.
This film is also something of a deconstruction of what had been established in TOS. Kirk has a son he wasn’t allowed to see and the idea that Kirk has never faced death. What?
Kirk has faced death numerous times. He’s faced the prospect of his own death, the death of his closest friends as well as the death of numerous personnel under his command. This is just ridiculous revisionism.
Why is the Enterprise
relegated to a training vessel? Why doesn’t the Reliant
know what planet they’re orbiting? Why is a nebula depicted like a fog bank when in actuality if you were in a nebula you probably wouldn’t know it? How can a bunch of throwbacks, no matter how smart, able to overcome an entire ship’s complement and then know how to run the ship without any help? They apparently needed help to run the Enterprise
in TOS. Why are two highly advanced starships wallowing around like 17th century galleons?
Because Harve Bennet and Nicholas Meyer wanted to do a submarine warfare story that just happened to be some Star Trek
in it and yet looks like they never bothered to watch something like TOS’ “Balance Of Terror” or “The Doomsday Machine” or “The Ultimate Computer” or even “Elaan Of Troyius.” “Balance Of Terror” adapted a submarine combat story (“The Enemy Below”) and made it work as science fiction. Bennett and Meyer just thought they’d do the reverse. Worse yet they tried to make Star Trek
like an old seafaring tale and throw away as much of the SF element as possible.
One could argue that Robert Wise might have been trying to make too much of a science fiction film out of Star Trek
(which is a ridiculous charge when you think about it), but Nicholas Meyer was obviously trying to make Star Trek
into as close to 17th century naval warfare as he could get away with. Even as I was trying to enjoy the performances and brisk pacing I kept getting jarred out of it by things that felt really out of place in what should have been a good Star Trek
TMP is a really smart film that needed a little more drama and passion. TWOK is an energetic film that is unfortunately dumb as a brick. And so it’s really going to come down to how much you can forgive to be entertained. The only way I can really accept this is as some form of alternate universe or parallel timeline where some characters and references are familiar, but the rest has changed.
The death of Spock is very moving, and candidly if Trek had ended it then and there the TOS era would have had an appropriate sense of finality. Spock’s death was a fitting one---he died saving his friends and shipmates---unlike Kirk’s death in GEN which feels utterly meaningless. Kirk’s death later on is moving because it’s heartbreaking to say goodbye to one of the most cherished and iconic characters of television and film, but his death in context of the story is pointless.
So my final assessment is that while I like the numerous good character moments as well as the good performances and energetic pacing I really dislike the story it’s all founded on, the backstory and everything that plays into it. I can enjoy the film to some extent, but it leaves some unappealing aftertaste.