#1 in my Ranking of all Star Trek films.
My appreciation for Star Trek: The Motion Picture is documented well enough. In that commentary, I say: “Part of me wishes that the movie series had continued in this vein: throwing millions of dollars at the screen to be heady and weird. But then we got Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan which is one of those movies that I have a hard time calling anything other than perfect.”
And I stand by that. I really like the first Star Trek movie. I kind of wish the series had continued in that vein. However, the return of Khan Noonian Singh is damn near perfect.
Perfection isn’t really an attainable goal for art. Defining perfection in something that has so much subjectivity towards its measurement is a fool’s errand, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is so perfectly constructed that it borders on fulfilling the promise of that word.
The opening is a training simulation for the new crew of the USS Enterprise. Commanded by Lieutenant Saavik, a young Vulcan, the mission is the first mention of the Kobayashi Maru in Star Trek. It’s a purposefully impossible mission with no right answer designed, as Admiral Kirk explains after the simulator has been smashed in the name of education, in order to test the character of the captain in charge. That no-win scenario is a motif that continually comes up both explicitly and implicitly through the movie.
At the same time, we get our most literal manifestation of the movie’s central theme (rebirth) in the form of the Genesis project. The crew of the Starfleet vessel the USS Reliant are looking for a lifeless planet (supposedly in the Goldilocks Zone around a star) in order to test a device capable or rearranging matter at a subatomic level from lifelessness to vibrancy. There’s a single sign of something down below, so Lieutenant Chekov and his captain transport down only to find Khan.
I’ve read complaints about the backstory to what happen to Ceti Alpha Five, the planet Khan was marooned on by Admiral Kirk. The story is that the neighboring planet exploded without explanation, throwing off the axis of the fifth planet and turning it into a desolate wasteland from pole to pole. The idea that a planet would explode and no one would notice is apparently too far for some people. However, one thing that Star Trek is often way too good at is to make space feel small. The implication that something as catastrophic as a planet exploding and no one in Starfleet noticing simply because they weren’t looking expands the space between places in the universe.
Anyway, Khan takes control of Reliant and starts on a double mission. On the one hand, he wants to simply exact vengeance on the man who marooned him, Admiral James T. Kirk. On the other hand, he wants the Genesis device and the power within it. Khan wants a rebirth in two ways, to reset his own life through an act of revenge and to wield the power of creation in his hand, perhaps creating a new world for him and his people.
Refusing to yield to death and defeat comes up in the first confrontation between Kirk and Khan. Khan tricks Kirk to the point of crippling the Enterprise from the Reliant. Given a moment to allow Khan to gloat and demand information on Genesis, Kirk finds a way around his no-win scenario by hacking the Reliant and forcing it to lower its protective shields, giving Enterprise a chance to cripple Reliant in turn. This recurrence of the theme, and the fact that Kirk is constantly able to find ways to cheat around certain defeat, is all setup for the end of the film, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Before I get to the end, I want to talk about motifs. The movie has a few motifs running through it, and what tickles me most about them is the literary aspect of them. There are two books referenced in the film, A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick(we also see a copy of Paradise Lost). Both of them on their own act as motifs to reinforce the central idea of sacrifice. They are about death in the face of either letting others live or in the service of exacting vengeance upon a foe. Carton’s final words get repeated by Kirk in the final moments of the film, and Ahab’s final words get repeated by Khan in his final moments.
The third act of the film, in which the above quotes occur, is one of the finest third acts written and executed in popular entertainment. Everything the movie had been building up to comes to fruition. The relationships between characters (particularly Khan and Kirk, and Kirk and Spock) come to satisfying denouements. The themes come to interesting conclusions. The motifs come to complete fruition. And, on top of it all, the execution of the exciting parts (the splodey parts) are excellent.
Roger Ebert, in his review of the movie upon its original release, actually downplayed the movie’s special effects, calling them “functional but not particularly great”. I honestly don’t understand the criticism. Here I sit, almost 40 years after the movie’s release, and I still feel like the effects look fantastic. The key was the techniques and the special effects team’s understanding of the limits of the techniques. The ships are all models (as would be expected from the early 80s), and they honestly look fantastic. The model of the Enterprise was built for the over-budgeted (and underappreciated) Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and its detail is amazing. The Reliant was built to seemingly the same standard and holds up to the camera just as well as the Enterprise. As these models, that lack any moving parts, lumber through the emptiness of space and then through the nebula of the movie’s crescendo, they never look fake and they never look small. There’s real scale to them. The destruction to the models, the scarring and the lost parts, never looks less than convincing. They’re simple but effective.
On top of that, the rest of the technical presentation is top notch. The editing keeps the action crisp and moving. The music is one of James Horner’s best scores (which he cribbed heavily for Aliens). The acting, even from the Shat, is grounded and effective. Ricardo Montalban finds a great spot between campy and dramatic, especially as he spits his last breath at Kirk.
The movie’s great from beginning to end. The narrative is so perfectly constructed and the execution is so marvelously realized all while finding genuine emotion at the ultimate sacrifice one man makes for his crew. I’ve always been a bit partial to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as my favorite of the entire franchise, but as time goes on, I find myself falling in more and more with the consensus that Khan’s quest for vengeance is the best big screen adventure of the Enterprise.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4
Originally published here.