I know the movie is over thirty years old and I know that anything I have to say on it has most likely already been said. But after rewatching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for like the millionth time again tonight, I felt like I just had to write something. Because, it really is the best of all Star Trek movies.
And let’s just get this out of the way. I’m going to spoil the holy hell out of the movie. Because, you know what? If you haven’t seen it by now, that’s on you. And, like Janice from Accounting, I do not give a fuck. The statute of limitations is up, people! Presumed Innocent, the wife did it! The Crying Game, she’s a dude! At some point you just need to accept that if you haven’t seen something, the world isn’t going to wait you out.
So, why is Khan the greatest Star Trek movie ever made?
A lot of people will go into the deep friendships between Bones & Kirk or Kirk & Spock, and yeah, that’s great and everything but it’s not why. I mean, everyone knows that Spock comes back in the next movie (spoilers) and it’s still the best Star Trek movie. So, if it’s not that, then what then?
How about the fact that it’s just a perfect story? And, I mean, perfect in every sense of the word. There isn’t anything that matters that doesn’t get its three beats.
Take the core inner conflict that Kirk is wrestling with at the beginning of the movie: feeling old. The first beat is him wallowing in it. He’s training up cadets to take over Enterprise. He’s making his friends miserable as they attempt to celebrate his birthday with him. The second beat is his lowering Reliant’s shields because he knows how starships work and why. Information that the young Saavik doesn’t know because she doesn’t have the experience. Another argument to be made is his understanding of battle in three dimensions in the Mutari Nebula. In the Botany Bay scene we see a chess board set up (although it looks an awful lot like a checkers game being played) and I’m sure Khan is a master strategist in two dimensions. But put him against Kirk in starships in three? Of course Kirk is superior even if he doesn’t have the raw intelligence. And, lastly, the third beat is realizing, at the death of his friend, that there is a lot more life to be led.
It’s an entirely internal conflict that is externalized by the presence of Khan, a mistake he made as a younger man come back to haunt him. But the resolution has nothing to do with defeating Khan. He’d already beat Khan. Then he experienced the loss of Spock and then seen the Genesis planet created to show him that age wasn’t a countdown to death, that his life experience was worth something.
Khan’s three beat is a little more subtle. If you look at the books that Chekov is looking at when he discovers the seatbelt is from Botany Bay, you’ll discover that he owns two copies of Paradise Lost, a pamphlet on “Regulations on [blocked] Commerce” (an interesting reading choice, especially if from 1996 or maybe they came from Enterprise in “Space Seed”), and of course a copy of Moby Dick.
When his first mate tells Khan that they can go anywhere and to take their escape as defeating Kirk, Khan responds almost exactly as Ahab would. And, as he detonates Genesis, he’s actually quoting Ahab.
In a different telling of the story, Khan could actually be a sympathetic antagonist. I mean, that would mean him putting less bugs in people’s ears and killing a few less scientists and crewmen. But think about the story from his side of things, abandonned onto a planet that suffered from sudden climate change, his wife and a good part of his crew dying to the native life, his desire to take revenge on the one person he views as responsible… You put it like that, Kirk being promoted and drinking illegal substances in his posh San Francsico high-rise apartment does seem kind of like he’s totally oblivious to the wrongs he’s committed…
The third major arc is, of course, the larger message of the good of the many versus the good of the one.
Spock says it the first time when inquiring about the ratings Kirk will give his cadets. He brings it up a second time when Kirk dances around the idea of taking command of the ship. And lastly, and most memorably, it’s conculsion is when Spock sacrifices himself to bring the warp engines online, realizing that despite his high rank, the most valuable thing he can do for the crew is to sacrifice his own life.
It’s relatively easy (in theory) to order some no-ranked crew member to do an impossible thing to save everyone. You’ll have to live with it afterwards, of course, but you can maybe justify it by saying, “Well… yeah… but once that thing was fixed, they still needed my leadership.” In Spock’s case, he knew the ship was in Kirk’s good hands and that, perhaps by being Vulcan, the best thing he had to offer in that moment was that the radiation wouldn’t immediately kill him. And so he would be the one to bring the engines back online.
But it’s that this was telegraphed all the way through with the various beats that made this sacrifice so touching. If he’d just done it, as “Kirk” had in Star Trek: After Darkness then it doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s just a thing that happens. But if you signal the theme and then resolve that theme, it kills (in this case literally). It’s why Kirk’s not the only one on the verge of tears when he eulogizes Spock saying that he’d never met anyone “more human.” I’ve been watching this movie since it came out on one type of media or another and I still get a little teary-eyed at that scene, despite knowing what I know about future movies.
Are there some cheese elements to the Wrath of Khan? Oh, hell yes. But they can really only be seen to be such when isolated from the plot as a whole.
Now… Ricardo Montalban… the dude’s flamboyant. I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time defending his style except to say that you either like it or you hate it. But, in opposition with Shatner, it provides a really interesting counter-point. Through many of the early parts of the movie Shatner plays sad, defeated, and resigned. And in walks Montalban who, despite having been marooned for twenty years and because of his confidence in his intellect, knows that he has the upperhand in everything. He’s supremely confident (and over confident) when Kirk is at his lowest.
Shatner, meanwhile, gets a lot of gruff for his supposed acting style.
Personally, I’ve only ever seen hints of it, for instance in the “Poor marksman” speech all the way up to the communicator chewing “Khaaaaan” scream. But if you watch him through the vast majority of the movie, he’s understated and self-deprecating. One of my favorite lines is in the first act when Bones asks why they’re treating his birthday like a funeral and Kirk responds by taking a seat next to his friend and says, “Don’t hold anything back, Bones. What do you really think?”
The level of comfort with which he delivers the line just goes to show how deep and long their friendship is. And that he takes Bones’ response with a nod and no words is an even larger indication.
Honestly, though I know even Shatner has made fun of the cliche of his delivery over the years, I really don’t think he deserves it. In his three years as Kirk on the Original Series, he was no more awkward that Patrick Stewart could be at times in The Next Generation. That cliches about Stewart’s acting style haven’t haunted him through his career like they have Shatner’s is honestly surprising to me because I could name more than a few performances that are cringeworthy.
But if you really want to appreciate what an actor Shatner can be, I can’t suggest more than going back and watching the two Twilight Zone episodes he stared in. He was amazing and it will give you a totally different view of him.
But, yes, there are some definitely cheesey scense in Wrath of Khan but, over all, I honestly believe they heighten the drama rather than take away from it. And, as one defense for Montalban’s performance during the “Poor Marksman” speech, watch how Montalban just leans back into his chair and almost whispers his responses. Cheesey? Maybe. But there’s also no way you can mistake that for a man who hasn’t just resigned his bigger hopes for revenge for the smaller pleasure he might take in the way it worked out.
If I have one regret for the movie it’s Saavik. It’s a shame that Kirsty Alley didn’t come back for Star Trek III, though that would honestly have been a waste of her talents. But it’s also a shame because my understanding of Star Trek VI was that Kim Cattrall’s character, Lieutenant Valeris, was intended to be Saavik and, from a story-arc point of view, it would have been interesting to see Saavik take that journey. Even when I saw VI in the theater, I knew that Valeris was a stand-in for Saavik and to see that character take that arc in one movie was a little bit of a bummer.
All in all, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a fucking amazing movie. The characters feel more real than they do in any other and the plotting was basically perfect. But, if you think otherwise, I’d like to hear why.