After the relative disappointment of Star Trek: The Motion picture in 1979, with its massive budget and lackluster returns, it's sort of a miracle that a second Star Trek film was green-lit at all. But green-lit it was, and in 1982, fans got the film they should have gotten in the first place: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
The behind-the-scenes events between first and second films in the saga couldn't have been more different. The first film was a preproduction nightmare; ten years of rewrites and changes between God-knows-how-many-writers. Wrath of Khan? Two writers and only one major rewrite. The Motion Picture had a budget that spun out of control, costing the studio $35 million. Wrath of Khan had a paltry budget of $11.2 million, but hardly shows it. Reception to The Motion Picture? Lukewarm. What did people think of Wrath of Khan? You get the picture.
The film opens with a "Kobayashi Maru," a simulation for new Starfleet commanders that is (unknown to them) a no-win scenario. Admiral Kirk (William Shatner), now on the edge of retirement, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), now captain of the Enterprise, are mentoring the trainees, including the Vulcan named Saavic (Kirstie Alley). As becomes important later on in the story (and in the reboot film years later), Kirk doesn't believe in no-win scenarios. He's cheated death, but never really faced it. This day happens to be Kirk's birthday, and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) celebrates by bringing him a special Klingon wine. Kirk feels old, and McCoy tells him to stop treating his birthdays like funerals; get out there and take the helm again.
Meanwhile, Chekov (Walter Koenig) is on an expedition to find a planet with no life in order to test a terraforming device known as Genesis. While on a planet that seems barren and lifeless, Chekov and his unfortunate companion are attacked by a group of people left to die there long ago, and now they want revenge. What does Chekov have to do with this? The leader of this group is Khan (Ricardo Montalbon), who was a one-off villain from the series in the memorable Space Seed. Khan and his followers (super-humans as a result of experiments gone wrong) have suffered for over a decade in desert-like conditions, only surviving because of their genetic enhancements.
More specifically, Khan wants revenge on Kirk, who left him and his followers there after they attempted a mutiny aboard the Enterprise back in the season one episode. The planet was once perfect for preserving life, but soon after it became an unbearable wasteland, and Khan and his people have been suffering ever since.
Now, armed with the knowledge of the Genesis Project, Khan has the perfect weapon he needs to carry out not just his genocidal plans (extinguishing everything considered below his strength and intelligence), but his revenge on Kirk as well. 99% of people know how this film ends, but just a warning, spoilers ahead.
Wrath of Khan impressed me at every turn. It is in every way the opposite of The Motion Picture; engaging, exciting, character-driven, and most importantly, it feels like Star Trek brought into cinematic form. What the writers did was ingenious; incorporate an old villain from the TV series and expand on what's already established. It feels like a sequel to that specific episode, but not a retread by any means. Unlike The Motion Picture, it feels like we are catching up with out old friends after all these years instead of just coldly watching from behind a glass window. I was also happy to see that the character dynamics are back (and so is the humor).
Essentially, there's an issue that is only briefly explored in the film that humanity faces; the Genesis Project can create life where there is none onto the surface of an entire planet in a ridiculously short amount of time, thus recreating the biblical genesis. The implications of playing God and creating life are brought up by McCoy and Spock, but they don't necessarily argue. In the show, Spock would have thought that the device was perfectly logical; it can make a desert planet inhabitable and useful for starving populations and such. But here, he seems to agree with McCoy, who thinks the idea is ludicrous and immoral. Spock has changed to thinking a bit less like a computer and more like a human, and that subtle touch is much appreciated.
Character development for Kirk is absolutely excellent, and Shatner has never been better in the role. He shows a wide range of emotions, doesn't ham it up (except perhaps for the famous "KHAN!" moment), and is given a fantastic arc. Being depressed about getting old is such a relatable emotion, and for the adventure-hungry Kirk to experience that is very in-character. Things keep escalating as he finds that more things about his past are coming back to haunt him, not just in his old enemy but in his newfound discovery of a life he could have had with Carol Marcus, an old love interest who has since become a renowned scientist. As the story unfolds, we learn that she raised Kirk's illegitimate son by herself and never told Kirk she even had him. Yup, Captain Kirk had a son this whole time. Holy shit.
When Kirk finds out the news (while trapped in a space station by Khan), he bows his head in a quiet scene with Carol and says he feels "old." It's a tear-jerking moment that sums up the movie's theme perfectly. It's the worst thing that could happen to happen to Captain Kirk, at least at that moment.
The third act has been completely ruined for me by countless parodies and references, including the homage in Into Darkness. Well not completely; it's an excellent scene in its own right, but it did little for me emotionally because I knew Spock was going to die and I knew exactly how. He dies saving the Enterprise from the Genesis device, which Khan activates in a last-ditch effort to kill Kirk (while simultaneously committing suicide). Spock enters the radiated room so he can fix the thing that does the other thing that makes the ship move, and then dies has he and Kirk share one last conversation. The scene's impact is lessened when trying to watch this retrospectively not only because I know how the scene plays out, but because I know that Spock is coming back. The next movie is called The Search for Spock, so I'm pretty sure I'll be seeing Pointy again soon.
Still, it's a great ending, and it rounds out Kirk's development perfectly. Ironically, facing Spock's death helps him to feel young, looking toward a melancholy but hopeful future. He thought his life was over, that he was past his prime; but this experience has reinvigorated his thirst for life. Re-edits were made to the film after test screenings left the audience a bit depressed, so the new ending leaves us with the possibility that even though Spock is dead, there's hope for his return. I am unsure if the scene where Spock mind melds with McCoy was added in as well, but if it was, it was a seamless edit.
Music and visuals are so important to any film, but sci-fi is especially reliant on them to inspire spectacle and aw in the audience. This was about the only thing that the first film did right, with its phenomenal score by Jerry Goldsmith and its gorgeous visuals. Wrath of Khan's new score is a mix of the classic TV show theme combined with an all new theme, reinforcing the feeling that you are watching a big-screen version of a Star Trek episode. James Horner provided this score, and even though he gets rightly criticized for re-using his own themes (and even stealing others), there's no denying that his music can be incredibly captivating. I honestly can't decide whether his or Goldsmith's is the better theme, but both are terrific. The visual effects for Wrath suffer from a decreased budget, but they're by no means bad. Besides some wonderful practical effects involving a disgusting ear slug, and some great matte paintings, there's nothing particularly memorable about the effects (but also nothing of note that made me cringe).
Lastly, I'll talk about Ricardo Montalbon (though I won't be talking about his co-star, Ricardo Montalbon's Chest). He has a blast in this part, and gives every word he delivers an energetic flair. Whenever he's onscreen, you stop whatever you're doing and listen to him. If you were to call him one of the greatest screen villains in history I certainly wouldn't disagree; he has just enough depth and just enough menace to be three dimensional and threatening, not to mention a little psychotic. It's also interesting to note that despite how personal his vendetta is, he never even shares a scene together with Kirk (in the same room anyway).
It's no surprise, given its legacy, that Wrath of Khan is as good as it is. With some of the best character development the series has ever had, a great story that expands upon the show, and a return to charm and fun that I can only hope is present in the rest of the film series, it's a winner all around.