2. Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Ricardo Montalban, Kirstie Alley, Bibi Besch, Merritt Butrick, Paul Winfield

After “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979), the first theatrical voyage of the starship Enterprise, thoughts were already being cast toward the future of the franchise. That initial film had been a financial success, but was not as well-received either by fans or by critics as would have been ideal. Among the complaints were the slow pacing of the story, and the fact that elements from two episodes of the TV show (“The Doomsday Machine” and “The Changeling”) were being rehashed. Series creator Gene Roddenberry had an idea for a sequel, which would again serve as a callback to an earlier episode, only this time more directly. He had written a story where the Guardian of Forever, a device capable of transporting you back to pretty much any point in history from the episode “City on the Edge of Forever,” would be used by the alien warrior race known as the Klingons to prevent the JFK assassination. Paramount Pictures took one look at this and said, essentially, “Okay… you’re fired.” The fate of “Star Trek” would now be placed into the hands of two men who had never previously watched a single episode of the TV show.

Harve Bennett, the man Paramount hired to replace Roddenberry as Executive Producer, had remembered taking his kids to see “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and was asked what he’d thought about it. Firmly believing that one should always be honest about their opinions, he stated truthfully that he’d found it boring, and that his kids, who were usually well-behaved at the theater, had pestered him for bathroom and snack bar breaks throughout. When asked if he could make a better movie for a budget of under $45 million (less than half of the budget for “The Motion Picture”), Bennett said he could make five for that amount. His first order of business was to watch all 79 TV episodes, hoping to draw inspiration. In particular, it was the episode “Space Seed” which caught his eye. In that episode, a band of genetically enhanced humans from the late 20th century had been found by the Enterprise crew and released from suspended animation. Led by Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), these 72 superhumans attempted and failed to take over the ship and were exhiled to a planet called Ceti Alpha V. The second “Star Trek” movie would involve Khan’s escape from exhile and his lust for revenge against Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner).

Nicholas Meyer, who also had never watched the show, was brought on as director. His contributions would not only serve to give “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” the substance it might have otherwise lacked, but would also serve to greatly influence the entire “Star Trek” franchise as a whole for many years to come. For one, he completely changed the uniforms worn by our heroes to reflect the militaristic vibe that he was going for. It might have seemed radical in the beginning, but this would remain the standard 23rd century Starfleet uniform until the J.J. Abrams reboot in 2009. Meyer had also seen how wooden the overall finished product of “The Motion Picture” was, and he was resolved to make the characters in his film seem more human. To achieve this, firstly, he established his themes of old age, death and resurrection. Adding depth to the story, Meyer would draw from several classic literary works of fiction, including Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” and C.S. Forester’s “Horatio Hornblower” novels. Familiarity with these stories is not by any means crucial in order to enjoy “The Wrath of Khan,” though it does give one a better overall appreciation for the screenwriters’ vision.

At the movie’s beginning, Admiral Kirk is facing the fact that he is now 50 years old, having just “celebrated” another birthday. When Khan commandeers the starship Reliant and sets off to hunt down the Enterprise, Kirk is overseeing a training mission with a group of cadets piloting the ship, along with older, familiar faces. Their teacher, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), is now officially the Captain of the Enterprise. Unbeknownst to Kirk, a new and exciting but potentially dangerous scientific project (referred to as “Genesis” for its obvious Biblical implications) is underway. If it were to fall into the wrong hands… say, Khan’s hands… it could be used as a deadly weapon. The project is being overseen by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and David (Merritt Butrick), her son by Admiral Kirk. Those who would assume this device will figure heavily in the movie’s climax would not be mistaken.

“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is also replete with dichotomy. The Genesis Project itself is described as being “life from lifelessness.” The Kobayashi Maru test, which all Starfleet Cadets are subject to, is designed as a no-win scenario, but Admiral Kirk is the one person who ever beat the test, thus failing to learn the lesson the test provides. This movie is all about Kirk finally learning that lesson, and yet even when defeat seems to be snatched from the jaws of victory, a ray of sunshine pokes just over the horizon. Thus, hope can still be found where there seems to only be hopelessness.

James Horner, my favorite film composer, turns in one of my most beloved film scores of all-time for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” It has as much to do with the placement of the movie at #2 on my list of favorite movies as the story itself. No one yet has matched the strength of actor Ricardo Montalban’s performance in the role of a “Star Trek” movie villain, though that’s not to say others haven’t tried. What’s most fascinating about his work here is that he’s never face-to-face with William Shatner at any point in the movie (ship-to-ship transmissions via the viewscreen don’t count), owing to the director’s desire to have the battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant be like two ships at sea. But it is Kirk and Spock who deliver the film’s best scene. As the next chapter is called “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” it is common knowledge that Spock dies at the end of this film. This is Kirk’s “no-win scenario.” The moment they share together as Spock’s last breath escapes him is one of the great moments in not just “Star Trek” history, but also the history of film in my humble opinion.

“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” strange as this may sound, is both the best and worst thing to happen to “Star Trek.” It is one of the great personal stories the franchise has conceived, certainly the best of the 12 existing films, and can be credited with ensuring the longevity of “Star Trek.” The downside is that an overwhelming majority of the “Trek” films that have been made in the meantime have at their heart essentially been “Wrath of Khan” remakes, especially the three most recent entries. While some have been better than others, I wouldn’t mind seeing someone try a new approach, because I see a certain futility in continuing to redo “Wrath of Khan” without realizing that it was a success because of multiple elements. With such limited imagination, like Khan himself, the highest position that kind of “Trek” movie can ever achieve is second best.

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