In memory of Leonard Nimoy, an actor whose subtle cues and exploration of the human soul crossed generations, inspiring people across the globe to strive to uplift humanity.
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan isn’t just the greatest Star Trek film in the franchise’s history, it is one of the greatest films ever made, one of the greatest voyages deep within the human psyche, exploring concepts of rebirth, failure, friendship, and sacrifice in a cleverly layered space fable. It’s a movie that steps beyond the archetype of its genre and successfully embraces the deepest parts of the human soul. Simply summarized, it’s a tightly constructed work of art that stands against the erosion of time and resonates with us all, in one way or another. And it’s a pretty stellar revenge film to boot.
When we first enter The Wrath Of Khan, we’re met with a newly promoted Admiral James T. Kirk who’s feeling the boredom and woes of old age on his birthday. He’s tired, yet restless. He doesn’t want to wile his hours in suspended animation, trotting around Star Fleet with a book in his hands, but the adventure he’s thrived on for so long is over. Kirk can’t jet off halfway across the galaxy anymore, and even if he wants to, new blood is taking over the Enterprise. And there’s nothing he can do, except bemoan the ills of age as he inspects his collection of antiques in a home that resembles more of a museum than a dwelling.
While supervising a new crew on a routine training mission aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, a surprise attack propels Admiral Kirk, unknown to him, on a quest for the Fountain of Youth, in search of a project known as Genesis that can take dead systems and rebirth life across entire planets. Through his journey, he revisits ghosts from his past in the form of a failed relationship, a son he didn’t know he had, a powerful enemy he once thought placated, and the fear of failing his crew in what appears to be a no-win scenario.
The Wrath Of Khan is very thematic in its execution, and almost every line of dialogue carries a hidden meaning to it, something that speaks to more than just progression of the plot. Some bits of dialogue are even ripped and adapted from famous works of literature, most evident in the film’s villain, Khan, whose speeches hearken back to Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab. But it’s not the references that make this movie float, it’s the pulsating spirit riding the undercurrent, the self-reflective adventure that brings a man to face his darkest of fears and worst enemy in a deadly attempt to rekindle that vestige of youth. In short, the film is about life itself, it’s about taking a decaying husk and bringing the Holy Grail to its lips.
Oddly enough, at the time it was released, the symbolism in The Wrath Of Khan was as thematic for its characters as it was indicative of the Star Trek franchise — a flourishing of growth to a subculture that was proving financially unsound to mainstream appeal. So important was this movie, it’s even been argued that The Wrath Of Khan kept Star Trek from being decommissioned permanently. And with a villain like Ricardo Montalban’s Khan soaking up screen time and embedding himself deep within Hollywood’s psyche, who could disagree?
Suave is one word to describe him. Charismatic, passionate, theatrical, calculating, mad, and cold are other words. One cannot talk about The Wrath Of Khan without naming the titular villain. Montalban’s performance as Khan is very much a part of the ether that elevates this film to a Shakespearean tragedy. He brings a powerful showmanship to the screen, and his character is so over-the-top, comic book-ey, and operatic in his performance, that his magnanimous presence is believable in his single-minded quest to destroy Kirk, cursing his old foe’s name to the very last breath. Quite literally.
And speaking of characters, Spock is arguably the most important of all. Leonard Nimoy serves as the ultimate symbol of sacrifice in The Wrath Of Khan, offering his life, so that Kirk can overcome a no-win scenario. His death is soft, slow, and painful. As an audience, we watch Spock succumb to radiation poisoning inside a cylindrical tube, his outstretched hand pressing up against the glass as he repeats poignant last words back at a lifelong friend. His words are an explanation and a testament to living a life in the service of others. They’re a call to the heart, a synthesis of meaning as The Wrath Of Khan steps outside of its Star Trek shell and appeals to the human condition.
Out of all the films to follow in the franchise’s storied history, this is the only one to aim for and surpass high art, to birth unto the world a sense of catharsis. This is why it’s remembered as the best Star Trek film. This is why people still talk about it, quote it, make memes of it, and share it with their friends and family. The Wrath Of Khan is more than a movie. It’s a quest for the human soul.
Live long and prosper.
Every science fiction franchise has its crown jewel; Gundam has its Zeta series, Doctor Who has ‘Caves of Androzani’, etc. This is Star Trek’s jewel. While it is not in quite the same echelon as Star War’s The Empire Strikes Back, this is essentially Star Trek’s Empire, and it delivers the goods in a way that is wholly satisfying for fans of the original Trek incarnation.
After a rather ho-hum maiden foray into film, the Trek franchise boiled down the white and gray fluff to cruise at a mean pace with Wrath. The film isn’t always quickly paced, but it is lean and efficient, with almost every line of dialogue between the franchise’s principal triad of protagonists introducing, commenting on, or resolving the themes explored in the film.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the film is Khan himself, who serves paradoxically as the franchise’s most enduring and iconic villain. This flick is essentially a sequel to the original series episode ‘Space Seed’, which aired in 1967, fifteen years prior to Wrath. That’s a rather curious choice to make, bringing back an antagonist from a cancelled television show to serve as a film’s marquee character and plot fulcrum. Montalbán is also hamstrung by the fact that his scene chewing never occurs in the same frame as his nemesis, Shatner’s Kirk. He is, however, able to pool an insane amount of conviction and magnetism into this part, which (mostly) makes up for the aforementioned problems.
While Khan’s presence isn’t quite a home run, this film affords us a romp with Kirk at the character’s absolute best. For much of the original television show, Kirk was fairly invincible, waltzing in and out of danger while remaining static as a character. Tune in next week to see stern-jawed white man glopped in pomade defeat the thing, kids! At some later, indeterminate point, Kirk was subsumed by the clownish, lace-front perm wig antics of William Shatner. But here we have the best depiction of Kirk we’ve ever been given: Tired, bewildered, vulnerable, and finally (finally!) at a loss for how to deal with a bad scenario. He attempts to solve his problem in the only way he knows how, which is plowing straight into it, content to live with the consequences. And there are consequences. And he does live with them. He lives with them. We finally see this Flash Gordon-esque character breathe, and it is an incredibly rewarding experience.
I would be remiss if I did not comment on the late Leonard Nimoy’s performance as Spock. The original incarnation of Star Trek is riddled with blind optimism for the future, which often leads it astray into ridiculousness and camp. But Nimoy had a knack for staying elevated above the drek. Through Spock, he was able to portray a charitable wisdom devoid of selfish ego. His character’s Vulcan disposition could often be read as obtuse and insensitive, but Nimoy’s memory, as well as Spock’s, will continue to endure due to the subtle warmth and lack of cynicism Nimoy brought to the role. A.