“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was directed by Nicholas Meyer and released in 1982. After the mediocre (at best) first installment in the Star Trek film franchise, Paramount needed the sequel to be a critical and financial hit. Luckily, Star Trek II turned out to be one of the best sci-fi adventure films of all time.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Star Trek II, the film follows the original crew as Spock trains a group of Starfleet cadets onboard the Enterprise and Kirk, now an aging and bored admiral, visits the ship to reminiscence about old adventures. Meanwhile, Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered mastermind and villain from the original television series, returns to seek vengeance against Kirk. What ensues is a deadly game of wits between the two rivals that leads to dire consequences.
Nicholas Meyer’s direction is gorgeous. The effects and environments are absolutely stunning, particularly when the Enterprise and the Reliant (Khan’s starship) are battling in the Mutara Nebula. The action sequences of the film are all enhanced by James Horner’s phenomenal score that almost has a character of its own.
You can feel the passion and hard work put into this movie throughout its entire runtime. Writer Harve Bennet and director Nicholas Meyer went through several rewrites and new drafts of the script to make a tight and thematically rich film. The movie doesn’t waste a single frame. Every plot point and line of dialogue matters, and the multiple storylines interweave beautifully. If written today, Star Trek II would be an absolute mess. Modern blockbuster writers would be too lazy and incompetent to balance the stories. Star Trek II should be a lesson to today’s writers that they can make a tight story (under two hours) without sacrificing coherence.
Star Trek II was the darkest the franchise had ever gotten at the time (both in television and film). There’s genuine violence and stakes. Characters have to face the consequences of their actions. Everyone is pushed like they’ve never been pushed before, which is what makes the film so enthralling.
Another terrific aspect of this film is its thematic richness. The movie isn’t just an epic space battle; it’s about universal themes like aging, regret, and feeling unfulfilled in life. Kirk is in an unhealthy state of aging; he’s stuck in what’s essentially a boring desk job when he should be out exploring the galaxy. He needs excitement in his life and his arc is to learn to “feel young” again.
Star Trek II has stellar performances across the board. Of course, Ricardo Montalbán is incredibly charismatic and electrifying as Khan, giving cinema one of its most iconic villains. But because of how flashy Montalbán is, people overlook the work of the other actors. Leonard Nimoy has never been better as Spock. At this point, he was quite experienced in the role and had the enduring chemistry with the rest of the cast, making for a Spock that’s more understanding of human emotions.
However, William Shatner as Kirk actually gives my favorite performance of the film. Star Trek II is very much Kirk’s story. The script demands Shatner to be the lighthearted adventurer he was in the original series, but also requires him to portray raw emotions. It’s easy to make fun of Shatner for his rapid-pause-rapid line delivery and corny Kirk-fu, but his acting chops shouldn’t be overlooked, especially in this film.
Currently we’re seeing a repugnant trend in Hollywood where they bring back the (literally) old cast of a long-running franchise for a new, far worse film, only to see them be heartlessly killed off. I’m looking at you, Disney Star Wars. I don’t have any issue with killing off legacy characters; it’s just the way that they’re killed off that’s important. In Star Trek II, Spock’s death is brilliant. He sacrifices himself to save his friends, gets some final meaningful words in, and the last thing he sees is his friends saying goodbye. The film then ends with Spock delivering the iconic opening “Where No Man Has Gone Before” monologue from the original series, ending the film on a sad yet optimistic note. That’s how you kill off an iconic legacy character. You give them the respect they deserve and one last interaction with the people they’re closest to, as well as callbacks to past events in the franchise. Contrast Spock’s death with Luke Skywalker’s despicable demise in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” where he just fades into thin air lightyears away from the other characters. He never gets to interact with Han and only talks to Leia through Force Skype. He starts and ends the film as a cynical recluse, dying alone without doing anything particularly memorable in the movie. That’s not only poor writing, but it’s just an insult to the character’s legacy and the audience. Star Trek II celebrates Spock whereas The Last Jedi slanders Luke.
“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is one of the best sequels ever made. It takes everything great from the original series and expands upon it to deliver an impactful and endlessly rewatchable adventure that celebrates the franchise.