From Hell’s Heart – 40 Years of The Wrath of Khan
“I don’t like to lose.” – James T. Kirk
While Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been incredibly successful with fans of the series, the less-than-stellar critical acclaim it received – coupled with a disappointing box office gross – made Paramount reluctant to finance another cinematic Star Trek outing. The film had set the record for the highest opening weekend in box office history, but the final budget of the film was an eye-watering US$44 million – at that time the largest budget ever for production in the US. Paramount knew the audience was there, but no way were they going to risk an investment anywhere near that for a follow-up, settling on a measly US$12 million for production. Together with the relegation of Roddenberry from creative control to consultant, the odds were stacked against the sequel from the very beginning.
That they managed to produce anything worthwhile from this no-win scenario is an achievement in itself. However, when you consider that Producer Harve Bennett and Writer/Director Nicholas Meyer not only gave the audience something rewarding for their money but arguably the best Star Trek movie of all time, they conjured up nothing short of a minor miracle. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan proves the adage that necessity is the mother of invention.
The production was a cost-cutting exercise, right down to reusing sets, costumes, models, and even footage from the first movie. That this, for the most part, isn’t obvious while watching is a testament to everyone working on the project. Everyone was at the top of their game, from the actors to the production design and the effects. It’s the closest thing we’ve come to perfection on a Star Trek movie and on a completely (in relative terms) shoestring budget.
This leads me to my next point, which is that The Wrath of Khan is simultaneously both the best thing to happen to Star Trek movies and the worst.
Now before some of you start forming an angry mob, allow me to say that I adore this movie. Not only is it, in my opinion, the best Star Trek movie ever produced, but one of the greatest science fiction movies ever, period. This tale of obsession and vengeance ranks among my top ten movies of all time. As stated in my review of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, my repeated viewings of it left an indelible mark on my own identity – some would say my soul. When I first became a Star Trek fan, the only content available was The Original Series and the first two movies, and Wrath of Khan was always my go-to option. To me, it’s the absolute pinnacle of what Trek can achieve onscreen, given the right care and dedication that the franchise deserves.
And that’s where the problem lies: The Wrath of Khan is such a shining example of what a Trek movie can be that it’s been a go-to treasure trove for those that came later, in order to plunder, in the hope that, by emulating certain elements of this production, it will likewise emulate its success. This has most notably been in the form of a series of Khan surrogates (and, in one instance, Khan himself). As well-received as some of these attempts have been, most fans would agree that none of them have come close to having the impact or pitch-perfect storytelling that this instalment has.
Every single actor in this production knocks it out of the park. No-one is giving it less than 100%, from William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (himself reluctant to take the role, unless Spock would be killed in this outing) down to newcomer Kirstie Alley. Everyone plays it seriously, lending verisimilitude to the production. These aren’t just actors onscreen, but real characters with real personalities. Within the first ten minutes, you’re completely hooked.
The standout performer is, of course, Ricardo Montalban. He portrays the eponymous Khan with such conviction that, while the character from the episode “Space Seed” is instantly recognisable – arrogance and all – he imbues the character with an obsession that eclipses any devious rationality he may have once possessed. The Ahab allegory may be overt, but it is justified. This is a man driven to the limits of his sanity by hatred, and while you never sympathise with him, you can understand him.
The rest of the cast – DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Paul Winfield, Bibi Besch, and Merritt Butrick – are all just as good in their respective scenes. There’s no weak link here, and considering the relative newcomers are playing alongside established actors at the top of their game, it’s clear that great casting and direction lifted the ensemble to another level.
Nicholas Meyer’s direction is first-rate, and the effects – for the first time handled by Industrial Light and Magic – are still as breathtaking today as they were forty years ago. The model work is exemplary, with the starship sequences among the best ever seen onscreen. And the entire thing is extremely polished. This is not a case of style over substance, however – this is a perfect marriage of the two.
I couldn’t conclude this review while omitting the icing on the cake of this production: James Horner’s score. Horner was hired simply because the production couldn’t afford the money for a more well-known composer. It was serendipity in action. Horner’s work in the movie is sublime, creating a further layer of emotion that only heightens the events onscreen.
And that ending… It was heartbreaking at the time, when no-one knew what would come next, but even all these years later – with the full knowledge that Spock will undergo a resurrection in the next movie – that empty chair and the scenes that follow it still bring a lump to my throat. Shatner and Nimoy have never been better, and it speaks volumes that four decades after it was first seen, every Star Trek fan who’s watched the movie can tell a story of just how painful it was. It’s burned into our fandom’s collective consciousness.
The odds may have been stacked against it, but in every way conceivable, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan emerged as a winner. That’s something to celebrate, not be wrathful about!