Living in the dark aftermath of Irvin Kersher’s The Empire Strikes Back, Paramount Pictures knew that if they were to follow up Star Trek: The Motion Picture with another laborious, big budget drift through space, they were in huge trouble. With orders from executives to make it cheap and make it quick, a television executive, a Trekkie screenwriter and a rookie director who wasn’t a fan of Star Trek, set out to make what would become one of the greatest sci-fi action films ever made: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Television executive turned film producer, Harve Bennett, felt the first Trek film lacked a truly great villain. Bennett sat down and watched every episode of the original series looking for his antagonist. It was in the episode Space Seed that Bennett found Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically enhanced superhuman played by Ricardo Montalbán. Khan is everything a movie villain should be: smart, deadly, unpredictable and fearless in his pursuit of the protagonist. Montalbán reprised the role of Khan and his performance commands attention. Montalbán once said that “all good villains do villainous things, but think that they are acting for the right reasons”. Khan’s vendetta aches across the universe and burns like the fires of hell throughout Wrath. Throw in a parallel to Khan and Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and you’ve got an intense evil mastermind.
Life and death
Below the surface of Wrath are a plethora of themes about life and facing death. The film deals with an aging crew (most of the main cast were in their fifties or over at the time) who are questioning their mortality as they float through space. It’s incredibly deep and explores the notion of courage & friendship using the sci-fi setting as a way of challenging these themes that are ingrained into our humanity.
Let’s get nautical
Director Nicolas Meyer (not a Star Trek fan) viewed the U.S.S Enterprise like a ship in the navy. When first reading the script for Wrath, Meyer said it reminded him of the book series based on the Napoleonic era Naval Officer Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester. As a result, Meyer filled Wrath with lots of nautical themes and terminology that made space exploration more palatable within the new context. Meyer had used Hornblower as an inspiration unbeknownst that Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, had also used it as a template for the series, so it was a return to the original intent of the series. The uniforms and ranks were given a naval makeover and even the Enterprise was given its own “ships bell”. It works incredibly well and grounds the film using terms we are familiar with from a known institution.
A game of chess
Kirk and Khan never meet each other in person during Wrath. Instead, what takes place is a gripping match of wits. These two characters outsmart each other and the spaceship battles play out like a game of chess, but with more explosions and lasers. It’s refreshing watching a film that puts two intellectuals at battle instead of muscles.
Live long and prosper
A big spoiler warning if you haven’t seen the film
The death scene of Spock is incredibly moving and Meyer had the smarts to commit to killing off Spock and keeping him dead (for Wrath at least, he was revived in the next film). Spock’s act of courage to save the crew of the Enterprise flies in the face of his logical musings, well known in Star Trek canon. During the scene where Spock and Kirk say their goodbyes it’s hard not to breakdown emotionally and I cry every single time. The scene is beautifully written and acted. It speaks for itself.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies