Yesterday I rewatched Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a flick I’ve only seen maybe three times in my life prior to that viewing. Needless to say, the first Star Trek feature doesn’t exactly hold a special place in my heart. When it comes to today’s entry, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the complete opposite is true. Along with Trek IV, Enemy Mine, and 2010, it was in more or less constant VHS rotation throughout my childhood. Revisiting it now, in such close proximity to The Motion Picture, it’s startling how much more effective it is, both as a standalone movie and as a representative adventure for Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest.
One thing that struck me almost immediately is something that was largely missing from The Motion Picture, but which I didn’t notice except by comparison. Namely, The Wrath of Khan is funny. Not the swing-for-the-fences goofiness of Trek IV, but simply the character-based humor that comes naturally from the Enterprise crew when they’re being written well. The Motion Picture is a really dour enterprise — ahem — and takes everything so seriously that it’s largely missing the sense of fun and adventurous spirit that makes the best of Trek work. Especially the core triad of Kirk, Spock, and Bones, it’s amazing how much more they seem like themselves in Trek II, with the three of them bickering and needling each other good-naturedly, like the old friends we know them to be. Comparatively, The Motion Picture seems like the crew is in the middle of a wake the entire time.
It’s not surprising to see the crew much more alive in the second Trek outing, because every aspect of the script by Jack B. Sowards and an uncredited Nicholas Meyer (who also directed) is rooted in character, from the themes of aging, death, and loss, to the core conflict between Kirk and Khan. Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski has talked about the experience where you no longer feel like you’re telling a story on the page, but rather that the characters have come to life and are now in control — you’re just taking dictation. It’s easy to believe that must have been the case with the Wrath of Khan script, because nearly every character here feels vivid, complex, and alive.
Moreover, the characters are actually active in this movie. Compare that to The Motion Picture. Think about how many things actually happen in that movie, when you really boil it down. They intercept the V’Ger Cloud. They spend a half hour driving to the center of the Cloud. They eventually convince V’Ger to let them meet face-to-face, we have the big reveal about V’Ger’s true nature, then Decker and Ilia bond and save the day. The movie gets justifiably dinged for being slow, but that problem is only magnified by the simple fact that there’s really not much going on in that flick.
And what does happen in The Motion Picture is largely centered not on our beloved Enterprise crew, but on the newcomers — Decker and Ilia. They’re the ones whose relationship forms the core of the story and provides resolution at the end. We’re told they care for each other, but we, the audience, don’t care much about either of them, simply because they’re so new. On the other hand, most of us came into The Motion Picture already fond of Kirk, Spock, and the rest, only to see a story that, when you break it down, really isn’t even about them.
Wrath of Khan takes the exact opposite approach. Everything in Khan arises from and hinges upon the core characters, and the new additions — Carol and David, for instance — bring an emotional weight with them simply because of how Kirk reacts to them. It’s a perfect example of two approaches to writing, but only one of them is overall successful. The Motion Picture is all about the plot, the idea, that twist at the end. The Wrath of Khan is about the characters, and everything comes out of that focus.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the cast is in top form across the board here. Ricardo Montalban chews every bit of scenery within reach, in the very best way, and it’s amazing how menacing the line “I never forget a face” can be when he’s the one hissing it. There’s a reason this performance and this character are considered some of the best big-screen villainy ever. Shatner proves that, for all the jokes above his delivery or ego, when he’s on his game Kirk is one of the most charismatic characters out there, and he even gets to show some range thanks to the film’s tragic third act. That quaver in his voice during the line, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…human,” that gets me every time.
Can I also just take a moment to retroactively high-five Bibi Besch as Carol Marcus? That character has to be smart, capable, and someone you’re completely confident would be able to put Kirk in his place when necessary, and she sells every aspect of the role. “Can I cook, or can’t I?” You better believe it, lady, and Alice Eve has her work cut out for her.
Finally, one of the things that really stood out in this rewatch is that it gives us smart characters on both sides of the conflict, something that’s all too rare in the movies these days. While Khan’s space battles are epic, it’s the battle of wits between Kirk and Khan that truly thrills. When Kirk bluffs Khan long enough to send the code to drop Reliant’s shields, it’s a true “hell yes” moment. He didn’t gain the advantage because he had a bigger gun. He gained it because he’s smart and cunning. The same thing can be said about Kirk and Spock’s coded wordplay later when the captain is left “buried alive” inside the Genesis cave. It’s a real treat watching smart characters do their thing, especially when some modern sci-fi films serve up supposedly intelligent characters, then have them do nothing but act like idiots for the entire film. (Prometheus, I’m looking in your general direction.) These brilliant bits of strategy make the film’s climax all the more effective, when Kirk learns that, no matter how good you are, sometimes you can’t outrun the no-win scenario.
Some thirty years after its release, The Wrath of Khan is every bit as thrilling and enjoyable as it ever was. There’s a reason this flick is one of the classics, not just of the Star Trek series, but of science fiction film as a whole. It’s timeless, it’s awesome, and it’s quite simply the best of Trek.
Check back tomorrow for my rewatch of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock!