Movie review: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

I happened to catch “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” on cable a little while ago and am just how getting to review it. I’m reviewing it for one reason: Ricardo Montalbán. He does a simply terrific job … plus the film is one of the most solid in the franchise – and I consider it the best, even over Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” I realize that many dismiss the film because it is “Star Trek,” but don’t let that influence you. It’s nice to know the backstory and all the little nuances, but the work in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” by Montalbán and the rock-solid foundation provided by the supporting cast makes this one stand out from many movies … and not just “Star Trek” ones at that.

‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’
(1982; 113 minutes; rated PG; directed by Nicholas Meyer and starring Robert Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Ricardo Montalbán)

THE PAST COMES BACK TO HAUNT CAPT. KIRK

(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and trivia and the updating of links on March 28, 2020.)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is truly a very good motion picture and you can say that because of one actor: Ricardo Montalbán. Of course, there are those who will turn their nose up because it is “Star Trek,” but they’re missing out on a very special film – and not just a very special “Star Trek” film.

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It is Montalbán’s continuation of a character introduced in the original TV series that makes this one memorable. He has great lines such as, “He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I’ll chase him ’round the moons of Nibia and ’round the Antares Maelstrom and ’round perdition’s flames before I give him up!” That line was even quoted on today’s top rated TV comedy: “The Big Bang Theory” (click here for my review of the comedy TV series).

But it is not just the words. It’s Montalbán’s delivery. He is simply great here and I said when “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” premiered and will say it again today: Ricardo didn’t get any dramatic accolades because it is a “Star Trek” film. I can’t say enough about the emotion he brings to the role and how completely he immerses himself – I’d hate to have had to deal with him on set since I’d imagine he was in character for the entire shoot.

So, simply put, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is the best in the Star Trek series, although “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” comes very close because it returns the crew to modern day San Francisco (well, modern day from 20 years ago) and the time displacement is done very well especially with the audience’s familiarization with the characters.

In short, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” brings William Shatner as “Adm. James T. Kirk” and Montalbán as “Khan Noonien Singh” together again after 15 earlier when Shatner marooned the genetically superior Montalbán and his fugitives from the 20th century after they tried to take over Shatner’s spacecraft.

The forces bringing them together again include the development of a “Genesis” device that creates an Earth-like planet virtually overnight by consuming any other planet. Although altruistic in its development, the “Genesis” is instantly perceived as a weapon that can destroy an entire planet in almost the blink of an eye.

As the philosophy plays out, a spaceship is searching for a barren planet to become the test site for “Genesis.” Of course, Montalbán and what’s left of his group is found on the planet and so begins his work to revenge himself on Shatner. While you’re best served knowing “Star Trek” and its space stuff, it isn’t necessary. It’s all in the interplay between Montalbán and Shatner that makes the film.

Nearly lost in the battle of Montalbán versus Shatner are some interesting developments in the “Star Trek” world, including that “Capt. (now admiral) Kirk” has a son with a past love (and he meets up with both here). The biggest development involves “Mr. Spock,” but I’ll get to that later.

In the end, the good guys win (but with a heavy price) and audience has been treated to the best “Star Trek” movie of them all (including all those that follow). Here’s a look at some of the primary cast:

  • As noted, Primetime Emmy winner Montalbán does the real acting here. Without his passion and knowledge of his character, “Khan” would have most likely fallen flat like other “Star Trek” villains – along with the rest of the film. Montalbán sometimes overdoes the physical drama, but, for the most part, his gestures and expressions are the solid underpinnings of his work here. Montalbán is most famous for TV’s “Fantasy Island” series and won his Emmy for the TV series “How the West was Won” in 1976 and did a wonderful job in the hilarious comedy “The Naked Gun: From the files of Police Squad!” He died in 2009 at the age of 88 of congestive heart failure.
  • A Golden Globe winner and nominee (not for this one), Shatner is at his strutting, bombastic best here in his most iconic, signature role: “James ‘Jim’ Tiberious Kirk.” Although Montalbán is great, without Shatner’s own passion and talent the film wouldn’t have been the same. Shatner has been promoted to admiral for this one and, as he does throughout the “Star Trek” TV and film world, he benefits from a deep, talented and absolutely stellar supporting cast. Of course Shatner is best known for “Star Trek” but he won and was nominated for TV’s “Boston Legal.”
  • The most underrated work in “The Wrath of Khan” is by Golden Globe winner and five-time nominee (not for this one) Kirstie Alley. In this one, Alley was in her first motion picture and only second acting credit and plays “Saavik,” who is a trainee gunning to better Shatner. Alley, who is best known for TV’s “Cheers,” does a wonderful job with good screen time. If the filmmakers had to do it over again, I believe they might have given Alley more screen time because she does such a wonderful job here. She was also in “Summer School” with Mark Harmon (click here to read my review) and was actually funny in the comedy stinkbomb “Madhouse.” Alley won her Globe and got three nominations for “Cheers” and her other nominations come from the TV movie “David’s Mother” and the TV series “Veronica’s Closet.”
  • Although four-time Emmy nominee Leonard Nimoy kind of sleepwalks through this one, his character “Capt. Spock” (he once was “Mr. Spock” as Shatner’s “Kirk” is now an admiral and no longer the signature “Capt. Kirk”) is so iconic that even a lazy performance here doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of the actor. Besides, who else could be “Mr. Spock” (and if you say Zachary Quinto, you’d be wrong, terribly wrong and with the utmost logic … wrong). Nimoy was also superior as “Paris” on TV’s “Mission: Impossible” but you really can’t name any other acting role that he made stand out. He earned three nominations for “Star Trek” and the other for a TV movie titled “A Woman Called Golda.” Nimoy passed away at the age of 83 in February 2015 of end-stage COPD, according to IMDb.com.
  • The rest of recognizable “Star Trek” veterans – Nichelle Nichols as “Nyota Uhuru,” George Takei as “Hikaru Sulu,” James Doohan as “Montgomery ‘Scottie’ Scott” and Walter Koenig as “Pavel Chekov” – do their usual, competent work here. I’m not criticizing them in any way because they are the actors who made the characters iconic, but there’s nothing remarkable to report from their work in this film.
  • One other actor to note is Merritt Butrick, who plays “David” and is Shatner’s son with the lead scientist on the “Genesis” project. Butrick, who would also have a role on TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” is OK, but didn’t do much with his limited role. Sometimes it appears he forced his work, but to stand out he had to do something. Butrick was better as a smarmy corporate worm in the delightful “Head Office” (click here for my review). He would reprise “David” in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” but he had an ultimately doomed character.

Overall, I cannot write enough how much I enjoyed Montalbán’s work here. He single-handedly makes this arguably the best of the “Star Trek” movies … and that’s how I argue it. By the way, the movie’s origin is from the “Space Seed” episode of the original “Star Trek” TV series and it first aired on Feb. 16, 1967.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was the sixth-ranked film at U.S. theaters with $78.9 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. In total, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” would bring in $97 million, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film was “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” with $359.1 million and at No. 2 was “Tootsie” with $177.2 million. Films from the same year that I’ve reviewed are:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Alley’s “Saavik” is half-Vulcan and half-Romulan. A line of dialogue in WK that set this fact was edited out of the original edit of the film. I don’t know if it was ever restored in later video releases.
  • Butrick’s career ended seven years after the release of “The Wrath of Khan” with his death at age 29 from AIDS, according to IMDb.com. He had a total of 28 acting credits in his career of eight years.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “This is the only Star Trek original-series film in which a Federation starship fires phasers. In the other five, the Enterprise and other Federation ships exclusively use photon torpedoes.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The battle of wits between Kirk and Khan in the Mutara Nebula sequence was inspired by the battle between destroyer captain Robert Mitchum and U-boat commander Curd Jürgens in The Enemy Below (1957), which was was also the inspiration for Star Trek: Balance of Terror (1966).”
  • It was reported that 65-percent of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was shot on the same sets as “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The computer simulation of Genesis transforming a dead planet into a habitable one is the first complete computer-generated sequence ever used in a feature film. It is a direct brainchild of ex-Boeing engineer Loren Carpenter, whom after Boeing went on to join George Lucas‘ ILM. At Boeing in the late 1970s Carpenter discovered that Mandelbrot fractals could be used to create realistic mountain landscapes for computer animations of new aircraft designs, a previously intractable problem, and started a revolution in computer graphics and simulation.”
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2016, 2020.
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