I was pretty sure it was going to happen, but I have changed my mind about this movie. I no longer think it's not that good. In fact, even though I absolutely love the first one and will say that I think it is the better sci-fi movie out of the two, The Wrath of Khan is definitely the better Star Trek movie.
I find it difficult to write a review of this movie without referencing back to the first one, as it seems that the creators, or at least the ones with money, took notes of all the criticism directed at The Motion Picture. Not enough action? Too slow? Not enough Kirk and friends on the screen? Check, check and check - Wrath of Khan fixes all of those issues. Because of that, just as with the first one where I said I could recommend it to any sci-fi fan even if they didn't enjoy Star Trek specifically, your enjoyment of this one really comes down to how much you've been yearning for The Original Series ever since it was cancelled. If The Motion Picture was a disappointment to you mainly because it had so little to do with Uhura, Chekov, Bones and all the others then Wrath of Khan will be your thing.
From the very first couple of scenes we realize that the tone is completely different. Where The Motion Picture starts out with shots of the antagonist, setting the atmosphere of grave danger and threat immediately, The Wrath of Khan starts out with a scene of Starfleet cadets in training, being schooled by Spock. We are some ten minutes into the movie before we get the first idea of what the actual plot will be about. Before then we get reacquainted with Spock, Kirk and Bones and more relation- and character building than in all of The Motion Picture.
|The man, the myth|
For instance we get to find out that Kirk has a son. They really don't make much out of that revelation in this movie though and frankly it never really becomes anything that seems to matter much to Kirk as a character. They also continue the story thread that Kirk is struggling with being anything but the commander of the Enterprise, that they alluded to in The Motion Picture. Overall the movie suffers from the same problem, or should I say quirk, as the TV-series in this regard - it is very Kirk-heavy. The other characters basically only get attention or screen time because Kirk is involved in it somehow, Spock being a half-exception. It almost gets laughable when Kirk seems to always know what to do better than the presumed expert in the field. "Main power is out!" yells Scotty from the engine room. "Switch to auxiliary!" shouts Kirk, like Scotty couldn't have thought of that himself. But this is simply how the TV-series and subsequently movies based on TOS (The Original Series) were written and not necessarily a flaw (unless you ask the rest of the crew). Kirk, and Shatner as Kirk, is a very good and interesting character. If he's not your thing however, TOS and some of the TOS movies can be difficult to watch. The Motion Picture less so because of what I've already mentioned in my review of that movie, but it becomes full on apparent in The Wrath of Khan.
So to the story then - in essence Khan returns and tries to avenge himself on Kirk for exiling him on what turned out to become a hostile planet. The movie quickly turns into a game of wits, yet again, between the genetically enhanced superhuman Khan and plain old not-genetically-enhanced-but-going-to-win-anyway Kirk.
More elaborately - First Officer Chekov and his new captain on the starship Reliant are on a mission to find a planet completely devoid of life yet in the habitable zone to test out a new invention, the Genesis developed by none other than Kirk's old girlfriend and mother of his son, Carol. The Genesis is a device that pretty much instantly can turn an area without life into a garden of Eden. It has the unfortunate side effect of completely wiping out any life that happens to already be there when it is used. When Chekov and his captain are on a planet for reconnaissance, they stumble upon Khan and his band of not so merry men (and women) who take the opportunity to leave the planet, try to steal the Genesis to use a weapon of mass destruction while also kill Kirk. The Universe sure is a small place sometimes.
The Wrath of Khan is something as interesting then as a direct continuation of one of the TV-series episodes, which at least in my book can be a dream come true. This has the benefit of letting fans, who yet again have been hungering for more Star Trek content for far too long (remember that back in these days you wouldn't have a handy DVD box to refresh your memory with at all times), revisit a fan favorite and see Kirk battle him once again. The Moby Dick and King Lear references in the movie are really completely unnecessary, it is obvious from the get go that this movie borrows heavily from those themes. Khan is totally hell-bent on destroying Kirk for what he has done to him, exiling him on Ceti Alpha V not only killed his wife but most importantly was a mortal blow to his oversized pride and ego. The lunacy of his actions are pointed out to him several times throughout the movie, but Khan can't let it go - he needs his revenge.
|From hell's heart I stab at thee...|
Ricardo Montalban as Khan is absolutely brilliant, again, and I very much enjoy watching the rest of the crew as well. Poor Uhura and Sulu still don't get much to do, but at least Chekov and Scotty are developed a bit more. As mentioned this is mainly a Kirk-show, but it is fun to see the cat and mouse game between Khan and Kirk unfold yet again and their on screen animosity comes out really well. It is almost a bit frustrating to see how Khan, really against all better judgement and his own superior intellect, makes what are some really bad tactical decisions just because Kirk derides him, but I guess this is why they are playing on the Moby Dick and King Lear references so heavy. Khan has become more mad than smart and his efforts to get revenge bereaves him of everything he has left - even his own life.
Stylistically this movie comes nowhere near the first movie in quality, but it also doesn't need to. It's a completely different kind of story that by necessity is told with different visuals and sound. Rather than long, slow panning and atmosphere building exterior shots (that I love) we get the indoor close up shots that a one-on-one like this requires. While it works well here, it still is far from the same epic feeling that the first movie has (there are some exceptions though, the costumes are way better in this movie and some of the interior sets, like the Enterprise bridge, are better as well). This is a different kind of fan service, maybe even for a different kind of fan. In many ways I'd almost say that this is deliberately designed to feel more like a long, high-budgeted, episode of the TV-series since clearly the style of the first movie didn't fly for enough people.
|Finally it looks like they're wearing clothes.|
The writing suffers from the same claustrophobic issues as much of TOS in general - you constantly get the impression that the Universe only exists exactly where Kirk and the Enterprise happen to be. In the TV-series it made sense though because they were out on a deep space mission and literally all alone out there (as in, no other Starfleet ships). But just like the first movie, even though they're supposedly not far from Earth, yet again the Enterprise happens to be the only starship close enough to deal with this extremely serious situation for the entire duration of the movie. You begin to wonder if Starfleet even has any other ships or what they're all so busy doing? They even use the words "only ship in the quadrant" which clearly has changed its meaning from here to VOY and DS9.
When I watched this movie for the first time I didn't have the context of when it was released and what it was trying to do. I'm not even sure I had seen the Khan TOS episode before it. Because of this, I must admit my first impression was pretty meh. I've seen it again since then, but the impression lasted with me until this now most recent watching for this review. Watching The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan back-to-back and also having seen TOS through several times, has allowed me to value The Wrath of Khan for what it is. It is trying to rectify the mistakes of the first movie and that it does brilliantly. If you're specifically after more of some of the best that TOS had to offer, then this movie is definitely for you.
Some random notes from when watching this movie;
- Why does Scotty bring his hurt nephew to the bridge rather than immediately to sick bay?
- How could they not know that Ceti Alpha VI had blown up? Wouldn't there be enough tell tale debris? And how does a planet just spontaneously explode (that would have to be a pretty massive meteor)?
- The interior shots of the Regula I space station gave me some serious System Shock 2 vibes.
- There are some really impressive stunts in this movie, there is a scene of a guy literally falling into fire and several scenes where stuntmen look like they're way too close to explosive devices. I hope no one was hurt.
- Why is the best and most advanced ship in Starfleet being used for training missions? There must really be a lull in space exploration funding.
- When Regula I seems to be in trouble and the Enterprise is sent in as the only starship close enough to investigate, the Reliant which is in fact working for Regula I is also close enough.
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