“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was the first Star Trek film of the old series I recall seeing as a teenager. Seeing this entry I felt affected my view of the old film series as I felt it was too slow and dialogue heavy. In hindsight, it was attempting to be this space experience like “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the environment moves the story as opposed to characters and a narrative. For these reasons, I shut myself of from other Star Trek entries until now when I finally caved in to watch its sequel “The Wrath of Khan.” I had very low expectations aside from the huge amount of praise it has been receiving while some praise it for being the best in the series. And honestly, it deserves it. Not only is it a great entry, but it makes me think what my teenage self would have thought of it. That is if I did see it at that age and ignore the existence of “The Motion Picture”
The story picks up with William Shatner returning as Captain James T. Kirk who is retired from his Enterprise duties and trying to live a life. In a sense that is almost like what The Muppets did for the Muppets, we see the old Enterprise crew off and in different directions like Spock (Leonard Nemoy) teaching new recruits and Checkov (Walter Koenig) is assisting planet scouting for a test on a new device. Its nice to see the old crew again and get an idea of where they will be after their adventures are over. Even more interesting is Kirk’s apartment where he has tons of artifacts mounted on his wall to the point he almost feels like one. Almost an interesting message about how short our lives can be and how much we forgot what makes us who we are.
But all that changes when Checkov accidentally bumps into the revenge hungry Khan played by a menacing Ricardo Montalban who sets his sights on making Kirk’s life a living hell in return for his exile on the desert planet. He plans to steal a powerful device made by scientists called Genesis which is said to breath new life into dead planets. With this device in the wrong hands, there’s no telling what might happen if Khan uses it on a living planet. However, a “Moby Dick” influence feud takes place with Khan trying to remain one step ahead of Kirk and see that his nemesis is not just dead but also in living pain.
The glue that holds this movie together is Kirk’s relationships with his crew and Khan’s connection to Kirk. Kirk is the type of guy that fears the loss of his crew even to the point he admits later he feels he has cheated death once too many and possibly why he risks a quiet life at the start of the movie. Getting old is not just a big factor here but even settling down as we find one of the Genesis scientists had a relationship with him and birthed a son. This raises a lot at stake but it somehow doesn’t feel developed. You think he would be excited or overjoyed at the idea of having a kid but this notion is later addressed at the tail end than keep it as a driving force.
Perhaps that is a good move seeing how much we need to establish his loyalty to his crew. Even important is his friendship with Spock which I felt was far more developed and expanded on. He’s not just a right hand man but the reasoning he looks to in case of doubt. And its not long till an important moment in the climax that shows how important the Vulcan means to him. Even if many know about this due to the Internet, I’m still not going to spoil it. I will say its handled very well and you can feel the raw emotion from the two when Kirk knows what the unfortunate outcome will be.
Ricardo Montalban is also an important factor here with a sinister performance that makes you wish he was a superior Bond villain. He has his sights set on more than just Genesis but leaving his personal enemy in pain by doing damage to a semi-stable galaxy. When these two butt-heads on screen, you can feel the tension between the two as they try to outwit each other and see they meet a painful demise for better or worse. The only nitpick I do have is that they never have a big confrontation between each other and instead opt for a cat and mouse chase inside an electronic storm. The climax itself is hard to say if it needs a re-write but its good on its own. As the two spaceships move like submarines going after each other, we are on the edge of seats wondering who will strike first. You do wish there was a scene where Kirk and Khan fight fist to fist but the conclusion is fine as it is.
There are a few other nitpicks I do have but they don’t dim the enjoyment too much. Kirstie Alley makes her film debut as a Vulcan named Saavik and maybe its because I’m used to seeing her in comedies like Look Who’s Talking, but it feels weird seeing her in a Star Trek movie. The feeling is hard to describe as her acting is good but the notion of a comedian as an alien somehow felt off to me. Another thing too is the small subplot involving Kirk and his son which could have really been expanded on. There is this nice scene they share at the end when they come to accept who there are and its nicely build up but it feels like a lot more could have been done. After all, the heart of this movie is Kirk finding his place in his life and Khan trying to seek revenge so maybe setting his son’s story on the sidelines was a safe choice.
Those who are die hard fans of this movie might also want to search after the “Director’s Cut” which is also on DVD. Unlike most extended versions where drastic changes are made, this one is more subtle with only three minutes of added footage. The theatrical cut is fine on its own but there are some good highlights which make this worth checking out. A big highlight among the added scenes is a little more of Midshipman Preston. A minor character but revealed to be Scotty’s nephew in this version. It comes into play later when something happens to Preston’s character that adds more worry to Kirk’s relationship with his son. A family member so close that one can only fear what would happen if they were lost in battle. While again the changes are subtle and don’t drastically alter the pacing of the film, its still worth checking out if you can find a copy.
“Wrath of Khan” is already a perfect movie on its own no matter what version you watch. If there was a Star Trek movie to start with, I highly recommend starting off with this one. As a film on its own, there’s so much character and story at play to the point you wonder how it meshes perfectly. Its not loud or manic like George Lucas and his Star Wars saga but more quiet and often laid back. It doesn’t need big set pieces or fifth Star Cruisers battling each other. “Khan” is a very soft sequel that knows when to be bold and at some points even darker. I was surprised at the body count and even some of the harsher moments that feel tame by today’s standards. But perhaps that is the best thing about this movie. It knows what to deliver and what steps to bring its viewers a fresh entry no matter what journey it takes us to.