Revenge is a dish that is best served cold.
Producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer were given a daunting task. “Star Trek” had gained cult status after its cancellation in 1969, but its first silver screen outing in 1979 had been a major disappointment. Many of the cast members — especially Leonard Nimoy, who played one of the most popular characters, Spock — were reluctant to return to their roles again. Bennett and Meyer needed something spectacular, something out of the ordinary, for the second film. So, they returned to the roots: the seventy-nine episodes of the television series. Bennett found the inspiration for the screenplay in an episode from the show’s first season, one entitled “Space Seed.” Indeed, the episode was the perfect material. Its conclusion was not so much an ending but an invitation for a “what if” scenario to be returned to later. Perhaps if the series had continued past its third season they could have returned, but that wasn’t what the television gods had in mind.
Set fifteen years after its prequel episode, Star Trek II — The Wrath Of Khan develops as a simple tale of revenge. It is a battle of wits between two prime examples of the best humankind has to offer.
On February 16, 1967, Star Trek fans got their first glimpse of the villain of Star Trek II — The Wrath Of Khan. Khan Noonian Singh was a member of an elite group of genetically engineered “supermen” of the late 20th century. Khan and a group of his followers had escaped Earth in a spacecraft, frozen in suspended animation to be awakened when they reached a planet to call their own. Two hundred years later, the U.S.S. Enterprise stumbles upon the derelict spacecraft and awakens its surviving passengers. Khan wastes no time before attempting to commandeer the Enterprise and kill Captain Kirk, but his plans are thwarted. Mercifully, Kirk leaves Khan and his followers on an uninhabited world, one that they can rule.
It is now fifteen years later. The Enterprise has been removed from active duty. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to Admiral, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to Captain. Spock, in fact, is the current captain of the Enterprise, though his duty is to train new Starfleet cadets.
Meanwhile, across the galaxy, a research team headed by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch — Steel Magnolias, Tremors) is working on the Genesis Project. They have developed a process that can transform inactive matter into life-producing matter in minutes. It has the potential to terraform entire planets. The drawback is that it ends all existing life in its reaction, so it has the potential to become a powerful weapon.
The U.S.S. Reliant is assisting the project by scouting for a planet devoid of life. At Ceti Alpha 5, supposedly a barren world, they find signs of life. Two people beam down to the planet to investigate: the captain of the Reliant, Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield — The Terminator, Mars Attacks!) and Chekov (Walter Koenig), a former crewmember of the Enterprise (never mind the continuity gaffe — Walter Koenig was not a member of the cast at the time that “Space Seed” aired, thus it’s debatable that Khan could recognize his face). The two men come face to face with Khan and his remaining followers. The explosion of a neighboring planet had pushed Ceti Alpha 5 out of its orbit shortly after the Enterprise had marooned Khan, turning the fertile world into a wasteland. Khan’s solitary thought is revenge upon Kirk. He manages to commandeer the Reliant, and with the unwitting help of Terrell and Chekov learns of the Genesis Project.
Back to Kirk and company. Unaware of the events transpiring light years away, the crew of the Enterprise embarks on a training mission. Kirk receives an urgent message from Dr. Marcus (surprise, surprise…she’s an old flame) regarding the Genesis Project. The communication link is severed before Kirk can receive the entire story, so he resumes command of his old vessel and directs the crew toward the endangered research facility. On the way, the Enterprise is intercepted by the Reliant. It is then that Khan reveals his true intentions to Kirk: revenge, and possession of the Genesis device.
It is at this point that the movie finds its firm footing, and the direction for the remainder of its running time. The film becomes a battle of wits between Kirk and Khan, with the fate of the crew of the Enterprise and of the entire galaxy, if the Genesis device is unleashed, in the balance. It is rare in the science fiction genre, and Star Trek in particular, to take this approach to the material. Too often, technical nonsense or mindless action is used to pad the narrative. In Star Trek II — The Wrath Of Khan, we experience the primal conflict between two men who only want to defeat their opponent, even if they are not face to face with their opponent. It is not unlike the psychological tension between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich in In The Line Of Fire. In that film, the combatants vied over the life of the president of the United States. In the “battle of wits” master plot, the prize is just a Macguffin, an irrelevant device that only serves to drive the plot. Story-wise, the life of the president or possession of the Genesis device isn’t important to the viewer; the only thing that is important is the struggle between the champion of good and the embodiment of evil. It’s God and Satan, brought to a human level.
I get the distinct sense that Nicholas Meyer looked to World War II submarine films for inspiration. The cat-and-mouse combat between the preying Reliant and the injured Enterprise plays as if it is underwater. You can almost hear the popping of rivets and the pinging of the sonar. Meyer follows the genre so closely, he even shows men manually loading torpedo tubes! (Geez, you’d think that on a massive, futuristic spacecraft, they’d have auto-loading torpedoes.) This choice of inspiration is admirable considering the 1982 release of the film follows close in the footsteps of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. If World War II inspired George Lucas, it was with dive-bombing fighter planes and aerial dogfights. It’s refreshing to see that Meyer took the more cerebral, yet still very exciting, route for the space battles.
What’s not refreshing is the typical Paramount care to DVD presentation — which is to say, the DVD leaves a lot to be desired. Star Trek II — The Wrath Of Khan is presented in its original aspect ratio, 2.35:1, in an anamorphic transfer. On the positive side, the film has never looked better. On the negative side, the image is too dark, tends to be overly reddish, and is too soft. Overall, not too bad, but still not the level of quality that Paramount usually presents. Audio is presented in Dolby Surround and Dolby Digital 5.1. The 5.1 remix is very impressive. Recently, I took Universal’s release of Jaws to task for a lackluster remix. Not so here. The surrounds are used aggressively, breathing extra life into the onscreen action. Fans of the film will especially appreciate the handling of Kirk’s famous “KHAN!” yell, as it echoes around the room. However, as is typical of remixes of older soundtracks, some elements show their age more than others. Sound effects and the musical score exhibit excellent fidelity, but the dialogue is harsh with too much noise.
Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer.
The problems with the disc? All I need to do is repeat myself: Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer. Come on, Paramount! Star Trek is your most lucrative franchise. There is no doubt more material available on the Star Trek universe than for any other science fiction or mainstream fiction environment…and the only extra you can see fit to include is a trailer? Where is your love for your fans? Why don’t you have an eye on the marketplace, to the trends in the DVD industry? You’re the only major studio that still completely fails to understand the DVD format. Even Disney gets it right from time to time, and certainly with more frequency than you! There should be some sort of DVD industry minimum standards, or Prime Directive, that you’re violating.
Sigh. I’m probably wasting my breath.
In Paramount’s defense, at least their Dolby Digital tracks, particularly their remixes, are top-notch. The audio and video presentation is the most important piece of the DVD puzzle. A disc with kick-ass picture and sound will (almost) invariably make me turn a blind eye to the lack of extras; Columbia’s The Fifth Element comes to mind. However, Columbia’s DVDs usually include a pleasing array of supplemental material, even if the disc is not labeled a “special edition.” It’s going to take more than pleasant audio and video for me to line Paramount’s coffers with any sort of frequency.
Other reviews of Star Trek II — The Wrath Of Khan I’ve read on the Internet have commented on its melodramatics and its hammy acting. Star Trek has never been perfect. No one will ever mistake William Shatner for Laurence Olivier. Its death scenes were always overwrought, and the villains were always flamboyant. Why should this film be any different?
One of my fellow reviewers will not let me get away without saying this: the art they chose for the packaging and the menus sucks big sour frog butt. I believe the box art is the original theatrical poster, so it’s understandable, but the menus? Ugh.
Star Trek fans — dare I say “Trekkies”? — will indubitably want to add Star Trek II — The Wrath Of Khan to their collections. After all, it is probably one of the best films in the nine-film series. However, your purchase should be accompanied by a begrudging feeling, considering the near-absence of extras.