Probably still the most popular Star Trek film, rivaled only by the 2009 re-launch, “The Wrath of Khan” is a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I love Khan and that the story is a direct tie-in to the original series. On the other hand, this was the movie that turned Star Trek into an action movie franchise and away from any semblance of cultural or galactic exploration. Not that the original show was the ‘thoughtful’ science fiction show some fans claim. But it occasionally made the attempt, and with the exception of the much maligned “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” the films never made the attempt again.
The story is very simple. A Federation ship accidentally stumbles upon Khan, last seen marooned on a planet by Kirk many years before. He takes over that ship and goes on a rampage, going after a new scientific development, the Genesis Devise. Of course, The Enterprise is miraculously the only ship anywhere nearby and is tasked with stopping him. And, through monstrous coincidence, the Genesis Devise was created by one of Kirk’s former lovers and their child. A battle ensues. The end. That’s really it. It’s only slightly more complicated than the story of The Motion Picture, which is about as linear as possible. The effects are good, the production design excellent, and the score is great. In fact, though James Horner seems to have a fairly limited range, often lifting from his own previous work for new films, I think this may be the single best Star Trek score. Technically and visually, this is probably the best of the original cast films. It also expands on the enjoyable ‘character moments’ between Kirk and McCoy (and Spock to a degree), by giving them a lot more interaction, getting humor and humanity into the characters. The show had a lot of it, and it was nice to have banter in the film. In fact, the bits between the main cast would go on to be the best part of the rest of the series, getting the viewer through even the awkward, but heartfelt failure, Star Trek V.
There are several inconsistencies here. The obvious one that many have pointed out is that Chekov was not in Space Seed; he wasn’t even on the show during the same season. OK. Fine. Maybe he was there and we didn’t see him? Whatever. But what actually does bother me is Khan’s people. On the original show, he had a crew of very ethnically diverse genetic super-humans. And they were all about his age. Here, all his people are Aryan wet dreams, and look to be in their early 20s. What gives? It feels like the easy way out, making them too obviously connected to Nazi myth ideology. And this makes it easy for challenging questions about Khan’s morality and his potential to be completely ignored. Again, focusing on blowing stuff up instead of thinking about it.
Personal difficulties aside, including hindsight evaluation of the films that would follow, it is a rousing adventure movie with plenty of thrills. The regular cast members put on good performances, though a few of them get shorted on screen-time (Uhura and Sulu are hardly present at all). And Ricardo Montalban is a powerhouse. He’s rockin’ it hard enough to face off with Mad Max. The big battle sequences are impressive. And of course, the ending is a gut-punch and a half, right in what the kids call “the feels.” If only the next film didn’t mostly negate what happens at the end of this one.
I understand why this is frequently named as the best film in the franchise. I do. And some of my frustrations aren’t completely fair. But it isn’t my favorite. It is a very good movie, and I think more than many of the others, totally watchable by someone who knows nothing about Star Trek. Actually, the three best films in the franchise are good movies first, and good Trek films second, which I think is only right. My enduring, but frequently abused hope is that Wrath of Khan’s enduring legacy might one day wane, that a different story archetype might become the template for Trek films. Maybe a little problem solving (that doesn’t involve fists) some of those ‘new worlds and new civilizations’ might show back up again one day.