Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan, 1982, 113 mins, 4K UHD
In hindsight, it’s rather difficult to criticise Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan after seeing what that clown JJ Abrams did with Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), a film that managed to turn Wrath of Khan‘s villain into a mystery box and inverted the Kirk/Spock’s death dynamic just for the sake of it (Kirk’s sacrifice clearly had no narrative sense, and hey, magic blood!). After Abram’s horror-show, I find I can forgive Meyer’s film mostly everything.
As I have stated before, Wrath of Khan is most people’s favourite Trek movie, and I can understand why. Its certainly better paced with a proper antagonist/threat, and some welcome character beats more reminiscent of the television show. But I still prefer The Motion Picture, and I honestly think the usual overtures regards the first film (what might have been etc) are as deserved towards Wrath of Khan as they are towards the first film. I think Wrath of Khan is good, but it could have been extraordinary. If only it were made with the same production values of the first film, that sense of scale and seriousness.
Here’s a curious aside: I used an inflation adjuster regards The Motion Picture’s budget- reported as $45 million in 1979. Some contend the film cost more than that, while others reckoned that Paramount was cannily including money spent in pre-production of earlier Star Trek projects (such as Phil Kaufman’s abandoned Star trek: Planet of the Titans film or the Phase II television series), suggesting the film was not quite as expensive as it was claimed. Anyway, treating it as just a rough figure, $45 million is about $172 million in 2022 dollars: which feels creepily contemporary: Red Notice cost a mouth-wateringly self-indulgent $200 million, and when something like Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker actually seems restrained costing $275 million, its rather illuminating.
Indeed I looked online and saw that there at least one hundred films now (generally mostly post-millennium movies) that have cost north of $172 million dollars to make. Whether they be animated films, superhero films, action films or sci-fi blockbusters, it seems that Star Trek: The Motion Picture wasn’t the over-indulgent exception it was painted out to be at the time- rather it seems a prescient indication of what was to come. So was The Motion Picture the first modern Hollywood movie of our current age?
Anyway, I digress a little. What I was getting at, is that the cost of The Motion Picture, considering its scale and the imposed race against time in production (placed upon it by management failures in order to ensure a mandated December 7th, 1979 releases date), wasn’t really the disaster it was cracked up to be. Sure, it wasn’t ideal, but all things considered, its a wonder the film got finished at all, and it even made some money, allegedly. But while Paramount saw some sense in taking another go at making a Star Trek film, Wrath of Khan would suffer for those apparent sins of the original, resulting in a greatly reduced budget of $12 million.
Its why, clearly, Harve Bennett was hired to replace series creator Gene Roddenberry as writer and producer. Bennett was a television producer whose claim to fame was his ‘hit’ shows The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and, er, Salvage 1 (well okay, maybe not the latter), as well as several high-profile 1970s TV movies. Hardly indication of his suitability for a major motion picture, but there’s a story that when Paramount asked him if he could make a Star Trek movie for less than the first one’s $45 million, he claimed he could make five Star Trek movies for that same amount of money. Sure, he could make five Star Treks, but he couldn’t have made five Star Trek: The Motion Pictures.
He was a man suited to the limitations and realities of television, not the scale and ambition of films, and Wrath of Khan suffers for all of that. Sure it was made much more efficiently than The Motion Picture and the accountants loved him for it, but the film suffers terribly all the same. The sets always look claustrophobic, hardly designed for the wide frame and poorly constructed, in that way one can forgive a television show for but wince at in a movie. Take out the sense of scale of ILM’s visual effects and what would one have left? Would it really look like a theatrical movie or just a TV-movie? That’s Harve Bennett.
What Wrath of Khan does get right (mostly, anyway) is its script, which cleverly returned to the original series for something to draw from and expand, rather than just simply remake or reboot. It takes a few odd turns but on the whole it works, but its television origins are mostly betrayed by the casting, which is distinctly in the low-rent television casting agent territory- again, a reveal of Bennett’s origins and a constant reminder throughout Wrath Of Khan of where Star Trek came from. I suppose a lot of fans see that as an advantage, but it irritates me constantly, the core feeling of a television production when the first film was absolutely the motion picture it aspired to be.
Ricardo Montalban reprises his titular role from the television series and is generally credited as one of the best things of the film, but I’d actually suggest that his larger-than-life performance is one more suited to that small television screen of the original ‘sixties show than 1982’s giant silver screen. I think Robert Wise wisely (sic) kept William Shatner restrained in The Motion Picture, knowing that Shatner himself was an actor more ideally suited to performances for the small screen. Blown up larger than life on a cinema screen, acting generally needs to be more subtle, and I think Montalban is leaning a little bit too close to that of a caricature, almost, and Meyer likewise finds it a little tricky keeping Shatner under control (but I think on the whole Shatner is very good in this).
Mind, I have to chuckle about Khan’s army of Supermen- they don’t look like they would know when to tie their own shoelaces without being instructed by Khan: I hardly see any indication of their superiority over us mere humans, the way they silently pose around Khan on the Reliant’s bridge. But hey. Star Trek.