Ok, real talk. The maiden cinematic voyage of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise didn’t really cut the mustard with a first movie that was objectively as slow, cold and frustrating as actual space travel. If Star Trek was ever going to keep up with Star Wars in the filmatic space race it was going to have to pull off something pretty spectacular to match warp speed with hyper space during the early 80’s. Enter director Nicholas Meyer who stepped in after Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was sidelined and gave the universe the shake up it desperately needed thanks to a healthy lack of preciousness concerning what used to make Trek tick.
Simply put, the results gave us Starfleet’s finest hour, an accolade that holds as strong as the Enterprise’s shields in the face of a barrage of photon torpedo fire that not only happily stands among the best that Trek has to offer, but is comfortably one of the best sci-fi movies of the 80’s.
We rejoin Admiral James T. Kirk in the thoes of a 23rd century mid life crisis as he’s relinquished hands on command of a Federation starship in favour of supervising the training of new recruits. His friends are sympathetic – well, sort of, Bones gets him antique spectacles for his birthday which goes down like a flaming Klingon Warbird – but Kirk seems resigned to his advancing years actually announcing that galavating across the galaxy is a game for the young as he escorts a virgin new crew out on the Enterprise. Meanwhile, out with the crew of the U.S.S. Reliant on a scientific planet survey mission, Chekhov and his captain stumble across genetically engineered maniac Khan Noonan Singh, an old enemy of the crew who was marooned by Kirk for attempted mutiny. Needless to say, chilling out on a dusty, primordial shithole for fifteen years hasn’t done Kahn’s demeanor any favours, so he takes the Reliant and discovers that it’s mission is tied into a secret project called Genesis that is less about creating a perfect progression rock band and more about terraforming dead planets in mere hours. But that’s only a bonus, as the main course is luring in Kirk and the Enterprise for a sudden death game of cat and mouse as they try to out manuever one-up each other as they lock horns in the cold reaches in space.
But aside from the deranged megalomaniac trying to ram a photon torpedo up his space port, Kirk also has old flame and head Genisis scientist Carol Marcus re-enter his life with their grown son David in tow, something that isn’t going to help Jim with his aging issues much.
As Kirk and Kahn’s feud leaves both craft as crippled as Chug-a-boom from Wacky Races, the Enterprise tries one last desperate gambit to even the odds, but can even Kirk – a man who’s never truly faced defeat – possibly come out scar free from this no win situation?
On paper, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan simply should not be anywhere as effective as it is. I mean, why should it have been, after all it’s a sequel to a disappointing predecessor that gets it’s main plot and villain from an old TV episode that the vast majority of the cinema going public may not even have seen, but in Meyer’s hands none of this matters a single jot.
Moving forward with a renewed focus and confidence, Star Trek II literally patches all the gaping holes left by the first movie and starts by infusing these beloved characters with so much warmth you could enlist them to heat the homeless during winter time. Gone are the endless empty, sci-fi musings about the nature of life and evolution and crap and in it’s place are acres of charismatic scenes as the cast employ their immense chemistry to make them feel as fleshed out as never before. Sharing easy banter and a glass of Romulan ale with Bones while discussing his advancing age with Spock’s quizzically raised eyebrow, the gang have never felt more relatable – or vunerable; which brings us to the next ingredient that gives this masterpiece it’s Khan-do spirit.
Single handedly filling the immense bad-guy void left by Part 1 comes the immortal Ricardo Montalban who immediately comes to play by chewing the scenery with Shakespearian intensity and deeply unsettling all who looks upon him with his awesome pectoral cleavage. Given another actor with legendary overacting credentials to play opposite, William Shatner rises to the challenge like a doughy phoenix and his despite never technically sharing the screen together, the two magnificently sink their teeth into their meaty exchanges and rip it to shreds like a couple of rapid thespian pitbulls.
The final triumph is the upgraded action, which takes the usual lasers and and red alert screens and turns them into a genuinely sweat inducing bouts of strategy as Kirk breaks the rules of engagement whenever and however he can in order to stay one step ahead of his vengeful foe, with the climatic scenes set in a tech scrambling nebula ranking as a franchise best. In fact the danger factor is raised exponentially and the movie even chucks in a childhood traumatizing moment free of charge with an unforgettable space-bug-in-the-ear moment that’ll doubtlessly have you digging in your ear canal with your finger or your money back.
Insanely iconic even beyond the dedicated fanbase and utterly jam packed with dialogue you satisfyingly can roll around in your mouth like a dough ball from pizza express (even basic stuff like “There he is!” and “Fire!” get amazing line readings), the final icing on the cake is – is it even worth announcing a spoiler warning at this point? – Leonard Nimoy getting his fondest wish and getting to not only kill off his most notorious creation but gets to also engage in a to-the-death acting face off with Shatner as his character slowly (and temporarily) expires.
It’s this bold grandstanding and adventurous nature – highlighted by James Horner’s exemplary, franchise-best score – that makes all of it’s individual pieces come together like it’s beam in from a transporter of awesomeness. Fun yet containing a legitimate feeling that Kahn could possibly win this intergalactic grudge match, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn winningly keeps things personal even when people are throwing themselves across an exploding console or having Shatner screaming his foe’s name when temporarily outfoxed. Hell, even during Kirk’s funeral speech – where big Bill does some of his most memorable “Shatnering” – he remarks that of all the souls he’s encountered, Spock’s by far was the most human; and that’s the movie’s winning hand. Humanity.
That and Montalban’s pecs of course…