Even after over 60 years, 13 movies, 7 television series, and a galaxy of non-canon books, comics and Internet fan fiction, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), remains THE Star Trek story in many fans' minds. The story is actually pretty basic: take one iconic starship captain (William Shatner) and pit him and his crew in a pitched battle against a quintessential nemesis (Ricardo Montalbán) who's seeking ultimate payback for a past defeat and exile. Many lives are in the balance, and before it's over, there will be tragedy on both sides.
It’s been more than 30 years since the release of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, and it remains a jewel in the crown of science-fiction cinema, cementing one of the first mega-successful attempts at adapting a TV show into a film. Of course, the main pull quote from that film, Captain Kirk’s rage-filled retort to his arch-enemy (“KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!”) has been parodied and referenced in other movies and TV shows ad infinitum. But there’s so much more.
The general consensus is that of all the Star Trek movies, Khan is the best. I feel in this regard the public's view is spot on, even when comparing it to the stunning special effects of the recently rebooted Trek (alternate) universe. This movie carries a resonance that isn’t there with most, if not all, of the other Star Trek films. And I think it does so for these reasons:
It’s an all-around great story. Khan isn't just about spaceships waging battle. Just as important are the themes of friendship, revenge, aging, and past mistakes coming back to bite you in the ass. It helps that the cast had a few years to work together on the TV series so they could get to know the characters and build relationships that they could carry to the big screen.
It’s Shakespeare in space. The most successful lead actors in the Star Trek franchise tend to be the ones who have a lot of experience performing Shakespeare, where the ability to generate powerful emotions while standing next to cardboard cutout scenery is a must. Subtlety and irony is not what’s required in a space opera. William Shatner and Ricardo Montalbán understood this and set the tone perfectly.
You don’t need to be a Trekkie to follow what’s going on. Other movies in the Star Trek franchise require more than a little background knowledge to fully appreciate the current story being told. An audience member doesn’t have to know that Khan is basically a sequel to an original Star Trek episode (“Space Seed,” Season 1, Ep. 22) in order to understand what’s going on. A cursory knowledge of what Star Trek is is all that’s required.
There’s genuine pathos in the plot. I’m speaking of course of the heroic sacrifice Spock makes to save the Enterprise from destruction. After all the narrow escapes and impossible scenarios this crew faced together, this was the time for someone important to go, and it was tragic. The writing, directing and acting all contribute to make this sequence one of the most memorable in film history. It also helped that having a major character die was more shocking back then than it probably would be now.
Even though Khan clearly is a sequel, it doesn’t feel like one. The movie that preceded it, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), was so busy trying to be the next 2001: A Space Odyssey that it forgot everything that was compelling about the original series. I don’t know anyone who holds that movie in any sort of nostalgic regard. Do you? What overall impressions do you have about Khan? And where does it rank on your list of best sequels of all time?
The Wrath of Khan. Where do I begin? It's saying something that this non-Trekkie considers it his favorite sci-fi film despite not having seen more than a handful of episodes of TOS or any of the other incarnations. And outside of the novelty factor of IV*, not much from the rest of the original-cast cinema series stuck with me? But Khan? Here, director Nicholas Meyer (who also was responsible for a major ghost re-write of the script) captured lighting in a bottle.
(* Kirk and Co. back in modern-day San Fran! Hilarious antics abound! Such as Spock knocking out a hooligan on a bus with his famous Vulcan nerve pinch...)
Wrath of Khan has it all. Tense space duels, internal conflict, a memorable adversary, dry humor, a slice of horror (those Ceti eels, gah...) and yes, Clarence, enough brilliant Establishing Character Moments that even a Trek neophyte could immediately pick up on the relationships between the primary crew members. (The tactical brilliance of the Kirk/Spock team, the Id/Superego rivalry between McCoy and Spock, and the perpetual state of worry exhibited by poor Scotty, whose Enterprise is running on fumes by the conclusion.)
The acting may have its roots in Shakespeare, but the action? "It's Horatio Hornblower in space!" These were the initial thoughts of Meyer, who walked into the project completely ignorant of Trek history, and force-fed himself the entire TV series in a matter of days. He was struck by the resemblance between Trek and Hornblower, a 1950's TV show based on a series of novels about a naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars. (There's a great montage here highlighting the similarities between the two productions.)
The film's two major showdowns are a pair of battles between Khan's Reliant (hijacked by his band of genetically-engineered exiles) and Kirk's Enterprise. These vessels may have Warp Speed capabilities, but outside of that? They move like battleships. Port and starboard turns are s-l-o-w (and painfully so, when one is being scorched with phaser fire). Tactical positioning is key. They launch "photon torpedoes" that might as well be cannonballs. And the climax introduces a brilliant Fog of War in the form of the Mutara Nebula, inside which neither ship can see the other unless they're within a stone's throw. Tension. Tension. Tension. (Many kudos to the sound team -- at one point here, they even throw in submarine sonar-like "pings.")
I often think back to Wrath of Khan when I try to articulate my discomfort with the modern action film, and in particular, the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. There's no sense of perspective in the updated version. Ships hurl around the screen at high velocity -- who's firing at whom? It's sensory overload.
An important note about Montalban's Khan -- did you know that he and Shatner's Kirk were never actually engaging with each other on the set? It seems crazy, but each adversary's scenes were filmed with their counterpart's lines being read by a member of the production crew. It's a testament to their acting chops that they both delivered the goods regardless. And answer me this, Mr. Clarence Ewing. Why is Khan not on this list of AFI's Top 50 movie villains?! A pox on you, Academy.
As for best sequels? Hmm. Does a sequel get an artificial boost when the first installment in the series was utterly forgettable, as in the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? The post-apocalyptic The Road Warrior was a stunning achievement that was made even more notable for having followed the B-picture Mad Max. But the others that come to mind are largely the usual suspects: Superman II**, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Godfather Part II.
(** Roger Ebert used to say that James Bond films were largely only as good as their villains, and I think the same maxim holds here. Terence Stamp as General Zod. 'Nuff said. And should I point out that Stamp's Zod is also not on the aforementioned AFI list...?)
I'll throw in one stellar sequel that involves romance instead of action: Before Sunset, the second of Richard Linklater's trilogy about the serendipitous intertwining of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke). Their 90-minute walk-and-talk stroll through the streets of Paris touches on life, relationships, and philosophy... and culminates in a rather memorable finish.
But back to Wrath of Khan. The character of Khan was resurrected in the second installment of the rebooted series, and played by Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness. Out of loyalty to Mr. Montalban (and still scarred from the preceding film), I waged a silent protest and stayed home. Did you watch? Do you agree with me that, whatever the current Trek cinema incarnation is, it's not a spiritual successor to Wrath of Khan? And if so, is there anything out there in film or television that is?
The big problem with the current Star Trek incarnation, in my opinion, lies in the solution the filmmakers used to solve a pretty dire dilemma: how do you reboot a series with younger actors without erasing over 50 years of storytelling, and subsequently sending Trekkers everywhere rioting into the streets? The producers decided to premise this "Next Generation" on the idea of an alternate reality, which has good and not-so-good aspects. It's interesting to see how different actors approach these well-established characters and explore different outcomes to familiar plots. On the other hand, the high degree of fan service comes at the price of truly original storytelling, the kind that Star Trek delivered when it premiered all those years ago.
I did watch the new films. Cumberbatch was OK... it was clear he was trying to put his own spin on a unique character. But that role will always belong to Montelban. The more I think about it, the more I feel the same is the case for the other actors who are playing characters that have been developed and dissected and scrutinized, decades before the new cast was born. I ask this in the nicest possible way: at this point, what's left to say about Kirk, Spock & Co.?
As to your question about spiritual successors, the only series that comes to my mind is Battlestar Galactica (2004), which remains the most radical and successful re-imagining of a TV series ever. One characteristic this series and Khan share is in how the "good guys" get knocked around pretty good; you may not agree with what the "bad guys" do, but you have to acknowledge that there are reasons for their actions beyond esoteric concepts of evil. That's what good writing can do for you. Also, Battlestar presented a universe and society fundamentally different from our current one, not unlike what Star Trek did back in the '60s. Unlike the world we saw in Altered Carbon, the backdrops of Battlestar and Trek are credible, which goes a long way in enabling storytelling.
I think a sequel absolutely warrants extra respect if it follows a bad or forgettable first film. Mainly because it's a miracle to get any film made, let alone a sequel to a movie that was a disappointment. Conversely, I also give credit to the filmmakers of The Empire Strikes Back, because George Lucas and Irvin Kirshner simply could've remade the colossal hit that was Star Wars, but (by accident or on purpose) made the crucial changes needed to make that Chapter 2 truly special.
I like the list of best sequels you put together. I would add the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was pretty amazing throughout, and don't think that series gets the credit it deserves. I also prefer the second Aliens film (directed by the humble James Cameron) to the first one. And I have to throw in Airplane II: The Sequel, featuring one William Shatner trying to land the space shuttle on the moon...!
That's a very interesting and accurate point you mention about the ship battles. It immediately made me think of the Russell Crowe picture, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. That film's producers worked very hard to get the period details exactly right for the 1800s high seas, including the sound design, and the results are pretty amazing. There's a little too much bromance between Captain Jack (Crowe) and the ship's surgeon (Paul Bettany) -- comparisons with Kirk and McCoy are inevitable -- but overall I think it's a very good film. Have you seen it? And do you think there are any movies out there that don't have sequels, but should?
Hollywood certainly doesn't need more enabling when it comes to sequels! I'm reminded of the Chicago adage about machine politics: "We don't want nobody nobody sent." Film studios seem increasingly reluctant to offer narratives that involve characters which haven't already been introduced to the public. Hence the endless stream of reboots, adaptations, and yes, sequels. (They're making a fifth Indiana Jones film. Why? Why??)
I'll throw another line your way -- "Everything ends badly. Otherwise, it wouldn't end." Did we really need a second Karate Kid film? No, but the first one brought home too much bacon. Now, nearly 30 years after the franchise was mercifully put on ice following the fourth installment, The Next Karate Kid, we've got a KK web series with Ralph Macchio as a middle-aged Daniel LaRusso. Egads. Which Terminator film are we up to? Is Genesis before or after Salvation? Does it matter? And how many original ideas never see the light of day because no one wants to bother introducing anything new to the moviegoing audience?
I have seen (and liked) Master and Commander, and I wonder whether this brand of seafaring adventure might've gotten more traction if the explosion of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise didn't take some of the wind out of its sails? (Pun intended.) And on that note, it's interesting that we don't see much in the way of "serious" pirate films? They were a huge part of the New America's history in the 17th and 18th centuries, and yet they're often portrayed as either happy-go-lucky rogues or buffoonish villains. It would seem there would be a place for a Tony Soprano of the high seas...
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