Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Dir. Nicholas Meyer. Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban

We’re going to try something which I used to do for my Glee reviews…I’m streaming this movie on Netflix instant. I’m going to write down reactions I have to what’s going on as the movie occurs. This used to take me about 150 minutes with a forty-five minute television show, so I can’t wait to see how long this takes me. And ready…go.

1:52:01– And there’s the main title. “The Wrath of Khan” is something like the fourth subtitle they attached to this movie (at one point it was just “Star Trek II,” and then they were calling it “Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country,” which suggests that the folks who made Star Trek movies back in the day had more than a little William Faulkner in them). Oddly enough, one of the possible subtitles, “The Vengeance of Khan,” was rejected because the subtitle on Star Wars Episode VI was “Revenge of the Jedi.” Naturally, it’s “The Wrath of Khan” and “Return of the Jedi,” which both work at least a little better.

1:51:17– Nichelle Nichols must have thought she’d nailed down the role of “woman on set whose name was most alliterative.” But then they brought in Bibi Besch to play Carol Marcus, and holy crap did that all fall apart.

1:50:55– My father is difficult to buy gifts for (though as far as I can tell, this is standard for fathers), and one Christmas I got him something like this. My gifts for him have scarcely improved over the years, but this at least had the joy of saying “Ricardo Montalban” as quickly as possible attached to it.

1:50:46– James Horner did the music. Time to listen for similarities to Apollo 13 and Titanic.

1:50:34– Man, it is already taking me way too long to get through the non-diagetic segments of this movie.

1:47:52– I’ve never seen D7 cruisers arrayed like that before…

1:46:47– “Prepare a standard ‘Glory of God’ shot for James Tiberius Kirk…”

1:45:14– It means, Uhura, that how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life and as such how we deal with aging, which connects the two, is at least as important as either one. And Admiral Kirk is not doing so well at it and it’s making him cynical and short-tempered.

1:44:18– I’m glad that they ended up choosing A Tale of Two Cities for this movie, which may well be the last time “glad” and anything related to Charles Dickens end up in a single sentence of my creation. Not only does it have this memorable line, but it also relates well to Spock’s sacrifice at the end of the film: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” is an especially apt sentiment for Spock. Well, at least the part before the semi-colon is.

1:44:14– “Captain Spock! Captain Spock! Spill in Aisle 4!”

1:43:04– Romulan ale is roughly the same color as a flavor of Hi-C that tasted, quite simply, evil.

1:42:59– “Bones, you appear to have given me a symbol of my age which has the same neon qualities as that drink you’re pouring.”

1:41:14– Although Star Trek: The Next Generation was still a few years away from airing, and thus we are some time away from knowing just how old people get in the future, I’m going to play some math. We know that McCoy is 137 and ambulatory when he visited the Enterprise-D before it set out. In this movie, Kirk is 51 (just as Shatner was 51 when this film was released). In this universe, I’m interested in the question of just when someone is too old.

1:40:40– Carl Sagan and I want to know how hard it is to find a “lifeless planet,” but whatever.

1:36:11– So far, Paul Winfield as Captain Terrell has been around for about five minutes. He appears to have spent most of those five minutes being very confused. Almost as confused, I might say, as Picard was the next time Paul Winfield showed up.

“Darmok” is in an interesting position of probably being the most interesting and the most holey hour of any Star Trek iteration. How is it that any species can come up with a language which only has open word classes, for example? And yet the treatment of language and communication in “Darmok” is nothing short of fascinating. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that “Darmok” transcends the genre of science-fiction in the way that Brave New World transcends it. Not that “Darmok” is the equal of Brave New World or anything, but they both do stuff with sci-fi that usually can’t be done. Anyway, Paul Winfield does good Star Trek. Carrying on.

1:36:06– Books (more antiques!) in the S.S. Botany Bay library: Dante’s InfernoParadise Lost and Paradise Regained, a perhaps superfluous copy of Paradise Lost without Paradise RegainedKing Lear, and, of course, Moby-Dick. King Lear is perhaps the definitive literary text on growing old, and one of the definitive literary texts about going crazy. As for Paradise Lost, everyone remembers back in “Space Seed” that Khan suggested, Lucifer-like, that it was better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven; Kirk translated then. The Moby-Dick parallels are probably the best known of the literary parallels in this film (though if you’re counting, we’ve already covered three of them), and of course, we’ll get to them as they come.

1:35:54– Of course, Chekov is not of such a literary mind, and we get: “Botany Bay?…Botany Bay! Oh no!”

1:35:04– I love how long this reveal takes even though we know exactly who it is. It’s sure as heck not Star Trek II: The Wrath of Fred Smith from Down the Street.

1:34:51– What I will say is that the dude holding Terrell looks exactly like a sad Will Ferrell.

1:34:36– The most shocking part of this reveal is that Khan no longer looks like future Star Trek villain F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in Amadeus. 

1:33:56– This “re-“encounter with Chekov is my least favorite part of the movie, because Walter Koenig, and thus Chekov, were not part of “Space Seed.” I suppose that it is conceivable that Chekov was on the Enterprise for the events of “Space Seed,” but man, that has always ground my gears pretty hard. It’s just clumsy.

1:33:09– Sad Will Ferrell has a strong grip.

1:32:26– “Admiral? Admiral? Admiral.”

1:32:00– “THIS IS CETI ALPHA V!” All right, fun story. So remember that massive earthquake/tsunami, an even 9.0 on the Richter scale, which devastated Japan in 2011? That was March 11. Aside from the many aftershocks, there were a bunch of earthquakes which were recorded at 6.0 or better in March and April, especially in the Pacific. Some guy tweeted at Seth MacFarlane, suggesting that someday a ravished Earth would be populated by a desperate group yelling “THIS IS CETI ALPHA V!” That was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on the Internet.

1:30:21– Ah, so that‘s why they put handles on those suits.

1:30:09– As much as I would love to believe that Nicholas Meyer was telling the truth, you have to think he was full of it when he said that those are Montalban’s actual pectoral muscles. Montalban was in his sixties when this movie was being filmed. If that’s the case, then Montalban may have been the real genetically engineered superhuman.

1:29:44– Madlyn Rhue, who played Marla McGivers in “Space Seed” (who we have to assume is the person Khan’s talking about when he refers to his “beloved wife”), was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1977. She was still working at the time of this movie’s production, but it’s just as well, I guess. Not like Khan didn’t have plenty of reasons for wanting to destroy Kirk at this point, but being widowed doesn’t help.

1:28:23– Terrell is sweating more than Nixon ever sweated.

1:28:02– For a good decade, this must have been the most dramatic scene to ever involve ear-related torture. And then Quentin Tarantino sprung fully-formed in a pinstriped suit from the skull of, I dunno, the love-child of Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone, and Raoul Walsh.

1:27:33– Admiral Kirk is clearly takin’ a dump here.

1:27:00– …in front of everyone else.

1:25:38– In lieu of a red shirt, Peter Preston’s lines dialogue condemn him to death.

1:25:35– But that black guy next to him, suspecting that they are, in fact, being filmed, has real reason to believe that he’s going to bite the dust first.

1:25:17– Uhura getting some reading done.

1:25:02– Shades of Billy Wilder between “Mr.” Saavik and Mr. Spock.

1:22:09– “Wait! No! Stop, you idiots! You forgot me!”

1:21:15– Mr. Sulu’s going to Risa. (Sound effects, courtesy Donald Glover.)

1:18:31– “Saavik. The final frontier.”

1:17:19– Speaking of people that Kirk has (attempted to have) sexed.

1:15:41– Deep sociopolitical subtext applicable to the early 1980s blah blah now we’ve covered it.

1:15:09– Quadrant clearly has a different meaning in this movie than it does, say, when Voyager was on the air.

1:13:46– Ah, thar blows a catchphrase.

1:13:04– Shatner is never in the middle of the screen; he is always just to the right or left of center. It’s true in this scene and it’s true in the last one and it’s been true all the way through. It’s a move which is more aesthetically pleasing than anything; being directly in the middle of a shot can be almost as disconcerting as a character who looks directly into the camera. We certainly haven’t hit Hooper levels, at any rate.

1:11:39– All right, a direct quote out of Moby-Dick. Let’s do this now. Khan, currently sitting pectorally…pretty…in the captain’s chair of the Reliant, has now placed himself in the role of Captain Ahab. This is an interesting move to make, because unlike Khan, Ahab is no more a villain than Creon of Antigone or Oedipus of Oedipus Rex. All three are quintessential tragic heroes in the classical Greek mold; all three are great leaders; all three are excessively proud and thus commit tragic errors which lead to intense suffering not just for them but for their underlings. Speaking specifically of Captain Ahab: he is recognized as an excellent whaler and a strong leader, but it is understood as well that he is obsessed to foolishness with the White Whale who removed his leg. His tragic error (probably a better translation of hamartia in this case than “tragic flaw,” and I’m only even bringing this up because I Greeked him earlier) is that he does not realize that his quest might end in colossal failure.

All this is to say is that Ahab is not a villain; Khan’s identification with Ahab not only evinces Khan’s belief that he is not a villain (duh), but it should also give us at least a moment of pause about just how villainous Khan really is. Remember from “Space Seed” that Khan, although a dictator of the first order when he was ruling in the mid-late ’90s, also managed to preserve peace and some measure of prosperity over 25% of the Earth’s population. In other words, Khan was the Hobbesian leviathan. Whether or not that is praiseworthy or laudable is a debate much larger than I’ll invite here, but the fact is, Khan’s acts of brutality and repression stem from a believe that his superiority gives him the right to rule. Not only might Khan epitomize the Hobbesian leviathan, he may well be the Platonic philosopher king. There’s some level of black-hat white-hat in this film, and certainly we’ll see how Khan proves himself to be an evil person (think “upside-down dead scientists”). It’s his charisma, bombast, and desire for a superweapon which make him cartoonish, not his motives or his self-actualization. That cartoonish-ness applies not just to Khan, of course, but to dozens of actual twentieth-century dictators before and after the atomic bomb.

Having gleaned that from this first reference (“He tasks me”), let’s talk quickly about the quote from which that reference is derived, which is: “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” Apply that briefly to Khan-as-Ahab and Kirk-as-White-Whale. Khan can identify an “outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.” Khan understands Kirk’s power well, as Kirk managed to defeat someone with “superior intellect” and exile him for a good fifteen years. Yet it is the “inscrutable malice” which Kirk has within him that would, if we carried the quote, be of particular interest. What that might be, we’re not sure (duh, because it’s “inscrutable”): maybe it’s a sense, as we’ve heard from Khan already, that Kirk never checked in the exiled superfolks and thus Kirk purposefully allowed Khan’s wife to die. It’s highly unlikely that that’s the case, but Khan certainly seems convinced that there’s something off with Kirk.

Here’s the part where I make a really huge hypothetical jump, and if you don’t want to come with me, I’ll understand entirely. To be perfectly honest, this is not a jump I can justifiably make with textual evidence. But think about how Khan and Kirk are clear character foils (never clearer in costume choice than right now, where the two are actually wearing the same thing); the only clearer foils in this film are Kirk and Spock, and that relationship has been played out to death. Khan and Kirk are very similar: daring, bold, charismatic, sensual, cunning, ambitious, manipulative, and in their own ways, brilliant. Yet Khan possesses more of each of these, really, in levels which befit a former dictator; Kirk manages to keep them in check with input from Spock and McCoy, or with that sense of Federation utopianism, or maybe just through a lack of desire to become the Hobbesian leviathan. In short, the difference between the two is probably restraint. And for Khan, an individual for whom restraint of ambition seems to be almost impossible, must recognize that it could be Kirk’s self-possession (such as it is), that which more than any other quality separates the two, that is the “inscrutable malice.” Certainly, as we have and will see, it becomes malicious against Khan’s enterprises.

1:11:27– Khan, waxing poetic, has decided that Good Hope and the Horn and the Norway maelstrom are not good enough for space.

1:06:46– I suppose I should say something about all that. I kind of like the idea for a plot. The troubles with Genesis mixed with its potential for human goodness make me think of the person of Andrei Sakharov (who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975) or some of the physicists on the Manhattan Project staff. It’s an interesting argument, certainly, and we can tell which side the creative team behind The Wrath of Khan favor.

1:05:47– Of course, now we are unaware as the admiral is not.

1:05:19– Sad Will Ferrell appears to be in a slightly better mood now.

1:05:05– And after that brief sequence, I think I would recognize the incisors on that woman standing to Khan’s left anywhere.

1:01:44– That’s a much better reveal.

1:01:43– Note also that Khan is centered, where he was before always a little bit to the side of center.

1:01:04– It’s a fairly well-known piece of trivia that Shatner and Montalban were filmed months apart because Montalban was still leading on Mystery Island. Thus, these meetings which occur over the viewscreens. More importantly, there’s no fistfight at the end of this movie, which is a massive relief. (Just polling the audience…does anyone find it suspenseful when the hero and the villain have to have a fistfight at the end of a movie?) This is also one of the places where monologuing actually makes sense: Khan, who was never exactly humble anyway, definitely wants Kirk to know who it is who has defeated him. This is in keeping with the character, and honestly, it doesn’t feel forced.

1:00:56–During the Battle of Antietam, one Union soldier was reminded of an anecdote from the life of Goethe, who claimed that his mental strain was so great that the landscape was momentarily colored red. I like to think that Meyer and company had that incident in mind, though whether or not they did is beyond my capacity to know. Either way, this is a strong shot.

59:57– Honestly, if Khan started counting a little late, that was just beyond fifteen seconds. Not bad.

58:39– This is a pretty flagrant deus ex machina, but I can’t help but like it. A few lines of dialogue,and boom, Kirk and his crew are back in action. Highly efficient is good. I also like that the command code is a fairly sensible piece of a starship’s operations, and at the same time, Khan would know nothing about it. He’s not Starfleet, and by my calculations, he’s never spent a full week on any Starfleet vessel.

57:24– And there’s Joachim, playing Starbuck.

56:55– Why would you bring that dude to the bridge? Scotty is such a jerk.

55:55– Scotty is amazed that this random dude with dialogue could possibly be a fatality.

53:40– I like that line from McCoy about as much as any of the other ones he gives.

52:43– “Well, no wonder we couldn’t hear you, Uhura, the volume’s not all the way up!”

52:21– McCoy is probably thinking something along the lines of, “They can make the most powerful weapon of war ever created but can’t make a better mousetrap?”

49:59– Paul Winfield’s “confused Rip Van Winkle” impression is a much better suggestion of Khan’s evil than actually watching Khan go around killing people.

46:42– Man, I hope nobody decides to swat a fly on that completely unconcealed and unprotected superweapon.

45:10– Sad Will Ferrell looks on, pensive and impersonal.

44:03– I have a vivid image of Kirk visiting Chekov’s parents and saying, “Hey, uh, I shot your son…he was really close to this little bug, see, and we didn’t want to move him and I just had to use the durn phaser…”

42:04– All right, you twisted my arm.

42:01– Two dudes hamming it up, but I still enjoy that vaguely homoerotic section of dialogue that those two share.

41:24– It is a long story. He’s one of the several so-called “experts” and “reformers” who is deprofessionalizing and demeaning the field of education for personal profit (see also Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Geoffrey Canada, Bill Gates, John Legend, etc.). Oh. Oh, you meant Khan Noonien Singh, not Sal Khan. Right. Moving along.

40:05– It’s not a no-win scenario yet, Saavik. We’ve got at least half an hour left on this thing,

38:38– Love that deep focus which allows us to see that Chekov, who was presumably “coming around,” now needs to pretend he’s still out because he’s unexpectedly privy to a very personal moment.

38:16– This scene was made, I suppose, for the purposes of wrapping up Kirk’s mid-life crisis. That’s definitely the biggest problem with this movie…Kirk’s mid-life crisis, in the midst of everything else which happens, is just not that interesting.

37:27– Family Guy is hardly the best show on television, but their “We Love You, Conrad” episode is  one of the better half-hours of television I’ve watched in the past few years. Aside from the fake Bill Cosby sex tape, which affected me thoroughly when first I saw it, it contains a shot-by-shot recreation of this scene which was also pretty good.

37:04– McCoy appears to be significantly less concerned with the possibility that Khan is now running around with an uber-weapon. Trees can do that to you.

34:21– Scotty is still standing there waiting for to audition for Iron Man.

29:28– Love that shot.

27:15– Good last words from Joachim…no real way to know if that’s the “live and die at my command” subservience coming out or an immensely sarcastic last thing to say.

24:21– Someone with a greater love of submarine movies than I have could probably devote several hundred words to the deep similarities between this and some submarine movie of note. I’ll leave it to your imagination; you may well have that abiding love of sub movies.

18:25– Someone with a great love of literature and an English degree, however, would wind up his Moby-Dick spiel by noting the final similarities between Khan and Ahab. Both lead their crews to destruction in pursuit of their revenge against someone who is even more powerful than they. Both catch up to their quarry and manage to strike it repeatedly. Both are brought down in pursuit of their quarry: the White Whale pulls Ahab down as he dives, as Ahab’s harpoon line is caught around his neck, while Khan sets off the Genesis device as a suicide bomb by which he hopes to ensure that his prey does not escape. And, of course, both fail.

17:50– A less impressive explosion than the Death Star II, but whatever. At least this one doesn’t destroy a nearby forest moon at the expense of many walking teddy bears.

17:21– Oh, back to that 18:25 consdideration, nature also wins. Sort of.

13:21– Doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen this scene or how many times you’ve seen The Search for Spock (and I hope for your sake that the number is higher for the former than the latter), this is still about as good a death as any science-fiction character gets on screen. All those catchphrases all at once…

11:29– Shooting one’s dead friend in a torpedo is right. It’s the people equivalent of flushing a dead goldfish.

8:45– This is a really forgettable scene. If Kirk’s mid-life crisis is mostly abandoned once something of consequence begins, and that is the worst part of the film, then his connection to David Marcus, his son, is a close second. What are the stakes of making Carol Marcus an ex-lover and David Marcus his son? Why does it matter, particularly, if Kirk even knows them? The Marcuses are important throughout the film because they facilitate the Genesis Project and the device which can be used as Khan’s tool, not because they’re people. This scene, especially after Spock’s death, just feels hollow.


7:41– Ah, there it is. I had completely forgotten that they brought Tale of Two Cities back into play. Now I feel like a nimrod.

6:14– And there lies Spock, recomposing somewhere in the middle of the Triassic period. And although I have so far managed to refrain from direct comparisons to Star Trek Into Darkness, I’m just going to put this out there: arcane practically mythic Vulcan rituals to resurrect individuals who have basically created Horcruxes of themselves, as stupid as they are, are a better way to bring a character back to life than use of the Lazarus Tribble which opens the door to immortality.

5:17– Good movie. It has some thoroughly noted gaps, but for the most part, this definitely deserves its place as one of the finer sci-fi flicks of the past half-century.

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