Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – Redux

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

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

When I wrote that back in May of 2013,  I was in the habit of writing about movies and TV with linear recaps rather than the more prosaic, less gimmicky style I’ve adopted. And since I wrote that, I think Google searches for “Is Will Ferrell in Wrath of Khan?” have powered an embarrassing number of my pageviews. Thus:

  1. Wrath of Khan deserves a straight-on review, and
  2. It was not Will Ferrell, emotional or otherwise, who is most visible when holding onto Paul Winfield’s suit. It was a fellow named Tim Culbertson.

In a normal year, The Wrath of Khan might have a puncher’s chance at being the best sci-fi movie of its year. 1982 was not that year: Khan, Blade Runner, The Thing, and E.T. were all released within months of one another. Made within a decade of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, each of those films shares, at the very least, a pessimism about what organized groups can accomplish. In three out of four, government is culpable in some way. Blade Runner raises questions of social justice, of what it means to be human, and of the limited morality a corpocratic government can aspire to. E.T. makes the feds into the creepiest part of a movie about an alien. The Wrath of Khan uses a line of dialogue from David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) to make its point about how government rates scientists as servants to the military. While we know that money is a dirty word for the Federation, it’s clear that the Genesis Project will be developed by an independent team of scientists who are being supplied and maintained by the Federation, who will have ultimate custody of the product. And while we sympathize with David – the Genesis device is the 23rd Century version of nuclear power – we also have to wonder how it’s possible for seemingly reasonable people, like the Marcuses, to decide it’s a good idea to create a device which is that dangerous.

Wrath of Khan is famous for a whole bunch of things – Moby-Dick in space, Ricardo Montalban’s perfectly hammy acting, “KHAAAAN,” Spock’s death – but underrated among them is the Genesis Project itself. Genesis is, at its most basic level, a plot fixer. It provides the mechanics for the regeneration of Spock’s body in Star Trek III, gives Khan a trump card after two space battles that have left Enterprise and Reliant crippled, and, weirdly enough, gives us a reason for Kirk to indulge in some low-key romance with a woman his own age. But it’s also a reasonably complex Cold War question. Is it science? Genesis has the godlike power, with a single explosion, to create life where none existed before. One can guess at the possibilities for a new world to colonize, or as is demonstrated in the film, the ability to create highly natural ecosystems below the surface of a planet. The flip side is that Genesis does not preserve life while it’s creating; in a weird way, it’s got the same kind of power as the ever-ubiquitous Death Star in that other sci-fi universe, the ability to destroy everything living on an entire planet. It’s something of a cliche for science-fiction to wonder about what the nasty effects of new technology might be, but Genesis takes a different tack from, say, 2001, which argues that tech will eclipse human. In Wrath of Khan, there’s nothing inherently dehumanizing about the Genesis project; it’s just extraordinarily dangerous and could be easily commandeered by space terrorists. Not that I don’t enjoy that discussion – or at least I did, before everyone else got a smartphone – but it’s kind of nice to just have technology which is at once a sword and a plowshare.

Out of the trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, only McCoy seems to grasp the immense danger posed by an instrument of peace which can’t help but carry death around with it. Kirk and Spock, on the other hand, are almost blase about the immense power of Genesis. It’s a sign of the advanced age they live in where the practically magical qualities of Genesis, both good and bad, are little more than scientific oddities, and it takes a certain kind of person to recognize the power of the device. An old-fashioned person, an emotional one. McCoy fits that bill. Khan, who is originally from the 20th Century and careens from rationality to histrionics in moments, fits it better.

Nicholas Meyer is never going to be confused with Paddy Chayefsky, but the screenplay for Wrath of Khan is an underappreciated script. It pits a nostalgic, somewhat embittered Kirk up against one of the most important, memorable rogues from his gallery. In the end, Kirk recognizes that he still has it – he’s still a daring ship captain, able to come through against massive odds – and that he might have been better served not to go out at all – the voyage he undergoes results in the death of one of his closest friends. By the end of the film, Kirk has realized the truth of McCoy’s lecture in the beginning of the movie: he’s not old and washed up. A wiser man would have accepted back in his living room that aging isn’t the same as irrelevance, and he would not have had to pay for that knowledge with the lives of scientists, cadets, Terrell, and Spock. It’s a powerful message, and one that is largely unspoken; Meyer’s screenplay allows us watch the drama unfold without anyone needing to walk in at the end of the film and say, “You’re not over the hill, Jim!”

For his part, Khan is cartoonish, but in the best way possible. Sure, he seems to have placed himself in the role of Ahab from Moby-Dick, have remade himself as Satan from Paradise Lost, and that’s over the top and hammy. So was Montalban as an actor. Star Trek is a space opera, and making Khan a man with grandiose ambitions works. His ambitions, after all, have always been grandiose; he once ruled a significant proportion of the population of Earth, and doubtless the few subjects he has in his abject camp on Ceti Alpha V feel a little hollow after knowing the taste of continental dominance. And his motivations are, for the lunatic relentlessness with which he pursues Kirk, easy to follow. Khan wants dominance; he has too much pride; Kirk defeated him and marooned him; the death of Khan’s wife on Ceti Alpha V is also attributable, according to Khan, to Kirk. Within the rules of the genre, all of these motivations are more than enough to make Khan abandon reason in his quest to kill Kirk en route to whatever megalomaniacal urges he wants to indulge in that week. Most importantly, Khan is motivated by discrete principles. His driving force never boils down to, “He’s just evil,” or “He’s just given to being on the top rung of tyranny.” In this film, even his most ridiculous actions (choose any number of incidents where Joachim tries to dissuade Khan from hunting down Kirk) return back to his need for revenge. The clarity of Khan’s motivations, combined with the ludicrous level of camp that Montalban infuses him with, make him a marvelous villain in what, even after twenty-five years, remains the best Star Trek movie.


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