There’s an old man on a spaceship. He’s cheated death, tricked his way out of death, and patted himself on the back for his ingenuity. He never loses. He’s facing down a madman with a vendetta against him, and he’s literally racing against time. He wins, of course, and just as he settles into his default air of smug self-satisfaction, he looks to his right. An empty chair. A missing friend.
“Jim, you’d better get down here.”
At first glance, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan doesn’t feel much like a Trek movie. It feels more like one of the original series’ “bottle shows” where all the action had to take place on standing sets so that they could afford to build Vulcan in a sound stage for next week. There’s not much exploration of strange new worlds, and no new life forms or civilizations.
The proceedings feel epic anyway, because like all great Trek, Wrath isn’t really about sci-fi mumbo jumbo at all; it’s about theme and character. Beyond William Shatner’s nascent paunch and Ricardo Montalban’s perfectly-feathered hairdo, there’s an elegant plot suffused with tension and meaning, brought to life by terrific acting.
Let’s just come right out and say it: This is Shatner’s finest performance. (Sorry, T.J. Hooker fans. Your time will come.) This is not the cocky, conquering Kirk of the original series. Instead, we view the portrait of a man slowly inching past his prime who must decide whether to burn out as a starship captain or fade away behind a desk at Starfleet Command.
Throughout the film, Shatner uses his swagger as a mask to cover a frightening realization: He will die, and there’s nothing he can do about it. In contrast, Kirk’s old adversary Khan chooses to defy death in a megalomanaical frenzy brought on by the demise of his wife. Khan is hundreds of years old, and yet he mocks death in his quest for revenge. He blames Kirk , and Kirk knows what he blames him for.
The film is basically the Kirk and Khan show, with their furious battle at center stage—one to wreak vengeance, the other to prevent its path of destruction. There are big ideas here, and yet they play on an almost microscopic level within the vastness of outer space. The characters aren’t boldly going anywhere but deep within themselves. It’s a sci-fi story that chooses to stay small, a battle where the stakes may be high but the observations are intimate.
The initial starship battle between Kirk and Khan is a good example. It plays out like a WWII submarine battle, a tense duel of wits over communications channels and an electric scene for Shatner and Montalban. The day is won not through furious fighting and dazzling FX, but through Kirk outsmarting Khan. And even in the victory lies regret…the regret of a once-great starship captain second-guessing his own abilities and losing crewmembers in the process.
Wrath is structured so tightly around Kirk and Khan that when Spock nobly sacrifices his own life to save the Enterprise, the emotional blow is unexpected and powerful. The Enterprise’s science officer slips down a ladder, knocks Bones out cold with a quick Vulcan nerve pinch, and saves the day…but not himself.
Spock is a mirror of sorts to Kirk as well; stoic and certain, he’s the stable center around which Kirk spins. There are moments when we see that Spock has picked up some of Kirk’s best qualities, but until Spock demonstrates how the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one), we don’t see Kirk reciprocating. In the end, Kirk is left behind to learn the difficult lesson of his friend’s noble task. James Tiberius spends the film avoiding death; in the end, death is shoved into his face. His friend’s demise somehow pushes him forward, and in spite of his age and his inevitable end, he feels…young.
The original Enterprise crew appeared in four more films following Star Trek II. But the Trek films have never again found that perfect mix of tone, characterization and action they achieved in Wrath of Khan. It’s a meditation on mortality, a taut battle against insurmountable odds, and an adventure with a brain as well as a pulse—in short, Trek’s finest voyage.