THE WRATH OF KHAN

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

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Every franchise has one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest; these are the movies that give birth to the cinematic landscape the franchise inhabits while providing the template on which everything else is judged. For the Star Wars franchise, that movie is The Empire Strikes Back, while for Terminator, it is Judgement Day, and for Star Trek, it’s The Wrath of Khan.

Despite colossal anticipation in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had failed to capture the imagination of audiences and critics. The Motion Picture was a courageous film, asking deep questions about the birth of consciousness, artificial intelligence and creation. However, in a year when audiences eagerly awaited the next Star Wars instalment while talking about how a man had flown in Superman the Movie the year before, The Motion Picture felt overly long, uninspiring and way too serious.


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In developing The Wrath of Khan, lead writer Harve Bennett would go back to the roots of the TV show to find a new voice. Here the 1967 Mutiny on the Bounty-inspired episode Space Seed would provide the template as Bennett fleshed out his screenplay alongside Jack Sowards and director Nicholas Meyer. Meyer, Bennett and Sowards would offer us a continuation of Khan and Kirk’s story inspired by another sea-faring classic, Moby Dick. Here Khan is, in essence, Captain Ahab, hunting down the whale who injured him so long ago, Jim Kirk.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would embrace a naval style akin to classic war movies such as We Dive at Dawn (1943) and The Cruel Sea (1952), with the latter exploring the loneliness of command. This theme would also find a clear and present voice in Khan through Kirk’s unspoken fear of facing death and unwillingness to run despite the cost – Kirk may be surrounded by his loving crew, but he is on his own in the mental battle for his crew’s survival.

Meanwhile, the vacuum of space and the swirling mists of the Mutara Nebula echo the murky depths of the ocean and the silent submarines that stalked mighty naval ships. Even the Star Fleet uniforms got a radical overhaul, taking their inspiration from The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). The result was a love letter to the classic naval war movie laced with the revenge thriller, science fiction and a sprinkling of Shakespearean tragedy. However, this change came with a significant risk; after all, this was a make-or-break moment for the Star Trek franchise on the big screen.


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The budget for The Wrath of Khan was tiny compared to The Motion Picture, with many of its effects borrowed from the first film. Here the budget was approximately $11,200,000 compared to the $35,000,000 spent on its predecessor. Still, this lack of money would not stop Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan from pressing the reset button, and in doing so, it reinvented Star Trek on screen for a whole new generation. Here the brisk pacing, cat and mouse naval warfare, groundbreaking computer effects and the re-introduction of Khan wowed audiences, earning global box office takings of $78,912,963.

However, one element in its original cut didn’t play well with test audiences: the death of Spock. Therefore, the final scenes were quickly edited and restructured before release. Here Spock would place his hand on McCoy’s head before his death while stating, remember. At the same time, his coffin would end up on the Genesis planet allowing for his return. Of course, we will never know how the finality of the original ending would have played out with global audiences, but this change ultimately led to a trilogy of films that included The Search for Spock (1984) and The Voyage Home (1986).


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Meyer would return to the Star Trek director’s chair one more time following The Wrath of Khan with the 1991 swan song The Undiscovered Country, which is undoubtedly the franchise’s second-best outing. But that leaves us with a compelling question: What if Meyer had directed the two films following Khan? The answer is pure speculation on my part, but it’s possible we could have been offered one of the greatest science fiction trilogies of the 1980s. In reality, Star Trek would rise and fall with the films that followed, never quite recapturing the consistency or magic born in Star Trek II.


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