“Ah, Kirk, my old friend. Do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us that revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It can get very cold in space,” proclaims Khan Noonien Singh as the U.S.S. Reliant approaches the U.S.S. Enterprise with deadly intent.
Although 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a box office success, Paramount wasn’t willing to spend a large amount of money for a sequel, and it didn’t give the film the green light until a much smaller budget was agreed upon ($11 million). Nicholas Meyer, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who had found directorial success with 1979’s Time After Time (his first feature), was brought on board to helm the picture. He and producer Harve Bennett (Gene Roddenberry was made an executive consultant instead of a producer on the pic; a status he would be kept in until his death in 1991) went through all the various drafts of the screenplay, making a list of what they liked. From this list, Meyer would write the draft of the screenplay that would be shot. This was a film I had grown up watching, and I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen 10 years ago at Symphony Space in Manhattan’s Upper West Side as part of a double feature with 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Set roughly 10 years after the first film, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan finds Admiral James T. Kirk training cadets at Starfleet Academy. He accompanies Captain Spock aboard the Enterprise (after recently “celebrating” his birthday) as they take a number of cadets for further training maneuvers. Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Reliant arrives at Ceti Alpha V to determine if it is lifeless. Captain Terrell and First Officer Chekov beam down to investigate and encounter Khan, an old enemy of Kirk’s who’s been marooned there for 15 years with his followers. Khan uses indigenous eels to control Terrell and Chekov, then commandeers the Reliant so that he can seek his revenge on Kirk, as well as set his sights on acquiring the Genesis device, a torpedo capable of bringing life to a lifeless planet (and death to a planet already full of life).
One of the things that Meyer brought to his screenplay (which he didn’t receive a screen credit for; Jack B. Sowards would receive the credit) was having the Enterprise crew (particularly Kirk) deal with their aging. He also brought a swashbuckling atmosphere (for example: Horatio Hornblower) reminiscent of the original series. The film also serves as a sequel to a first season episode of Star Trek entitled “Space Seed” (which introduced Khan). Meyer was inspired by naval warfare when it came to staging the space battles. The more militaristic style he brought to the picture had an impact on Robert Fletcher’s costume design, which made the Starfleet outfits look more like actual uniforms (this was also a cast request, I’m sure, as they had hated their costumes from the first film). Especially well-done were the costumes for Khan and his followers (the approach being to make them look like they made their clothes from whatever materials they could find on their ship).
The returning cast (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig) was in fine form, as were the “guest stars” (Ricardo Montalban in a career-best performance as Khan, Paul Winfield as Terrell, Bibi Besch as Dr. Carol Marcus, Merritt Butrick as David, and Kirstie Alley in her film debut as Lt. Saavik). Shatner and Montalban are the big standouts; Shatner’s Kirk is dealing with getting older while also having to deal with Montalban’s vengeance-minded Khan, who every now and then paraphrases Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (Captain Ahab being a perfect description for the genetically superior Khan), and embracing the son who grew up without him.
Joseph R. Jennings’ production design was terrific (I especially liked the Botany Bay set; it was just so creepy). The special effects were awesome (despite being 1982 special effects). The matte paintings were first-rate (my favorite being the Genesis cave). The makeup by Werner Keppler and James Lee McCoy was superb (the prosthetic work on Ricardo Montalban’s head later in the film is one of the highlights). Gayne Rescher’s cinematography was reminiscent of submarine movies at times (a compliment), William P. Dornisch’s editing keeps a tight pace for the film with enough room to breathe, and James Horner (while not using any of Jerry Goldsmith’s themes from the previous film) manages to give this film a nautical tone while laying on the percussion for Khan and his followers. There is also a director’s cut of the film with a few minutes of additional footage (extended conversations, alternate angles, etc.). The new footage also establishes that Scotty’s Engineering mate, Midshipman Preston, is in fact his nephew. It’s definitely worth checking out.