“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”

The greatest of all Star Trek movies comes to life -- and don't be surprised if your eyes water a bit at Spock's very Vulcan-like sacrifice.

Topics: Star Trek, Movies,

“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”
Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban
Paramount; widescreen
Extras: Theatrical trailer

It’s gotten to the point where ordinary mortals don’t even dare comment on any aspect of “Star Trek” — and that includes any of the movies or the television series — without running the risk of being jumped on by rabid Trekkies: “How could you fail to note that in ‘The Trouble with Tribbles,’ the emblem on Scott’s jersey appears to be sewn on crooked?” A critic I know was threatened with having his legs broken after panning a recent “Star Trek” movie.

But at some point, even us ordinary mortals have to take a stand for what we believe in, so here goes. Aside from having enjoyed the show greatly as a kid, I have very little interest in “Star Trek” as a phenomenon. But I simply love “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

You need only the barest sense of the “Star Trek” mythology to enjoy the myriad layers that make up “The Wrath of Khan,” released in 1982. James T. Kirk, formerly the captain of the Starship Enterprise, is now an admiral overseeing inspections and training maneuvers, facing the prospect that his space-playboy days are over. Kirk’s depression, as Shatner plays it, feels real, and later, when he does end up heading out on an Enterprise mission, it’s easy to see why.

The movie’s special effects are lovely, even if by current standards they look somewhat understated. A shot of the Enterprise glowing like a nightlight and gliding through soft black-ink space might remind you why you ever loved special effects in the first place. On the TV show, Kirk often played off the old sea-captain tradition of referring to his ship as a beautiful lady, and when you see the Enterprise this way, that idea doesn’t sound corny at all.

The story (devised by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards; Sowards wrote the screenplay) is based on the TV episode “Space Seed,” and it hangs together neatly, harboring surprising layers of depth. Chekov (Walter Koenig) and another space explorer, Capt. Terrell (played by Paul Winfield) stumble onto a planet occupied by an old enemy of Kirk’s, the vengeful Khan (played with leonine grace and sexy, poisonous nastiness by a 62-year-old Ricardo Montalban), who proceeds to strike back at Kirk and the Enterprise by stealing Genesis, a device with life-giving properties. “The Wrath of Khan” is magnetically entertaining and sometimes surprisingly touching: Be forewarned that Spock (Leonard Nimoy) makes a Vulcan-style sacrifice that’s nonetheless so human that you shouldn’t be embarrassed if your eyes water a bit.

Unfortunately, apart from the original theatrical trailer — which is so clumsily made that it makes the picture look even less entertaining than the usual space-action fare, rather than more so — there are no extras on the DVD. While I would never dream of traveling three miles for a “Star Trek” convention, much less 3,000, I wouldn’t have minded hearing Shatner say a few words about this particular movie. Was the experience of playing this especially vulnerable James T. Kirk different from that of playing the character on the TV series, or in any of the other movies? Whatever the experience was like, the performance speaks for itself. Shatner’s Admiral Kirk doesn’t mope about growing old, but somehow he carries the fear of it in the slight slope of his shoulders and the vague sadness in his eyes. This isn’t Shatner playing, as he probably could have done in his sleep by this point, one of the world’s most popular fictional characters. This is Shatner, acting — beautifully.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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