With Hopkinsville Community College screening “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” Friday in the Auditorium Building, I thought I would take a look at the film for this week’s column.
“Star Trek” is one of those film franchises I’ve always felt I should be more excited about, but never am. I’m a big “Star Wars” fan (the prequel trilogy excluded) and it would seem like that would put “Star Trek” right up my alley. But aside from the J.J. Abrams-directed film that came out last May (which was excellent, by the way), I’ve never seen a “Star Trek” film in the theater.
I guess the films have just never appealed to me. They’ve always just seemed a little too goofy and preposterous to actually sit down and watch. After enjoying the new “Star Trek” so much though, I decided to take a look at some of the old films and was pleasantly surprised by a couple of them.
“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was one of them. The film is a rollicking space adventure in the mold of every “Star Trek” film, but probes deeply into its characters’ motivations. In most “Trek” films, the conclusion seems foregone and it’s just a question of how the heroes will overcome each obstacle on the way to another victory. With “Wrath of Khan,” the conclusion is never certain, and the film creates the feeling that there will have to be a great sacrifice in order for the heroes to survive.
This sense of impending sacrifice gives the film a poignant feeling, as if the principal characters — Kirk, Spock and McCoy, friends and colleagues for years before the film — are seeing each other in ways they never have before. “Wrath of Khan” is one of the few “Star Trek” films that takes the emotional stakes of its story seriously. When the film is over, you’re not only entertained, but emotionally affected. One of the film’s biggest strengths is its villain, the titular Khan (Ricardo Montalban, a regular on “Fantasy Island” at the time and still one of campiest of “Star Trek” casting choices). He’s an outlaw who was exiled to a remote planet by Captain Kirk (William Shatner) years earlier and has sworn revenge against him.
Most “Star Trek” films involve a villain with a diabolical scheme for ruling the universe. Khan is unique in that his motivation comes from a deep resentment toward the heroes. His wife died while they were both in exile, and, in a way, he garners the audience’s sympathy. Highly intelligent and methodical in his approach, he devises a plan to exact revenge on Kirk. With his venomous performance, Montalban elevates the character and the material.
As the film opens, power has shifted among the crew of the USS Enterprise. Kirk has retired into an administrative post and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) now commands the Enterprise. Kirk, once brash and vital, is now drifting quietly into middle age and is pained by inactivity. But, as things usually go in the “Star Trek” universe, a mission arises that requires his attention.
The Enterprise’s sister ship, the USS Reliant, has been scouting lifeless planets and finds one that has just a tiny trace of life on it. The crew goes down to investigate and finds Khan, who has lived there for years with a band of survivors. He takes the crew hostage and hijacks the Reliant, planning to use it against Kirk and the Enterprise crew in a surprise attack.
There are plenty of space battles in the movie, and, as always, they succeed in being fun and entertaining. It makes you wonder how angry Starfleet Command must be when, every time Kirk goes out into space, he brings the Enterprise back with severe damage. Does he have a damage expense account?
Beyond the action, I was impressed by the interplay between the heroes. Kirk, who we’re used to seeing as reckless and cocky, is grave and weary in this film, with the weight of his past pressing down on him in the form of Khan. Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly), the cranky southerner who’s always telling people, “I’m a doctor, not a (insert random profession here),” recognizes the pain in Kirk and starts to fear for the group’s safety. And Spock, the Vulcan who always assesses a situation in terms of logic, fears he may have to make a sacrifice in order to save his friends.
That sacrifice is what sets “Wrath of Khan” apart from the other “Trek” films.
Most of the films seem content to present space battles and campy dialogue and send the viewer out on a high.
“Wrath of Khan” makes you understand about the characters and invests in the action, providing a heart-wrenching conclusion that actually makes you care. If you’ve never seen a “Star Trek” film, this is the best place to start.
And, if you want to see another one, check out “Star Trek: First Contact.” That movie is pretty sweet.
The community college’s screening begins at 6 p.m. and costs $2.
Dennis O’Neil can be reached at 270-887-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.