Sunday, 12 June 2022

The Wrath of Khan at 40: The Classic Lives On

I was far, far too young to watch The Wrath of Khan when I first saw it.

My first experience of the movie doesn't come from 1982 when I was *cough* just two *cough* but from about three years later on a videotaped version from one of the (at the time) four terrestrial channels we could enjoy in the UK. 

It was the first Star Trek movie I ever saw and for a six year old it blew my mind. Honestly, I didn't realise that I was probably far too young for this movie as I just lapped up every scene with relentless excitement and awe. It was incredible, proper space battle stuff, phasers and explosions; Amazing! What more could you want from a sci-fi film? Apart from being slightly terrified by those ceti eels in a very much edited-for-Saturday-afternoon version.

This video was watched and re-watched with frightening regularity because it was and still probably is my favourite film of all time. If I'm right I wore the tape out because it was viewed that often and now I know the film, as many, many fans do, line by line. Each word is subconsciously pre-empted, every nuance and action anticipated but loved all the same.

I mean, The Wrath of Khan's brilliance has endured for four decades and - in fact when I originally started drafting this - I even introduced it to my wife who took it a lot more positively than I expected.

Melissa is in no way (read: any way at all) a Star Trek fan and would be happy if the s**t was removed from the house this instant and burned. But she has allowed it for many years and knows it's a part of who I am. Anyway, cutting back to the point, she watched it and enjoyed it. I might have even heard the comment of 'good film' in there somewhere. Mel has been more akin to the general movie-goer friendly JJ reboots and after watching those she dropped in during my in-sequence movie watch with The Search for Spock coming to realise that the more recent blockbusters merely touch the surface and offer a line into the wider franchise.

Going back and watching The Wrath of Khan was a great experience to see her drawn in by the story, the action, the subtle undertones and admit that it was easily the best of the movies. It was pretty much as I did back in the mid-80's watching Ricardo Montalban chew the scenery for the umpteenth time and eye roll at the recognition of Chekov which is the stuff of Star Trek legend.

is in no way a hard movie to say why it's so good and even the franchise itself has attempted to copy its brilliance with varying levels of success - First Contact and Into Darkness being those polar opposite examples. Indeed it's influence reaches into the writing of The Voyage Home, the writing and directing of The Undiscovered Country and ultimately to the direction of Discovery with the inclusion of Nicholas Meyer into the show's writers room. Heck, there's still that rumour that a Khan mini-series will happen and even in the last episode of Picard's second season there was an ominous reference to Project Khan in the hands of Adam Soong. It's influence cannot be underestimated which isn't bad for a movie that had a fraction of the budget of its predecessor. Think about it for a moment and just how much is reused. The Klingon K'tingas, Enterprise in spacedock, the crew uniforms are dyed rehashes of the ones from The Motion Picture and the two main sets - the bridges of the Reliant and the Enterprise are the same set

Even just with those you would be laughing and mocking a movie if it were made now and rehacked a substantial amount of its forebear but in that respect The Wrath of Khan is unique. The story is a huge upgrade, the stakes are unequivocally raised and slot in one of the most gut-punching final acts in cinema history and the sedentary plod through V'Ger is easily banished from the mind. 

People ask if you can single out moments from the movie which are classics but I find it hard to pull apart what is the perfect Star Trek movie. There is true heart, character and loss in every cell of the film from the opening "In the 22nd Century" right to Nimoy's one and only time recital of "Space; the final frontier...". No other Star Trek movie packs so much into its running time and effortlessly feels like every minute is finely balanced, every line just necessary; no more no less (more on that in a sec).

The legendary six day Meyer rewrite may have given The Wrath of Khan the kick that the franchise needed after the pedestrian nature of The Motion Picture it was a vibrant visual spectacular with those monster maroon uniforms, phaser battles, a submarine-like hunt in the Mutara Nebula and the Kirk/Khaaaaaaaaan exchanges but how come it's endured for so long and how come I still find it my go-to Star Trek movie more than any other?

It has matured exceptionally well with my younger self enwrapped in the action, the explosions and the burning starships but as I've grown older each viewing has brought something new to light and a new angle to view it from; life and death, winning and losing; vengeance and perhaps interestingly, growing older itself.  Like Kirk, I tried the desk job and it wasn't for me and I went back to something that I enjoyed before it was too late (!) and still after all that it still resonates. I might not be watching it with the regularity I managed in the late 80's but there are at least a couple of re-watches a year, even if it's just to enjoy the adventurous James Horner soundtrack.

Each scene delivers and provides almost a mini-cliffhanger as we bounce between the Enterprise, Reliant and Regula One with themes explored at the beginning re-emerging later in the movie without feeling forced. It's an action adventure that carries more weight than you think and barely has the two main protagonists speaking to each other let alone ever physically meet.

The Wrath of Khan really affected my views on Star Trek from something that I watched on a Wednesday night into something that I absolutely loved. I can remember recreating the final battle with my Ertl USS Enterprise which had been adorned with phaser and torpedo damage just as the ship had been in the Mutara Nebula - it was on the TV version of the ship however but my young mind could easily make the jump as the Enterprise rose up behind the Reliant/over the bedside.

Believe it or not this is actually going somewhere because June 4th 2018 marked 36 years since the movie was originally released and it still looks great in every frame and with every spoken line. It has everything you could possibly want from Star Trek and I firmly believe that without the success of this movie there would be no franchise today. The Wrath of Khan is one of those moments where Star Trek actually got it right in the right way at the right time. All the elements needed were where they needed to be and it pounced on the move to the cinema with veracity and energy rather than treading a similar line to The Motion Picture. 

Without the renewed vigour and dynamism of The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek may well have become a sci-fi footnote of 79 episodes and two so so movies whereas instead it breathes life into the show which still exists today. If you were to encapsulate the effect of this story in one word it would have to be ‘monumental’. A moment that is off-referred to, imitated both outside and within the franchise and still as fresh today as it was in June 1982.

Indeed, just think how many references to Augments, Ceti Eels, Ceti Alpha V, Khan himself,
great fictional works, the needs of the many or even the Kobayashi Maru have pervaded the franchise since this point - how many times has it perhaps attempted to regain that moment of "perfection"? Maybe the other way of looking at it is that The Wrath of Khan spawned the greatest period of Star Trek's history but was it also the most polluting factor at the same time with everything being rated against the second movie in every sense meaning that future writers and directors were consciously or unconsciously using it as a base?

Now in 2022 I can add another few paragraphs to my love of this movie because I've finally watched the Director's Cut. The differences are subtle; the nod to Scotty's nephew, slight extensions to a few of the scenes that add a little more depth to the narrative (and an odd one or to that actually remove a touch of the dynamic) but as a whole it still proves that this is a classic. Polished up and with some great extras it's a must to any collection and will more than likely be pressed up against the inevitable 4k Blu-Ray render of The Motion Picture that's recently arrived.

Perhaps back in 1982 there was even more riding on the success of a sequel than there was from The Motion Picture. That had proved the franchise could work on the big screen and attract a good size audience and takings but The Wrath of Khan had to do more for less. This one had to prove that there was longevity to this direction and it did that in spades. Even today there is no other film I have watched or quote more than this one, there is no other movie I have seen more times than this nor one that I enjoy as much on each viewing.

Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan has been revered and imitated within its own franchise walls for 40 years and that love does not look set to dissipate any time soon. Maybe though there is one more thing for me to do with it and that's to see it up on the cinema screen itself as along with The Motion Picture and The Search for Spock it's one of only three Star Trek features I've not experienced in that environment. Fingers crossed it doesn't take another 40 years for me to make that happen. 

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