Star Trek: The Motion Picture was bad. Really, really bad. Nicknamed The Motionless Picture by some for its awful pacing and huge amounts of filler, the sequel needed to up its game quite drastically for Star Trek films to remain viable. The big-screen future of one of the world’s two biggest science fiction franchises was in the balance, and fortunately Wrath of Khan succeeded admirably in its goal. By focusing much more on the action and with a much faster pace, it’s a great piece of space opera, and possibly the best Star Trek film ever.
A sequel of sorts to the Original Series episode Space Seed, the film brings back the titular Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically engineered warlord who once ruled a great deal of the Earth. After previously being exiled to the planet Ceti Alpha V by Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Khan manages to commandeer the USS Reliant, return to Federation space, and steal the Genesis device, which can create worlds fit for human colonisation but can also destroy entire planets. With his new ship and this weapon, he intends to take his revenge on Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the rest of the Enterprise..
For a film with as much focus on its villain as this one, it’s obviously important that the audience be interested in him, and this is one of the areas where Wrath of Khan truly shines. Khan is one of the most memorable villains in all of Star Trek, played with a perfect balance of Saturday morning cartoon supervillainy and a genuinely convincing motivation for wanting to kill everyone. Montalban is superb in the role, thoroughly enjoying how evil he gets to be: this is particularly apparent in the scene where he manages to bury Kirk alive inside a planet, where you can tell from his expression that he just had an evilgasm. The villain was one area where the 2009 reboot failed somewhat, since Nero just wasn’t a particularly interesting antagonist for the Enterprise crew, but Khan manages to be both very enjoyable to watch and a believable threat.
Shatner himself appears to have learned to act as well, and the bitter relationship between him and Khan is another of the film’s highlights, which is particularly impressive considering that the characters interact only through comm screens and that the two actors never actually met while filming. He is still a ham, and always will be, but he isn’t as ridiculous as he was on the Original Series, and his near-breakdown at the funeral which ends the film is actually very convincing and moving, something which he never was on TV. And as for emotional impact, it’s arguable that nothing in Trek before or since has been able to top the death of a major character which happens during the final battle; it’s one of the most iconic scenes in all of Star Trek, and with good reason.
Still, probably the film’s biggest improvement over its predecessor is its action, which fortunately there is a lot of and which keeps the pace moving along briskly. None of the never-ending shots of the Enterprise in dock which plagued The Motion Picture here; instead, we open onto the action immediately with the apparent destruction of the Enterprise, before it’s revealed that it’s actually a training simulation. The space battles between Kirk and Khan’s ships are consistently entertaining and creative, the finale in particular, with the crippled Enterprise flying into a nebula so that neither ship’s shields and sensors will work, putting them on equal footing with the Reliant. Incidentally, this scene features one of the only times in science fiction cinema where the film remembers that space is three-dimensional, and it’s very nice to see that fact taken advantage of instead of space being treated as a flat plane.
As the first good Star Trek film, it’s largely because of Wrath of Khan that Trek is still the franchise juggernaut that it is today, and it’s the standard by which every other film in the series must be measured. Even if the best Star Trek film is actually Galaxy Quest.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)… Coming Soon