Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Every cinematic saga has a defining chapter upon which all other instalments are judged. Each other entry strives to scale the heights of that towering peak with varying results and the entire series tends to wrap itself around the singular achievement that comes to represent a franchise at its best and brightest. Even with eleven movies stretching across enough space to fill three decades, the Star Trek franchise boasts a clear winner in this department, a movie that bests all other Treks in vitality, excitement, inspiration, and influence.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that undisputed gem that makes the franchise's highs and lows an experience worth enduring in hopes that one day such magic will explode in the skies again. There's an energy surging through Khan's veins that is absent from later big-screen Trek adventures. Perhaps because Captain (sorry, Admiral, since he earns a promotion in the cinematic world) Kirk was getting too old to punch people in the face and Captain (no promotion for you) Picard was always more of a talker than a puncher, the franchise really settled down after this instalment.

The newly rejuvenated franchise appears to be returning to a place of fast-paced fun under the tutelage of JJ Abrams, who clearly adores The Wrath of Khan, but for now, there's no big-screen Trek adventure that hits every note with such grand precision as the first sequel. Star Trek II's space opera sensibilities can be viewed as inspirational fodder for JJ Abram's 2009 franchise reboot, but their employment in The Wrath of Khan is entirely unique in this steadfast series.

There's something jumpy and boisterous about the whole affair, as if it's the very antithesis of the first movie. I love The Motion Picture in all its ponderously probing glory, but it's a very different sci-fi beast than its direct descendant. While director Robert Wise was interested in the oozing mysteries of an explorative journey in space, The Wrath of Khan helmer Nicholas Meyer is concerned with the exploration of morality and mortality in the face of complicated conflict.

When two members (one of whom is Trek regular Chekov, played by Walter Koenig) of a Starfleet ship called the Reliant go to investigate a seemingly barren planet, they stumble upon the home of a very angry, very old man named Khan (a white-haired Ricardo Montalban at his seething best). First introduced in a 1967 television episode titled Space Seed, Khan is a genetically altered superman from the late 20th century.

Once the ruler of a good chunk of our planet, Khan eventually fled Earth and took to the skies in hopes of finding a new planet to conquer. He and his crew went into a deep sleep aboard their ship and were awakened by Kirk more than two hundred years later. Space Seed concluded with Khan and his people (along with an Enterprise crewmember who falls for Khan and assumedly later became his wife) being banished to a dusty planet where they will have to fight to survive. Given that Khan tried to kill Kirk and steal the Enterprise in the episode, the punishment seemed almost fair. Even Khan seemed pretty pleased about the whole thing.

But years later, Khan is bursting with rage and his Wrath is unleashed when the Reliant duo stumble upon his lair. He quickly puts a plan in motion to exact bloody, Melvillian revenge upon Kirk, whom he now blames for the death of his wife. The events of Space Seed are relatively black and white, considering that Khan is clearly the bad guy doing bad things and Kirk is clearly just trying to keep the peace. But the lines of morality have been brilliantly blurred in The Wrath of Khan and Nicholas Meyer does a fantastic job of pushing both protagonist and antagonist into the same light. Kirk may have done what he felt he had to do, but doesn't that mean he must now take responsibility for his actions?

At its core, Star Trek II is focused on a hero vs. villain conflict the likes of which this franchise has not successfully flirted with since. There have been a few memorable villains here and there, but Montalban's Khan is a series highlight, a smart, engaging antagonist with enough dramatic backstory to lend his dastardly plot some real weight. Montalban knows how to match master scenery chewer Shatner in sheer beefy presence and watching the two of them face off against each other is perhaps the movie's greatest gift.

It's not often that a sci-fi action flick offers a moral dilemma without a simple solution. Khan may be a borderline madman with some sort of warped God complex, but he also has good reason to hate Kirk's manly guts. Khan was bred to be a superior being and he wants nothing more than to fulfill his potential as a superpower. That doesn't make him too relatable, but his anger and frustration that stems from the loss of his loved one does. He may be a villain, but he's also a complicated person who challenges our perception of the usually flawless hero we intend to cheer on.

This questioning of unbridled heroism and obsessive antagonism places Star Trek II in a meaty maze of morality through which navigation is necessary. Neither Khan nor Kirk can claim absolute innocence and putting their actions under the microscope proves to be richly rewarding. The best villains push the heroes to places where they begin to lose control of their faculties, not only physically, but psychologically and emotionally as well. Khan makes Kirk a better cinematic hero by pushing him so far, but he also forces us to evaluate Kirk's place in the cosmos.

The Wrath of Khan begins with Kirk feeling old and unneeded, a relic of a bygone (future) age, but it ends with him feeling revitalized, refreshed and eager to tackle new adventures in space. With his famously stilted line deliveries and comfortable screen presence, Shatner manages to communicate Kirk's crisis with a rather startling dramatic punch. He can feel the walls closing in and his energy level depleting, but he isn't ready to turn his back on his captaining (oops, admiraling) duties, which is a good thing, since he went on to star in five more Trek movies.

This internal dilemma is essentially solved by Khan's return, which adds additional depth to the conflict. Khan's reappearance threatens Kirk and puts him in a bit of a moral quandary, but it also provides Kirk with the opportunity to pull off enough save-the-day heroics to remind everyone (himself included) that he hasn't lost his passion and ability for adventure. Occupying the other side of the conflict, we are allowed to empathize with Khan, whose thirst for revenge brings about his eventual undoing. He is most certainly the villain of the movie, but there is still room to feel for the guy and imagine how different his life could have been had he never met Kirk way back in Space Seed.

Such character-driven commitment to the narrative is exciting in a movie that boasts more action and adventure than many of the other Trek instalments combined. But that's why this supreme sequel has endured for so long and managed to become the benchmark for great Trek movies. It represents a faithful dedication to the ethical framework upon which Gene Roddenberry built the franchise, but it also expands the boundaries to suit the suddenly cinematic nature of the adventure.

There are many reasons that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan succeeds so admirably (it's visually exciting, the performances are memorable, and James Horner's score is quite rousing), but its attention to characters and conflict is what solidifies the movie's status as the definitive classic chapter in the series. The plot is smart and engaging, thanks to a pile of people, including producer Harve Bennett, who received a 'story' credit, screenwriter Jack P. Sowards, director Nicholas Meyer (who apparently rewrote the script, but was never officially credited for doing so) and even Herman Melville, whose work is a clear influence on the movie.

When the camera spies an ancient copy of Moby Dick on a shelf, it's no coincidence. This sequel is ripe with references to Melville's classic novel. In many ways, Khan is Ahab, chasing his white whale (Kirk, whose Starship Enterprise is a more apt physical match for the titular beast). As if the plot comparison wasn't enough, there are even specific lines of dialogue lifted directly from Melville's prose. The use of these lines may be a bit obvious and it means that subtlety is briskly tossed out the window, but these references work beautifully in the grand scheme of this meaty popcorn masterpiece.

Montalban expertly delivers his lines so that they land with considerable impact and prevent the surrounding scenes from devolving into silliness. When he spews the line "From Hell's heart, I stab at thee," he convincingly weaves the words into the sci-fi fabric of the movie's universe. It doesn't feel like a random literary reference, but rather a believable moment that illustrates Khan's boundless wrath. After all, it is on Khan's shelf that we spot the copy of Moby Dick, so perhaps the guy just loves to quote Melville in life-or-death situations.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan occupies a fascinating place in this franchise's history. It is the best of the best (even if many of the instalments are mediocre) and its buoyant blend of swashbuckling adventure and character-driven drama is impressive in how it employs both intelligence and imagination. A hero as iconic as Kirk deserves a great villain and Khan is most assuredly a fascinating antagonist. I love what Star Trek II has to say about revenge (that it is a fruitless exercise that often ends in damnation) and passion (that we can't expect to be happy when we're not doing what we love), but most of all, I love what it says about science fiction adventures on the whole: that there is no excuse to sacrifice brains for brawn, because both can exist in tantalizing tandem, each complementing the other with hope and humanity.