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‘The Wrath of Khan’ Returns to Theaters, Is Still The Greatest ‘Star Trek’ Movie

The Needs of the Many, Outweigh the Needs of the Few…or the One.
By  · Published on September 8th, 2017

The Needs of the Many, Outweigh the Needs of the Few…or the One.

The Summer of ’82 ranks as legend for a reason.  Conan The Barbarian (May 14th), The Road Warrior (May 21st), Rocky III (May 28th), Poltergeist (June 4th), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (June 4th), E.T. (June 13th), John Carpenter’s The Thing (June 27th), Blade Runner (June 27th), Tron (July 9th), and Fast Times At Ridgemont High (August 13th).  35 years later, and I’m still waiting for another run of films like that to overtake my life.  Not sure how I’d deal with a Blockbuster season with more than one film to fret over, but that fantasy seems like pure bliss.  If you’re lucky, you’ve seen one or all of these on the big screen without the curse of being an old codger like myself.  We live in a glorious age of repertory theaters when mighty fine establishments like the Alamo Drafthouse, Arclight Cinemas, and Landmark Theaters work their magic to return the all-time greats to the big screen.  Still, if you live outside the selected cities, news of such showings often sends you into a flurry of rage rather than euphoria.  However, on the 10th and 13th of this month, Fathom Events is bringing the undeniably superior Star Trek film back to nationwide theaters with a glorious 4K presentation and a special introduction from William Shatner.  Don’t hold your breath on a Rocky III follow-up.

While I will argue that The Motion Picture is a valid and essential Star Trek experience(and I have), The Wrath of Khan should rank at the top of every Trekkie’s ‘Best Of ‘ list. At the very least, the second Star Trek film threw a cold splash of water on the audience that napped through the majority of The Motion Picture and reminded us that Star Trek was about Adventure with a capital A.  “Second star to the right and straight on till morning” – while the human adventure should thrill in the exploration of the great barrier, we obsess over the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise because we love them even more than their voyages.

Gene Roddenberry’s vision ultimately takes second seat next to the characters as they drive the helm of Star Trek II.  Director Nicholas Meyer was brought on board as director because he had proven on previous films (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Time After Time) that he recognized emotion as the crucial component within genre storytelling.  Meyer certainly delivers on the warfare, but the Roddenberry ideology is reserved pretty much to the character level.  The Motion Picture didn’t misuse the cast but muted them while The Wrath of Khan reveled in their friendship.  Kirk, Spock, and Bones – The Triumvirate, friends till the end.  They’re as much about Star Trek as anything else.

The Kobayashi Maru fake-out massacre that opens the film still kills an audience. While Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) observes from his science station, Captain-in-training Saavik (Kirstie Alley) attempts to navigate a Neutral Zone rescue mission with catastrophic political Klingon consequences.  One after the other, our beloved Enterprise crew perishes.  When the walls open up and Captain Kirk saunters into the training scenario in halo of light, the knowing relief felt by Trekkies stings with the inevitable tragedy awaiting at the climax.  The thespians pick themselves off the floor, proudly claim that an experienced group belongs behind the wheel, and old Admiral Kirk self-loathingly dismisses such a notion with “galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.”

The Five-Year Mission is over.  Captain transitions to Admiral, the final frontier doesn’t reach beyond a pile of papers stacked on his desk, and Kirk is looking at a noose to relieve him of his earthbound depression.  He’s never faced Saavik’s no-win scenario, except the boredom of a pencil pusher.  Nicholas Meyer and producer Harve Bennett reach back into the original series canon to pull one-off villain Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) back into relevancy.  Abandoned on Ceti Alpha V to stew in rage for decades as the planet went Fury Road around him, Khan is the hate-fueled catalyst here to shake Admiral Kirk out of his Birthday doldrums.

Refusing to accept defeat on a starship while wallowing in a mid-life crisis perfectly positions Kirk as a semi-audience surrogate where his reunion with the Captain’s chair also allows us to reconnect with everything we love about Star Trek.  The miracle of the Genesis Planet, his ex-wife, and his long lost son force him to glare into death’s void, but he does his damnedest to continuing his gallop around the cosmos.  That is until, his BFF makes the ultimate sacrifice weighing the needs of the many against the needs of the few.

Spock’s climactic decision to enter the reactor chamber and his poisoned slump against the translucent engineering door still reduces the sternest fan to a blubbering mess.  Even 35 years later and an immediate sequel that would negate the loss, the Death of Spock is a powerful shock that would forever haunt the franchise.  Both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner have never been better than in those final moments. Frankly, it’s hard to believe this is the same Shatner who at the time was spending every week hurtling over car hood as T.J. Hooker.  In pop culture, death is never permanent and you’re always a few years away from a total reboot. However, when you’ve committed so much of your time and love to fictional characters, the mourning is real.

Star Trek II absolutely holds up as the single greatest entry in the saga.  Thirteen films and five television programs in total and The Wrath of Khan remains the ultimate statement on these characters.  Narrative wise, the film may not hit all the hopes and dreams of Gene Roddenberry’s social science-fiction legacy but the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise has never felt more genuine.  Khan may have cursed the remaining films into a series of Earth shattering Kirk VS. matches but here’s hoping that its return to television on September 24th with Star Trek: Discovery can finally pull the franchise from The Wrath of Khan’s shadow.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)