Khan said “revenge is a dish best served cold,” but the movie The Wrath of Khan is best seen in the theater. The best Star Trek film of them all, and certainly the Trek that saved the franchise, is coming back for a limited theatrical run in the United States.
No spoilers for The Wrath of Khan here. If you’ve never seen it, you’re safe.
35 years ago, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan almost didn’t happen, at least not the way we think of it now. After the box office disappointment of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount decided to produce the film’s sequel as cheaply as possible. The budget for Star Trek II was 11 million, less than half of the 35 million spent on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This meant Star Trek II had to rely on using some recycled special effects and sets from The Motion Picture, a fact which could have ruined the movie.
And yet, The Wrath of Khan is now the standard by which nearly the entire Star Trek franchise is judged. There are a lot of reasons for this and many fans and critics (this one included) have gone on and on about the how’s and whys Khan is so great. But it mostly boils down to one thing: it made Star Trek feel classy and pulpy at the same time.
In rewriting the script for The Wrath of Khan, Nicholas Meyer doubled-down on the nautical imagery and language which was already intrinsic to Trek creator’s Gene Roddenberry’s original conception of Trek. Roddenberry wasn’t involved much with the production and writing of theThe Wrath AND famously hated several ideas about the movie. He would later clash with Meyer on dark tones in Star Trek VI, too. But, both men —unbeknownst to each other — based much of the behavior of the characters in their Star Treks upon the C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels; books of adventure taking place on the high seas. Meyer liked Trek a little darker than Roddenberry, but the basic nautical adventure vibe was where the Venn diagram of Meyer’s vision and Roddenberry’s original concept overlapped.
So, with the old-school adventure vibe firmly in place, the second ingredient was making Trek classy. The Wrath accomplishes this deftly with the inclusion classic literary themes, specifically from Melville and Dickens. If you’ve never seen the movie, don’t worry, these references aren’t hard to spot. Kirk is given a copy of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens as a birthday present from Spock at the beginning of the movie. Meanwhile, the titular wrathful Khan has a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on his bookshelf in his creepy cargo base.
Add in a cool sci-fi concept in the form of the instant-terraforming missile the Genesis Device, some of the best performances from William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Deforest Kelley of their careers, and you’ve got a science fiction classic that feels like a regular movie that anyone — even non-Trekkies — can love.
Oh, Ricardo Montalban as Khan, jacked as hell and quoting the previously mentioned Moby Dick doesn’t hurt either.
Nicholas Meyer’s Director’s Cut of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hits theaters on September 10 and 13 in the U.S. You can get tickets from Fathom Events right here.