Our reviews of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (published July 19th, 2000), Star Trek: The Original Motion Picture Collection (published October 19th, 2009), and Star Trek: The Original Motion Picture Collection (Blu-Ray) (published May 18th, 2009) are also available.
Kirk. My old friend.
Not just a great science fiction movie and not just a great action adventure movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is the best Star Trek movie ever and just about a perfect film regardless of genre. With this, the second film based on the classic Star Trek television series, director Nicholas Meyer (The Seven Percent Solution) would revitalize and renew the franchise, elevating it from cult status and leading it to legend. Such was the impact of Meyer's efforts that the template he established 20 years ago is still felt today.
Following up its special edition of the first Star Trek movie, Paramount double dips and delivers a two disc set that while not perfect, will certainly endear itself to the discerning Star Trek fan.
Facts of the Case
In the 23rd century, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) leads an inspection team onboard his beloved Starship Enterprise, when an emergency call comes in from Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch—The Beast Within). Marcus is a former lover of Kirk's and the lead scientist for the Genesis project, a top secret Federation experiment. Kirk's old adversary Khan (Ricardo Montalban) has hijacked the Starship Reliant and with the unwilling assistance of Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield—The Serpent and the Rainbow) and Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) is attempting to acquire the destructive power inherent within the Genesis device. Assuming command from Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Kirk and his crew enter into a game of cat and mouse with his genetically engineered foe. It is a game that will take them to the darkest sections of the galaxy, a game where experience is as important as intellect, and a game where sacrifice will determine who wins and who dies.
One of the most daunting tasks I can imagine of is sitting down and writing about something that I love. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is something I really, truly love and because of that, those looking for a traditional review are not going to find one here…so be warned. Wrath of Khan is one of the few movies I quote from on a daily basis and I can sit down and watch from beginning to end anywhere, anytime, but I'm getting ahead of myself. There are a lot of things I will admit to, and one of them is being a film geek. I love movies and the power they contain. I am obsessive about film and my movie collection. I can tell you where every movie is on the shelf without looking and why it is catalogued where it is. I can name you directors, composers, and cinematographers, and explain to you why almost every film from the past thirty years owes something to Alfred Hitchcock. I can sit up all night over a steady diet of beer and popcorn and argue with you over why the 1970s was the greatest decade for American films. I know exactly what movie I need to pull out in order to prove almost any point. I can discuss movies most people have never heard of. I can exhaust, enrage, and entertain, and I have to admit I owe it all to Star Trek. Long before I became this movie/DVD fanatic, before I went searching for the perfect Pinot Noir from Oregon, even before I became a comic book hound, I was a Star Trek geek. One of the earliest memories from my childhood is watching a first run episode of Star Trek. I remember one Halloween my Mom and I trying to make little pointed ears out of putty for a school costume. I could name every episode in order and who wrote it. I owned and read all the Star Trek books by James Blish, I sought out all the Star Trek photo book adaptations and listened faithfully to the Star Trek album Gene Roddenberry recorded. I remember poring over those early issues of Starlog in search of any information on Star Trek. I remember going to see Star Wars and thinking it was good but it wasn't Star Trek. I remember eating my dinner sitting on my parents' bed watching reruns of Star Trek and I remember dying inside a little bit after walking out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The Star Trek that I knew was about family and exploration, and if Kirk got to kick a little Klingon ass while bedding the hot green chick, so much the better. It was vibrant and funny, alive with color and possibility. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was beautiful but lifeless. It was solemn when it should have been exciting. It was a movie that seemed to take itself far too seriously—even the title was pretentious. Well, of course it's a motion picture. Star Trek: The Motion Picture did what I thought was impossible; it wasn't Star Trek and it wasn't any fun. It was a BIG movie that came off as small and proved once again that sometimes more does not equal better. I'll admit it, before I really discovered girls and love, I had my heart broken by a movie and over the lost chance to see the Kirk, Bones, and Spock that I knew fighting it out with some big bad on the silver screen. I knew that I would always have the memory of the series and what it had meant to my childhood, but it seemed that my first love affair with something was over.
Warp forward three years. It's 1982, I've just graduated from high school, I'm working my first "real" job, and I'm nervous about starting college. I'm scared because it seems like my life is nothing but change. Enter producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer with a big, bold, and exciting security blanket called Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Everything wrong with Star Trek: The Motion Picture was right with Wrath of Khan. Every bit of familiarity that was missing the first time out is clearly evident with the second try. Kirk was Kirk, McCoy was McCoy, Spock was Spock, and Scotty was still the best damn engineer in the fleet. No 12-minute tours around the Enterprise in dry dock, this was a movie that moved and this was a Star Trek that actually had a villain. In reinventing Star Trek, Nicholas Meyer allowed the franchise to discover what made it successful to begin with. With Star Trek II, Meyer invited all the friends I thought were lost forever back home. It's the Star Trek that defined what the franchise would evolve into. It was a Star Trek that dealt in primary colors, in good and evil, and most importantly, was a Star Trek that in looking backwards, took giant steps towards the future. It's not an understatement to say that if not for Bennett and Meyer, there would have been no more films, no Star Trek: The Next Generation, no Deep Space 9, no Voyager, and no Enterprise. If not for those two men, Star Trek would have just been a television series with a strong and passionate cult following and not the cultural touchstone that has endured for almost 40 years. It is a movie that features dialogue, which in a different kind of film, would be laughed off the screen and it stars a company of performers that would never get confused with acting heavyweights such as Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, or even Patrick Stewart. Yet, in spite of all of those things (or maybe because of them), there is magic present. Jack Sowards' screenplay crackles with excitement and witty banter, those same "B" grade actors pull you in, and everything about the movie, from prologue to epilogue, simply works. It's really a remarkable thing to watch a movie as many times as I've watched this one and to be so consistently entertained by it. To laugh at the same things, to receive those same thrills when hearing James Horner's bombastic score, or to shed a few tears over the loss of a friend. In this age of digital manipulation and anything-is-possible CGI effects, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan still feels as fresh as when the world was new.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Star Trek saved my life or anything. I will also tell you that I'm not the Star Trek fan I used to be (too many endless repetitions of the same storylines over too many hours of television have seen to that), but what Star Trek did do for me was open up a doorway for my passion and my love for movies. It taught me that it's okay to enjoy and sometimes obsess over the details that most people dismiss. It showed me that from the most modest of beginnings, something special can be created and endure. It proved that life really is about possibilities.
The enduring popularity of both the series and this movie is something that people a lot smarter than I have tried to explain, and I suppose we could discuss the acting, William Shatner's hairpiece, and all the things that make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan special…but where is the point to that? I think I've proved beyond a reasonable doubt that I am not unbiased in regard to this movie, and you either get Star Trek or you don't. It's one of those things that has little in the way of middle ground. There's only two questions to be answered: Is this disc worth picking up, and is it an improvement over the first bare-bones disc? It's a pretty clear yes to both questions. After all, it is as our fellow Judge Eric says, KHAN, and I won't presume to argue with him. In all things post-original series, Khan is king. If you are a Trek fan, you have to do what you knew you were going to do when you bought the first disc, and the second try is a marked improvement. Advertised as a Director's Edition, this version of Wrath of Khan features about three minutes of additional footage. The best thing I can say about it is that it does not really slow the movie down. It adds a little more character background, but all things being equal, I would have been just as happy with the original theatrical cut. This is no Star Trek: The Motion Picture where the final version was a rushed, unfinished affair in desperate need of fine tuning and modern day touchups. The version of Khan released 20 years ago had everything it needed and nothing it didn't. Still, I understand the need to try and set this double dip apart from the first go-round.
As a general rule I can live with a bare bones disc as long as it features the best possible video and sound and is reasonably priced. The first try from Paramount failed on two of those three counts. Since this is a family site, I can't tell you exactly what I thought of the first transfer, but it does rhyme with hit. Murky, grainy, dark, and full of source imperfections, Paramount's first try with their golden goose was not the studio's finest hour. Since this edition features new footage, it would appear that a new transfer was struck, or at the very least additional work was done. Second time out the image is not perfect but it does stand as a sizable step forward. Colors look better, flesh tones appear to be more accurate, and black levels hold together a bit more solidly. Even though the movie is given the expected anamorphic enhancement, the picture is still soft in spots, but it's more than likely that this is just the way the movie is and not a reflection of the transfer. There is also the expected grain evident with any movie shot 2.35:1 and things do look a little dated when put through their paces in the movie's numerous special effects sequences. All in all, these are all expected problems with movies from this period. What does count is that I was able to get lost all over again in the movie without always thinking about how crappy the transfer looked.
The sound would appear to be the same 5.1 remix done for the initial release, taking into account the newly added footage. Badly looped dialogue was a problem in both the first two movies, and it's painfully evident in spots here as well. Coming from the mono source material there is the expected lack of fidelity, and the mix also fails to possess the warmth and zing expected with today's modern sound design. Still, I suppose you can't make an omelet without eggs, and Paramount did the best with what they had. This is not to say that it sounds bad—it doesn't. Dialogue is clear and easily heard, while James Horner score comes through nicely without ever becoming shrill or overbearing. The engineers managed to get some nice directional presence out of the movie's key battles and there are spots where the mix is able to unfold naturally. Just don't go into this disc thinking that it's going to shake the walls and wake up the older couple downstairs; this is not a showoff mix. I probably would have been just as happy with a nicely cleaned up mono but again, I understand why Paramount did it this way.
In the extras department, the package Paramount put together for Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a nice start. While I'm not completely sure that as a division they have the whole "special edition" thing figured out yet, the materials featured on this two-disc set improve on what was done before and builds upon that foundation.
I don't usually mention menus, but the ones on this disc are a definite improvement over almost anything I have seen from Paramount in the past. Easy to use and staying to true to the movie itself, it was a nice introduction to the package. Disc one features two commentaries, both of which are worth any fan's time. First up is a rather chatty audio commentary with director Nicholas Meyer, and it is a lively, fact and story filled affair. It's pretty evident what a bright man Meyer is, and he doesn't seem to pull his punches too badly. This is as good an overview of Star Trek II as you are likely to find. The second commentary is text-based, written by Star Trek expert Michael Okuda, co-author of The Star Trek Encyclopedia. This is a guy who knows his Star Trek stuff. It also helps that he writes in an easy to follow and witty fashion. He highlights the history of Trek, the characters in the movie, and the additions made to the film for this director's edition. Together, these commentaries are a valuable source of all information pertaining to Star Trek and the film series. In fact, these two commentaries almost make the second disc and all of their interviews and featurettes superfluous.
Moving on to that second disc, things open up with a couple of interview sections. The first is called The Captain's Log, which features interviews done recently, while the second grouping is taken from the press materials done for the movie's 1982 release. I don't know who or what possessed Paramount to shoot these new interviews in extreme close-up, but it must have been somebody's idea of a joke. This is not an attractive look for the people involved. Producer Harve Bennett is there and he has some good stories to tell, although I wondered why he didn't join Meyer on the commentary. Shatner and Nimoy look like they would rather be elsewhere, leaving Ricardo Montalban to pick up the slack in the charm department. He tells basically the same stories I remember him telling on The Tonight Show all those years ago, but they are still amusing. Watching it I was left to wonder how hard it would be to just produce a documentary that covers all the bases without going in for the fancy bells and whistles that have more of a place with the French New Wave than with the making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Through it all, I was left with a feeling I've had for years—even though Star Trek helped keep Paramount afloat during some very lean years, I think they have always been a little embarrassed by their association with it and have never really understood it. I don't know how else to explain the level of ineptitude with which they have approached their most profitable property.
Of the interview footage shot back in 1982, I will only say this: Sometimes less really is more. It has kitsch value and nothing more. The main thing I was left wanting, besides a real overview of the movie, was some kind of tribute to the late DeForest Kelley and his work as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy.
More traditional in approach are the featurettes Designing Khan and The Visual Effects of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Both run under 25 minutes, but both feature more of a mix of movie clips, archival behind-the-scenes footage in addition to the interview segments. There is also a short segment called The Star Trek Universe that focuses in on Trek authors Greg Cox and Julie Ecklar, Star Trek fandom, and the cottage industry it has created. This is certainly an area worth exploring and this is just such a segment, but again, as with the SE from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I was left wanting more. Hard-core Trek and Khan fans probably already know who these folks are, but still for newbies or lapsed Star Trek fans such as myself, these interviews provide something new and different. Closing this set out is a pretty exhaustive set of storyboards and the movie's theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen, but in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio rather than 2.35:1.
As I mentioned above, either you get Star Trek or you don't get Star Trek. Still, if you have never seen any of the movies, this is the place to start. Chapter one of a trilogy, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is as entertaining and moving a science fiction action/adventure romp as you are likely to find. Easily able to stand on its own terms, the movie moves at an assured clip with performances that are spot on. It is a movie that surprises with its wit, its ability to move emotionally, and the most of all, its warmth. It is a film about family and coming to terms with aging and death. It is complex where most movies of the genre are simple, and all it asks is that the viewer sit back and enjoy themself. For me, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan just feels like home.
As for the disc, well, I still think Paramount is the weakest of all the major studios releasing movies on DVD, but this two disc set is a step in the right direction. It's not perfect, but the groundwork is solid enough that I have hope for future special editions.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is found not guilty of all charges. While I do question the need for the added footage, this is still a wonderful and exciting movie. Paramount is also found innocent although whoever green lighted the way the interview sections were to be presented is sentenced to hard time on Ceti Alpha V. That is it. Court dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Nicholas Meyer
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