Originally published on Fantasy Matters.
In my regular blog for The Guardian, I’m on record as saying that there are only two truly great science fiction movies. These are, of course, 2001 and Bladerunner. And if I think about science fiction as a ‘genre of ideas’ then I stand by that statement. No other SF movie even comes close to the vision of these two.
But. I have a confession to make. There are other SF movies that I love rather a lot, even though they have none of the philosophical depth of truly great SF. And when it comes to SF movies lacking any philosophical depth, there are none greater than the greatest of all Star Trek movies…Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan.
Let’s be frank. Star Trek taken in its entirety has nothing of any great depth to say. Yes, I know, I know. The Federation is a utopian future society. If you altered the laws of physics just a teeny weeny little bit everything on board the Enterprise-D REALLY WOULD WORK, and classic Trek episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” played around with political ideas like the civil rights movement. I grew up a Star Trek geek, I know the arguments. But let’s be honest with ourselves here for just a moment…all that stuff is just trimming around the edge of what we really love about Trek…it’s unabashed pulp storytelling.
From the opening sequence of the Kobayashi Maru, through Khan’s mind control ear wigs, to William Shatner’s greatest screen moment screaming ‘KHAN!!!’ in the Genesis caves, WoK is simply the greatest pulp adventure movie ever made.
I challenge even the most high brow cinema goer not to release a small whoop of joy when, with the USS Enterprise dead in space after an underhand attack from the hijacked USS Reliant, Kirk and Spock hack the opposing ship’s computer, lower her shields and, even as the eponymous Khan gloats over their defeat, unleash phaser hell on the Reliant. HURRAH!!
But there is more. Star Trek may not be deep in concepts or philosophy. But it does have heart and soul. Beneath all the photon explosions and vengeful villains, WoK is a film about friendship. With the Enterprise unable to reach warp speed, Spock enters the radiation filled warp chamber to fix the engines, sacrificing his own life to save those of his crew. Kirk and Spock’s final exchange, even through an inch of plexiglass, is genuinely moving. Bill Shatner overcomes his usually wooden acting style and manages to shed a tear. And I’m not ashamed to say, I do too.
14 thoughts on “Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan”
“Greatest pulp adventure ever made” is stretching it for me but Khan is undoubtedly the best of the Star Trek movies. The TV cast I grew up with got to stretch their legs a bit, Montalban’s great and the choreography of the space battle, with all its WWII submarine movie nods, is a joy. To top it all, it rises above Trek’s essential silliness and delivers something not normally associated with even the best SF movies: real emotion.
Do you have another nomination for “Greatest pulp adventure movie?”
The movie you mentioned yourself in these comments: Raiders of the Lost Ark. No hesitation.
“But. I have a confession to make…”
What is wrong with liking this particular film?
Just because a film is taken from Series X doesn’t automatically mean that it is a bad film and you shouldn’t need to inject that tone. I will redirect you to your blog post where you said the same thing about not judging a genre book by its cover…
There’s a reason why Khan appears regularly in many top 10s – it’s a good film. Many “proper” film critics praise it quite highly. While it’s not Stalker, there’s quite a lot of depth and characterisation. Meyer has said that that he realised that the film was about friendship and loss (yeah that includes Khan) and the emotional baggage that we accrue throughout our lives. What, exactly, is wrong with that? There’s quite a lot of meatiness in those subjects for you to get your teeth into.
Your post feels somewhat bizarrely snobby, even though you seem to want to praise it.
And btw it’s also well filmed (pacing, editing and general cinematography). But I’m guessing you don’t want my film geek essay on that subject.
I really don’t care about how it relates to the rest of the Star Trek universe.
I’m being slightly tongue in cheek and perhaps mocking myself for being overly serious about SF movies sometimes. However…
For all its strengths, WoK is still a pulp adventure movie, and that really limits how deeply it can explore its subject matter. Friendship, loss, emotional baggage. Yes, its all there. But compare it to say, The Thin Red Line, which deals with a lot of the same themes. Hmmm…now I’m imagining WoK as directed by Terence Malick. Not such a ridiculous idea, and the result might have been much more on the order of a Bladerunner or 2001. But under Nicholas Roeg what you have is is tremendously fun adventure movie with occaisional nods to the deeper thematic stuff happening beneath the action driven plot. It’s still great, but a different kind of great.
It would be something else again if it was Nicholas Roeg..! It was Nicholas Meyer of course, but easily forgotten. Interestingly he seems to have had little knowledge of Star Trek before he took the role.
I read your posts and rarely agree, but your taking the ‘good bad’ approach seems a very reasonable way forward here. There are all kinds of things which may not be easily classified, much less exemplars in a category, but despite that – and quite possibly because of it – are worthwhile.
You might like this fun post, for a something that might bug about the movie.
Nicholas Meyer, of course! Nicholas Roeg’s version really WOULD have been mental…
Nicholas Meyer is an oscar nominated film director. I don’t want to have to fight his corner but your comment re Roeg and Malick says a lot. Is a film only quality if a particular type of director makes it? My old Film studies lecturer would probably hunt you down and beat you to death with a copy of Sight & Sound for saying that. I think the problem you have, it’s a problem I have too, is that the film is associated with THAT franchise. If it wasn’t I bet we wouldn’t even have this discussion.
And Yes I was initially reluctant to reply to you over this post because I don’t want to be associated socially painful people obsessed with dressing up*.
*Don’t worry trekkers I am only half kidding.
Steven Spielberg is an Oscar winner as well, but there’s a profound difference between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler’s List. WoK is a pulp adventure movie…I would have much the same opinion of it whether it was part of the Star Trek franchise or not.
First Contact (i.e. no. 8) is better. The villains there are essentially zombie-pirate-cyborgs, and that’s going to clinch it however many arguments are levelled against.
NO NO NO NO NO. Absurd!
First Contact was good, but nowhere near WoK. Indy depends on a lot of physical stunts that were spectacular on first viewing, but don’t really stand the test of time. Sorry.
Can I add: Death Race 2000 with David Carradine AND Slyvester Stallone. It’s not bad pulp adventure SF considering the budget they had available.