So hey! Haven’t talked about one of my favorite films since “Secretary“. Let’s rectify that!

Nobody can predict if a movie is going to turn out good or not, but sometimes you get lucky and all the pieces come together in a way nobody expected.  “Wrath of Khan” is one of my favorite films because everything came together so well that not a single bit of it was taken for granted, and thus everything shines.  Some films get torn apart by “too many cooks in the kitchen”, but this is one of the rare times where a bunch of cooks came together and made a gourmet meal.

A gourmet meal of ham, but a gourmet meal nonetheless.

A gourmet meal of ham, but a gourmet meal nonetheless.

The first “Star Trek” film, while a box office success, was mired by mixed reactions from critics and a troubled production, brought on by creator Gene Roddenberry’s constant demand for re-writes, which inflated the budget and made the production time drag on so long that the reels were still wet from the developing lab when loaded into the projector for the film’s premiere.  The box office numbers, though, were high enough that Paramount felt that audiences would respond well to a sequel.  Massive changes needed to be done before that though, the first being kicking Gene Roddenberry upstairs into a “creative consultant” position, where executives and producers alike were free to ignore his ideas.

"Fine!  I'll take my ideas about hot women in skimpy space clothes elsewhere!"

“Fine! I’ll take my ideas about hot women in skimpy space clothes elsewhere!”

Several producers were interviewed, and Paramount took an interest in Harve Bennett, who had produced mostly television movies up until that point but was mostly unfamiliar with “Star Trek”.  Point blank, he was asked “Can you make a new ‘Star Trek’ movie for us for less than forty-five-fucking million dollars?”.  Harve simply replied “Where I come from?  I can make five movies for that.”  Thus production on “Star Trek 2” began, budgeted at $10 million.

It’s a good thing there was no internet at the time, because I can only imagine how fans would have reacted when they found out the brass facts.  Roddenberry kicked upstairs?  The new producer is unfamiliar with “Star Trek”?  The budget is a quarter of what the last film’s was?  This will be a disaster!  But what makes the production of “Wrath of Khan” so special is that at no point did anyone get down on themselves for the low budget or challenges they had to face.  Instead, they turned them into strengths.


“Star Trek” = the only franchise that can pull off a Mexican actor playing an Indian Sikh with a Vietnamese name

To begin with, Harve Bennett started by sitting down and watching every single episode of “Star Trek” at least once to get a feel for the show, and to come up with ideas.  Right away, he centered on one particular episode: “Space Seed”, a story where Kirk thaws out a genetically-engineered superman named Khan Noonien Singh from Earth’s distant past from cryogenic sleep, and who tries to take over the ship.  The plot might have been standard, if not for the charismatic and menacing performance of Ricardo Montalban as Khan.  Looking for a central villain, Bennett was delighted to discover that Montalban loved his time playing Khan and would be delighted to return to the role.  Initial scripts were drafted focused around this.

In the original episode, Khan took over the ship with the power of smoldering gazes.

In the original episode, Khan took over the ship with the power of his smoldering gazes.

Bennett soon brought on Nicholas Meyer to direct, based on his work on “The Seven Per Cent Solution” and “Time After Time”.  Meyer looked at all the scripts, took everything everyone liked, and worked to craft it into a cohesive story.  It could be a character, a setting, an object, even a line of dialogue.  Saavik?  The Genesis Device?  Kirk discovering he had a long lost son?  All from different drafts, and all pulled together by Meyer.

Couldn't tell you what draft that hair was in though.

Couldn’t tell you what draft that hair was in though.

Then there was the matter of the cast, who were in their 40’s and 50’s when filming began.  William Shatner met with Meyer and Bennett and, through diet and make-up, volunteered to play younger if need be.  Meyer and Bennett politely refused.  Rather than hide the age of their cast, they wanted to make that a core part of the film.  The story opens with Kirk an admiral shunted to a boring desk job, only spending time on his beloved Enterprise to train cadets with his old crew.  Kirk overcoming his age, the loss of his command, and his command style in general becomes his dominant arc instead of playing the boring invincible hero again.


Outer space LLLLLadies…

A huge issue during production was the matter of Spock, and Leonard Nimoy had hated the troubled production of the first film and, tired of being typecast by the role, asked that Spock be killed so he could move on from the franchise.  Meyer and Bennett accommodated by putting his death at the end of the first act, as a shock similar to Janet Leigh’s death in “Psycho”.  The script leaked however and fans threw a fit, so the production team had the idea to move it towards the end as the emotional climax where it would have more impact.  To throw expectations off, the Kobayashi Maru sequence with Saavik at the beginning was devised where Spock “dies” in a simulation of a Klingon attack.

Really, it's amazing he didn't die of a concussion years ago.

Really, it’s amazing he didn’t die of a concussion years ago.

Once again, Meyer and Bennett took what could have been a major setback and made it a core theme of the film.  When Saavik is being grilled on her performance afterward by Kirk, he states that every starship captain must eventually face a “no-win scenario”.  “How we deal with death is just as important as how we deal with life,” he states, setting the stage for Spock’s tragic end.


Fortunately, it wasn’t to be permanent; Leonard Nimoy had such a positive experience making “Wrath of Khan” that he had a change of heart about Spock dying.  So he asked a small “out” be filmed in case a third film was green-lit, leading to his mind-meld with Dr. McCoy.


“Wrath of Khan” took such strong stock of its resources that its almost in every frame.  The uniforms?  Re-dyed versions of the cheesy disco jumpsuits from the first film, this time given a more timeless “naval” look.  The sets?  Half the film was shot on the same set and was simply re-dressed for the segments after Khan and his crew take over the Reliant, the size hidden by clever camera tricks.  And Khan himself?  Notice how he’s never on set or shares the frame with Kirk.  Montalban’s schedule didn’t allow for him to film the same time as the actors, so he and Kirk only communicate through audio channels and view-screens.  Again, should have held the film back, but Montalban himself pointed out that Khan had such a presence over the characters that he was “felt” even if he wasn’t there, always driving the story.


Ultimately though, what makes “Wrath of Khan” shine for me is the human element, which the first film was sorely lacking.  For the first time, Kirk is faced with the choices he made in his life (his son, his command, his first dealing with Khan), and faced with a scenario where, for once, he and his crew do not emerge unscathed.  For once, the invincible starship captain is made vulnerable, but is reborn from the experience.


"I feel...young."

“I feel…young.”

When Meyer was confronted by someone saying “You can’t kill Spock”, he replied “Sure you can.  It all depends on how you do it, and if you do it well.”  My favorite “Star Trek” films have always been the ones that took risks in some way, even ones that didn’t work out, and its fitting that the first was the biggest.  But the themes of birth, rebirth, death, and loss are so ingrained and strong in “Wrath of Khan” that you don’t think about Spock’s death until its actually happening.

"I fought off Khan's smoldering gaze with MY smoldering gaze!"

“I fought off Khan’s smoldering gaze with MY smoldering gaze!”

“Wrath of Khan” is solid proof that you can, when the right elements are in place, you can pull together something that’s true to its source material even when its taking hard risks with that material.  And whatever we lose, its never really lost.  There’s always another sun over the horizon.