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“How do you feel, Jim?”
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is 35 years old today, and like its protagonist, I feel old. Not old enough to have seen the film the first time around, but old enough to realise that this must mean I’ve been a Star Trek fan for twelve long years that have shown me the naiveté of adolescence and the bitter truth of coming to the tail end of your twenties with nothing to show for it. In many ways, I am just like Admiral James T. Kirk, who faces a similar conundrum (admittedly he’s much older) at the start of the film. Technically, his career is in a good place, but he feels like a relic buried in an administrative role, instead of the young man careening through the stars he once was. When an old enemy rises from the ashes again, he’s forced not only to relive old space battles, but also face the truth about himself and embrace his destiny — a return to command.
Khan is, simply put, an absolute banger of a film. Despite the lofty baggage of the Star Trek mythos, with its continuity, its characters and its Klingons, Khan feels like it could conceivably exist in and of itself as a stylish 80s science fiction adventure. Everything from writing, directing and acting is all on point — director Nicholas Meyer ensured we got none of Shatner’s hamtastic worst by repeatedly shooting retake after retake, until he was so exhausted he had to dial back the grandiose, creating a decidedly more world-weary, introspective James Tiberius Kirk than what we saw on TV. Spock and Bones are as brilliant as ever, and while Chekov, Sulu and Uhura are given as little to do as ever (save for Chekov’s memorable mind-control mutiny in the first two acts) their presence is never unwelcome. Ricardo Montalban’s moustache-twirlingly pantomime Khan Noonien Singh is so delicious, you quickly forget that the original TV episode Khan appeared in was kind of racist (Latin American Montalban is supposed to be playing an Indian Sikh).
It’s odd that the film should appear so seamless after all these years given its origins: it was created as a last-ditch attempt to mine the last dregs of the Star Trek fandom, after the relative disappointment of the largely-unrelated Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the only reason Khan has a ‘II’ tagged onto its title). Khan was made for a fraction of the cost of The Motion Picture, thanks to the filmmakers’ ability to reuse and recycle crucial elements of the first film. This included many of its costly, impressive and utterly boring shots of the different starships, all of which are mercilessly cut in a way that is far more palatable for the viewing habits of a millennial. Obviously yes, the special effects are quaint and not to the standard of modern blockbusters (or even the Star Wars films which had all come out by this point), but they are charming and even fascinating — the spaceships are all real miniatures (and not CGI counterfeits) with real heft and physicality to them. All of the film’s computer screens are created using computer-generated imagery, and while they won’t fool you into truly believing you’re peering into humanity’s future, they are fun. Unlike the modern Star Trek films which have turned a thinking-man’s science fiction into blasty-punchy popcorn fluff, the space battles in Wrath of Khan is world championship chess compared to the 2009 film’s Ballygall Youth Club Tekken 3 tournament. Instead of the drab, static battles of the TV shows, where two starships sit facing each other (even the newer series are guilty of this), Khan sees the ships dipping and diving over and under each other in a tense game of cat and mouse. There’s no Eric Bana screaming “Fire everything!” in the Wrath of Khan.
If Khan should be guilty of one thing, it’s that it has had a resoundingly negative effect on the Star Trek film series. Instead of trying to copy its slick storytelling flair or its originality, every new film just tries to copy its formula — every attempt at reawakening the Star Trek series in the cinema results in a drab copy of Wrath of Khan. Nemesis, Into Darkness and even the celebrated 2009 film itself are guilty of lifting the beats of Khan and reusing them, rather than creating something as dynamic and fresh as the film was 35 years ago. Like the ending of the film, there should come a time when the series should feel young again.
Nevertheless, when taken in and of itself, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is as close to a spacefaring masterpiece as the series has known. It presents truly three-dimensional villains and a villain worthy of the old classics. Its tight storytelling, gripping tension and thematic payoffs give it the sort of polish you’d expect from blockbusters like The Dark Knight. While the film rewards old fans, it welcomes new ones with just as much enthusiasm. I am, and always shall be, its friend.