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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Director’s Cut) (A Video Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (The Director's Cut)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (The Director’s Cut)


Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Ricardo Montalban, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Kirstie Alley, Paul Winfield, Bibi Besch, Merritt Butrick, John Vargas, Nicholas Guest, James Horner and Ike Eisenmann.

Screenplay by Jack B. Sowards.

Directed by Nicholas Meyer.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures.  116 minutes.  Rated PG.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is arguably, probably more than arguably, the finest movie in this long-running franchise.  And it came very near to never being made.  Therefore it is definitely worthy of a new director’s cut release on DVD.

Honestly there is not much difference between this “Director’s Cut” – which was previously released on DVD in 2002 for the film’s 20th anniversary – and the original theatrical release.  There is about three minutes of additional footage, mostly revolving around the relationship between Chief Engineer Scott (James Doohan) and his nephew (played by former child star Ike Eisenmann of Escape From Witch Mountain fame).  It’s perfectly fine stuff, and it does go a bit towards explaining away one slight head-scratcher in the film (why did Scotty carry a badly burnt and injured Eisenmann up to the bridge rather than taking him directly to sick bay?), but it is nothing that was all that missed when it hit the cutting room floor.

Still, this movie is always worth revisiting.  And now, after watching it for the first time in probably at least 10 or 20 years, it is nice to be reminded what a damned good film it was, and how if not for this one movie, the Star Trek franchise would have sputtered out 35 years ago.

The original series, which ran from 1966-1969, was never a big hit, just barely avoiding cancellation two straight years before getting the ax after the third.  (Back then, shows were given more time to grow than they are now.)  However, the series became a shocking success on syndicated re-runs.  Still, it was a big gamble when Paramount announced they were getting the original cast back together ten years after cancellation to become a movie blockbuster.

After the big-budget calamity and box-office disappointment that is the original 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture (impressive special effects, but a deadly dull, pretentious storyline), this film would not have been made unless it could be done on the cheap.  However, Paramount smartly hired former novelist Nicholas Meyer (The Seven Per Cent Solution) to helm the production.  Meyer was fresh off of his first film, the critically acclaimed cult favorite Time After Time (still one of my all-time favorite movies).  While Meyer does not get a screenwriting credit here, it is pretty obvious that he helped to tweak the story and dialogue to fit his own style.

Meyer not only made arguably the best Star Trek movie ever in this one, but he also co-wrote arguably the second best in this long-running series, with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  For some reason, only the even numbered Star Trek movies were ever any good.  (This is not counting the current reboot series, where the first one was rather well-made, but the second one, a loose remake of this film, was a gigantic mess.  We’ll be seeing about the third very soon.)

In case you have somehow missed it – and I don’t see how it would be possible for anyone with even a passing interest in the Star Trek universe to miss it – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a sequel to an episode of the original series, which was called “Space Seed.”  (Honestly, back in my long, long ago days as a Trekker, that episode was far from one of my favorites, though it always had a following.)

In that episode, the Enterprise picks up a genetically-altered superman and his crew from the late 20th century who are in cryogenic freeze.  When Khan (Ricardo Montalban) and his men were awakened, they tried to seize the Enterprise.  Captain Kirk eventually abandoned them on a deserted planet as penance for their attempted coup.

The Wrath of Khan picks up 15 years later.  Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), who is now first officer on another ship and his Captain (Paul Winfield) stumble upon Khan and his men when searching for lifeless planets for a new top-secret scientific experiment called Genesis, one that has wondrous possibilities if used for good but could also be horribly exploited if used the wrong way.

Khan captures their ship, and uses it and the Genesis experiment to lure Kirk to them, so that Khan can take his vengeance upon the Captain who abandoned him all those years before, leading to the death of his beloved wife.

Montalban goes way over the top here, between his himbo fake chest and the spitting out of dialogue with unchecked venom in his smooth, fine Corinthian leather voice.  However, this over-acting is somewhat expected and rather forgivable in his larger-than-life, operatically-pitched character.

Ironically, Shatner as Captain Kirk, who is known to have more than a bit of a cured-ham streak going himself, actually does a surprisingly restrained and heartfelt job of playing Captain James T. Kirk stuck in the midst of a mid-life crisis.  Meyer explains on the director’s commentary that he had a trick that helped to keep Shatner’s performance modulated: multiple takes.  In the early takes of a scene, Shatner tended to go all leading man on the dialogue.  After ten, fifteen, twenty runs at the same dialogue, he tended to get bored and settle in to playing the role more naturally.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan certainly told one of the best stories in all of the Star Trek canon.  The special effects, which were pretty state of the art when the film was released almost 35 years ago, have of course aged and look sort of primitive compared to today’s effects, but they still hold up pretty well.  If you are going to own any one Star Trek movie, this should absolutely be the one.

If you’re already a Star Trek fan, then you probably already have it, as Wrath of Khan has been released in multiple formats in the years since home video took over.  (And this film came out right in the first five years of the home video revolution.)  In that situation, the additional few minutes of screen time are probably not worth buying it again, unless you are a hardcore completist.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: June 6, 2016.

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