If there's a list of "what not to do" when you make a popcorn-selling, blockbuster film, Star Trek II breaks every rule on it. You shouldn't make a film in which the hero and villain never come face-to-face; you should never make a film where the plot is a sequel to a single episode of television which aired fifteen years earlier (certainly not in 1982, when you can't even buy that episode on VHS); you should not have a film completely lacking in any kind of romance plot; you should not have your villain in an inferior spacecraft to the good guys; and you probably shouldn't pepper the film with quotes from literature and ensure the script is full of thematic richness.
It's by breaking every one of those rules that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan became not only the finest Star Trek movie ever made (a position it retains with near-contemptuous ease forty years on), but a genuinely great science fiction movie, one of the very best of the 1980s which marks a place on the podium alongside the likes of Aliens, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Predator, The Empire Strikes Back. It certainly saved the Star Trek franchise after the over-indulgence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture nearly sank it, and set the scene for everything that followed, including two direct sequels and a plethora of spin-off TV shows.
The Wrath of Khan works on every single level. Franchise newcomers Harve Bennett (writing) and Nicholas Meyer (directing) brought both a fresh viewpoint but also respect for the property when coming aboard. Bennett watched every single episode of Star Trek ever made to come up with ideas for the story, whilst Meyer engaged the actors in long conversations about their characters and motivations. The actors, who were generally not tested by the material in The Motion Picture, are given much richer material here. There seems to be more dialogue in the opening half-hour of this film than there is the entirety of its forebear, and it's great stuff. Kirk is struggling with a full-blown midlife crisis, moving between self-pity and frustration, and the oft-mocked Shatner sells that extremely well. Shatner in fact gives a career-best performance in this movie and its sequel, with the scripts calling on him to plumb emotional depths he is rarely asked to do elsewhere. DeForest Kelley also delivers impressively as McCoy tries to help his friend whilst calling him on his BS. Leonard Nimoy gives a terrific performance as Spock, as you'd expect, but goes above and beyond the call of duty, especially in his scenes at the end of the film.
The rest of the crew are under-serviced as normal, but do at least get a few good scenes: James Doohan's Scotty has to deal with the death of a family member in service and Walter Koenig's Chekov gets a promotion to first officer of the USS Reliant and more involved in the story. Nichelle Nichols and George Takei get relatively short shrift (Sulu had more material where it's revealed he's been promoted to Captain and is going out on one last hurrah, but it was cut in production). Newcomer Kirstie Alley gets a lot more great material as Lt. Saavik and is a very fine addition to the crew, and it's a shame she did not return in subsequent films. Oddly, a line referencing the fact that Saavik is actually half-Romulan, half-Vulcan was cut from the movie (and not restored in any one of the half-dozen or so different cuts and edits of the movie released over the years), whilst a later joke by McCoy referring to this fact is left in, somewhat confusingly, but it's not a major issue.
Towering over the film, however, is Ricardo Montalbán, reprising his role as Khan from the 1967 TV episode Space Seed. Montalbán was nervous at reprising the role after such a long break, especially since he'd been playing the moral Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island for five years and was concerned about his image. However, it only took a single re-viewing of the original episode to find the character again. Montalbán is a magnetic, charismatic presence who dominates the film but never overwhelms it. Whether it's quoting Moby Dick or plotting his vengeance on Kirk, he's a formidable opponent and comfortably earns his reputation as Star Trek's greatest single villain, with his defeat coming as a result of his own hubris and inexperience at commanding a starship rather than some deus ex machina moment.
The film was famously produced for a tiny budget (barely a quarter that of The Motion Picture), restricting most of the action to the Enterprise bridge (which pulls double duty as the bridge of the Reliant) and other sets inherited from the original movie, and the Regula I space station. Fortunately, a positive studio reception to early footage saw the effects footage expanded, and the visual effects in the space battles between the Enterprise and Reliant remain outstanding four decades on. The battles are well-handled, depicting the two ships as lumbering battleships able to both dish out and withstand tremendous amounts of punishment, but every hit still hurts and can still kill people. The Enterprise is a larger, more powerful ship but the Reliant gets the drop on it in the first fight, making for an evenly-matched climactic battle in the Mutara Nebula (impressively depicted with gas and fluid tanks). The battle is also tremendously visceral, with decks collapsing and crewmen getting crushed, burned or subjected to lethal radiation in a manner that hadn't been seen previously on Trek (and led to the movie getting a hitherto unthinkable "15" certificate in the UK).
Arguably the most influential, important scene in the movie in terms of technical legacy is the still-impressive sequence depicting the Genesis Device terraforming a planet. Completely generated in a computer in 1981, it is one of the first 100% computer-generated scenes to ever appear in a movie (certainly one that wasn't a simple wireframe). The team behind it went on to other things; they later rebranded themselves under the name "Pixar."
Particularly worthy of mention is James Horner's score, which re-uses a few elements from his earlier movies (particularly Battle for the Planets) but mostly consists of new material. His new overture, used for flybys of the Enterprise and the main title theme, is an instant classic. Of course, what really got people talking when the movie was released was the jaw-dropping ending, which in the pre-Internet age had successfully been kept secret in a manner unlikely to be replicated today (and rumours about it had been deflected by the opening scene of the film, which misled audiences). It's still an emotionally powerful moment played by the actors in a convincing and almost poetic manner. In fact, despite the sometimes hokey dialogue as related above, the movie has a number of iconic lines and quotes (mostly from A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick) which help give the movie a thematically satisfying through-line. This is a movie about not just revenge, but age, finding your right place in the world and the fact that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or indeed, the one). There's also satisfying attention paid to not copping out on the story. The writers couldn't conceive of a way that Khan and Kirk could meet without Kirk being killed, so they simply don't meet. And whilst victory is eventually won, it is only at a hard, hard cost.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (*****) is a great movie about revenge, family, the road not travelled and aging. It's also a terrific action movie, but one where the action is not allowed to outweigh the characterisation. It's simply a classic science fiction movie and represents the standard that Star Trek would occasionally, at its very best, match (in episodes like The Best of Both Worlds, The Inner Light, The Visitor and In the Pale Moonlight), but never exceed.
A note on versions: Star Trek II has been reissued and re-released more than any other Star Trek film, and three distinct versions now exist. The original, 113-minute theatrical cut remains very fine and can be found on the 2009 Blu-Ray collected edition of the first ten films. An extended or "TV" cut, three minutes longer, adds a few scenes that were cut from the theatrical version of the film (such as Kirk's shuttle approaching the Enterprise and Kirk meeting Peter Preston in Engineering). The Director's Cut, overseen by Nicholas Meyer and released on DVD in 2002 and Blu-Ray in 2016 (as a digitally-remastered version which rebuilds the movie from scratch from the original film elements), is now definitive. It recuts several scenes to incorporate more dialogue and characterisation and confirms that Preston is Scotty's nephew. The Blu-Ray version did accidentally omit a scene where Kirk tells McCoy and Saavik that David is his son. This version of the film has also been listed several times for 4K release, which for some reason has never appeared.
Note: I previously reviewed the film here.