[box cover]

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: The Director's Edition

Paramount Home Video

Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley,
Walter Koenig, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols,
Ricardo Montalban, Bibi Besch, Kirstie Alley, Merritt Butrick,
Paul Winfield, Judson Scott

Written by Jack B. Sowards (with Nicholas Meyer)
From a story by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards

Directed by Nicholas Meyer

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

"The question is not whether you kill him. It's whether you kill him well. If it's perceived as the working-out of a clause in the star's contract, then they're going to hate it. If it's organic, if it's really part of the story, then no one's going to object.... Henry James said that life is hot but art is cool. If you are the puppeteer you cannot be out front sobbing at the performance; you must be backstage holding the strings and making sure they don't get tangled. So my objectivity, or as some have characterized it, my irreverence, served me well."

Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer, from the commentary
track during the Famous Death Scene


Part 1:  Khan with the Wind

(To jump down directly to the DVD details, click here.)

Thank the heavens for The Wrath of Khan, which saved Star Trek from itself.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an artistic and dramatic failure that went blandly where Star Trek had gone before. Nonetheless, the box office tallies were strong, so Paramount gambled on the notion that another film could amortize the first's enormous cost overruns and prove that the studio really did have a cash cow on its hands. After all, in show business a movie doesn't have to be good as long as it's profitable.

But lo and behold, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was good. Really, really good. Twenty years, seven movies, and four franchise TV series later, reasoned consensus still regards it as the best Trek movie of them all. We aren't talking good just in that "Not bad for [haughty sneer] Star Trek" way. Simply as a movie this multi-layered action picture works so well you don't need to be a "Trekkie" to enjoy it. Supported by James Horner's exuberant orchestral score and outstanding effects work by Industrial Lights and Magic, it has all the full-color fun of a modern "graphic novel" (don't call 'em "comic books"), with the heart and soul that we syndication-generation fans always knew existed under the skin of our favorite TV show. Here's a visually rich, briskly entertaining movie constructed from a script that's clever and witty without being "intellectual" (God forbid), that's enthralling or goofy or melodramatic in exactly measured proportions, and that's brimming with wham-bam "Warp Factor 8!" vim.

In short, unlike the first movie this one feels like Star Trek. If The Motion Picture was a shot glass of Robitussin, Wrath of Khan is a Bombay Sapphire gin & tonic chilled just so with a slice of lime.

Gone is its predecessor's turgid pomposity and, as director Nicholas Meyer called it, "lamentable lack of story and human interaction." Instead we get a pitch-perfect balance of Space Opera pirate saga, unforced humor, and (most welcome of all) realistic character drama. Wrath of Khan isn't a science fiction film as much as it's an old-fashioned adventure story dressed up in vintage SF tropes. It's more Robert Louis Stevenson than Robert Heinlein. As a movie it's a closer cousin to Errol Flynn's swashbucklers Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk than to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Heck, even the new epaulette-festooned crimson uniforms worn by the Enterprise crew would look right at home in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. The climactic and beautifully realized starship battle near the end is a cross between U-boat suspense films and the Pequod dueling with that whale. On this new Director's Edition DVD, Meyer acknowledges that C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels were his most potent influence, and that influence fit the series so well that it carried forward throughout subsequent movies and spin-off TV series.

Something old, something new

Fifteen years prior, in the TV episode "Space Seed," Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner, as if you didn't know) exiled to an unpopulated planet the charismatic megalomaniac, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), and 70 of his followers, all genetically enhanced übertypes who had conquered a quarter of planet Earth centuries ago during the 1990s. (Real history has, alas, caught up with Star Trek's more colorful version.) Khan tried to seize the Enterprise in an attempt to conquer all those strange new worlds. Now he and what's left of his people manage to capture another ship, and taking lethal revenge on Admiral Kirk is at the top of Khan's to-do list. The ship he acquires gives him access to the Genesis Device, a revolutionary technique for transforming dead worlds into Earth-like made-to-order paradises faster than Martha Stewart makes a quiche. Keeping such a potential Armageddon weapon out of Khan's hands means that Kirk must battle his old foe wits-to-wits and ultimately ship-to-ship, guns a-blazin'. Mind-control earwigs, Scotty's gung-ho nephew, the return of wild oats sown long ago, a newly created planet, and one salvation/tragedy involving Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) also enter the mix.

Woven into the gangbusters goings-on are meditations that humanize the larger-than-life James Kirk. Here's our long-time galactic hero at last facing the fact that he's not the young space cowboy he used to be (his needing spectacles is a nice touch). His unscheduled reunion with an ex-lover (Bibi Besch in her best-ever screen time) also delivers a grown-up hotheaded son he barely knows (Merritt Butrick). Shortly after Khan's first attack on the Enterprise, which leaves a new crew member dead, Kirk swallows the bitter pill that his own failure almost brought about their destruction. Our aging admiral and crew may descend to self-parodying plastic action figures in some later entries, but in this movie they're allowed to be vulnerably, dimensionally human as themes of pursuit, age, death, and regeneration appear through the phaser fire.

Wrath of Khan's plot is built from an ingenious blend of old-shoe familiar Star Trek elements, primarily a well-remembered villain from the TV series and the cut-glass relationship tripod of Kirk-Spock-McCoy. Upgraded by an all-new look and cinematic breadth, we have a movie that manages to tap into some Platonic Star Trek ideal. All of the old crew are back, and although the second-tier characters Sulu, Scotty, and Uhura don't have much to do, it's lovely to have the family back together again. This time Chekov (Walter Koenig) is the First Officer of the starship that stumbles across Khan's interstellar Elba. Now the TV show's Beatle-haired ensign is a Commander who gets to say "He put cleatures in our bodies!" in a Russian accent that has thickened over the years like Mom's Sunday stew. DeForest Kelly's Dr. McCoy once again proves that Kelly could deliver a line with more professional grace than any dozen A-list actors paid ten times his salary. All this and Spock gets a protégé in the perky Vulcan cadet Saavik (Kirstie Alley, before Cheers priced her out of the next two films).

Nowadays it's easy to forget how many Trek-fan firsts we get here — our first-ever look at what a starship's phaser blast really does, our first peek at 23rd century Earth's domestic life (Kirk's apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay is a telling museum of antiquities), and the whole plot turns on a rare Trek acknowledgement that actions (and inactions) have consequences. The "Genesis Device" introduced here continued to have presence in future films in the series, and is referred to in an episode of The Next Generation. Still, in Trek tradition its pseudo-tech properties don't bear close observation as they march right up to the edge of wand-waving magic without tipping over the precipice (that happens in the next film). The first black starship captain (Paul Winfield) probably still counts for something too, though it's unlikely that young'ns today will grok how that was ever a big deal.

(Okay, speaking of close observation, let's point a finger at Wrath of Khan's most annoying and amusing continuity error. Khan's followers we see here can't be the same adult, multinational league from "Space Seed" aged as much as Khan has. Nor are they young enough, or diverse enough, to be that group's children. Unless genome tweaking has mutated them beyond all reason and recognition, somewhere along the way Khan has replaced his Rainbow Coalition band of world-conquerors with, as Meyer calls them on this disc, a "genetically engineered biker gang." Frankly, except for one paunchy old guy who stands in the background, the blond, leather-clad twentysomethings we see here remind us of a UCLA frat party on its way to an AC/DC concert. And how they know how to fly a starship is as deep a mystery unless Khan figured out how to download technical manuals from the Federation's equivalent of the Internet. Oh, and what is it Spock does in the engine room that saves the ship? It looks like he's mixing the matter/antimatter batter by hand.)

The movie star and the actor

William Shatner has been parodied and pilloried quite a lot for his mannered style as Captain — now Admiral — James T. Kirk. And you bet he earned some of that. But he was never better than he is here and in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. He's a performer who needs a patient yet headstrong director to rein him in, and Meyer pulled Shatner's performance down to earth as if he were carefully reeling in a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. On the commentary track, Meyer discusses this at some length, with special attention to the difference between an actor and a movie star (guess which camp Shatner falls into), especially in a scene where Meyer got the right line delivery from Shatner by shooting so many takes that Shatner hit perfection the moment he got bored with it all.

Even so, when the scenery is chewed like yesterday's baklava by both Shatner and Montalban in a couple of key scenes, somehow it's perfect in the moment for all its tight-browed, clenched-jawed, intense quotability. (Wrath of Khan may be unique in SF cinema for having its hero and villain never actually meet; rather, all their confrontations are essentially done via conference calls.)

We can't ignore Montalban, whose Khan has clearly burned through the restraint and ramrod dignity of his younger TV self. Montalban pulls all stops to make Khan a passionate, ferocious avenger with believable passion-fueled motives, and he pushes his performance to the risky edge of caricature. Here's one mightily pissed-off archvillain enlarged to big-screen proportions, quoting 19th century literature and Klingon proverbs while slitting throats and placing icky bugs in people's brains. Give him an eyepatch and it'd be "Arrrr! Avast ye!" all the way and we'd still love every minute of it. Miraculously through it all, however, Montalban and Meyer keep it under control. They never let the knob get turned to 11. Even that crusty old bird Pauline Kael devoted extra column inches to praising the work this classically trained stage and screen idol delivers in Wrath of Khan.

Where credit's due

If nothing else, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan reminds us that sometimes, somehow, a Hollywood picture comes along and proves the creaky old notion that talent counts more than production dollars. There's got to be some moral in the fact that the Star Trek movie with the smallest budget (by far) and fewest resources is still the dominant favorite and the only one that doesn't feel, one way or another, like a factory-line franchise product designed solely to provide money for the stockholders. Not bad, especially given that the captain and navigator manning Wrath of Khan's bridge were two newcomers barely familiar with Star Trek at all, director Meyer and producer Harve Bennett.

Bennett and Meyer were what Star Trek needed: creative individuals who had never before seen the show and therefore could respect the material without slobbering up the works with a fanboy sense that Star Trek was something holy. When they took over creation of the second film, they went back and looked at every episode of the original series. Bringing back a plot hook from the good old days was a strategic a priori decision, and the first-season story "Space Seed" provided two conjoined attention-getters : Montalban and his striking portrayal of Khan.

By viewing each of the original 79 episodes, Bennett and Meyer learned everything they could about what worked and what didn't. With changing times, they left behind the 1960s image of the U.S.S. Enterprise as a galactic Peace Corps bringing American-style enlightenment to benighted heathens on faraway worlds. Rather, what worked were elements that bolster the best screen science fiction by transcending the genre ghetto — an emphasis on storytelling over winky-blink hardware, character-oriented writing, plots that freshened up clichéd SF concepts, and gee-whiz spaceships and ray guns that existed for more than their own sake. Not every episode was first-rate stuff, to be sure. One can imagine Bennett and Meyer setting fire to their contracts while sitting through all those shitty third-season eps. But there were enough strong stories to make clear what girdered the show's stubbornly stalwart appeal to an audience still swelling more than a decade after the series' brief network lifespan.

Meyer's fresh, non-reverential approach made him exactly the right man for the job of "re-imagining" the TV series while paradoxically remaining faithful to it. He maintained a masterful grip on the proceedings, handling action, suspense, and tragedy with equal aplomb.

Had Wrath of Khan failed commercially, what would have been the odds of any further movies or next generations? Snowball. Hell. You get the picture.

A director for all seasons

Let's pause for a moment to glow in the wonderment of a Hollywood director who, bless him, reads and writes books.

Nicolas Meyer brought to the project personal interests and a background steeped in literature, with a special fondness for 19th century novelists and Victoriana. His first big splash came in 1974 with The Seven Percent Solution, a Sherlock Holmes novel that hit the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, stayed on the charts for 40 weeks, became a popular movie from Meyer's screenplay, and resurrected the Holmes pastiche craze the way Wrath of Khan jolted new life into Star Trek. He followed that up with two sequel novels : The West End Horror saw Holmes and Watson brush shoulders with George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert and Sullivan, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and other Victorian theater luminaries. The Canary Trainer gave a Holmesian spin to Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera.

As a director, he's peppered his movies with cheeky literary references. His first directorial success was the delightful time-travel escapade Time After Time (1979), which is one big English major romp, what with H.G. Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper to modern San Francisco. And what's Wrath of Khan but a retooling of Moby Dick, complete with Khan/Ahab spouting lines directly from the novel? A worn copy of the book even appears on Khan's shelf, alongside King Lear and the Bible. In the movie, Spock gives Kirk a copy of Dickens' Tale of Two Cities for a birthday present. When Meyer returned to direct Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country — the last featuring the original crew and arguably the second-best film — he gave it an Agatha Christie-style "cozy" murder mystery, Shakespeare-quoting Klingons (and title), named a Klingon prison asteroid after the penal colony that held Captain Nemo in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and has Spock both quote Sherlock Holmes and refer to the coolly logical Great Detective as "one of my ancestors."

So it's not just clever banter when on this DVD's commentary track he refers to Wrath of Khan as "a page-turner."


Part 2:  About the DVD

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: The Director's Edition doesn't rebuild the film the way its Motion Picture counterpart did so well, but it doesn't need to either. What we have here is a two-disc set that offers a superb print with excellent visuals and audio plus loads of extras that go well beyond what some scoffers might expect to be just geeky fanboy fodder (though there's some of that too).

The basics

Looks great, sounds terrific.

The anamorphic 2.35:1 image is sharper and more solid than in the previous bare-bones DVD edition, which itself wasn't too shabby. The print is quite clean and blemish-free, though it hasn't been digitally restored Citizen Kane-style, so expect some minor grain and other special-effects compositing holdovers, plus a fleck or two. The colors (boy, this film loves color) pop with more stability now, and hawkeyed fans will notice that the abundant red-heavy color palette doesn't bleed anymore. The battle inside the Mutara Nebula is a gorgeous kaleidoscope that looks better than ever with this disc's sharpened definition.

Likewise, the audio is clear and clean with mindful use of surround capabilities. Don't look for digital-to-digital wraparound immersive sound environments or full-bore gimmicky directional add-ons. Instead the firm Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is robust and full with just enough ambiance-enhancing flavor provided through directionality effects. The DD 2.0 Surround mix option isn't as full-bodied, but it's certainly up to the job. Both audio options have plenty of clarity and dynamic range on hand. James Horner's score gets to go balls-out and the Enterprise whooshing at warp speed is dandy.

What makes this a "Director's Edition"? This version is the extended cut similar (but not identical) to the version that aired on ABC-TV several years ago. Only a few minutes' worth of new footage is noticeable, and while none of it changes any fundamentals, it's good to have the facts about Scotty's nephew back again, and some scenes are extended in ways that add to their content in appreciable ways. Further, the truly devoted Khan aficionado will notice a number of scenes that have always been there but are now present as different takes — subtle differences in line delivery or blocking or camera angles will keep hardcore groupies leaning forward on the sofa. On the commentary track, Meyer states that this is his preferred final cut of the film.

No special effects or other visuals have been upgraded à la Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director's Edition. That's fine with one exception — the Genesis Cave scene. Because neither production time nor dollars were available to do it up right the first time, Carol Marcus' demonstration of her Genesis Device's more Edenic potential looked phony and undercooked in 1982, and now here in a high-resolution DVD it looks even worse. If ever a scene cried out for a digital redo, there it is. Ah well. The scene still gives Dr. Marcus one of the best lines in the entire Star Trek franchise.

The extras

The prime attraction is Disc One's scene-by-scene commentary track with Nicholas Meyer. For a man who early on stated that he didn't want to do an audio track, he sounds fully engaged and glad to be here. It's one of the best director's commentaries to come down the pike in a while, and thoroughly outguns Robert Wise's bored-sounding annotations to The Motion Picture. Meyer says that he thinks of himself as a storyteller more than as a filmmaker, and he reinforces that thesis as he speaks of the thoughts and insights behind his choices as the director and co-writer. Yes, he discusses meat-and-potatoes stuff such as the production process and the numerous ways in which he and his team ingeniously cut budgetary corners, but more than anything else in this track you come to understand that Meyer is an intuitive romantic — in the old-school definition — and he shows us not a technician but an intelligent, creative mind who won't let merely practical speedbumps get in the way of a story as he wants to tell it. He's generous with the praise he has for the actors, especially Montalban and De Kelly, and easily slips in references to Henry James, Gilbert and Sullivan, Greek tragedy, and Teddy Roosevelt. His concluding statements speak with some passion about this cast being artists "saddled with an ambivalent relationship to the thing for which they are most well known" (after genially dubbing Star Trek "the thing that wouldn't die"). This is an excellent track for those of us who want proof that there are directors still out there who want to tell worthy stories through story rather than overlong toy commercials told through special effects.

Oh, and Meyer divulges what he says is the truth about whether or not that's really Ricardo Montalban's chest. We remain respectfully dubious.

Disc One also comes with a textual commentary track by long-time Star Trek designer and encyclopedic librarian Michael Okuda. As he did for the Motion Picture caption commentary, he points out production details (including each scene restored or changed for this Director's Edition), bloopers and blunders in science or story logic, and behind-the-scenes info in his chatty and often witty (if occasionally ungrammatical) flair. Great fun.

*          *          *

Disc Two is where the new and archival supplements are housed. All are anamorphically enhanced, which is a nifty touch.

The Captain's Log (27:20) is a new documentary about the movie's production history assembled from interviews with the cast and crew that took place in 2002. On board are Meyer (who, at 57 years of age in 2002, must have a ghastly painting stashed in his attic), Shatner, Nimoy, Montalban, and Harve Bennett. What's immediately noticeable about this "featurette" is that it's rather amateurishly made. It lacks the high-end production gloss given to similar supplements on the Star Trek: The Next Generation DVD boxed sets. Now, this is a good thing for those of us who find the over-produced Next Gen supplements a tad too E! Channel, and therefore consider this more casual, point-and-shoot approach easier to enjoy and take seriously. The Captain's Log offers a "keepin' it real" feel that's rather refreshing, but some may be put-out by the less razzy-jazzy look to the proceedings. Anyway, the info revealed is good, Nimoy's mellifluous voice and sharp mind can still melt dilithium, Montalban will have women (and plenty of guys) swooning, and Shatner ... Shatner ... is either living up to his somewhat pissy-priss reputation or showing us a sense of humor so dry you can blow dust off it. Or both.

Designing Khan (23:53) brings us Production Designer Joe Jenning and Costume Designer Robert Fletcher, both getting on in years, plus Art Director Lee Cole and Nicholas Meyer discussing the practical decisions and aesthetic choices that went into Wrath of Khan's new look inspired by nautical and operatic sources.

The visual effects of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are the eponymous particulars of The Visual Effects of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (18:12), the most professional-looking of the featurettes. This snappy little piece brings together the Special Visual Effects Supervisor (Return of the Jedi vet Ken Ralston), modelmaker William George, computer graphics pro Ed Caunul, Nic Meyer, and others to give us the low-down on the groundbreaking work pioneered in this movie. Brief but engaging attention is given to the pre-CGI-era effects compositing, ILM's model shop work, the Mutara Nebula cloud tank and battle scene, those Ceti Eels (raspberry jam is involved), Chekov's Giant Ear, and what's probably the first use of 3-D CGI work in a motion picture — the Genesis Effect.

With a collection of vintage 1982 Original Interviews (10:56), Shatner, Nimoy, Kelly, and Montalban dish up some of that good ol' local TV chat show puffery. Fine stuff, with Shatner's glibness, Nimoy's intelligence, and Kelly's warm-heartedness (not to mention Montalban's "rich Corinthian leather" accent) shining through.

It may come across as the odd duck in the barnyard, but The Star Trek Universe: A Novel Approach (29:00) is just business-minded Paramount cross-sell in action. This is a commingled pair of interviews with Star Trek sharecropper novelists Greg Cox — whose trio of novels detail Khan's entire biography and cleverly mesh our real-world history with Trek continuity — and Julia Ecklar, whose work explores our favorite crew's experiences with the Kobayashi Maru Scenario introduced in the movie. Unfortunately, the production work and editing are amateurish to the point of being utterly dreadful, and Cox is made to look like a goob (I've met him and he's not). The whole thing is twice as long as it needs to be, but it's nice to see a pair of book authors given such a high-profile opportunity to promote and discuss their work. I'd love to see more of this sort of thing . . . if video teams that graduated freshman Video Production are assigned the task.

With the Storyboard Archives we have 13 scenes broken down into their click-through concept sketches. Cool stuff if you're into this sort of thing.

Finally there's the Theatrical Trailer. Starts out looking way cheesy, but any promo that gave us Kirk's full-throated "Khaaaaaan!" was sure to attract our attention.

And that seems like enough to me.

—Mark Bourne

  • Color
  • Anamorphic 2.35:1
  • Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (SS-DL)
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, French)
  • English subtitles
  • Commentary track with Nicholas Meyer
  • Textual commentary track (captions format) by Michael Okuda
  • Featurette: "The Captain's Log" (27:20)
  • Featurette: "Designing Khan" (23:53)
  • Original Interviews (10:56)
  • The Star Trek Universe: A Novel Approach (29:00)
  • Storyboard Archives
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Dual-DVD keep-case

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