Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the second feature film based on the Star Trek science fiction television series, following 1979s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film is a sequel to the original TV series episode "Space Seed", with Ricardo Montalbán reprising his role as the genetically-engineered tyrant Khan. When Khan returns from a fifteen-year exile to enact revenge on his nemesis, James T. Kirk, the crew of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise must stop Khan from acquiring a powerful but unstable terraforming device. The events of Wrath of Khan begin a story arc that concludes in the fourth feature film.
After the lackluster critical and commercial response to The Motion Picture, series creator Gene Roddenberry was forced out of the sequel's production. Executive producer Harve Bennett wrote the original outline for the film, which Jack B. Sowards developed into a full script. Nicholas Meyer was made director after writing a final script for the film in twelve days, without accepting a writing credit; Meyer's style would evoke the swashbuckling atmosphere of the original series, reinforced by James Horner's musical score. Production used various cost-cutting techniques such as using old miniatures from past movies. Among the technical achievements of the film is the first film sequence created entirely by computer graphics. The character of Spock was intended to be killed off permanently in the film, the only reason actor Leonard Nimoy reprised his role; negative audience reaction to the character's death led to significant revisions of the film's ending without Meyer's consent, allowing the possible return of the character in later movies.
Upon release, The Wrath of Khan was a box office success, earning over $70 million in the United States and setting a world record for first-day gross. Critical reaction to the film was positive, with reviewers highlighting Khan and the film's pacing as strong elements. Dissenting reviewers, such as the Washington Post, called the special effects outdated and the cast geriatric. The film is now considered one of the best films of the franchise, and is credited with bringing renewed interest in Star Trek.
Meanwhile, the USS Reliant is on a mission to search for a lifeless planet for testing of "Project Genesis", a device which reorganizes molecular matter in order to create hospitable worlds for colonization. Reliant officers Pavel Chekov and Clark Terrell beam to the surface of a possible candidate, Ceti Alpha VI, and are captured by Khan Noonien Singh. Khan and his fellow genetically-advanced supermen were once rulers on Earth in the late 20th century, but were exiled to space in a sleeper ship. After a foiled attempt to capture the Enterprise, Kirk exiled Khan and his followers to Ceti Alpha V to build a new civilization. Soon after being left by the Enterprise, Ceti Alpha VI exploded, destroying Ceti Alpha V's ecosystem and shifting its orbit. Khan blames Kirk for the deaths of his wife and followers and their harsh life, and plans to revenge his people. Using mind-controlling Ceti eels which crawl into the ears of their victims, Khan manipulates Chekov and Terrell and hijacks the Reliant.
The Enterprise embarks on a training voyage under the command of Captain Spock, while Kirk conducts an inspection. The Enterprise receives a message from Space Station Regula I, a remote science laboratory where Kirk's former lover, Dr. Carol Marcus, and son, Dr. David Marcus, have been developing the Genesis Device. Informing Starfleet Command of the situation, the Enterprise is ordered to investigate; since the ship is now on an active-duty mission, Kirk assumes command. En route, Khan attacks and cripples the Enterprise, killing many of the ship's trainees. A transmission between the two ships reveals Khan knows of the Genesis device; determined to stop Khan from gaining such a potent weapon, Kirk stalls for time and disables the Reliants defenses by use of a special prefix code and counterattacks. With his own ship badly damaged, Khan is forced to retreat.
The Enterprise makes its way to Regula I, where they find most of the Genesis team dead. The remaining scientists, including Carol and David, have hidden deep inside the planetoid of Regula itself. Using Chekov and Terrell as spies, Khan steals the Genesis Device. When Khan orders Terrell to kill Kirk, the eels' influence wanes; Terrell kills himself while Chekov overcomes the parasite's control. Kirk and Spock arrange a rendezvous in code, and upon boarding the Enterprise pilot the ship into the nearby Mutara nebula, which will interfere with both ships' defenses and weapons. Despite the advice of his lieutenants, Khan pursues.
Blinded by the nebula, both starships attempt to outmaneuver the other; Kirk uses Khan's inexperience in three-dimensional combat to critically disable the Reliant. Khan, mortally wounded, activates the Genesis Device, which will reorganize all the matter within the nebula—including the Enterprise. Though Kirk's crew detects the activation of the Genesis Device and begins to lumber away using impulse engines, with the warp drive damaged they will not be able to escape the nebula in time. Spock goes to Engineering to restore warp drive; when McCoy tries to prevent him from exposing himself to high levels of radiation, Spock disables the doctor and performs a mind meld, telling McCoy to "remember". Spock restores power, allowing the Enterprise to escape the explosion. Kirk arrives in Engineering just as Spock succumbs to radiation poisoning.
A space burial is held in the Enterprises torpedo room, and Spock's coffin is shot into orbit around the newly formed Genesis planet. Kirk and David make peace, and the crew leaves the planet reminiscing about Spock. In the final scene the coffin is seen to have soft-landed on the planet as Spock narrates Star Treks "Where no man has gone before" monologue.
After the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, executive producer Gene Roddenberry wrote his own sequel to the film, involving a plot he had presented before in which the crew of the Enterprise travel back through time to assassinate John F. Kennedy and set a corrupted time line right. This sequel was turned down by Paramount executives, who blamed the poor performance and inflated budget ($46 million) of the first movie on the constant rewrites demanded by Roddenberry and the movie's plodding pace. As a consequence, Roddenberry was ultimately removed from the production and according to Shatner, "kicked upstairs" to the ceremonial position of "executive consultant". Harve Bennett, a new Paramount television producer, was made producer for the next Star Trek film. According to Bennett, he was called in front of a group including Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner and asked if he thought he could make a better movie than The Motion Picture. When Bennett replied in the affirmative, Charles Bluhdorn asked, "Can you make it for less than forty-five-fucking-million-dollars?" Bennett replied that "Where I come from, I can make five movies for that."
Bennett realized he faced a serious challenge in developing the new Star Trek movie, including the fact that he had never seen the show. To compensate, Bennett watched all the original episodes. This immersion convinced Bennett that what the first movie lacked was a real villain; after seeing the episode "Space Seed", he decided that the character of Khan Noonien Singh was the perfect enemy for the film.
Bennett wrote his first film treatment in November 1980. In his version, titled Star Trek II: The War of the Generations, Kirk investigates a rebellion on a distant world and discovers that his son is the leader of the rebels. Khan is in fact the mastermind behind the plot, and Kirk and son join forces to defeat the tyrant. Bennett then hired Jack B. Sowards, an avid Star Trek fan, to turn his outline into a filmable script. Sowards wrote an initial script before a writer's strike in 1981. Sowards' draft, The Omega Syndrome, involved the theft of the Federation's ultimate weapon, called the "Omega system". Sowards was concerned that his weapon had nothing uplifting about it, so the art director Michael Minor suggested the device be turned into a terraforming tool instead; in recognition of the Biblical power of the weapon, Sowards renamed the "Omega system" to the "Genesis device". By April Sowards had produced another draft which moved Spock's death to later in the story and introduced a male character named 'Savik'. As preproduction of the film began in earnest, Samuel A. Peeples, writer of the Star Trek episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before", was called in to offer his own script, but the resulting draft (which entirely omitted Khan) was judged insufficient. With deadlines looming for the special effects production to begin(which required detailed storyboards based on a finished script), director Nicholas Meyer and Bennett pooled the written drafts. Meyer contributed his own screenplay written in twelve days which he described as "'Hornblower' in outer space", utilizing nautical references and a swashbuckling feel. Despite Roddenberry's disagreements with Meyer's naval texture or Khan's Captain Ahab undertones (see Themes), production of the film began in fall 1981.
Meyer utilized camera and set tricks to spare the construction of large sets. For a scene taking place at Starfleet Academy, scenery was placed close to the camera to give the sense the set was larger than it really was using forced perspective. To give the illusion that the Enterprises elevators moved between decks, corridor pieces were wheeled around to change the hall configuration while the lift doors were closed.
Producer Robert Sallin wanted the uniforms from The Motion Picture changed, but did not want to discard the jumpsuits entirely for budgetary reasons. Dye tests of the fabric showed that the old uniforms took three colors well: a blue-gray, a gold, and a dark red. Costume designer Robert Fletcher decided to use the dark red due to the strong contrast it provided with the background to create The Wrath of Khans naval-inspired uniforms, which would be used in the films until 1994s Star Trek Generations. The first versions of the uniforms had stiff black collars, but Sallin suggests changing it to a turtleneck, using a form of vertical quilting called trapunto. By the time of The Wrath of Khans production, the machines and needles needed to produce trapunto were rare, and Fletcher was able to find only one needle for the wardrobe department. The crew was so worried about losing or breaking the needle that one of the department's workers took it home with him as a security measure, leading Fletcher think it had been stolen.
For Khan and his fellow supermen, Fletcher created a strong contrast with the highly organized Starfleet uniforms; his idea was that the exiles' costumes were made out of whatever they could find. "My intention with Khan was to express the fact that they had been marooned on that planet with no technical infrastructure, so they had to cannibalize from the spaceship whatever they used or wore. Therefore, I tried to make it look as if they had dressed themselves out of pieces of upholstery and electrical equipment that composed the ship," Fletcher said. Khan's costume was specially designed with an open chest to show Ricardo Montalbán's physique. Fletcher also designed smocks for the Regula I scientists and civilian clothes for Kirk and McCoy, designed to look practical and comfortable.
Spock's death was shot over three days; during that time, no visitors were allowed on set. The initial scripts called for Spock's death to have been early in the movie, but fan reaction led to the event's movement to the climax of the film. Shatner disagreed with the clear glass separation between Spock and Kirk during the death scene, instead wanting a translucent divider allowing viewers to only see Spock's silhouette; his complaint was overruled. During Spock's funeral sequence Meyer wanted the camera to track the torpedo that served as Spock's coffin as it was placed in a long trough and slid into the launcher. Initially the camera crew thought the entire set would have to be rebuilt in order to accommodate the shot, but Sallin suggested putting a dolly into the trough and controlling it from above with an offset arm. Scott plays \"Amazing Grace\" on the bagpipes during the scene, which was James Doohan's idea.
Spock's death was to remain irrevocable, but Nimoy had such a positive experience during filming that he asked if he could add a way for Spock to return in a later film. The \"remember\" sequence was initially filmed without Kelley's prior knowledge of what was going on. Test audiences at screenings of the film reacted badly to Spock's death and the film's ending (the tone of which was dark and final), so Bennett modified the ending. The scene of Spock's casket soft-landed on the planet and Nimoy's closing monologue were added to positive response; Meyer objected to the changes, but did not stand in the way of the modifications.
The battle in the nebula was a difficult sequence to accomplish without the aid of computer-generated models. The nebula was filmed first, using a saltwater and freshwater mixture inside a specially-lit cloud tank to generate the nebula. All the footage was shot at two frames per second to give the illusion of faster movement. Using matte work, the ships were physically stuck on a background plate to complete the shot. The destruction of the Reliants engine nacelle was created by superimposing shots of the engine blowing apart and explosions over the actual model. The Ceti eel shoots used several different models, which were overseen by Special Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston. Ralston had finished creature design for Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and used a string tied to the eel in order to inch the model across the actors' faces before entering the ear canal. Footage which used a giant model of Koenig's ear was discarded from the theatrical release due to the visceral reaction it elicited in viewers.
Among ILM's technical achievements for The Wrath of Khan was cinema's first entirely computer-generated sequence, demonstrating the effects of the Genesis Device on a barren planet. The first concept the animators discussed was turning a rock into a flower, but after poor feedback the artists decided on a planet flyby. The programmers spent a significant amount of time and detail on the sixty-second sequence; one artist ensured that the stars visible in the background matched those visible from a real star light-years from Earth. The animators hoped it would serve as a "commercial" for the studio's talents.
This was going to be a story in which Spock died, so it was going to be a story about death, and it was only a short hop, skip, and a jump to realize that it was going to be about old age and friendship. I don't think that any of those other scripts were about old age, friendship, and death.In keeping with the theme of death and rebirth symbolized by Spock's sacrifice and the Genesis device, Meyer wanted to call the film The Undiscovered Country, in reference to Prince Hamlet's description of death in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, but the title was changed without the director's knowledge during editing. According to a Extrapolation article by Lane Roth, Spock is Kirk's doppelgänger, and Spock's sacrifice at the end of the film allows a spiritual rebirth of Kirk; after commenting earlier in the film that he feels old and worn out, Kirk states in the final scene of the film that "I feel young. Spock's death also forces Kirk to confront death, after continually cheating it throughout the movie. Sight and sound reinforce the themes of death and aging, as well as the promise of rebirth; Spock is the first character seen in the film and his voice is the last heard in the film, and his coffin follows the same trajectory towards the new planet as the Genesis device does in a video-lecture earlier in the film.
Meyer added elements to reinforce the aging of the characters. Kirk is unhappy about his birthday, compounded by McCoy's present of reading glasses for Kirk's eyes. The script for the film stated that by the events of the film Kirk was 49, but Shatner was unsure about being specific about Kirk's age. Harve Bennett remembers that Shatner was hesitant about portraying a middle-aged version of himself, and believed that with proper makeup he could continue playing a younger Kirk. Bennett convinced Shatner that he could age gracefully like Spencer Tracy; unbeknownst to the producer, Shatner had been the aide for Tracy years earlier in Judgment at Nuremberg, and was very fond of the actor. Meyer made sure to emphasize Kirk's parallel to Sherlock Holmes in that both characters waste away in the absence of their stimuli; new cases, in Holmes' case, and starship adventures in Kirk's.
Khan's pursuit of Kirk is central to the film's theme of vengeance, and the film purposefully heavily borrows elements from Herman Melville's Moby Dick. To make the parallels clear to viewers, Meyer added a visible copy of Moby Dick to Khan's dwelling. Kirk represents both the restless elements of Ishmael as well as serving as the titular white whale. Khan's blind pursuit of Kirk mirrors Captain Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick. Both pursue their quarry against the better judgement of their crew, and both end up killing themselves in an effort to take their foe with them. University of Northern Colorado professor Jane Wall Hinds argues that the themes of The Wrath of Khan clash with the optimistic and transcendentalist perspectives found in the shows such as The Original Series and The Next Generation. The themes of revenge as explored in Moby Dick would later heavily influence Star Trek: First Contact.
Critical response to The Wrath of Khan was positive. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a "fresh" rating, with 92% of featured critics giving the film a favorable review; The Wrath of Khan is the highest rated Star Trek film on the site. After the lukewarm response to the first feature film, Trek fan response to The Wrath of Khan was highly positive, crediting the film's success as bringing renewed interest to the franchise. Entertainment Weekly went further, calling The Wrath of Khan "the film that, by most accounts, saved Star Trek as we know it.
A near-universal note of praise was for the film's pacing, which was much swifter than its predecessor and closer to the TV series. Janet Maslin of The New York Times also credited the film with a stronger story than The Motion Picture and stated the sequel was everything the first film should have been. Variety agreed that The Wrath of Khan was closer to the original spirit of Star Trek than its predecessor. Strong character interaction was cited as a strong feature of the film, as was Montalbán's portrayal of Khan.
Complaints about the film focused on what was seen as tepid battle sequences, and perceived melodrama. While many publications felt that Spock's death was dramatic and well-handled, The Washington Posts Gary Arnold stated Spock's death "feels like an unnecessary twist, and the filmmakers are obviously well-prepared to fudge in case the public demands another sequel." Negative reviews of the film also focused on the acting of the aged stars.
The film has had an impact on other movies. Meyer's rejected title for the film, The Undiscovered Country, would later be used for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, retaining the nautical influences. Director Bryan Singer has cited the film as an influence on X2, as well as his abandoned sequel to Superman Returns. The film is also a favorite of director J. J. Abrams, producer Damon Lindelof and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the creative crew of the relaunch film Star Trek.
Paramount released The Wrath of Khan on DVD in 2000; no special features were included on the disc. Montalbán drew hundreds of fans of the film to Universal City, California where he signed copies of the DVD to commemorate its release. In August 2002, the film was rereleased as a highly anticipated two-disc "Director's Edition" format. In addition to remastered picture quality and 5.1 Dolby surround sound, the second DVD contained extras including director commentary, cast interviews, storyboards and the theatrical trailer. The expanded cut of the film was given a Hollywood premiere before the release of the DVD. In a speech, Meyer spoke about directors' cuts of films, stating that he didn't believe they were necessarily better than the original but that the rerelease gave him a chance to add in elements which had been removed from the theatrical release by Paramount. The four hours of bonus content and expanded director's cut of the movie were favorably received.