Normally I wouldn't give a spoiler warning for a movie that's thirty years old, but because I somehow managed to see it unspoiled last weekend, I would like to offer the same chance to others. If you haven't seen Wrath of Khan, don't read this. Go watch the movie, because it's incredible, and it doesn't matter if you know anything about Star Trek at all - I didn't. Now go away.
I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the first time last weekend. I saw it for the first time on a beautiful 35mm print at the Alamo Drafthouse, hosted by Devin who had just received his first tattoo, sitting with Devin and his girlfriend Lindsay and Film Crit Hulk and my friend Ray and an audience of fans, none of whom could contain their enthusiasm. It was a tremendous way to experience this movie for the first time, and I feel incredibly lucky. And holy shit, you guys. That movie destroyed me.
Here's the thing: the only Star Trek material I'd ever seen before Khan was the J.J. Abrams movie which I quite liked. I knew these characters by their names and actors, but certainly not by who they are or what they represent. And I thought I didn't care. So many people had recommended this film to me in the past, but none of them said the one thing I needed to hear to be convinced:
It doesn't matter if you know anything about the Star Trek universe. The Wrath of Khan is an extraordinary movie on its own.
Well, now I know. Moments into the film, I think I knew. I had just enough information to feel instantly absorbed. Thanks to the Abrams Star Trek, Ray's quick recap, Devin's intro and the live re-enactment of the episode "Space Seed," I don't think I missed a single thing that mattered. But even without any of that information, I would have loved the film. It's such a strong story that the history behind it is superfluous. The universe is so well-crafted that it feels familiar even to the uninitiated. And I had no idea how funny the movie would be. Nearly every line Bones gives had me laughing loud and hard. They all get good lines, but he gets great lines, and his delivery is hilarious. I'm laughing right now thinking of "Who's been holding up the damn elevator?!"
The action is stunning, and the effects are imaginative and aesthetically pleasing despite a limited budget. The plot is so brilliantly structured; each of the several acts builds and climaxes and resolves before seamlessly transitioning into the next act, and I was riveted until the very end. There is no fat on this movie. Every scene, every line feels crucial. But not only crucial for character development or plot advancement - every moment is entertaining. That balance of enthralling yet necessary is almost impossible to manage, and I cannot believe how well the writers and director accomplished it.
The movie's also horrific at times. Ricardo Montalban is chilling and powerful and insanely charismatic. I couldn't take my eyes off him, and not only because he is fucking gorgeous. That chest! That magnificent mane! That intensity! And while there isn't much, the gore that's in the film is just what I like, groovy make-up effects and a camera that doesn't flinch. It gets right up into it. The ear eel sequence is so great; it's just gross and scary and looks terrific even today.
I would have loved Wrath of Khan based on those elements alone. But what I could have never anticipated is how compelling the relationships would be. Kirk's history with Carol unfolds in such an organic manner. The moment that David tells Kirk at the end of the movie that he's proud to be his son is so moving. Kirk's friendships with McCoy and Chekov, his attraction to Saavik, Khan's enmity for Kirk, that poor eel-eared captain who kills himself rather than shoot Kirk: all of these relationships have weight and substance. They are believable, and therefore they are meaningful.
And, of course, the friendship between Spock and Kirk is beautiful. It's honest and funny. Their friendship has been earned through countless battles and challenges that I have never seen, yet I was invested from their very first shared scene. These two need each other. Spock needs Kirk's fire and whimsy, and Kirk needs Spock's cool logic. I loved when Spock turned over command of the ship to Kirk without question, reminding him that he has no ego to be bruised. I loved every moment between the two of them, because it felt like I was witnessing something legendary, but also something small. An exchange between two of the most notorious characters in television history, but also a friendship between two men who simply love each other.
I still can't believe Spock died. That empty chair next to Kirk, Spock's decision to sacrifice himself without hesitation, without grandeur, his quiet and dignified goodbye to his best friend...that is powerful storytelling. It's heartbreaking, and it's powerful. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it in the days since seeing the movie; I am crying right now writing about it. "You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours."
I knew nothing about these characters. It never occurred to me to care. That this film, set in the midst of a complicated universe years in the making, could speak so forcefully to a beginner is simply marvelous. I am so lucky to have seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the way I did, and you can bet I'm planning to dive into that universe head-first now.