I suppose I should post my thoughts on Wrath of Khan?
So this is generally considered the best Trek movie, and I agree, the closest competitor being Meyer’s other entry - Star Trek VI. And there’s an awful lot in here beyond the story to confirm this.
But let’s talk about the story first. The movie does some very interesting things plot-wise - There’s a slow, steady build up to the first encounter between Enterprise and Reliant, which happens roughly 45 minutes into the film. The tension ratchets up slowly, leading up to this moment. Even when Kirk is lured into Kahn’s trap via Carol’s message to him, he’s confident and cocky as always. We know the danger he faces even when he doesn’t.
What’s interesting about the story is how it changes in that moment on the bridge when Kirk realises that Khan is his opponent. He begins to plot and plan. He takes remote control of Reliant. He misleads Khan as to the state of Enterprise’s repair, and goads Khan into a final battle on Kirk’s terms. All it took was the deaths of a bunch of young people.
When Khan’s trap is sprung, it humbles Kirk, at least momentarily. He’s remorseful at Preston’s death bed in a way we’ve seldom seen him - perhaps because Preston was a cadet, or because he’s Scotty’s nephew (according to scenes restored for the TV edit and the Director’s Edition)?
And it’s worth noting that aside from Tyrell and Chekov’s ambush, the problems Kirk faces are largely stemming from that initial ambush, even the circumstances of Spock’s death. That one moment of hubris costs him quite dearly in the end, with repercussions that will last into the next two movies.
Leaving the story aside, the acting is excellent here. Shatner gives probably his finest performance as Kirk, really selling moments like his rage at KHAAAAAAAAAAN! (which really is Kirk acting at Khan for some acting inception. BWAAAAM), and his eulogy for Spock. The decision to add some humour to the movie, and the bulk of that humour be a near constant stream of sardonic commentary from Kirk works very well. Similarly, Ricardo Montalban’s performance as Khan is fantastic, providing a flamboyant and powerful counter to Kirk’s steady tones. He also does a great job showing Khan’s inexperience as a Starship captain with little more than a series of confused expressions and gestures, and sudden twitches when Joachim informs him of their limitations.
The regular Trek cast does well enough, and pretty much everyone gets something to do (Uhura and Sulu lose out here), with Kirstie Alley’s Saavik being a welcome addition to the crew - especially as she makes it through the movie unlike Decker and Ilia in TMP, or Hawk in First Contact - even if her head changes between this and her subsequent appearances.
The final strength is the movie’s greatest IMO. This is one of the most thematically rich Trek movies, with multiple layers to the story providing amazing depth. The movie begins as a commentary on Star Trek’s episodic format. As I noted back when we discussed Devil in the Dark, a sense of colonial superiority is Trek’s stock in trade. It’s all about the Enterprise arriving at a world, Kirk and company finding a solution for whatever problem they face - frequently altering the world irrevocably in the process, but then the Enterprise flies away at the end.
But what happens when your decisions come back to haunt you? The film suggests that Kirk has never had to face up to this before, even down to not even recognising his own son when they encounter one another. It’s discussed openly when they’re in the Genesis cave, as he explains how he beat the Kobyashi Maru:
Saavik: "Sir, may I ask you a question?"
Kirk: "What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?"
Saavik: "The Kobyashi Maru, sir"
Kirk: "Are you asking me if we’re playing out that scenario now?"
Saavik:"In the test sir, will you tell me what you did? I would really like to know"
McCoy: "Lieutenant, you are looking at the only cadet to beat the no-won scenario"
Kirk: "I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship"
David: "He cheated"
Kirk: "I changed the conditions of the test. Got a commendation for original thinking… I don’t like to lose"
Saavik: "Then you never faced that situation. Faced death"
Kirk: “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”
Note how Kirk tells Saavik what he did, while avoiding her follow-up questions and the implications thereof.
The Kobyashi Maru brings up the idea of how one faces death, another strong theme in the movie. Saavik faces death in a simulation, Preston dies heroically, as does Spock. Kirk doesn’t face death directly, but through his best friend’s sacrifice, and Khan is first driven mad by Marla’s death, with his final actions being one last attempt to kill Kirk, encapsulated with his quoting Melville as his final line.
Interestingly, Tyrell’s death (he died saving the white man, according to the Ed Byrne routine I linked when we talked about Paul Winfield’s other appearance in Trek, Darmok) is a sacrifice, but is also a redemption. Tyrell and Chekov are unwilling accomplices in Khan’s scheme, and as such they need a redemptive scene. Tryell’s is his death - he’d rather kill himself than kill a fellow Starfleet officer, while Chekov, as a main character gets to return to the bridge a little later.
The relationship between fathers and sons is also a strong theme here. It’s clear from Kirk’s conversations with Carol and David that he’s not been a figure in David’s life since childhood, if not before. This is their first substantive meeting, and one in which David begins to understand the figure that’s loomed large in his life. By comparison, Joachim probably isn’t Khan’s son, but they clearly have a relationship closer than that of a superior and subordinate, and have been confidants at least for a long time. He may rail against Joachim’s counsel, but he values it, and he’s clearly effected when Joachim dies.
Of course, ageing is a major theme here, starting with Kirk and Spock teaching a new crew for the ship, Chekov having left to be first officer on another vessel, Kirk having an adult son… It goes far beyond Kirk needing reading glasses. The main scene dealing with it is early on, when Kirk and McCoy are in Kirk’s apartment and McCoy refers to Kirk becoming part of his antique collection. As much as anything else, this is an impetus for what comes next. Kirk is facing into his mid-life crisis, goes off on a young man’s adventure, and undergoes great sacrifice as a result of trying to recapture his youth. And as Star Trek III will show, his sacrifices haven’t finished yet.
Ultimately, it all comes together in the last 4 scenes of the movie. Spock’s death gives us many of his Vulcan aphorisms, but his last one - his last line is his wish to Kirk: Live long, and prosper. His funeral, and Kirk’s eulogy - “Of my friend, I can only say this. Of all the souls I encountered in my travels, his was the most… human” - Spock was always affrotned when compared to humanity in the show, but this is different. It’s not a barb or friendly banter. It’s not Kirk getting the last line. It’s acknowledging that Spock in many ways represented the best of us, that an alien was able to forge these bonds and make the same kind of sacrifice we laud in our contemporary society (sure he was half-human, but he was raised in the Vulcan traditions, culture being a far more important marker of his alien nature than his DNA). It’s Roddenberry’s credo of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, expressed just about perfectly.
As much as Kirk’s eulogy is the emotional climax of the movie, the following scene between him and David is the philosphical one, shown in their final exchange.
David: "Lieutenant Saavik was right. You never have faced death"
Kirk: "No, not like this. I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death… and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing."
David: "You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is as least as important as how we face life."
David: "But good words. That’s where ideas begin. Maybe you should listen to them. I was wrong about you… and I’m sorry."
Kirk:"Is that what you came here to say?"
David: “Mainly. And also that I’m – proud… very proud… to be your son.”
The framing of that last exchange is very theatrical, as Kirk rises from his chair and David tenses up, not seeing Kirk reaching out for him. Their embrace is quite powerful. Neither Merritt Butrick nor William Shatner are the best actors, but the material they’re working here is great, and they sell the scene very well.
This cumulates in McCoy and Kirk’s last exchange, the last dialogue of the movie:
McCoy: "Are you okay, Jim? How do you feel?"
Kirk: “Young… I feel young”
Kirk isn’t saying that this has rejuvenated him, but rather that he sees his future is wide open before him. For all the hardship he’s been through, he’s come out stronger, and maybe a little bit more mature and wiser. He has the same life options, but sees their potential in a different way.