Toward the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the starship Enterprise has narrowly escaped certain doom. Admiral James T. Kirk looks around the bridge and notices something awry: an empty chair where Mr. should be. The Enterprise may be safe, but something is very wrong.
It's the beginning of one of the screen's great death scenes, a moment that will move even those who have never seen an episode of Star Trek in their lives -- and that ability to transcend both its source material and its science-fiction genre is what makes Star Trek II one of the great adventure films, if not one of the great films, period. Instead of taking the easy way and focusing on the action and visual effects, Star Trek II goes much deeper, emphasizing deep emotions and finely realized characters.
By the time it was made in 1982, William Shatner had played James T. Kirk for the better part of two decades, and while he's often mocked for his overly dramatic tendencies, just look at how he plays the moment when he realizes Spock is not on the bridge -- with just a subtle shift of expression, he conveys the respect, friendship and, yes, love these two characters have for each other.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the Star Trek films because at its heart it is a celebration of the loyalty and deep affection the entire Enterprise crew has for each other. This is a movie that could be put to good use by organizational psychologists for the way it shows different people with different temperaments working together, respecting the unique contributions each individual makes. He may be the captain of the ship, but Kirk doesn't consider himself above reproach.
Today's filmmakers may wonder why a movie like Avatar or Iron Man can be a box-office smash but not engender the longterm affection of audiences the way Star Trek does, but one look at The Wrath of Khan shows why: The entire story is rooted in the way the characters interact with each other. It is a very human story, beginning and ending with the uncertain feelings Kirk has about growing older.
The plot really heats up with the introduction of the central villain, a superhuman egotist named Khan, who harbors a very deep grudge toward Kirk. The character is a holdover from a 1967 episode of the "Star Trek" TV series, but most people who watch Star Trek II have never seen him before -- and the film tells us just as much as we need to know to get the gist of their feud.
Fascinatingly, Ricardo Montalban, who plays Khan, and William Shatner didn't actually work together on the film -- the two characters interact with each other via viewing screens, but they work incredibly well together. And while both of them are astonishingly effective, Montalban's Khan is magnetic, exuding an obsessive vengeance that may have been based on Captain Ahab but that Montalban makes all his own. Thirty years ago, Montalban was mostly dismissed as a TV actor repeating a TV role, but time has shown his Khan to be one of the screen's all-time great villains.
Backed by a rousing, memorable score by James Horner and some still-impressive visual effects, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a complete success on virtually every level, including the first (and impressive) screen performance by Kirstie Alley as Lt. Saavik.
But what makes Star Trek II so special is the effortless ease with which the crew of the Enterprise work together, particularly the central relationship between Kirk and Spock. At the beginning of the film, Spock has ascended the ranks to become captain of the Enterprise, but when danger calls, it is clear that only Kirk is equipped to take command. Kirk comes to ask Spock for permission -- and their quiet scene together is exquisite. Spock cuts to the truth of the situation: "Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny -- anything else is a waste of material."
These two know each other, and the film takes it for granted that we know them. The real beauty of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that we do -- even if we are completely unfamiliar with "Star Trek," we know loyal, true friendship when we see it. Star Trek II celebrates it, grieves for it, and basks in the undying hope that even when fate may seem to cut it short, friendship is as unswerving and true as the stars themselves.