A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.
1982: I Feel Young
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (dir. Nicholas Meyer)
As this project itself will tell you, I was born at the end of 1974. It’s 2024 now; you can do some math (actually, doing the math will trick you, because I was born on one of the very last days of 1974, so usually it works better if you just assume ’75. Anyway. Close enough). I suffer from Crohn’s Disease in a way that, although it responds pretty well to medication, does mean that periodically my knuckles swell up and my hands in general just kind of say “I don’t feel like doing that.” RC and I took a vacation in January of 2020 and wound up taking a lot of pictures; in those pictures, I look like I could pass for late-30s. Of course, covid kicked off right after that, and if I look in a mirror and compare it to those pre-covid pics, I see a lot more gray hair, some permabags under my eyes, and generally a guy that absolutely no one would look at and think was a day younger than 49.
In other words: a lot of time these days, I feel kinda old. Not super old, mind you. But getting there (don’t worry, I’m fine). And this, of course, just makes me love Wrath of Khan even more.
Somehow, almost all of the original-cast Trek movies are in some way about grappling with middle age or beyond (I suppose this is probably just because the cast itself was aging; just looked it up and I’m currently just a touch younger than Shatner was when he made Khan, although I’m older than he was when he was worried about being old and out of touch in Star Trek: The Motion Picture).* Of all of them, Khan always did the best at grappling with the question of middle age, probably because it nests the question into a crackling story of adventure at sea that happens to be in space. Set aside the sci-fi trappings, and Khan is Hornblower in Space, executed extremely well.
*Except maybe for Undiscovered Country, which is partially about actually being old and dealing with the fact that the world has moved past you.
I think it’s an open question as to whether viewers were intended to remember that TMP had even happened when they watched Khan, because both movies start from the same premise: Jim Kirk’s feeling old and has been promoted off of the bridge of the Enterprise, and, raging against the dying of the light, connives to get back into the captain’s chair. In TMP, he proceeds to do… not much, and arguably has no character arc (very few characters have an arc in TMP; Spock and… Decker, kind of?). In Khan, though, he has multiple direct confrontations with consequences of past actions (an old flame! A son he never knew! A homicidal lunatic out to for revenge!). The more threatening of those consequences, of course, is Khan, and I think it’s thematically fascinating that, however far overboard he goes, Khan actually has a legitimate beef: Kirk’s carelessness doomed most of Khan’s crew back in the day.** In other words, the movie’s (great) action stems directly and organically from the characters and themes being examined, always a good sign in a film.
**Of course, Kirk’s same carelessness also almost allows Khan to do him in, with Kirk trusting his gut and not raising shields as Enterprise encounters a noncommunicative Reliant, even as Lt. Saavik reminds him about the relevant regulations. Star Trek III should have been about a court of inquiry grilling Kirk mercilessly about what the hell he was thinking leaving his shields down.
Kirk grapples—thankfully not literally, the lack of punchfights is one of the many things that elevate this movie—with the consequences of his actions, learns things about his friends and family, and comes out the other end feeling young again. How can a middle-aged guy not love it? I don’t need even need any close friends to sacrifice themselves to radiation poisoning to make me feel better; I’ve got a couple of curmudgeonly friends who’re content to sit in front of a fire with a strong drink, blue or otherwise.
Of course, all of this old-man stuff is a level of appreciation I came to later (first as an English major-y “ooh! Themes!” way, later as an “ah, yes, I recognize these feelings from life” sense). Khan has many pleasures that don’t require being over 40 to experience. Meyer’s script is the best, most literate of any Star Trek movie. Meyer also manages to get the best performances in any Trek; in Shatner’s case, by wearing him out with multiple takes, in Montalban’s case, just by talking to him (note that consummate pros Nimoy and Kelley just hand in best-in-career performances without needing particular directorial attention, and maybe it’s also worth noting that Kirstie Alley was never better than she was in Khan).
An Adventure at Sea/in Space flick lives or dies with its ships and Khan’s ships look great; the models look spectacular (how lucky were we in the late 70s and early 80s for all of the fantastic practical effects in science fiction movies?), and Meyer directs their action sequences with a fantastic mixture of verve and clarity. I’ve long thought that a big part of why this movie works so well is that Meyer and the effects crew really do a stupendous job, in the initial ambush, of selling the idea that Reliant is just catastrophically beating the shit out of Enterprise and that our heroes are in genuine peril. Horner’s score, which isn’t shy about borrowing (I’m no classical music scholar, but even I can hear some Prokofiev just straight-up lifted for a late-film battle sequence) also helps sell the senses of menace or triumph, depending on what the scene calls for.
I wander in and out of Star Trek fandom as time goes on. Most of the current onslaught of Trek TV leaves me pretty cold, although I appreciate Strange New Worlds. I hate one of the reboot movies and could take or leave the other two. I was a hard-core TNG fan for a long time, until I crossed over to a point where I couldn’t suspend disbelief anymore and would just watch and think “huh, Frakes is doing the chair thing again.” But Khan… Khan, I’ll always go back to. Hell, even losing the ability to suspend disbelief doesn’t matter, because the movie’s as much about William Shatner finding his middle-aged mojo as it is Jim Kirk.