Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
I was nine when the Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in 1979. I was never really a fan of the Star Trek TV series, but I was excited to see that movie as I was all hyped up on space and alien movies following Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the trailers looked like it would be an exciting film with good effects—really all a nine-year-old could hope for.
The reality was, that film was so boring, I haven’t felt any need to ever see it again. Even 40-plus-years later I can recall going to sleep, waking up, and then going back to sleep again, just waiting for it to end. I’m sure my memory has clouded the reality of it, but I recall it being filled with agonizingly slow closeup pans of the Enterprise that felt like they lasted 30 minutes, as the
camera just moved all around the ship over and over. It was like the filmmakers were just so proud of this ship they had created, they wanted everyone to appreciate each and every inch of it.
Had this dud of a film been the first Star Trek movie today, it likely would have killed the franchise, with studios far less likely to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into a second chance.
Fortunately, three years later under a different director we got what is widely considered the best film in the original series: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Even so, Paramount strongly hedged its bet, giving Khan roughly 25% the budget of The Motion Picture.) We got a great villain, action, an easy-to-understand plot, and a massive shock of an ending that also set up the next film. This was the Star Trek critics and fans alike wanted, nabbing
KHAN AT A GLANCE
Probably the best film in the Star Trek franchise holds up surprisingly well in 4K HDR, despite some subpar effects shots and occasional softness.
When the shots are sharp, the images are clean with lots of detail. Solid blacks and punchy highlights throughout.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix is heavily focused on the front channels and pretty undynamic by modern standards.
Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ and Audience scores of 87 and 90% that have only been bested by one other film in the franchise, J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot starring Chris Pine at Captain James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto filling the role of Spock.
Having recently rewatched the latest trilogy of films (all available in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos audio on both 4K Blu-ray and from Kaleidescape), and with Kaleidescape running a special pricing promotion on all Trek films, I thought it was time to revisit Khan and see how it held up after almost 40 years. And besides being a great film, Khan is also the only movie from both the William Shatner and Patrick Stewart eras that has been given a 4K HDR makeover, making it ready-for-primetime in a modern home theater.
The version available from Kaleidescape is a Director’s Cut that includes some three-plus minutes of additional footage. It’s been so long since I watched the film, I can’t tell you what was added back in, or if it has any real impact on the story.
The movie begins with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) administering the famous Kobayashi Maru simulation to Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley) who—as expected—fails badly. Admiral Kirk (Shatner) is now out of active command, depressed and sitting behind a desk at Starfleet. After some Romulan ale and a chat with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Kirk decides to join the Enterprise crew on a routine training mission that, well, turns into not being so routine after another starship—the Reliant—is taken over by the genetically engineered Khan (Ricardo Montalban), who was abandoned by Kirk on a planet to fend for himself 15 years ago. Khan has been plotting his revenge on Kirk for years, and now with the Reliant under his command—as well as possession of a powerful planetary terraforming device called Genesis—he is ready to deliver some revenge . . . a dish best served cold!
For a “fresh” perspective on the movie, I watched with my 14-year-old daughter and her similar-aged friend, neither of whom had ever seen any of the Star Trek movies or TV shows. For them, the movie was a bit slow, taking too long to get to the action. They also found the effects and some of the acting a bit, shall we say, “dated” to put a kind word on it.
While having nowhere near the level of lustful gazing found in The Motion Picture, we are still treated to a few lengthy slow shots as the camera gives us plenty of time to appreciate the Enterprise in all her glory, and Montalban’s enthusiastic performance of Khan is still great, with his impossible-to-ignore physique on display throughout. (Remember, he was 62 when this was released and looks like he just stepped out of the gym following a serious Chest-Day workout.)
Compared to Star Wars—a film that had a similar budget and that debuted five years before—the effects in Khan are noticeably sub-par. (And, admittedly, haven’t benefitted from decades of the ILM effects’ team reworking . . .) Laser blasts and photon torpedoes look like they’ve just been drawn in, some of the ship flying sequences and explosions are clearly models, and one scene is very obviously on a stage with matte paintings. We also don’t get near the stage dressing and attention to detail—just take a look at a lot of the switches and knobs aboard instrument clusters on the Enterprise and it appears they don’t do anything. Of course, some of these are just byproducts of the era—and the difference of what we’ve come to expect from high-quality CGI—that are more noticeable now with 4K’s enhanced resolution and detail.
Filmed in 35mm, the original negative “was in terrible shape” and received a 1080p remastering back in 2009 for the Blu-ray release. There’s no word (I could find) about the sourcing of this 4K HDR version, but my guess is that it is taken from a 2K digital intermediate.
The big thing you’ll notice here is how clean the images look. Right from the get-go, the title sequence and blackness of space just look clean and sharp. The shots in space all look especially good, with deep blacks and bright white star points. There is a fair bit of grain in the opening scenes aboard the Enterprise, but that seems to be less noticeable as the film goes on, or maybe I just got used to it.
Another thing that really stood out is a pretty noticeable change in focus and sharpness in some scenes, sometimes even when cutting back and forth to two characters talking. At first, I thought it was maybe vanity defocusing to not show Shatner’s
age (51), but it wasn’t—he’s sharp and clear in some shots, and soft and diffuse in others. This is all the more noticeable because of the generally sharp edges and images throughout most of the film, with some images looking as clean and sharp as a modern production. When focus is sharp, closeups have tons of detail, revealing every line and wrinkle in Kirk’s face, pores in Khan’s chin, or the heavy facial makeup on Spock. You can also really appreciate the rich, thick burgundy felt texture of the uniform jackets worn by the Enterprise crew.
There are some bright highlights in the form of some strobing lightning flashes, stars, explosions, and video screens, but where HDR really benefits is in shadow detail and just overall realistic, natural-looking images. Color gamut didn’t look especially expanded, but we get some nicely saturated reds and greens.
The 4K HDR download features a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which differs from the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD audio found on the Blu-ray disc (and Kaleidescape Blu-ray download). This mix is heavily focused on the front three channels, and definitely seems pretty undynamic by modern standards.
Audio effects like wind sounds, sirens, alarms, and explosions get a bit of width, as does James Horner’s score. My processor’s Dolby upmixer did its best to
expand the soundstage, with some steam and engine sounds placed overhead; and the Enterprise jumping to warp speed had it streak high up across the ceiling. Fortunately, dialogue is pretty clear throughout.
Time has been mostly kind to Wrath of Khan, and it certainly has never looked as it does here. For Trek fans, this is a no-brainer—it’s great to revisit the original crew of the Enterprise on one of their finest voyages. But for those new to the series—and younger viewers—they might be better served jumping into the new films, which are certainly heavier on the action, effects, and sonic bombast.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.