Normally, sequels will tell you the second part of a story. With Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we actually shift from anything connected to Star Trek: The Motion Picture to create an original work. What we end up is an exciting, fast-paced, well-acted story that succeeds on every level.
Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) has decided to go gentle into that good night, although his heart tells him otherwise. Actually, both Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) and the Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) on separate occasions tell Kirk he's making a mistake retiring from active command. Kirk, however, still decides it's time to go.
With that, Kirk goes on a training mission on his beloved Enterprise, with Spock now as Captain and heading a group of trainees, chief among them his fellow Vulcan, Lieutenant Saavik (a pre-Cheers/Fat Actress Kirstie Alley), as well as members of the original crew: Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei), and Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (James Doohan), who is joined by his nephew, Midshipman Peter Preston (post-Escape to Witch Mountain Ike Eisenmann).Another former member of Enterprise, Pavel Chekov (Walter Koening) is now with the Reliant, headed by Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield).
The Reliant is looking for a dead planet on which to conduct a very special experiment by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and her son, David (Merritt Butrick). It is the Genesis Project: using their breakthrough, they can bring about life onto a previously dead world: fauna, water, all the things needed to sustain life. Of course, there is one drawback: it will kill any living thing already there, which is why they need a completely dead world.
The Reliant thinks it has found one such world: Ceti Alpha VI, but they detect something there. Going to this desolate, desert-like world, they discover the wreckage of a ship, the Botany Bay, and Chekov realizes where they are, but it's too late. They are captured by Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), who had been exiled with a group of followers onto Ceti Alpha V by now-Admiral Kirk. Ceti Alpha VI had exploded shortly after their exile (which the Reliant did not know), rendering Alpha V lifeless, and with Terrell and Chekov in his hands, he now plots revenge on Kirk.
Khan seizes the Reliant and plans to take the Genesis Project for his own destructive plans, but as it happens, the Enterprise is also within range of the Regula Space Station where Marcus contacts Kirk, furious at being told he ordered seizure of the Genesis Project. Kirk, who had been Marcus' lover once, is surprised to hear all this. Now it's a race and battle between Khan and Kirk for the Genesis Project and to see who will be victorious. The conclusion of this epic battle leads to new life...and a self-sacrificing death.
This is where Wrath of Khan works brilliantly: you don't have to know anything about Space Seed (the Star Trek: The Original Series episode where Khan first appeared) to follow the plot. In other words, a non-Trekkie can understand what's going on. You had an explanation of how Khan and Kirk became bitter enemies, but screenwriter Jack Sowards (working from a story by him and Harve Bennett) handled it intelligently. Ostensibly Khan told his story for Captain Terrell's benefit but it was also to help the audience. The reappearance of Khan would please Trekker/Trekkies, but for those not in the know his appearance and backstory made sense.
Director Nicholas Meyer also made a deft decision in Wrath of Khan in that basically he was telling two stories: the actual 'wrath of Khan' and Kirk's midlife crisis about aging and moving away from actual command. By introducing Khan early in the film, we the audience know that there will be a confrontation between Khan and Kirk, so Meyer keeps building the tension for us. The payoff when a stunned Kirk discovers just who is coming after him is more than worth the wait.
We also have the benefit of having an actual reason for the battle. Khan's desire for revenge against the one who exiled him (and whom he blames for his wife's death) is a logical motivation for the blinding hatred and blood-lust in the film. Conversely, Kirk's fears about growing old and being unneeded in Starfleet are things audiences can understand and even relate to.
It's his calmness mixed with controlled fury that makes him more frightening and a worthy adversary to Kirk. Montalban expresses his obsessive hatred toward Kirk with intelligence, which if fitting for a super-genuis like Khan.
Allow me to digress into Montalban's physical appearance. Rumors have surfaced that he wore a prosthetic chest because when we first see his pecs, they are frankly amazing. Meyer has stated that this is false and that Montalban was actually that physically built. As impressive as his pecs are, it's even more amazing when you consider Montalban was sixty-two when he made Wrath of Khan. Let's see Ryan Reynolds try that trick when he reaches that age. It does enhance Montalban's performance (no pun intended). He has a strong screen presence, a dignity which plays well with his determination to strike at his hated rival.
The other guest stars handle their roles well. Winfield makes the most of his short role as Captain Terrell, one who is caught in the web of Khan's evil scheme. His final scene could have come off almost as comic, but Winfield's performance (along with Meyer's direction) made it extremely tense and ultimately sad. Besch's Dr. Marcus comes off as intelligent, enthusiastic about the good the Genesis Project will bring, and also vulnerable when she deals with her former lover Kirk. Thought Eisenmann has a small role as Midshipman Preston, he still manages to project youthful enthusiasm for adventure.
Alley didn't make me believe she was fully Vulcan because she didn't seem as emotionalless as Spock (and I was also confused why she was referred to as Mr. Saavik when she was clearly female--could it be like the gender-neutral title of Chairman?), but that's a minor point. The weakest performance I thought was Butrick's David. For the most part, he came off almost whiny, but he did manage a great moment at the end.
The original crew of the Enterprise also have extraodinary moments. Doohan, for example, has a very brief moment where he mourns a fellow crew member's death which is extremely moving and extremely well-acted, bringing true tragedy to the scene without being over the top. Koening's Chekov (who from what I understand wasn't in the original Space Seed, which I think is a non-issue) also gives a strong performance of someone forced to do things against his will.
In the scene where Khan forces him and Terrell to submit to his will, it could have again been funny in other hands, but all three of them make it quite terrifying, a credit to all of them. Kelley also distinguishes himself with his scenes with Shatner's Kirk, showing without having to go into lengthy dialogue that they are lifelong friends. He also has a strong scene when he expresses his horror at the Genesis Project, believing it to be morally wrong.
A MAJOR SPOILER HERE. BE WARNED.
Kelley and Nimoy's Spock have always appeared to be a double act, the fight between emotion and logic. Nimoy already knows his character, and he has always made Spock someone who could have come off as cold actually a being who merely seeing things from a different angle. Nimoy also has one of the greatest scenes in Wrath of Khan at the end.
Throughout the film we sense he will have a major role, and at the end when his logical conclusions lead to his death it makes it both intense and heartbreaking. When the unemotional Spock, moments away from death, tells Kirk that, "I have been and always shall be...your friend" and ends by giving Kirk the traditional Vulcan salute, "Live long and prosper" , no one will be blamed if they shed a tear at Spock's sacrifice. It is a beautiful moment, full of humanity, which is ironic given it's a Vulcan.
END OF SPOILER
The genius in Wrath of Khan isn't just a strong story with actual motivation for all the character's actions or in the still-impressive visual effects (the chase through the Mutara Nebula still hold up), but it also comes from the fact that we get to know all the characters, from minor ones like Chekov and Preston to Spock, Khan and Kirk. We have a vested interest in what happens to them, which makes us care what happens in the film.
Wrath of Khan is what one could ask for in a science-fiction film: it's exciting, entertaining, moves fast. It also has what intelligent films have: character development, plot, twists, great acting, and (which would please Vulcans everyone) logical solutions to the situations faced. It has also has Ricardo Montalban's amazing pecs.
If a non-Trekker/Trekkie were to start watching the films, The Wrath of Khan is THE Star Trek film they should start with.
Next Star Trek Film: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock