Because getting Star Trek fans to agree on any issue tends to be an elusive goal, it would take an exceptional project to unite the bunch. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan came closest for several reasons. Ironically enough, a significant one is that even without the words "Star Trek," the film would still be a space adventure of the highest order. Almost destined to look good by comparison, Khan followed 1979's handsome, ponderous Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which spent a lifetime reintroducing each of the show's characters and another lifetime letting them drift through an endless nebula of special effects. Like Superman II, another superior sequel, Khan dispenses with the formalities and gets down to the business at hand, in this case a duel driven by ideas and characters instead of icons and light shows. Hiring an outside contractor helped. Director Nicholas Meyer came to the project with little knowledge of the series and little concern for avoiding such topics as the graying of the Enterprise crew: He made a central issue out of William Shatner's age, and brought mortality to center stage by killing off a major character. For all that, the film still stays planted in the Star Trek universe. It digs deep into the show's archives to find its titular villain, a genetically engineered superman played by Ricardo Montalban, last seen making a new start on an uninhabited planet after trying to take over the Enterprise. Now eager for revenge on Shatner after living for decades in the aftermath of an ecological disaster that killed most of his crew, Montalban finds the means to even the score after he commandeers a passing starship. What follows works both as a confrontation between two characters and as a showdown between two happily larger-than-life actors. Shatner and Montalban never share the same space, but their face-offs highlight the film, as they both wring every drop of drama out of their lines. Though they were well-matched, Meyer explains on his brisk audio commentary that they required different directorial approaches. After initial insecurity in the role, Montalban settled on an unsettling quietness to define a character that was, in Meyer's words, "Ahab, Lear, [and] Lucifer all rolled into one." Meanwhile, the director took Shatner through take after take, boring him into a more natural acting style. Or natural for Shatner, at least: Not least among Khan's pleasures is the way it continually veers toward, but never quite crosses, the neutral zone between space opera and interstellar camp. By the end, it becomes simply operatic, with a death scene of surprising emotional power. Though the next installment brushes off that death with only slightly less casualness than a Halloween movie, it's a sacrifice that turns a noble human notion into an intergalactic truth. Even the pickiest of fans would be hard-pressed to find a moment truer to the series' guiding principles.
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