Because lists are fun to make.
Also, this is a direct response to The Christian Nerd’s own list.
Let’s go with the best and work our way down.
Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan
I will be attacked for this…Here goes. Gene Roddenberry’s departure was the best thing to happen to Star Trek.
He made Star Trek up. He resurrected Star Trek, after it was gone for ten years (well, gone from live-action. I happen to love The Animated Series that Gene himself openly maligned.) But the franchise survived, thrived, and produced some of its best hours after he had backed away. And he started backing away before The Motion Picture was even finished. Long story short, Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer came in and, with this movie, built Trek into what it would remain for the next decade.
The show and the first movie were platforms for action, comedy, the wonders of the universe, and the hope of the human race. These are big ideas. These are big ideas that many probably believe adequately summarizes Star Trek. But this movie changed more than the Starfleet uniform. This movie changed Captain Kirk and Co. into titans. The heroes become larger than life. They are now part of a modern day folklore, starting with this movie. This is the big change that I think Bennett and Meyer effected. I’ve never heard them mention that before, but the timeline of Trek bares it out.
Folklore and larger-than-life heroes appeal to me more than any paradisal future for mankind. That’s just a personal interest. Given that this movie is generally regarded as the best of Trek, I might guess that many other people share my boredom with a perfect future and would prefer to watch a battle between people who are greater than us. And here we get Kirk and Khan, presented as if it were a rivalry to span the centuries. They met only once before, in an episode made great by its two leads.
All of Star Trek to this point has reigned Shatner in. No one could match him. Though mostly talented, the supporting cast (including Spock and McCoy) had no champion able to stand toe-to-toe with Shatner. He’s too skilled or he’s too hammy. Or he’s too rich a combination of the two.
Against the full-blooded terror of Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, William Shatner finally faced an actor willing to go to the depths of character immersion with him. This movie marks not only Shatner’s finest performance, but also his rebirth as an actor. The difference between pre-WoK Shatner and post-WoK Shatner is obvious. He hasn’t always managed to recapture what made his performance here so special, but he exercises the same abandon. It’s theatrical. He’s taking the bombast of the Shakespearean stage and putting into a civilized world.
What he really needs is an actor that is extremely skilled and willing to go over-the-top. He had it with Montalban, especially in the movie. He had it with Plummer in Part VI. Christopher Lloyd let Shatner exercise his one-of-a-kind ham/Shakespeare talent. I would even argue that he had it, to an extent, with Catherine Hicks in Part IV.
This is my favorite Star Trek movie because Shatner is amazing in it. This is his best performance. From the tired old professor to the overwhelmed new father to the universe’s best eulogizer to the grown up Peter Pan, this is Shatner’s best work.
He’s not alone.
Of course, Montalban delivers a great performance. “From hell’s heart etc,” is among the most moving villain soliloquies in the history of theater. And, in the tradition of classic Tragedy, his character is doomed from the second he first appears onscreen. His ego battles his fate and there is a pivotal moment where the two forces become aligned. Khan’s buddy suggests they just run away. “He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I’ll chase him ’round the moons of Nibia and ’round the Antares Maelstrom and ’round perdition’s flames before I give him up!” Montalban doesn’t just say the words, “No. We’re gonna still fight cos I hate Kirk.” He delivers the above poetry with the verve of a man tapping into the powers of the universe itself. “I will be my fate,” you can almost hear him say.
Nimoy brings Spock to earth in a way that’s not gaudy, like I might accuse him of doing whenever Spock had to be more…yooman on the TV show. Spock, like Kirk, is growing up too. The rigidity of the Vulcan philosophy is almost childish to him by now. Oh he never says any such thing aloud, but it’s behind his eyes. He doesn’t sacrifice himself because it’s the logical thing, though it is. He sacrifices himself to save this family he’s found himself in.
DeForest Kelley, usually a bright spot whenever on screen, provides the kind of no-nonsense country doctor that I believe Dr Boyce was meant to be. A kind of bartender to listen to the Captain moan about his problems. I guess Guinan eventually filled that role on TNG, though a bit smugger than McCoy does here.
James Doohan really set himself apart from the pack here. I’ve never heard how he managed to escape the supporting cast and enter a stratum just below the Kirk-Spock-McCoy layer. God knows that Takei was always trying to get up there and, except for a memorable scene in Part III and Part V, didn’t get much attention until he was finally made captain of his own ship in Part VI. And even that achievement is mired by rumors of his agent wooing Meyer to see things their way. Anyway, enough gossip. Doohan stretched out here and got a great crying scene, which he rocked in.
This one also has my favorite score. The rousing wave-crashing was borrowed by composer James Horner for several subsequent projects. But here it is for the first time. The swirling mists of space seem to be sonically represented in a way not achieved since Mahler himself scored the solar system.
Star Trek is no longer about what’s out there. It’s about what’s in here, which is a fascinating topic to investigate and which we, the human race, know much more about. And that is what elevates this movie above most other Star Treks. From great performances, to titanic heroes, to the pains of getting old, this one got it right.