The year is 1982 and Star Trek is all but finished — the first Star Trek movie was a disaster of bland storytelling and had no life at all. Yet Paramount decides to take a chance and allows Nicholas Meyer to direct Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. To be blunt about it: The movie was so damn good that not only did it turn the film series into a franchise — but it’s now over 25 years later and there have been four additional series and a new set of films in the works.
A huge part of that is due to the screen performance of Ricardo Montalbán (November 25, 1920 – January 14, 2009). Firstly in 1982 to all of America he was known as Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island — and maybe lesser known for selling automobiles that featured “soft Corinthian leather”. Meyer could have cast anyone for the part, but the fanboy in him (and God bless him for doing it) made him go back to Montalbán. In fact it was Montalbán’s performance in the original 1967 episode of Space Seed that played a role in him coming up with the story in the first place.
We now live in the 21st Century which is after well after a race of genetic superman were suppose to have driven Earth to the brink of World War III. Clearly this notion is laughable (and it was in 1982) yet Montalbán made it believable. If you look at the 1967 episode Khan Noonien Singh is still a young man at heart — yet Montalbán was able to take that very same character and transform him into something much bigger.
The brilliance of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that it is a retelling of the classic novel Moby Dick — and that worked perfectly with William Shatner’s over the top acting style which Nicholas Meyer brought out and encouraged instead of playing down. And the reason that Shatner’s performance is still memorable with fanboys yelling KHANNNNN!!!! all these years later is that Montalbán was also playing his role over the top — and damn it but it was brilliant to watch on the silver screen. But what makes that performance so amazing is that if you look at every other role that Montalbán played they were always latin lover characters who were laid back and smooth, which makes his performance as the ultimate foil all the more amazing.
The other thing that made that role believable was that the character had a backstory which was already known to fans walking into the theater. So many Star Trek films (and Star Wars and James Bond films) bring in the bad guy for one movie and then kill him off — the Darth Maul effect if you will. This never works well with the audience because in less than two hours they never get to know the character on any level. Yet Montalbán took this backstory and made you slightly sympathize with his plight — Kirk just left him on that damn planet and his wife was killed. Montalbán was brilliant because he was making you root for the Moby Dick over the beloved crew that you grew up with.
A cinematic performance well done sir…