#1 1982: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan


Let me take you back to June 4-10, 1982. During that week, Michael Keaton and Caroline McWilliams were married, Nine won Best Musical at the Tony Awards, Martina Navratilova won the French Open, Dwight Gooden was drafted by the New York Mets, Ronald Reagan met with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA finals, MLB pitcher Satchel Paige died at age 75, figure skater Tara Lipinski was born, filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder tragically died of a drug overdose at age 36, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the #1 movie in America.

It isn’t exactly a surprise that The Wrath of Khan was extraordinarily successful -- it is, by popular opinion, the best Star Trek film ever made. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was itself a success in 1979, itself following the incredibly popular television series. With the entire cast returning, there’s no way this could have failed. It grossed nearly $79MM on a reported production budget of only $11MM. Ultimately, this placed it at #6 for the year 1982.

Interestingly, though, The Wrath of Khan had the highest opening weekend of all 1982, besting the previous week’s Rocky III by nearly $2MM. As I’ve noted several times over this project, it wasn’t as normal for a film to debut at #1 with films more likely to roll-out slowly and less changeover at the cinema creating long runs at the top. For this to happen two weeks in a row was quite extraordinary when looking at the year in whole. Only six of the top ten opening weekends in 1982 were the best showing of the week -- actually, the other four openings [The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Friday the 13th Part III, Firefox, and Poltergeist] never reached #1 at all. This would only happen one more time through the rest of the year and that particular film’s long box office dominance is the primary reason why.

One interesting tidbit concerning The Wrath of Khan’s box office is its place in the Star Trek franchise. Surprisingly, it ranks 7th out of 13, which seems to damper the gravity of its success. Looking a little closer at the franchise, however, makes things a little clearer. The top three in the franchise are the three films most recently released: the 2009 Star Trek “reboot” and its two sequels. Given increasing ticket prices, general economic inflation, and much more access to big budget Hollywood releases, this makes total sense.

Even more interesting, The Wrath of Khan trails Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [I think that’s the one with the whales], the TGN-branded First Contact, and the original 1979 release. Despite the general appreciation for The Wrath of Khan, it seems like it may not have been able to overcome the lukewarm reception of its predecessor, grossing about $3MM less despite showing up in double the theater screens. Overall, though, the Star Trek films have been strangely consistent, with 6 of the 13 grossing between $70 and $82MM. Only four of the films topped a $100MM, which is also a bit surprising.

However you choose to tip the box office numbers of The Wrath of Khan to claim the degree of its success, it remains one of the exemplary entries into the large and long-ranging franchise. Re-watching it with Star Trek Into Darkness [which grossed roughly three times more] in mind is particularly fruitful.

Into Darkness didn’t want to market itself as a re-do of The Wrath of Khan, but the surprise entry of the title villain links them together. Star Trek 2009 successfully reset the terms of the franchise, introducing a new, young cast that held their own with the memory of Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Takei, and Nichols, but reintroducing Khan [especially in their secretive way] was a grave mistake. Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the best actors working today, but he couldn’t come close to the menacing philosophizing of Ricardo Montalban, exquisite chest plate and all. His energy truly carries The Wrath of Khan, making it the classic it is remembered as and creating a truly iconic movie villain.