The Wrath of Khan was James Horner’s breakthrough score. He sold a bajillion albums since, for movies you probably heard of (Titanic, Avatar, Aliens, etc. etc.). One listen is all it takes to hear why The Wrath of Khan put him on the map.
When the film came out in 1982, it felt brand new in two ways. One, it felt like Star Trek was alive again. Khan‘s tight pacing, dialogue and performances were miles ahead of the monumental bore than was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Second, the score was top-knotch. Just as John Williams made Star Wars a brilliant audio ride, so did James Horner with Khan. Of course this isn’t to knock Jerry Goldsmith, who score The Motion Picture (and lots of other Treks too). Khan was a different kind of movie, with the kind of action and tension the first film lacked. The score followed suit.
Perhaps the most exciting cue on this soundtrack is recurring Khan theme heard in “Surprise Attack”. As stunningly good as it is, the quieter moments in the score are just as important. Though quiet, they still delivering tension when necessary. Check out “Kirk’s Explosive Reply”, from the scene in the film when Kirk is stalling for time to take down Khan’s shields. When a character stalls for time, you need to feel that tension, and it is all there in the track. “Spock” is also a lovely softer piece, from a thoughtful moment between Spock and the Captain. There is an air of ambiguous danger.
This being Star Trek, you need regal themes for those big widescreen shots of the USS Enterprise gliding past in all her glory. Check out “Enterprise Clears Moorings” for a the finest example of this. Of course, Khan was probably best loved for its battle scenes. “Battle in the Mutara Nebula” and “Genesis Countdown” combined are 16 minutes of adrenaline mixed with tense stretches of quietly humming instruments. Even when contemplative, this soundtrack is somehow so big and bold. It is an absolutely huge sounding score. Brass, military drums, strings…it is a flawless collection of music. Every bit as exciting as the film, and completely enjoyable as its own work.
People say James Horner plagiarised music from classical composers. So did John Williams, and you don’t hear fans complaining about it! The Wrath of Khan could easily one of the best soundtracks you ever buy.