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Friday, May 24, 2013

"KHAAAANN!!!"


Yes, by now everyone knows who the villain is in J.J.Abrams’ latest TREK reboot, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS:  Khan Noonian Singh, the 20th Century superman first immortalized on the screen by Ricardo Montalban in TOS episode “The Space Seed” and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.  Khan, Kirk’s nemesis of many years, the Moriarty to Kirk’s Holmes (and a fitting piece of reverse casting there, too, for the man chosen to play him in this new version).  A man supposedly superior in every way to our hero, and yet, a man lacking in those qualities which define Kirk and ensure that Kirk will ultimately defeat him—compassion, intuition, resourcefulness.

"From Hell's heart I stab at thee!"
The original cinematic version of Khan’s story, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, was an epic tale of good and evil, of guilt and revenge, almost Shakespearean in scope.  Shatner’s Kirk and Montalban’s Khan gobbled scenery with abandon as Khan chased his version of the white whale “around perdition’s flames.”  At the same time, Kirk’s own past came back to haunt him, even as his confinement to a desk job in Starfleet put his future (and his self-worth) in doubt.  The battle between these Titans culminated, of course, in Spock’s sacrifice to save the Enterprise, a death the loss-averse Kirk was not prepared to accept.  (And, luckily, didn’t have to.  This is STAR TREK, after all.)

There is little of the broad scope and classic literary feel to Abrams’ retelling of the Khan tale.  His Kirk is younger, brasher and not much given to introspection.  His Khan is likewise younger, just awakened from his 300-year sleep, and doesn’t have a personal grudge against the captain who marooned him on a planet which then was knocked from its orbit and turned into a dustball.  The story loses something with the lack of that personal element, which it doesn’t regain with the addition of the war-mongering Admiral Marcus.  That part of the plot seems reminiscent of STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, though the Klingons just seem to be Marcus’s pet whipping aliens.  No one else seems to be worried about them.

Other elements of the Khan story are in place, however. Carol Marcus. A perilously out-of-sync warp drive on the Enterprise demanding the ultimate sacrifice from a senior officer. Kirk in limbo, this time having lost command of the Enterprise over a violation of the Prime Directive. (In STII:TWOK, Kirk had been “kicked upstairs”—forced into a desk job he’s not suited for and doesn’t want.)  In both films, a crisis puts Kirk back in the captain’s chair of the Enterprise and sends him off in search of the man behind an attack on the Federation.

Benedict Cumberbatch (SHERLOCK) plays this man, who is revealed to be Khan, in Abrams’ universe.  With all the other TREK characters, Abrams was careful to be true to the physicality, the mannerisms and the underlying nature of the people he was recreating.  We can forgive Chris Pine’s blue eyes, because he embodies Jim Kirk’s energy, enthusiasm, courage and intuition.  Not to mention his grin.  Simon Pegg doesn’t exactly look like Scotty, but he is Scotty, somehow.  My God, the rest of them—Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, John Cho, Zoe Soldana—are just channeling their counterparts.  And, personally, I like Anton Yelchin better than the original. (Sorry, Chekov fans.)

Khan, is that you?
But Cumberbatch’s Khan cannot be said to be anything like Montalban’s.  You cannot imagine that even if he were left to struggle for survival on a hostile world with his vulnerable human wife and his beloved superhuman followers that he would ever develop the twisted passion that marked Montalban’s every word and movement.  Even Cumberbatch's arrogance is muted and refined, where Montalban’s was haughty, nose-in-the-air and overdeveloped-chest-in-your-chest.

Now some people prefer their villains cool and restrained like this.  The story demands that Khan be somewhat reasonable at first, as does “The Space Seed”, you may recall. (Though, even then, Montalban was obnoxious as hell.)  And, granted, in the end, the new Khan does lose his cool a little bit.  But we never get a real sense of obsession or madness from him, and because we’re given few details of his past as a leader of a genocidal regime, we have little idea of the true trouble he could cause.  Perhaps, sadly, it’s because we’re too inured to terrorism in the real world and extreme violence in the film world.  Oh, he’s a bomber.  So?  He shoots a bunch of Starfleet officers?  Why does that make him special?  

We actually saw nothing of what Khan did in the original episode and yet we knew him to be a mass murderer on the order of Hitler.  He killed only six people in STII:TWOK before Kirk found him, and we knew him to be insane, obsessed and absolutely ruthless.  Most of it was because of that glint of madness in Montalban’s eye. 
 
Montalban-and-Shatner was a match made in Hollywood Heaven. Two hammy heavyweights vying for screen energy meant the sparks flew in their scenes together, both in the original episode and in the movie sequel.  Cumberbatch and Pine don’t quite make the same movie magic.  Cumberbatch is too cool; Pine is too hot.  They end up canceling each other out.  Part of it is the way Khan is written.  Part of it is that Khan has no real reason to hate Kirk and, though Kirk has plenty of reason to hate Khan, he already has enough fire.  With nothing equally passionate in Cumberbatch to meet Pine's emotion, the scenes between them tend to go flat.

Does this make STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS a bad film?  Not at all.  Taken on its own merits Abrams’ film is highly entertaining, emotionally satisfying and true to the spirit of the STAR TREK universe.  Just don’t expect the new vision of Khan to include flowing hair, bare pecs and a penchant for quoting Melville.  Can’t have everything, I guess.

Cheers, Donna



3 comments:

  1. Great assessment, Donna. I agree this version of the Kirk-Khan conflict is missing something--most likely that little spark of madness you mentioned.

    That said, this Kahn did have his pluses. Where the original Khan's physical abilities were more "tell" and less "show," this incarnation reveals him to be brilliant, deadly, and scary in his uncontrollability and obsession.

    As to the movie, I saw the 3D version and the effects were in-your-face awesome, quite literally. (Though a little unsettling when some of the elements seemed to float over the seat right in front of me!)

    I can't really say which version is my favorite. They each had positives and negatives. I liked the flip in perspective with some of the character actions.

    I think the newer version of Enterprise Engineering looking much more like a military vessel engine room should--more utilitarian, massive and less boxed.

    To follow up on my earlier comment, this cutting-edge Khan was more effective as a ruthless villain. No ear-invading, brain-controlling critters needed to intimidate or exert control, just wicked cunning and physical ability. I figured out why the villain was so obsessed with the missiles pretty early on, but was disappointed there was no real explanation how he accomplished such a feat. It felt a bit far-fetched, even for Khan.

    I liked this version of Klingons better--recognizable but overall more, well, alien than earlier installments.

    I just have to rant on a bit on one thing that I found a big disappointment--although it has almost nothing to do with the film, characters or script. I hated the closing credits!

    I found the graphics of planets and astronomical events cartoonish and 3D exploitive, rather than containing the high level of visual reality of, say, Star Wars or even Firefly. They looked and felt completely computer-generated, cheap and amateur. I expect a quality film to BE quality, from opening to very last shot. Don't dazzle me with brilliance and then hand me Mickey Mouse. (Which is no reflection on future Star Wars episodes....I hope!)

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  2. Wow. What an assessment from both of you! I saw the film in 2D. Wished I'd seen it in 3D. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, my personal favorite is the 1st movie in this new incarnation. I agree with Laurie's description of the new Khan as brilliant, deadly, and scary.I disagree about the 1st Khan's abilities being more tell than show. Montalban was quite ripped (and he was 62 at the time). Picking up Chekov with one hand showed off his strength. I liked the flip with Kirk & Spock near the end of this movie. But what I like in the 2 Abrams' versions is the repartee between the main characters. Hats off to Orci and Kurtzman.

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  3. Having this alternate version of the Khan legend is a lot of fun, isn't it? Most of the new Enterprise, including Engineering, is better, due to advances in filmmaking and CGI, and Abrams did pay attention to the science when it counted (like in the "jumping off a bridge into a shot glass" analogy--LOVED that scene). But, you're right, Diane, Montalban was no slouch ("people ask me, is that your REAL chest?")and his physicality, like Shatner's, sold it for me.

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