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!"|
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?|
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.