Star Trek into Darkness – Villain Rescues Movie from A Trek into Tiresome

Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan

Star Trek into Darkness is the second movie I’ve seen in recent years where the villain burns his way across the screen with such charismatic intensity that a path of smoke somewhat obscures the rest of the cast. In other words, when you think of the movie, the villain is the first one that comes to mind. The other film is “Thor”. The villain is Loki (Tom Huddleston). And anyone who can even think to vie with Chris Hemsworth when he dons his hammer-wielding persona, has some kind of thespian voodoo going on. That describes Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. The instant he appears on-screen in Star Trek into Darkness, it’s like you’ve just gotten a double shot of Turkish coffee. That’s equivalent to a liquid version of an unfiltered Camel (no pun intended), without the health problems. But unlike “Thor”, which is a great movie in its own right, with great acting all-around, Cumberbatch almost single-handedly rescues Star Trek into Darkness from being a trek into tiresome.

Ricardo Montalban as Khan the 1st

The first Khan was played by Ricardo Montalban in his all-time greatest film role that left viewers open-mouthed and riveted. That producers found two such fascinating and compelling actors for the character of Khan is amazing. And yet Cumberbatch, BBC’s iconic Sherlock Holmes, is at the center of a raging Trekkie and critical controversy. This newest voyage of the Starship Enterprise is indeed a rehashed trek into the past, without the stimulating and thought-provoking genius of Groundhog Day. Though most critics (and some Trekkies) agree that Star Trek devolved into mostly formulaic plots sometime in the 90s, the movie franchise still seemed to give a passing nod to the standards of the original — more or less successfully.

The original Star Trek was ground-breaking because it dared to speak to society’s ills, addressing ongoing social problems in an entertaining and memorable format. It has since trekked its way even into the heart of academia, offered as a course in philosophy, speaking to its impact upon society, citing its value as a morality play dressed up as science fiction. (Probing down-to-earth human problems is the heart of all truly worthy science fiction, anyway).

Star Trek The Original, written by Gene Roddenberry, debuted in 1966 and was cancelled after only three years. Who knew then it would become a household by-word? Who knew then that many of its phrases and actions would find their way to earth in the language and actions of everyday? I mean, who hasn’t used the phrase “Beam me up, Scotty” (which is not an exact quote, by the way), or smirked when able to do the Vulcan hand salute when someone else could not? (Okay. Yes. I’ve been bad.)  And who knew we would still be watching Star Trek 44 years after it had folded its sets like the tents of the Arabs? We couldn’t know then that it would not silently steal away. Only about a million die-hard and maligned Trekkies (and Roddenberry himself) knew it was something worth following and fought for it.

Roddenberry was influenced by Wagon Train, which centered on stalwart and sacrificial pioneers (especially women) braving the unknown frontier, and essentially “going where no one had gone before”. Wagon Train always had a down-to-earth wagon master who led the caravans through dangers and disasters with compassion, wisdom and authority. Roddenberry was also influenced by the stories of Horatio Hornblower, which addressed qualities such as honor, courage, humility, and integrity. Because Roddenberry echoed these qualities in his own writings, many a young boy has profited by the strong father-figures of Star Trek’s captains.

Nichelle Nicols as Uhura

Star Trek, in 1966, also braved the frontier of bigotry, not by talking the talk, but by walking the walk. The cast consisted of Sulu (George Takei), the helmsman, who represented all of Asia, the name Sulu taken from the “sea that touched all shores”. It included Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the communications officer, who was both African-American and a woman. The name “Uhura” is derived from the Swahili “uhuru”, meaning freedom. According to Wikipedia,

Nichelle Nichols has told in multiple interviews[ that [Whoopi] Goldberg told her that as a child seeing Star Trek for the first time, Ms. Goldberg ran around the house screaming “Hey Mom! Look! There’s a black woman on the TV and she ain’t no maid!”

But the ethnic faces of Star Trek did not end with the iconic cast. Villains of all sizes, races, creeds, colors, and alien origins have given us a deliciously collective gasp over the years. Ricardo Montalban, born in Mexico City in 1920, was described by IMBd as “the epitome of continental elegance, charm and grace on film and television”, and I loved him as that handsome, old world gentleman. But when he became the cold, calculating, raging face of an Hispanic, villainous Khan, he caught the world totally by surprise. That role was a tribute to the range and ability Montalban was never able to display in his former, elegantly typecast characters.

What has some people up in arms today, is that Khan not only returned, but he returned in a not quite fully thought out and confusing role. Those who have never seen The Wrath of Khan, or have forgotten most of the salient points (like me) should watch the original to get unconfused. Contributing to the problem are reviewers who don’t know what the heck is going on themselves and do not bother to find out. (Or fail to wait before posting until their Trekkie husband gets home to tell them where they screwed up). Hrrruumph.

Then the film went way wide of Khan’s (read that as Montalban’s) ethnic origin, since Khan is an Asian name. Cumberbatch is anything but Hispanic, or African-American, or Asian, though they kept the ethnicity of Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) true to form.

The controversy aside, Star Trek into Darkness is just another science fiction action/thriller without any of the qualities that should be part and parcel of any Star Trek worthy of the name. It has diverged from its core and has come perilously close to meltdown. The acting here could never stay on course. Maybe because the plot couldn’t, either.

Though Chris Pine as the young Kirk, and Zachary Quinto as a young Spock, started out promising in the 2009 Star Trek, they dribbled the ball in this one, with some scenes engaging, and some just plain boring. Chris Pine’s eyes were so blazingly blue he looked like an alien rather than James T. Kirk. Or maybe my Blu-Ray was just set to stun. Whatever, Quinto was a rather anemic version of the strong, green-blooded Leonard Nimoy, who had great presence even when seemingly cold and unemotional.

Zoe Saldana as Uhura 2

Zoe Saldana may have been fine for Avatar, but she was no Uhura, and the “romance” between her and Spock fell more than a little flat. Some actors can project romance rays through some invisible ether without batting an eyelash. These two could have done the Argentine Tango without breaking a sweat.

Those actors who did live up to their roles, however, were: Carl Urban as Bones; Simon Pegg as Scotty; John Cho as Sulu; Anton Yelchin as Chekov; Bruce Greenwood as Pike; Peter Weller as Marcus, and, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, even if he wasn’t Ricardo Montalban. Cumberbatch, as an actor, is in a different galaxy from anything as mundane as good or bad writing or directing. To use a hackneyed but point-on phrase, he could read the dictionary and pull off an acting coup. It’s worth watching the movie just to see him in action.