director J.J. Abrams
viewed: 05/18/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA
In 2009 (really four years ago?), J.J. Abrams delivered a re-boot to the Star Trek franchise as reinvigorating and cleverly promising as any could really have hoped for. In re-casting a younger version of the original television show’s Enterprise crew, the new versions of Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and gang manage just the right amount of recognition, while casting a group of actors that have their own elan, verve, and presence. It’s hard enough to cast a franchise set of actors for anything, much less ones who are bearing the weight of “being” a prior cast of pop media icons. But Abrams and co. did it and also put together one of the better big summer movies of that year.
So it was with some reasonable amount of anticipation that accompanied the release of Abrams first sequel to the film, one which was rumored to feature Star Trek‘s villain of villains, Khan, no doubt also re-imagined for the times. For some reason, this was meant to be some state secret, perhaps to hold at bay the many wagging tongues of internet bloggers who would dissect the casting and creation before the film had actually been seen by anyone. In doing a modicum or research, I noted that The New York Times‘ writer A.O. Scott vowed to Paramount that he wouldn’t offer up “spoilers” around such a key component of the film’s plot and really, primary talking point.
Well, whatever. It’s often too hard to talk seriously about a film while dancing around such obvious points. No one will be too surprised to learn that Benedict Cumberbatch (try saying that five times fast) is the film’s key villain and is human superman Khan Noonien Singh, or simply Khan as friends and fans know him. Khan was introduced in the original television series in an episode called “Space Seed”, which according to this new Star Trek‘s timeline wouldn’t have even happened yet (you’ll have to refer to the 2009 Star Trek for the whys and wherefores regarding this alternate universe/time travel possibility because it’s been four years and I only vaguely recall the details.) And of course Khan was made most indelibly known as getting his name into the title of the first series of film in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the 1982 high point of the Star Trek franchise and major cultural foil for Star Trek Into Darkness. And of course, in those cases, Khan was played by the inimitable Ricardo Montalbán, a Mexican actor playing a supposedly Indian superhuman.
In 2009, the kids I think were a bit young for Star Trek, and while we’ve watched Star Wars (1977) and its sequels, I have not introduced them at all to the Star Trek universe. So, imagine, if you can, what it’s like going into a movie like Star Trek Into Darkness, a re-booted franchise, playing off a pop cultural touchpoints from the 1960’s and 1980’s that have infused themselves evermore into our continuum…unless you just didn’t know about all that. Let’s just say that there are a lot of jokes and Vulcan mindmelds and Vulcan nerve pinches that aren’t nearly so obvious as you might think. Even explaining what a Vulcan is and why he’s got pointy ears and doesn’t know what “happy” is…it’s a lot of explaining.
The real question that will get asked, has been asked by people that I told that I went to see this new Star Trek film is simply: is it any good? Frankly, I found it a bit less good than its predecessor, though maybe not by a lot. It’s an entertaining summer action film, with tidbits of cleverness and mystery, and a good cast and a good villain (which I would argue is often the real need in these “comic book”-ish movies. I mean to say that every superhero needs a good bad guy to fight, and perhaps part of my case in point for Star Trek would be Khan. He is the most interesting and be him Montalbán or Cumberbatch, he’s quite well embodied.
This film is no doubt already getting pulled apart, questioned, ranted about throughout the internets and beyond, but some with good reason. I have no prediction where this all will fall in the long run, but I will say that the very odd inversion of the ending of The Wrath or Khan, what with this time Kirk is on the other side of the window, laying down his life to nuclear radiation, restarting the warp drive to save the Enterprise, and it’s Spock who yells the manic “Khhaaaaaaannn!!!” as opposed to William Shatner. It’s such a bizarre spin on the other film and so massively self-aware that it’s the most meta of meta moments in this post-modern summer film. You see, Leonard Nimoy does show up onscreen to tutor Zachary Quinto (the new Spock) regarding Khan, and though he doesn’t want to effect the path of the present (he came from the future), the camera cuts away as he advises him. Maybe he tipped him off on the ending of the 1982 film, which would have happened some much longer time in the future of the current day Enterprise. In reality it doesn’t make sense.
It’s a pretty heavy-handed in joke.
Felix thought the film was okay. Clara enjoyed it, though was confused by a lot of things. I liked it. I thought it was pretty good myself. It will surely be interesting to see who takes the helm of the next Star Trek film and where they end up taking it. Abrams has left them in good standing, paths cleared for more adventures with a good cast and a pretty open universe to explore.
All while he jumps universes over to Star Wars. And given what he’s done, the anticipation for that will be most fervent.