I’ll admit reviewing this one was a bit of a challenge for me, but only because I’ve become such a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch over the last few years. I was quite frankly more hyped for his performance than the general fact of it being a Star Trek movie. (And also, since it’s been a while, this is more of a recap than just analysis.)
That having been said, this was a fantastic film. STID was two and a quarter hours of wild action and excitement. There were funny moments, a ton of character development, and real emotion.
We open and plunge almost immediately into a huge action scene. All the senior staffers (as usual) are in jeopardy of their lives, but manage to complete the mission and escape (no change there). Kirk chooses to save Spock over obeying the Prime Directive (nothing new there either).
...And yet it is different. Because Kirk is, shockingly for Trek but quite correctly for this timeline, called to account for his actions. He suffers immediate and appropriate consequences by losing his ship.
Pike, who’s been given back command of the Enterprise, goes to bat for him again even as he reads Kirk the riot act for being so goddamn cocky and stupid. Pike knows there’s a brilliant leader under all the bravado and testosterone poisoning; it just needs some tincture of time and a bit of knocking around the universe to polish off the rough edges. So he makes Kirk his XO. (Spock has been reassigned to the U.S.S. Convenient Obstacle.)
Interspersed with this is a short but wrenching interlude with a Starfleet officer whose daughter is dying. A mysterious man with a deep voice and cheekbones which could cut glass offers to save the girl... at a price.
(Now, one thing which the trailer did give away was the line “I am better than you... at everything.” Any Trekkie worth his or her dilithium crystals will assume that either means Khan or possibly Gary Mitchell. So when he saved the little girl’s life, what I assumed at that point was that he was starting to gather followers the way Montalban’s Khan did with McGivers in “Space Seed.” The officer would be so grateful for saving the girl’s life that he would follow Khan to the bitter end. Technically, he did, but the “bitter end” came a lot faster than I’d assumed it would.)
Mystery Man, later revealed to be John Harrison, blackmails the officer into blowing up a Starfleet building in the heart of London. (Can I just digress for another half-second to be grateful that New York was spared for once?) All the leaders conveniently gather in one not-particularly-secure place to discuss Harrison’s bombing, Kirk points out said lack of security, and Harrison (who must have been listening and waiting for his cue) starts to strafe the room with plasma fire through all the lovely floor-to-ceiling windows.
Pike is killed in the attack (along with lots of other brass). Scotty figures out that Harrison transported to Qo’noS, and Kirk takes that information to Admiral Marcus to demand vengeance. Now kids, let’s remember that the divergence of timelines happened after ENT, so Kirk should know what RoboBigot looked like and been suspicious that his descendant was an admiral. But maybe that got hushed up, who knows.
At any rate, Admiral Marcus tells Kirk that Harrison is a former Starfleet operative, and that the building was part of Section 31 (dun-dun-dun!). Marcus puts Kirk back in command of the Enterprise (boy, that was quick) and allows him to reclaim Spock as his first officer. He tells Kirk this is a Mission: Impossible (despite taking their most advanced ship) to sneak up on Qo’noS and fire a whole bunch of specially designed torpedoes at Harrison, and for pity’s sake try not to start a war while you’re there.
Boarding the ship along with the torpedoes is the lovely Dr. Carol Wallace, a science and weapons expert. Spock instantly gets huffy and territorial, which was incredibly cute and funny to watch. The epic K/S bromance isn’t in full flower quite yet, but the ship is well underway, to so speak.
The torpedoes can’t be scanned, so nobody knows what’s in them or what’s fueling them. Scotty quite reasonably refuses to allow machinery onboard without making sure it’s not going to damage his wee bairns. Kirk tells him “my way or the highway,” Scotty says he’ll take the high road to Loch Lomin, and to both their surprise, Kirk calls his bluff. Poor Chekov, who in this incarnation has entire oceans of wet behind his ears but is endearingly game for anything, gets pressed into service as Scotty’s replacement.
Spock, while pleased to be back at Kirk’s side where the entire universe knows he belongs, objects to their mission to kill a Federation citizen without due process and a trial. Kirk says that Harrison’s cold-blooded murder of a whole bunch of high-ranking muckety-mucks means he’s forfeited the right to due process. There’s more bromantic huffing and posturing, which crosses over with the Spock/Uhura romantic huffing and posturing, which to me was even funnier.
They reach Qo’noS, more or less, when the warp engines abruptly give out. Chekov is scrambling to make repairs. Since they can’t get out of K’Dodge quickly (McCoy acidly points out “you don’t rob a bank when your getaway car has a flat tire”), Kirk allows necessity to lead him back to the path of righteousness — not that he looked like he was all that unhappy about it — and announces that he will be leading a team to capture Harrison and bring his cheekbones back to Terra for posterity. Err, for a trial.
Spock practically wags his tail with joy at this. The big two and Uhura — who seems to be replacing McCoy as the third leg of the triumvirate in this timeline — head down to the shuttle bay. Kirk orders the two guards accompanying them to “lose the red shirts.” (I love this kind of sly winking. The line made absolute sense in context — this is off the books, so no insignias — but is also pure red meat for long-time Trekkies.)
Kirk tells Sulu to take the conn and threaten Harrison with the new torpedoes. Sulu calmly sits in the Big Chair, calls himself Captain Hikaru Sulu, and delivers the threat in a voice so cold that viewscreens shatter across the bridge. (I love how tough this crew is. There are no slackers or placeholders anywhere.)
Spock and Uhura verbally kiss and make up in the shuttle. The relationship dynamics make them both sound a bit young, but that’s fine, because they are a bit young. They are spotted by a patrol which gives chase, allowing J.J.Abrams to demonstrate why he’s been given the helm of Star Trek and Star Wars and will make both of them frickin’ awesome.
Everyone lands. Uhura continues to show what a BAMF she is by convincing Kirk to let her talk to the Klingons first and nearly succeeding in her diplomatic efforts. (Nichelle Nichols must be wavering between absolute pride and a bit of envy that she didn’t get to do all this cool stuff onscreen.) The Klingons, who wear Breen helmets in this life and look mostly like Worf with less facial hair and more jewelry, have had enough of talk when a Mystery Man with a Brunhilde Boomstick and a phaser proceeds to wipe out the entire squadron, including two Klingon scout ships, almost single-handedly. For real.
Lots of shots and fisticuffs later, Mystery Man is revealed again as John Harrison. He demands of Kirk, “How many torpedoes?! In your message, how many torpedoes do you have?”
“Seventy-two,” Spock tells him.
There’s a long moment, and then Harrison drops Brunhilde and surrenders. (Again, suspecting who Harrison is, at that moment I’m thinking, “Ah, there are people in those torpedoes. He was going to be murdered with his own Augments.”) Kirk indulges himself in some moderately useless fisticuffs, because Harrison pretty much stands there and takes it, making it look like Kirk is beating himself up. (It makes me laugh how tough this Kirk isn’t.)
In the brig, we finally have the clash of titanic egos. Only it isn’t, because this Kirk isn’t that sure of himself, and Harrison’s target isn’t Kirk.
The brig scenes are where Benedict Cumberbatch shows why he’s such a bloody great star. He ranges from slickness to smirks to spontaneous tears. He snarls, he hisses, he purrs. Chris Pine is by no means a bad actor, but he’s only just holding his own here. Cumberbatch flips your sympathies almost entirely, until Kirk reminds us that he murdered Christopher Pike and a score of NPCs.
And then the central mystery is revealed. “My... name... is....” (I wait for the ship to explode. Surprisingly, it doesn’t.) “Khan.” (At our theatre, the entire audience went, “Ohhhhhhh.” And then we all laughed at ourselves for going “Ohhhhhhh.” And even the second time I saw it, the guy in front of me went, “Ohhhhhhh.”)
As in the original timeline, Khan and his people are gengineered supermen. They were put in cryosleep and sent off after the Eugenics Wars. Marcus found their ship and woke Khan up, then drafted him to build weapons to use against the Klingons. It’s the same idea as Demolition Man, actually: who better to fight savages than another savage?
But Khan wanted out. And he wanted his people out. So he built the torpedoes to smuggle them out, but Marcus discovered what Khan was doing, and Khan says he believes Marcus murdered the crew. “The crew was my family,” says Khan, weeping without shame for the deaths of those he loved. “Is there ennathing you would not do... for your family?”
Khan wants vengeance on Admiral Marcus. He knows things which Kirk doesn’t know about Marcus and his plans, because Khan was the architect. He knows that Kirk has been set up. And he also knows how to play a good man. He knows how to use the truth to manipulate Kirk into helping him.
Kirk figures he has nothing to lose by checking up on Khan’s suggestions, so when Khan gives him some coordinates to investigate, he calls Scotty (who’s off in a dive bar somewhere) to go have a look-see. (I guess Scotty just resigned his position? And not his commission? Because he’s later piloting a Starfleet shuttle. Not sure how he got one.)
He also has Carol Wallace — whom Spock unveils as Carol Marcus, and we don’t get to find out why that’s an issue for Kirk in this timeline, but we can assume — and McCoy try to crack open one of the torpedoes. They do in fact find a cryogenically frozen person, backing up that part of Khan’s story.
And Marcus proves the rest of it right, showing up in a holy crow that’s a big nasty ship off the starboard bow, Jim, and pretty much admitting to Khan’s accusations. Kirk tells Marcus he’s going to send Khan over, then hangs up and tells Sulu to punch it for Terra.
Most of the way there, the Jaws catches up to Enterprise and proceeds to fire at warp. Can our ships even do that in TNG? I’ve lost track. Anyway, Jaws kicks Enterprise out of the warp slipstream, which is a très cool effect, and starts hammering away with various weaponry. Carol rushes to the bridge and calls her father, pleading with him not to blow everyone up. He coolly beams her off onto the Jaws, despite her protests.
Kirk makes a big grandstand speech, begging Marcus not to kill his crew. Marcus tells him, "Tough Talaxians." Just as he’s about to FOOM the Enterprise, the power cuts out. Scotty sneaked on board the Jaws and pulled some of its teeth, but it won’t last long.
Khan’s been moved to Sickbay. (Cumberbatch is sitting on a biobed, and even though he’s perfectly calm, his back is straight enough to use as a load-bearing wall. Just a small but brilliant detail proving that everyone was paying really close attention to character, and demonstrating how awesome this guy is that he can actually sit that straight while at complete rest and not make it look like he has the Chrysler Building fused to his spine.) McCoy is taking a blood sample from Superman to test on a dead tribble. This is one of many tiny threads which is casually laid down and then later picked up at just the right moment; Abrams and company are great plotters. Kirk tells Khan he will make him pay for his crimes, but right now he needs Khan’s help (over Spock’s objections).
While the crew of the Jaws are trying to restore power, Kirk and Khan to get shi— er, shot out of Enterprise’s rear end trash chute (no really) and space-dive for a small access port which Scotty has to open manually.
This requires crazy maneuvering through a debris field — I bet that level will be a bitch in the video game — and when Kirk’s Iron Man face-plate sensors conk out, Khan gives him direction through the comms (which wound up inadvertently and amusingly reminding me of Cumberbatch’s work in The Nightjar*). They get on board and Khan leads them to the bridge. Khan and the other two are separated, and Kirk murmurs to Scotty to take Khan out once they reach it.
While all this is going on, Spock briefly calls Classic Spock for some cheat codes, gets a broad hint, and then asks McCoy to help him arm the torpedoes. (Another reviewer pointed out, “Wasn’t the alternate timeline Spock supposed to be a big hush-hush thing? But Spock calls him right from the bridge and nobody blinks?”)
They reach the bridge and stun everyone not named Marcus. Scotty even briefly stuns Khan (more on that later). The admiral insists he did the right thing and won’t submit to arrest. While everyone’s bickering, Khan wakes up and starts punching the bejeebers out of everyone. He wallops Kirk, casually stomps on Carol’s leg to break it just because she happens to be en route to his destination, and then crushes Admiral Marcus’s head in his bare hands, hissing, “You should have let me sleep.”
And here again Cumberbatch shows his acting brilliance. Khan seizes Kirk with a gun to his head and demands the return of his frozen crew in the torpedoes in exchange for Kirk, Scotty, and Carol. Khan and Spock verbally fence at lightspeed, each thinking they’ve won. “I will destroy your life support. Your crew needs oxygen; mine does not,” Khan sneers with that very weird pointy grin which Cumberbatch can make. “Then I will walk over your cold corpses to reclaim my crew. So... shall we begin?” Spock responds, “Vulcans do not lie.” Or bluff. Spock tells Khan the torpedoes are his. Khan beams the three back to Enterprise, purring, “A captain should always go down with his ship.” (I’m doing this from memory, and I also just rewatched The Wrath of Khan because duh, and the lines from both are blurring. Which proves how spectacular the writing and performances were, to evoke Montalban without mimicking him.) Let us also note that Khan has the same attitude towards the Enterprise crew as Marcus, so apparently Marcus didn’t need quite as much help being a savage as he thought he did. Or maybe Marcus is this timeline’s McGivers, seduced by the charisma of a megalomaniac.
Of course, the torpedoes are armed (although emptied of their frozen crew — Spock and McCoy are not the monsters Marcus was), so they go off inside the Jaws. Unfortunately for the Enterprise crew, it doesn’t kill Khan, and we already know what happens when Khan thinks someone’s murdered his family. Again. He howls his loss to the stars.
Back on Enterprise, everything’s going wonky, and the ship is starting to fall into Terra’s atmosphere. Kirk and Scotty scramble down to Engineering, or they try to as the gravity goes offline and up is suddenly sideways. Lots of falling and catching and my husband asking me, “Why do we have a beer factory on the Enterprise again?” (Hush. It films well.)
In Engineering, Chekov tries to manually align something or other and Scotty proclaims that it’s broken and can’t be aligned. Kirk makes his decision, and punches Scotty out. He climbs into the radioactive chamber and applies percussive maintenance to the misaligned sticking thing, otherwise known as kicking it until it works.
In a magnificent reversal of the wrenching death scene at the end of TWOK, Kirk is the one baked by radiation, and Spock is outside the glass, watching his friend die. Some of the dialogue is echoed (“Ship... out of danger?”) as well as the paired ta’als against the glass. And when Kirk actually dies, Spock — choked up, weeping, truly feeling in a way classic Spock rarely allowed himself to do when sober — screams “KHAAAAAAAAAAN!” (Along with the rest of the audience.)
The superman in question is busy trying to crash what’s left of the Jaws into Starfleet Command. (It’s still a bad thing to land a starship.) Khan leaps down into the wreckage to run off into the city — to get away? to kill more brass? to escape to fight another day? needed to stretch his ridiculously long legs? — and Spock beams down to chase him on foot. (This is the point where I’m breathlessly thinking, “Good gravy, this film just keeps going and going and going!”)
Kirk’s body is brought into Sickbay. While McCoy slumps in his chair, grieving, the tribble from 18 hours earlier abruptly perks up and starts to purr. (Why is the tribble in the same spot, undisturbed, even though the gravity was just on the fritz when the ship was on frappé through the atmosphere?) McCoy jumps up and shouts for someone to pull the Augmentsicle out of the cryochamber so he can keep Kirk’s admittedly small brain from deteriorating further.
There’s a whole crazy chase scene on flying cars, which we still don’t have yet dammit, and lengthy fisticuffs between Khan and Spock — Kirk’s death in this timeline apparently evokes the plak tow rather than cools it, because half-Vulcan Spock pretty well keeps up with gengineered Khan. He lands some kind of nerve pinch which drives Khan roaring to his knees, but Khan gets back up and keeps punching.
McCoy tells the bridge that Khan’s blood could resurrect Kirk, so Uhura beams down to the flying car and repeatedly stuns Khan. Which has no effect. (Why could Scotty zap him once with a phaser and put him down for at least 15 seconds, but Uhura shoots him like six times and all it does is stagger him enough for Spock to finally dent his cheekbones?) At length Spock bludgeons Khan’s IQ down to Mere Genius, and they are able to capture him. (I will admit to feeling ever-so-slightly disappointed.)
Cut to two weeks later and Kirk waking up in the hospital. Khan’s blood did the trick (McCoy grumps, “Oh, don’t be so melodramatic; you were only barely dead.”), and as the Dread Pirate Wesley will tell you, true love saved Kirk in the end. Spock comes to his beside for a bit of tender reconciliation, as they acknowledge the debt they’ve paid one another.
In the end, Khan is returned to his cryocapsule, although what happens to 73 Napoleons is left unclear. (Sequel!)
I really loved every minute of this. I loved the laughs, I loved the incredible action scenes, I loved Cumberbatch’s icy brilliance. He’s explaining what Marcus did to his crew, and for a second you’re thinking, “Yeah, totally, I completely understand why you’d take out a room full of brass to avenge your loved ones.”
I love how the Abrams team rearranged the facts and puzzle pieces of the original events and fitted them back together into something which is both fresh and classic. Carol Marcus is Kirk’s love interest, although marginally here. The bare facts of Khan’s background are intact, as are his charisma, intellect, and arrogance. But you feel more for Khan’s people here when we don’t meet any of them than you did Montalban’s pouting Flashdance crew. Cumberbatch threatens to asphyxiate the Enterprise crew, which is what Montalban did to the Bridge crew in “Space Seed.” In this timeline, Khan is found by accident but resurrected on purpose to be a weapon, and his, uh, wrath is much more deserved than Montalban’s entitled fury that a planet exploded six months after they settled and Kirk never came back to rescue their super asses.
Scotty hasn’t quite come to the point where he’d follow Kirk into hell whistling, but he’ll sacrifice his career rather than allow harm to come to his ship on his watch. Karl Urban’s McCoy needs to relax a little. His channeling of DeForest Kelley is occasionally frightening in its perfection, but Kelley also knew how to laugh and tease. Urban is just pissed off all the time. (Although, oddly, Classic McCoy could be really cutthroat in his insulting of Spock, and these two have very few exchanges of any kind.)
When Kirk decides to try to take Khan over to the Jaws, Spock objects. Kirk tells Spock that Spock is really the one who should be in command. In the beginning, Pike tells Kirk, “You rely on blind luck and use it to justify your decisions, and you don’t respect The Chair.” We now see that Kirk does, in fact, respect the Big Chair — he respects it enough to feel that he can best serve it by giving it to someone else. That takes a certain maturity and a recognition of the superior skills of others, a willing stepping-down of the ego, which has to occur for brash wise-ass Jumped-Up Cadet Kirk to really earn the stripes of Captain Kirk.
This is, upon reflection, really Spock’s and Khan’s movie. Many of the great lines (“Shall we begin?”) and the great fights are between those two, while Kirk hurts himself trying to dent the mighty cheekbones and then gets stomped into the deck plating while Spock coolly tugs on a superman’s cape. But this timeline’s Spock has always been the more mature and commanding of the two, even if he’s still too rigid in his thinking to be the person in the Big Chair.
Slash jokes aside, this timeline’s Spock reminds me of T’Pol, in a way: he’s so young, and not nearly as obsessed with being the Perfect Vulcan™ as Classic Spock. He’s much more at ease with both halves of himself. T’Pol (in S1 and S2, before all the addiction business) was curious and open-minded and willing to explore the edges of her Vulcan control, because she didn’t find it shameful to do so. This Spock admits to, and displays, a lot more emotion than Classic Spock, because while he is Vulcan, he is also human, and not particularly embarrassed by that fact.
So the strength of feeling he has for Kirk in this timeline has — I don’t want to say more power over him, but it renders him a lot more volatile. He, and Kirk, both just have less life lived and less experience, less maturity and control, so this is almost a whirlwind romance for them. They are both caught up in the fire of young love (call it eros or philos, doesn’t really matter), and are too young to care about throttling it back or being careful of consequences.
This is why Kirk was willing to expose the ship to the primitive natives to save Spock, and why Spock went total plak tow on Khan: they might have done such things in the fullness of time in the classic timeline, but they met as adults and formed their friendship as adults. In this timeline, the barriers we create as we age aren’t there yet, so they lodged in one another’s hearts much earlier.
And the politics work too — Roddenberry made a point of commenting on current politics with Trek, and Abrams does the same thing here with assassinations, vengeance, due process, and pre-emptive war.
Speaking of politics, after watching it a second time so I could take off the fangirl blinders, I will admit: I so enjoy watching Cumberbatch that I’m uncomfortable realizing how much I’m rooting for his character. Because, let’s be honest, Khan is a butchering terrorist. Not just seeking vengeance against the specific person or people whom he believes murdered his family, which I could at least sympathize with, but he blackmails a good man into blowing up a building and killing 43 people who very likely had little to nothing to do with the weapons program or Khan himself.
And even if you want to stretch and say that everyone in the Kelvin Archive was complicit and all the brass were complicit (which we know they weren’t), at the end of the film Khan takes the Jaws into Terra’s atmosphere explicitly to smash it into Starfleet HQ. He crashes a plane into a bunch of buildings to kill people.
So I’m whiplashing quite a bit — which is good; that’s one of the things Trek does well, although I don’t think Abrams intended that reaction to this degree — because oh my gods it’s Benedict Cumberbatch being bloody amazing at the same time that if the role had gone to Benecio del Toro as originally intended, I’d just be talking about what a great villain he made and making Montalban comparisons, but not buying the poster and the T-shirt. Which I did. Um.
I’ve seen a few people complain about the lack of women in the film, or gripe that Uhura and Carol didn’t get much to do. I was too busy watching Uhura face an entire Klingon squadron by herself (protecting Kirk and Spock) and Carol doing her job as a weapons expert (saving McCoy) and trying to talk her homicidal father out of destroying Enterprise (protecting the entire ship) to give it much thought.
Although speaking of Carol Marcus, I guess her parents split up and she was raised by her other parent in Britain? Even though she said that her father raised her? Or she was raised by British nannies? Because Admiral Marcus didn’t have a British accent.
My brother pointed out that it used to be that only in comics did you see different interpretations of the same events unfurling in separate timelines — Superman on Earth 1 was younger, on Earth 2 was older, on Earth 3 Bruce Wayne was Superman, on Earth 4 Supes married Lois but on Earth 5 he married Lana, and so forth. This is really one of the few mainstream non-comic movie franchises to do the same thing. Maybe Bond might be considered another, but even that wasn’t really an “alternate universe” as much as a collective agreement that we’re having a do-over.
What happened to the voiceover from the teaser, “Enjoy these last moments of peace”? I even recall seeing Cumberbatch say them briefly in one of the trailers. It didn’t make the film. (Director’s cut!)
*The Nightjar is a "video game with no video." You’re stranded on a spaceship with no lights, and Cumberbatch plays someone on another ship giving you directions via your commlink on how to get out. You have only your iOS interface to see, which is left foot-right foot-turn, and you have to follow sounds to enter doors and get away from aliens who want to eat you. So you basically have Sherlock purring in your ear for an hour. I highly recommend it.