- Directing by Nicholas Meyer vs Directing by JJ Abrams
- June 4, 1982 / May 17, 2013 (US)
I know I am not the only one who sees the similarities between Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek Beyond. While not identical the latter contains many elements of the former as well as a few hints of the TOS episode that inspired it called “Space Seed.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a well-constructed story with many layers. It is about revenge. It is about guilt. It is about growing old. It is about sacrifice. It is about two equally matched polar opposites facing off. It’s a confrontation between ultimate good and ultimate evil with the fate of the Federation in the balance. Or to quote Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) “We’re talking about universal Armageddon!”
Adm. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) are locked in a titanic struggle. One is set on avenging the past and one is concerned over the future. These are two titans locked in an epic confrontation whose outcome does not feel certain.
I’m not sure of the same can be said of Star Trek Into Darkness. Does Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) feel like an equal to Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch)? Or does he feel like the character that you want to win because he’s the good guy? Kirk is not a commanding officer capable of reading the situation and reacting appropriately. He is a reactive personality putting out each fire as it starts rather than getting ahead of the situation.
Given his name it can be assumed Khan Noonien Singh was a Sikh from the Indian subcontinent. That was anyway the area in which he ruled. Montalban at least looked close to the part originally. Khan was a firm but fair ruler who was the product of eugenics and lost power following the Eugenics Wars. His discovery in space was a complete accident.
Montalban was athletic and exuded toughness and authority in everything he did with the character. The character of Khan as originally portrayed was a megalomaniacal superhuman with dreams of world and eventually galactic conquest. Those he escaped with were his people in the sense that they were his to do with as he pleased. They were property. They were the products of eugenics as well, but he was superior and ruled over them. The only individual he had any apparent attachment to was his wife and essentially it was the death of her that helped fuel his rage towards Kirk.
Benedict Cumberbatch looked like a perturbed British aristocrat and fit the part as well as a British aristocrat could. In comparison to Montalban, Cumberbatch is a whisp of an individual capable of only giving stern looks like a disapproving teacher. You get no sense he could command a McDonald’s drive thru let alone a nation or inspire enough loyalty to have followers take a big gamble like a blind mission into space.
In Wrath of Khan, Khan was not only seeking revenge against Kirk but seeking control of a weapon that he knew would put him in charge of whatever he desired. While a tool of creation, the Genesis Device by its very nature had an unparalleled ability to destroy while it created. Khan’s destruction of Kirk would not only bring justice in Khan’s eye but prove his superiority.
In Into Darkness, Khan expounds upon his family and how he wants to save them and all that. And his final conflict with Kirk becomes revenge for Kirk not handing them over to him. That is a huge change for the character. You could argue that he had some plans for them, but his big plan was apparently just to escape from Starfleet. There is no hint of anything grander.
I’m trying to figure out how Carol Marcus in one timeline didn’t have a British accent but in another has a British accent. The actress who originally played her, Bibi Besch, had no British accent. Not even a hint of one but here Dr. Marcus (Alice Eve) sounds like she just showed up from deepest London. Fake an American accent at least. How did this new timeline suddenly make her very British? And that fails to explain why her father Adm. Marcus (Peter Weller) has none.
The Khan of Montalban nearly bested the crew of the Enterprise not once but twice because of his sheer intellect and no holds barred approach. The Khan of Benedict Cumberbatch couldn’t seem to outwit Starfleet or Kirk even though he had a clear jump on them as well as transwarp beaming.
Into Darkness is what you get when you hire someone who prefers Star Wars over Star Trek. Not only that but they fail to see understand what made Star Wars special. Star Wars focused on the heroes journey for its story structure but JJ Abrams never quite got that. He was impressed by all the cool shit on screens and he tries to do that here. What he crafted was a shallow film. You look below the surface and you get nothing more. If you want to mimic Star Wars: A New Hope, then learn its lessons.
This shallow nature is the antithesis of Star Trek. While cool action could be part of Star Trek, it is not the main thing about Star Trek. These are character driven stories about the characters or that parallel real world events.
Originally Kirk and Kahn were opposites. Two opposing points of view that were similar yet different enough that they could never quite come together. It was a battle of wills and intellect between them and each in their own way were equally matched. The outcome was genuinely in doubt.
The viewer and perhaps even the characters could see shades of one in the other. The only advantage Kirk had over Khan was his ability to be creative. Khan was a two-dimensional thinker. As they say he had trouble thinking outside the box. Kirk on the other hand? “Boxes? Those are for amateurs!” His strength was improvisation and that is what bested Khan the first time. And truth be told that’s what allowed for his defeat the second time around largely.
In Into Darkness Khan is clearly the superior. He is the one in control of the situation from beginning to end or at least until it is time to have a resolution to the story then he becomes able to be defeated. Gone is a sense of sacrifice or high stakes. The resolution comes about because it’s time for the film’s villain to go. It’s not a finale derived from events of the story, but a finale derives from needing to conclude the narrative.
And how can I finish this up without mentioning the two major character deaths of both films? In Wrath of Khan, Spock gave his life to not only save the crew of the Enterprise but to save that of his best friend Kirk. That emotional finale in the engine room hit hard not only because we were watching the death of a beloved character whose sacrifice had meaning but because we were watching that death deeply affect James Tiberius Kirk.
Admittedly the death was undone in the next film but watching it at that moment we had no idea that Spock was going to come back in the next film. All we knew was that Spock was dying. And that’s why even with his resurrection in the following movie it still resonates because it was done to have meaning and purpose not only for the story but for the characters involved.
In Into Darkness there’s no build up and pay off to it. Kirk just darts off into an unnecessarily large void in the Enterprise and kicks the device back into place. Spock loses his shit and decides to takeoff after Khan. Why? Kirk and Spock had built up no close relationship. Kirk was a guy that Spock liked as well as his commanding officer, but they were not brothers in a spiritual sense as they had become in the original series. And worse Kirk was brought back rather quickly by Khan’s “super blood.”
In fact the whole time we knew Kirk wasn’t going to die because he was a main character. There was no tension. The situation wasn’t even set up to make us think that there was a possibility of death. This is in contrast to Wrath of Khan and how Spock’s death happened. McCoy doesn’t have time to come up with a weird yet effective treatment and rescuing Spock from the radiation would kill everyone in the hole in the hole of engineering. Thus there was emotional impact.
Wrath of Khan is far superior in every way to Into Darkness. It has superior story, characters, and action. If you must watch one, watch Wrath of Khan.