Sunday, May 19, 2013

Khanberbatch: An analysis of Benedict Cumberbatch's performance in Star Trek Into Darkness

Needless to say, there's spoilers galore in this post.

He first appears looking all nice and totally decent when he offers to help a man save his dying daughter. "Who are you?" the desperate man asks. Cue dramatic music. Here J.J.Abrams is continuing all the pre-release hype of just who Cumberbatch's character is by teasing us with only short tantalizing glimpses of him throughout the first half of the movie.

Next, we see him concentrate on drawing blood from himself into a tube and placing the tube into a container and adding a ring on top before sealing it. For some reason this scene throws me back to seeing Cumberbatch as Sherlock, what with him constantly mucking about with his chemical experiments and constant microscope gazing.

The next scene, we see Cumberbatch look impassively on as the man whose daughter has now been saved enters the London building housing Section 31 to bomb himself and the rest of the building into smithereens. Cumberbatch does impassive gazing very well.

Next up, a still photo of him being shown to all the Starfleet commanders who have convened a meeting on what to do with Cumberbatch's character (now given the name of John Harrison) who has declared a one-man war against Starfleet. Captain James Tiberius Kirk (played by blond blue-eyed Chris Pine) zooms in on a image of at the scene of the crime. Cumberbatch here is looking all furrowed in concentration, in the midst of making off with a bag of something.

Before you know it, the Starfleet commanders are being fired upon by a small flying helicopter-like plane. We don't get to see who is piloting the plane until the last possible moment. Kirk successfully sabotages the plane and sends it crashing. Protagonist and antagonist clap eyes on each other for the first time. Harrison gazes impassively at Kirk while light beams slowly engulfs him and teleports him to Kronos, homeland of the Klingons. He materializes crouching down, stands up, zips up his hoodie and then dramatically exits the screen to the right. We don't get to see him again for quite a while, but when he does, it is when he makes his first real concrete entrance into the movie.

Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) takes a small ship onto Kronos to try and capture Harrison. They are spotted by Klingon scouts. Negotiations between Uhuru and the Klingons fall flat and just as Uhuru is about to be killed by a Klingon, mystery hooded man arrives to save the day and proceeds to take down the whole squadron of Klingons almost single-handed. He explodes into action here, shooting at Klingons with blinding speed and unerring accuracy while using his big gun physically to whack them out of the way as well.

Klingons almost entirely wiped out. He takes the time to remove his hood, zooms in on Kirk and gang, leaps off his perch, hurls a knife at Klingon, wipes floor with remaining two Klingons, grabs a gun and aims it at Kirk and company. "How many torpedoes?" he asks. Spock, with a gun in his hand, tells Harrison to stand down. Harrison effortlessly shoots Spock's gun out his hand and continues his line of questioning. "The torpedoes. The weapons you threaten me with in your message. How many are there?" 72, he's told. We see Abrams' lens flare envelop his face and some hidden emotion pass fleetingly through his facel "I surrender." he drops his gun. Kirk accepts his surrender and then proceeds to try and beat the hell out of Harrison. The beating seems to take more out of Kirk than it does Harrison, who simply looks impassively on as he is pummeled by Kirk. Did I mention that he does a lot of impressively impassive gazing in this film? Uhuru screams at the captain to stop, and Harrison, voice loaded with derisive scorn, mildly rebukes: "Captain."

After taking a beating, from which he appears no worse for the wear, Harrison is cuffed and taken aboard the Enterprise, where he is escorted by a group of Redshirts.

Kirk gets Spock to take a sample of Harrison's blood, and Harrison begins to sow doubts in the mind of Kirk and gang. Here Harrison's movement is deliberate, calm and very controlled, and even though he is supposed to be the prisoner it feels as though he has the upper hand. "Why aren't we moving, captain?" he asks laconically, turning to glance over at Kirk as his blood is being drawn. He goes on to insinuate that Admiral Marcus, who agreed to let Kirk go on this mission, fully intended to use Kirk and the Enterprise to start a war against the Klingons by getting him to fire 72 torpedoes at a Klingon planet and also sabotaged the Enterprise so that the whole crew would be stranded there and thus instigate a war with the Klingons.

Kirk is somewhat rattled by what Harrison says but chooses to walk away. Harrison tells Kirk that ignoring him could mean his entire crew's demise. Kirk goes back to confront Harrison in this scene.

The best praise I can describe for the consummate acting that Cumberbatch demonstrates in this short scene is to tell you about David Letterman's reaction to the same clip. About two weeks ago, Cumberbatch had appeared in what was quite an awkward appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman to promote Star Trek Into Darkness. Letterman was completely clueless about who Cumberbatch was (he couldn't pronounce Cumberbatch's name right the first time he mentioned it, asked questions like "Is this your first major motion picture?") but at the end of the show, after the clip of Cumberbatch's character interacting with Kirk was shown, it was like cold water had been doused on Letterman and he woke up. Letterman went: "Oh buddy. Man! offense to the rest of the cast, but you don't really need much more than you." You can see the GIFs here.

In this short scene, Harrison was first mocking of Kirk and then vulnerably needing Kirk to believe him a second later. His ability to completely switch facades at the blink of an eye and still be utterly convincing is just simply remarkable. Cumberbatch does mention in an interview that: "There’s a lot of motivation and reasoning behind what he does and he has a moral core. He just has a method which is pretty brutal and our democratic world; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.It was a beautiful thing to play, this sliding scale of someone who could be trustworthy and understandable. Also someone who could be out and out on a mission of revenge trying to bring about what he sees as justice and the change in the order of authority." I think Cumberbatch manages to bring that across brilliantly in this film. For someone who is not very nice, to put it mildly, Cumeberbatch's version of Khan still comes across as an oddly sympathetic character. I don't think there are that many actors who would be able to pull it off as successfully as he did.

So Harrison challenges Kirk to open up one of the torpedoes, Kirk does so and finds a 300-year-old cryogenically frozen human being hidden inside, so he goes back to confront Harrison.

"Who the hell are you?" asks Kirk. Harrison looks introspective as he tells both Kirk and Spock about him "being a remnant of a time long past. Genetically engineered to be superior so as to lead others in a world at war..." When Kirk continues to question Harrison's identity, Harrison reveals that his real name is Khan and here he looks menacingly at Kirk. "Why would a Starfleet Admiral ask a 300-year old frozen man for help?" asked the bemused Kirk. "Because I am better." "At what?" "Everything". Said with just a hint of arrogance but mostly in a matter-of-fact way. Now it is Spock's turn to voice his disbelief that Marcus would break so many rules to exploit Khan's intellect. Here Khan's voice practically drips with condescension as he verbally spars against both Kirk and Spock. "Intellect alone is useless in a fight, Mr Spock. You, you can't even break a rule, how would you be expected to break bone?" he mocks Spock, voice laced with contempt. Notice how his mouth sardonically curves up when he is mocking Spock; he clearly enjoys doing so. One almost feels that Khan is like a cat taunting his prey, despite being caged.

Kirk calls him out for his murder of innocent Starfleet personnel at Starfleet's headquarters. Khan justifies his actions by telling Kirk that his crew, "his family" was being held hostage so that he would have to do the admiral's bidding. Khan explained that he attempted to smuggle his crew by hiding them in the very weapons he built, but when he is discovered, he is left with no choice but to flee, all the while thinking that the admiral had killed all his people in retaliation. Khan says he thus responded in kind, killing the people in Section 31 and nearly the entire Starfleet command. His eyes are shiny with tears as he relates all this and finally a tear falls. "My crew is my family, Kirk. Is there anything you would not do for your family?" he asks Kirk, his voice now lanced with pain. This scene was apparently leaked online and you can watch part of it here. Look. Here is a guy who coldly goes around killing innocent people. And yet when he tells you his story, you can't help feel sympathy for him. What consummate acting. The way that he swivels his head as he sees Kirk heading back to the bridge is like that of a silent deadly serpent just waiting for the right time to strike.

Admiral Marcus shows up in a mean spaceship, demands that Kirk gives Khan up. Kirk refuses. Marcus attacks the Enterprise, rendering it incapable of moving or retaliating. Kirk decides to ask Khan for help in infiltrating Marcus's ship. Khan asks: In exchange for what?" "You said you'd do anything for your crew. I can guarantee their safety." "Captain, you can't even guarantee the safety of your crew." Khan retorts in his funereal baritone voice. Even though Khan is a room, cuffed and surrounded by armed Starfleet guards, you get the feeling that they are the ones feeling uneasy, not him.

Kirk enlists Khan's help in infiltrating the ship. Immediately we see the dynamics of the relationship between Kirk and Khan change. No longer are they jailer and prisoner, but uneasy allies. Even though Kirk is supposed to be the one leading the mission, Khan seems to be the one taking charge. When Scotty informs Kirk that the entrance is very wee, Kirk says that it will be alright because he has done it before, causing Khan to give him a somewhat scornful look. Khan's look alone is able to make the brash overconfident Kirk sound like an unsure child as he tries and then gives up trying to recount what he ha previously done on Vulcan. Khan wastes no time in asking Scotty if he had found the manual override, causing Kirk, who is beginning to feel that he is slowly losing control of the situation, to speak over Khan and repeat the inquiry to Scotty. Khan also takes the lead in crouching down in preparation for the launch, causing an uncomfortable Kirk to follow suit and crouch down beside him. "Are you ready?" asks Kirk? "Are you?" replies Khan coolly.

Kirk and Khan launches off the ship. Much focus is on Kirk who immediately goes off course in his attempt to avoid debris. Spock warns Khan about some debris ahead of him. Khan replies: "I see it." He performs a series of evasive maneuvers and successfully dodges a whole bunch of debris but ends up being conked by a huge piece of debris. The Enterprise loses his signal and are unable to track him in all the debris. It seems as though Kirk is left to try and infiltrate the ship on his own, but pretty soon he ends up losing the display on his headgear, without which it would be impossible to successfully reach the hanger deck door of Marcus's ship. Just when all is thought to be lost, Khan reappears and since his display is still working, manages to help guide Kirk into safety. Scotty manages to open the hangar door in the nick of time, and when the door closes Kirk and Khan end up rolling across the entire length of the hangar before stopping in front of Scotty.

While Kirk and Scotty are busy exchanging pleasantries, Khan wastes no time in telling them that Marcus would know that they were there and that he knew the best way to the bridge. Kirk hands him a gun set to stun, prompting Khan to quip that "theirs won't be" to which Kirk helpfully tells him to "try not to get shot". Khan looks mildly exasperated at this but proceeds to lead the way.

Next scene, Scotty is bemused as to why the ship seems so deserted. Khan gives a minute-a-mile explanation and lo and behold, Marcus's minions appear. Khan once again explodes into action and takes down the first one while Kirk and Scotty back up and look on in some awe before they have to deal with minions of their own. Khan dispatches three of Marcus's minions without even breaking a sweat, glances at both Kirk and Scotty struggling in their respective fights, and apparently leaves. When Kirk and Scotty finally overcome Marcus's minions, Khan is nowhere to be seen.

Kirk and Scotty are both extremely worried as they go around looking for him. Out of the blue, Khan reappears. "This way." he says, not before removing the stun gun from his belt in one fluid motion. Once Khan is out of earshot, Kirk orders Scotty "drop Khan the moment we reach the bridge." "What, Khan? I thought he was supposed to be helping us." exclaims the baffled Scotty. "I am pretty sure we are helping him," is Kirk's reply.

Once again a trio, Scotty asks Khan about the ship and once again Khan proceeds to answer in his rapid-fire way while typing something on a computer console. The three of them then proceeds to the bridge warily, checking at every intersection for more of Marcus's minions before finally entering the bridge proper. The three of them successfully stuns everyone on the bridge with the exception of Marcus and his daughter. Kirk gives an imperceptible nod of his head and Scotty stuns Khan. Khan falls to the floor with a thud, all the world seeming like he is out cold. When Kirk begins confronting Marcus, we see that this is not the case, as Khan's eyes minutely opens in a silver of a slit. When Kirk gets a bit distracted while looking at Carol, Khan makes his move and once again explodes in a flurry of action. He knocks over the inept Scotty who was supposed to be guarding him, leaps over and tackles Kirk to the ground. Khan furiously pummels Kirk, throws him across the room. Carol rushes to Kirk's sides, tries to reason with Khan, but Khan just contemptuously throws her to the ground and proceeds to shatter her leg with a vicious kick. Without skipping a beat, he rounds on Marcus and crushes the poor man's skull. "You should have let me sleep," he snarls. Khan is just simply utterly savage here. It seems that even Cumberbatch himself was taken aback about how savage he came across as, and he mentions this in an interview: "I think with any characterization there's a point where you empathize, no matter how much of a deviance his or her actions may be from your understanding of humanity. You have to empathize, and that can go for the people who perform despicable acts. Having said that, when I sit in my own audience now—which is a very weird thing to do for an actor on any given day, especially with a film this big, in an IMAX theater, in New York—I was terrified by what I was doing. I don't have kids but I'm quite glad at this stage that I don't have to go, "Just look away, dad's not like that."

Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise, Scotty is getting worried about Kirk. Next thing you know, the Enterprise is broadcast with a live feed of Khan holding Kirk at gunpoint. "I am going to make this simple for you. Your crew for my crew.""You've betrayed us," Spock says with mock disbelief. "Oh you are smart, Mr Spock," Khan mocks. "Spock, don't-" Kirk manages to gasp out before Khan head butts him with the gun. "Give me my crew," Khan tells Spock. He stops emanating evilness for a bit here and just looks really earnest to get his crew back. Spock tells him that he has no guarantee that Khan will abide with his side of the bargain and here Khan's menace immediately returns. And boy is he gleefully evil and relishes being so too. "Well, let's play this out logically then, Mr Spock. Firstly, I will kill your captain to demonstrate my resolve, then if yours holds I will have no choice but to kill you and your entire crew." Here his mouth once again curves up sardonically at the end, leaving no doubt as to the fact that he would really enjoy carrying out this mass murder. Spock argues that "If you destroy our ship, you will also destroy your own people.", to which Khan replies coolly: "Your crew requires oxygen to survive, mine does not. I will target your life support systems located behind the aft nacelle. And after every single person aboard your ship suffocates, I will walk over your cold corpses to recover my people. Now, shall we begin?"

The seemingly defeated Spock tells Sulu to lower the shields, and the now triumphant Khan asks Spock some cursory questions to try and validate that all 72 torpedoes are his before beaming them all aboard the Vengeance. Spock now asks Khan to uphold his end of the bargain. Khan is all too willing to do so, because as he says: "No ship should go down without its captain." This Khan has a sense of humor. He actually beams Kirk, Scotty and Carol into the glass cell of the Enterprise where he himself was briefly incarcerated. Khan then proceeds to attempt to blow the Enterprise into smithereens, but not before all 72 torpedoes, now on the Vengeance, blows up on him, a ploy of Spock come to fruition. Khan is thrown forward as explosions continue to rack the Vengeance. "Nooooooooooo!!!" he shouts, full of anger and anguish at the thought of his entire crew being obliterated. Unbeknownst to him though, Spock had actually had his people removed from the torpedoes prior to all this.

Both Enteprise and Vengeance hurtle towards Earth, the Vengeance nearly crashing into the Enterprise at one point. A now livid Khan orders the Vengeance to set course for Starfleet Headquarters; he is now in full Vengeance mode and wants to take out as much of Starfleet as he could, kamikaze style. The Vengeance crashes, bowling over a whole bunch of buildings including some Starfleet buildings too it seems. To the incredulity of Sulu, Khan survives the crash and proceeds to leap 30 meters down to safety. While the rest of the public are left stunned by the carnage caused, a now injured Khan pauses to steal a coat before walking away from the scene of the crime.

Spock, who has just witnessed Kirk die to save the Enterprise, gets beamed down to San Francisco armed with a gun set to kill. Khan sees him and proceeds to run almost pell mell through the crowd, not caring who he knocks out of the way. He leaps up stairs, jumps through a glass door and frantically continues to run, all the while being chased not-too-far behind by Spock. Khan finally sees a way to lose his pursuer and leaps onto a flying garbage truck and turns to look back. Spock makes an impossible leap and manages to clamber onto the garbage truck. Khan kicks the gun out of Spock's hand, grabs Spock and proceeds throw him against the flying truck. As the truck traverses the sky of San Francisco, Khan and Spock continue to engage in their fistfight. At one point, Spock manages to get a Vulcan nerve pinch on Khan's left shoulder. Khan is brought down to his knees, his face contorted with pain, but with great effort he manages to break Spock's grip and proceeds to pummel Spock.

We next see him trying to crush Spock's skull, but Spock nerve pinches him in the face, and Khan instead knees him and jumps off the garbage truck into another garbage truck. Spock follows, and Khan proceeds to continue beating the crap out of Spock. Just as he is about to crush the skull of a weakened Spock, Uhuru gets beamed down to the garbage truck and proceeds to stun the hell out of Khan. Now with his adversary severely incapacitated, Spock breaks Khan's right arm and then attempts to punch the life of him. He is only stopped by Uhuru's exhortations that Kirk needs Khan alive (for Khan's magical blood to bring Kirk back to life). Spock pauses, and then gives Khan one final punch, knocking an already very stunned Khan out.

The next time we see Khan, he has been sealed in a cryotube and placed alongside his other frozen crew member in some sort of secured room. Will we see Cumberbatch's Khan again? When asked about the potential return of Cumberbatch’s character, Star Trek writer Damon Lindelof told Bleeding Cool: "To answer that question would be to determine whether or not he actually survives this movie, but if he survives this movie, I think that we would be incredibly stupid to not use him again." Let's keep our fingers crossed now, shall we? Hopefully if he returns, we'll see more of him since we no longer have to go through the hoopla about his real identity and that he will no longer have to share villain duty with someone else.

Star Trek: Wrath of Khanberbatch in 2016 anyone?

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