SPOILERS for Star Trek: Into Darkness—If you don’t want to be spoiled about plot and character developments, please don’t read this week’s blog.
Although I’ll probably write more about Star Trek: Into Darkness, if not here, then for conferences or journals, this time I’m focusing only on Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. After seeing the film more than once in the U.S., with a vastly different crowd each time, I was pleased but not surprised that Cumberbatch’s name is the one most mentioned when the movie is over.
When I first saw the IMAX 3D version last Wednesday (the first U.S. screening for the public), I had a long wait from the moment we were allowed into the theater until the show started more than an hour later. Naturally, with hundreds of friendly Trekkers/Trekkies in the same place, we were bound to start talking to each other. In my row alone were fans from the U.K. and Australia—perhaps not surprising when our IMAX venue is located at Universal City Walk in Orlando. “I’m not here for Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m a long-time Trekkie,” one woman confided after our hellos. “But I want to see what he does in this movie.” Her friend said, “I’m a Cumberbabe,” then added, “although I guess we’re now supposed to be part of the Collective. Sounds kinda like the Borg, though.” Could work, I thought—another Star Trek reference.
On the way out of the theater the next time I saw Star Trek on an IMAX screen (a few days later), my friends enthused about Cumberbatch all the way down the stairs to the lobby. Words like “creepy” and “perfect villain” matched the general group assessment that Mr. Cumberbatch is very, very good in this role. There’s something about watching his expression on a screen stories high and hearing that voice surrounding us in the dark that makes an IMAX-sized impression.
In Benedict Cumberbatch: In Transition, I comment that, although Star Trek certainly would gain the actor a much larger global audience—and, more important, a mainstream audience of blockbuster-lovers worldwide—it likely won’t earn him an Academy Award. SF or fantasy movies don’t tend to receive Oscars for acting or directing, or as best picture, no matter how much money they make at the box office or how much media attention they generate. (Return of the King, with best picture and directing Oscars among its 11, is a big exception in Academy history.) That type of recognition may come with Cumberbatch’s work in other films out later this year, closer to nomination time. Of course, only hindsight will tell where Star Trek ultimately ranks in his list of career-changing films. For now, Star Trek (including its media publicity) is doing a great job of showcasing Cumberbatch (whose name truly does take up the width of the screen credits), but the role is only garnering so much attention because Cumberbatch did his job well first.
The role Cumberbatch was given to play is vastly different from the one scripted for Ricardo Montalban in the 1982 Wrath of Khan. That character sought to avenge the death of his wife and beloved friends, exiled by Kirk to what became a barren planet and then abandoned. Khan's motive was simple: revenge. He had a very personal grudge against Kirk. The “superman” of genetic engineering awakened in theaters in 2013 has much more of a motivational problem; he becomes a terrorist working against the Federation, presumably because his crew is being held hostage and sabotaging the Feds after he has been “fired” by them is his best way to free his friends.
Cumberbatch “Khans” us into believing that rather awkward backstory and assumes the role of a prime villain (even though Admiral Marcus is really the evil mastermind catalyst behind much of the plot). What does Cumberbatch do that’s so effective? Consider Khan's eyes, emotional range (which, for the movie’s “heavy,” is surprisingly wide and deep), physical grace and power, and voice.
When Kirk angrily addresses the incarcerated Khan, Cumberbatch lets the moment build before his response. It’s not a long pause by any means, but he drags his eyes slowly up Kirk until he makes unblinking eye contact. Instead of Kirk being in charge of his prisoner, Khan assesses Kirk and decides best how to talk with him. It’s subtle, but it works beautifully to illustrate that Khan is hardly incapacitated. One critic called Cumberbatch’s eyes serpent-like—and there is a mesmerizing quality to his gaze. Without moving, Cumberbatch-as-Khan exudes menace—he seems all-seeing.
Did you notice how many men tear up in this movie? Best teardrop still goes to Spock. (I could hear the splash!) However, most villains never show the emotional “weakness” of shedding even the quietest tears, and, if they do, their emotion is highly suspect because, well, they’re villains. They’re supposed to lie to us. When Khan gets emotional about his crew, he turns his back to his captors, but the audience can clearly see his eyes fill. A single drop overflows down his cheek. Khan seems truly moved by the loss of his crew, his “family.” The believability of every other action he takes in the movie rests on this teardrop. If we believe he genuinely loves his crew and will do anything to get them back, then we accept Khan’s motive for everything from destroying swaths of major cities to surrendering to Kirk to manipulating others to get what he wants. Khan can become a multidimensional character only if we accept that he is more than just a bad guy who mindlessly seeks the Federation’s destruction.
Cumberbatch sells that scene. It’s quiet. It seems real, even if it manipulates our perception of Khan. It makes him human, not just a killing machine.
When Khan takes over Marcus' ship, he again could seem way over the top with avenging anger, but--although looking every inch the Big Bad as he crushes skulls--Cumberbatch never trips over that fine line into silliness. He does look manic when he turns kamikaze—but the emotion still is grounded in the story's reality (well, as much reality as a summer blockbuster is going to give us). All that emotional control in scenes where Khan sits quietly (and with perfect posture) just explodes when there is no reason for him to rein in his emotions.
Speaking of explosions (and in this movie there are many), I was especially impressed with Khan’s (or rather Cumberbatch’s, and in some scenes his stunt double’s) graceful movement and sheer physical power. I love the sweeping motions and dancer's grace as Khan fires weapons to wipe out a Klingon patrol. (That doesn’t seem like a civilized sentiment to write, but I like the battle choreography.) Better yet, on Marcus’ ship, Khan knows the meaning of stealth—he alertly, quietly progresses toward the bridge, but when he encounters a security force, he immediately, violently dispatches them. Those moves made me truly fear Khan. He switches into machine mode and efficiently disposes of anyone in his way—there seems no way to stop such a vicious attack.
I like the man’s moves, but I also appreciate his coiled stillness. Again, in the brig scene, Khan awaits the result of a private conversation between Kirk and Spock. Holding his arm, from which a blood sample has just been taken, Khan watches and waits. When it becomes apparent Kirk is going to talk with him, Khan immediately drops the “weak” stance of holding his arm and instead holds his arms slightly out to his sides. The pose emphasizes his bulk and indicates that he is ready for anything. Even such slight, deliberate movement illustrates the thought behind the performance.
And then there’s the voice, almost a character unto itself. I was impressed with the dark “slithery” quality of Cumberbatch’s delivery—it sounded seductively evil. (I listened to the radio play of Neverwhere a few months ago, and Cumberbatch’s Islington gave me chills because of a similar vocal quality for that character.) One of my favorite Into Darkness lines is “Captain,” a one-word mocking rebuke after Kirk attempts to smash Khan into submission on Kronos. Even two syllables can be nuanced.
Mesmerizing, beguilingly voiced, chilling—Khan compels me to follow him on screen, which is another reason why I continue to follow the career of the captivating Benedict Cumberbatch.