Movie Wednesday: Comparative Analysis with Star Trek

Movie Wednesday Comparative Analysis with Star Trek

by Amy Frantz, Brave Writer alum

After returning from what was meant to be a simple mission, in which he saved his friend but violated the Prime Directive of Starfleet, hotshot Captain James T. “Jim” Kirk is stripped of his command of the star ship USS Enterprise. Kirk is not allowed to brood for long, however. A Starfleet agent named John Harrison has gone rogue and attacked Starfleet facilities. Kirk is reinstated to his command and he, along with the Enterprise crew, are tasked with finding Harrison and bringing him to justice, a mission which takes them into the dangerous Neutral Zone. But when Kirk catches Harrison, he is confronted with Harrison’s true identity. His real name is Khan, a genetically engineered being from centuries past, who has been awakened from stasis and forced to use his superior intellect to build weapons for Starfleet with the lives of his crew used against him as blackmail. With these revelations, suddenly the lines between enemies and allies become blurred, and Kirk finds himself thrust into a maelstrom of chaotic events.

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2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness is the standalone sequel to 2009’s Star Trek, but it can also serve as a reimagining of a much earlier film in the franchise, the 1982 film The Wrath of Khan.

Long before the 21st century reboot films, Star Trek came to the big screen in the 1970s and ’80s starring the cast of the original television series.

In 1982’s The Wrath of Khan, Jim Kirk has given up his command of the Enterprise because he has been promoted to Admiral. While he oversees cadets training to take over the crewing of the Enterprise, another Federation vessel encounters a planet where Khan, a genetically engineered being, along with his crew, were stranded some years earlier by Kirk. Khan, bent on vengeance, will stop at nothing in his pursuit of Kirk, who must resume command of the Enterprise and her young crew if there is any hope of stopping Khan’s bloody rampage.

The Wrath of Khan pulls heavily from classic literature for its thematic richness, but perhaps most noticeably from Moby Dick, the famous story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with vengeance upon the white whale who maimed him. This is paralleled by Khan’s fixation with avenging himself on Kirk, eventually leading to Khan’s own ruin. To emphasize this connection, Khan even directly quotes Ahab towards the end of the film: “To the last I grapple with thee…” And for the really observant viewer, you can even find a copy of Moby Dick inside the dwelling of Khan and his crew at the beginning of the movie.

In a similar way to how The Wrath of Khan borrows thematically from the classics, Into Darkness borrows heavily from The Wrath of Khan. But Into Darkness doesn’t simply recycle elements verbatim; in many cases, it inverts them.

Some examples include:

  • Kirk loses command of the Enterprise by being promoted in Khan and demoted in Darkness.
  • Kirk’s characterization is inverted. In Khan, he is “old and wise” but experiences rebirth through facing death. In Darkness, Kirk is “young and dumb” but gains maturity through taking on self-sacrifice.
  • In Khan, Kirk encounters his nemesis for the last time. In Darkness, Kirk encounters him for the first time.
  • A similar reversal is used with Kirk and Carol Marcus. In Khan, they are reunited after years apart. In Darkness, they meet for the first time.
  • In the climactic scenes of each film, a main character sacrifices himself to save the ship because “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” But which character actually commits the act is reversed.

Those changes impact everything from character development to plot. Being able to note these differences and see how they alter each film is a form of comparative analysis.

Comparing and contrasting, either two texts or in this case two films, is a useful academic skill, but it’s also a lot of fun! So, bust out some popcorn and maybe a notepad and pen, and settle in for a day of comparing and contrasting Star Trek movies!

A note to parents: The Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness are rated PG and PG-13 respectively. We recommend looking up the films on sites like Common Sense Media before deciding if they are right for your family.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think Into Darkness misses one of The Wrath of Khan‘s main thematic points about facing death by bringing Kirk back at the end? Or do you think it’s enough that Kirk intended to sacrifice himself? Explain your answer.
  • Into Darkness landed in hot water for casting a white actor as Khan when the character was originally established as ethnic. The choice drew criticism from fans and other actors in the franchise. How do you feel about the casting decisions for Khan in the films?
  • Other than the ones listed above, have you found any other instances of Into Darkness reversing or inverting something from The Wrath of Khan? List your answers.
  • The two films were released in 1982 and 2013. That’s roughly a 30 year gap! Audience demographics and expectations surrounding science fiction films have changed a lot in that time. Do you notice any differences in the way each film is made that reflect that? Explain your answer.

Additional Resources

The Star Trek TV shows (Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise) are all available currently on Netflix.

DIY Star Trek badges

Movie Discussion Club

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