Who the fuck is Khan?
by Rüdiger Brandis
A few days back, I went to the movies and watched “Jurassic World”. I don’t really know why I did it, but there I was watching refabricated scenes and tropes of “Jurassic Park” and other monster action movies mashed into one, a forced premise on top and stupid plot decisions. But I didn’t mind that much, until the movie decided that it doesn’t need to only quote its predecessors but in doing so it destroyed the whole universe it tried to establish so far. Spoilers will follow.
Basically, the movie has the same plot as Jurassic Park and shares the same theme with all three movies: After the “Jurassic Park” catastrophe, the park got restructured and finally opened under the new (and very creative) name of Jurassic World. Then something goes wrong, a large flesh eating dinosaur goes on a rampage and the heroes of the film, again consisting of stupid kids, a man and a woman, have to flee from/defeat the little bugger.
“Jurassic World” tries to reuse the philosophical premise of the first movie and the book by Michael Crichton, that “life always finds a way”. It introduces the idea that it is possible to use genetic engineering to create a complete new creature, not only recreate known dinosaurs and other creatures from the past. This is the setting the whole story is built upon. Of course one of those creations is a big bad monster dinosaur, which escapes and causes a lot of mayhem and the heroes of the story have to resolve this. The mentioned quote happens right in the middle of the finale of the movie as the battle against the genetic experiment is under way. To balance the uneven fight one of our human protagonists decides to run off and free another big bad dinosaur to help them: The famous T-Rex. And exactly this use of the star dinosaur from the first two movies breaks the whole story.
To explain why, I have to clarify what kind of movie “Jurassic World” is and what it tries to bring across to the audience until the T-Rex scene. Firstly, the movie plays its premise completely straight. It doesn’t have any plot devices or scenes that let the audience think about its fictionality. Like its predecessors, it creates a universe in which it is possible to genetically engineer dinosaurs from old DNA samples and its people had nothing better to do with it than built a giant park for them. It then starts to problematize the human sentiment of always wanting new attractions or in case of the human antagonist new weapons (the bad guy wants to use the raptors as trained dinosaur-weapons). So far so good. The movie doesn’t really go anywhere with these premises, but it is a nice sentiment and could have been enough for an entertaining monster movie. So what is the problem with the T-Rex scene?
Well, up to this point the movie told to us that you can’t really train dinosaurs and that large flesh eating ones can be very, very dangerous. Nonetheless, one of the protagonists decides to free the most dangerous dinosaur in the Jurassic Park Universe, although they have their hands full with those that are already free. Of course, the T-Rex helps them and while this is of course extremely stupid it is not the real problem of this scene. It is the direction and the use of music, which displays the monster like a returning hero, a scary hero, but nonetheless a hero. But if anything the movie told us is to be considered true, the T-Rex is just another unreliable variable in an already chaotic fight. So in treating the T-Rex like a secret weapon the movie defies everything it stands for.
Furthermore, the scene implies through the use of its epic and energetic music that we already know what the T-Rex is, but in the whole movie it hasn’t been mentioned before this point, except in subordinate clauses or rather to describe that the new genetic experiment is even bigger than a T-Rex. But while it is not really necessary to understand any of this talk and you can pass it of as unexplained dino/science talk, in the final battle scene it is essential that you know what this dinosaur is and what it represents. You have to have watched at least one of “Jurassic World’s” preceding movies or heard of the role the T-Rex plays in them. Otherwise the only thing you will see is another big dinosaur and that it seems stupid to free it, although you get that they want to use it as a weapon.
So, what we have here is a self-serving quote: The filmmakers cite a symbol, an icon from the last movies, which can be understood as long as one has heard of at least one those movies. A symbol, that does not have any logical links to the other players of the story besides that it is in the same park. This becomes a problem if you start to think about why this quote exists.
Is it to make a clever reference to a topic from the “Jurassic Park” movie series or create the feeling that the topics of “Jurassic World’s” story are not only affecting the fictional world on the screen but also our perceived world outside in the theater and beyond?
No, it is there to get the heroes out of trouble and show the T-Rex to excite the movie-goer. But because of this the quote feels completely out of place. Such a quote and its direction evokes an awareness for intermediality, for pluralistic perspectives on the art of storytelling. But in its execution it is senseless, it doesn’t have a reason to be there in the first place and it doesn’t have a pay-off other than the heroes’ need for some plot device to get out of trouble. The T-Rex is a stupid deus ex machina, which the filmmakers pasted into the movie out of the CGI safe files from the early 90s.
The real reason why this bothers me so much is because it marks a trend I’ve been noticing for a certain time now. Mainstream movies have picked up on the notion that people like references to things they know so they can feel smart. And while the quote can be a tool to draw on certain atmospheres and build clever links to other stories into your own, there has to be some kind of point to it, even if this point is that there is no point at all (a great example for this would be “Family Guy”). With quotes you can use plots which were considered trash to win Oscars (Tarantino) or make the movie-goer aware of their time and place, break the fourth wall etc. Basically, it is a tool to play with the concept of stories itself. But “Jurassic World” does none of those things, it comments on nothing, it just quotes so people can see the T-Rex and go “Uhhhh”.
To show you that this is not an isolated case, let’s have a look at the latest “Star Trek” movie “Into Darkness”. It is basically a remix of “Star Trek” (2009) and “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan”, so again we have an interesting case of quoting here, but I just want to take a look at the character of Khan, because he has a similar reveal scene to the T-Rex in “Jurassic World”.
In “Star Trek 2” the super human Khan is seeking revenge on the hero of the story Captain Kirk for leaving him and his subjects on a deserted planet. This happened in one of the Episodes of the original “Star Trek” TV-Show from the 1960s. “Star Trek 2” was very successful and made the character of Khan famous. Now, in “Into Darkness” Khan is introduced as the antagonist without revealing his name or background. Remember, the new “Star Trek” movies are a complete reboot. So they are designed to be independent from everything that happened in all the previous movies and TV-Shows, which means there is no basis of us knowing who Khan is and someone who did not see any “Star Trek” movie or episode and doesn’t know anything about its universe can’t simply know who this character is. Yet, we have a scene in the movie where Kirk has captured Khan and is interrogating him. During this Khan not only reveals his backstory but also his name. What then happens is this: The camera draws in a close up of Khans face and he says slowly “My name is Khan!”. And like before, when the T-Rex steps up, the logical reaction of the audience should be: “So? I don’t know anybody by this name. What is going on?” The revealing of his name is completely unnecessary on a storytelling level and the short lingering silence after his words dissolve hint that his name is somehow important. But we can’t know that yet, and Kirk can’t either. Yet he doesn’t respond as cocky as his character would demand with a “So what, should that mean anything to me?” but goes on interrogating him in his serious voice.
Again, we have a misuse of quotation in a movie that tells us an independent, enclosed story, for which the filmmakers even made the effort to explain that this is in a new universe that has nothing to do with the old one and yet they cite the old one in a way, that makes it necessary to know it, to understand the way the movie presents its story to us.
So what does this mean? That I can’t enjoy those movies?
I know this is nitpicking and there are more blatant examples for the overuse and misuse of quotes out there than the ones I discussed. But this text is not about obviousness but the subtle nuances of the direction of quotes which can destroy the coherence of a movie’s storytelling completely, meaning that movies like “Jurassic World” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” don’t need these convoluted plot points to function. But now they just mark another point in movie making history where a certain way of telling a story has become so popular that there doesn’t have to be a reason for using it anymore. It bothers me because it shows that either the filmmakers didn’t really think about the story they wanted to tell or didn’t care. Of course it could also be that the whole project got swamped by the necessary additions to ensure a big audience. And this is especially sad, if the movie could have actually been very enjoyable without these forced injections of nostalgia.