This is a full spoiler discussion of Star Trek: Into Darkness so beware.
Audiences are generally distrusting of “rip offs.” I, for one, can’t stand Family Guy. I find it derivative of The Simpsons in a nauseating way and have never seen an episode that rivals the craft that made The Simpsons great at its height.
But surely we can tell the difference between stealing and retelling. A retelling is a conscious act. Did Peter Jackson steal from the 1933 King Kong when he had his Kong make his last stand on top of the Empire State Building? Of course not. We expected as much.
Why then do people seem so shocked that Star Trek: Into Darkness retells key moments from Wrath of Khan?
The beauty of the ‘reboot’ idea from Star Trek (2009) was that the plot begged for Abrams and co. to re-imagine and re-invent signature stories involving the old cast with the new cast. Why get so surprised that they chose to re-imagine Khan?
Some are suggesting that it lacks originality. The most egregious sin is that this story lacks the high concepts that make Trek science fiction. The consensus amongst superfans seems to be that this is just an action flick with an iconic scene or two from Khan thrown into it.
There is the genuinely intriguing notion of the Federation as a military organization in the wake of the destruction of Vulcan. That’s a high enough concept.
Mainly, however, the high concept of this film is still following from the last film. It asks one of the key questions raised by time travel: if the course of time is altered irrevocably will all things change in accordance with that alteration or will fate remain what it originally was to be?
Star Trek suggests that Kirk was always meant to be the captain of the Enterprise–that time would find a way to make it so. It also suggested that he and Spock were meant to find one another.
Into Darkness asks: to what extent was this crew always meant to become a family? Kirk could be captain, perhaps. But could he be the father?
We see a number of fathers dealing with the issue of sacrifice and family: the man Khan convinces to help carry out the terrorist attack does so to save his daughter’s life. Khan fights to maintain his family. Marcus must deal with the question of sacrificing his daughter. Pike constantly sticks his neck out for Kirk.
Would Kirk do so for his family? The answer is obviously yes, but the filmmakers borrowed the mythology of Khan to answer the question. The sacrifice of Spock for the crew is now Kirk’s sacrifice, and this suggests once again that the time shift has once again course-corrected. The moment that passes between Kirk and Spock–the giving of one life for the other–is a holy moment that the universe needs enacted. The role-reversal suggests that it never mattered who was on either side of the glass. When both timelines are lined up together, the poisoned side of the glass and the safe side of the glass are now one in the same. For this film, it was Kirk who had to prove something: that he understood the sacrifices required not just to run a ship but to safeguard a family.
It is not a “rip off” or an “unoriginal device” thrown in for fan service. The filmmakers were clearly trying to make a comment through this reinventing. You may not like the comment, or you may disagree with it, but to suggest that the scene is there because they thought it was something fans would like to see is nonsensical. I think Abrams knows that few things he does pleases the hardcore fans.