Second Life at the Cineplex

psmoe3By: Craig Detweiler - May 25 2009

Hollywood believes in reincarnation, reinvention and the need to be born-again. From Star Trek to X-Men Origins and Terminator: Salvation, 2009 has been a profitable summer of sequels. How do you reinvigorate an aging series? By going back to its roots to ask the essential question, "Why are we here?" The fantastic worlds presented by these science fiction series only loosely resemble ours. But their cautionary version of our future causes us to reflect upon our present and ask the obvious next question, "Where are we now?" Images of war, torture and genocide abound. Amid loud and violent sequences, these blockbusters suggest that we must retain our humanity, working with others to fight for our survival, to secure a second life.

FRATRICIDE AND GENOCIDE

X-Men Origins takes up the ancient question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The inventive title sequence reviews the history of modern warfare: Logan and his brother, Victor, march across Civil War battlefields, dive into European bunkers and rush ashore during D-Day. How have they survived so many wars? Logan and Victor are mutants, impervious to bullets, bound for super-heroism as Wolverine and Sabretooth. By the time they invade Vietnamese jungles, these ferocious mercenaries have forgotten why they're fighting. Victor's hair-trigger temper has made him a threat to those he purports to defend; eventually, he even threatens his only brother. Victor laments the animal he's become: "We even hunted our own kind."

The rebooted Star Trek franchise also offers an origin story, revealing how the beloved crew of the Starship Enterprise banded together. Star Trek (2009) contains numerous nods to the original TV series, from Spock's arch speaking style ("Precisely, Captain") to Bones McCoy's hotheaded outbursts ("Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a physicist!"). "Star Trek" offers so many visual pleasures and character moments that it is easy to overlook its serious plot. The new "Star Trek" deals with genocide--specifically Romulans' hunger for revenge. A rogue Romulan ship captain blames Spock for the destruction of his people and planet. Now, Spock's home on Vulcan is threatened. Will James T. Kirk and the Starship Enterprise save Vulcan culture before it is obliterated?

While Star Trek locates threats in rival species, Terminator: Salvation makes technology the enemy. In a post-nuclear future, the machines of Skynet hunt down the valiant human resistance led by John Conner. People are being captured and corralled in scenes that hearken back to the Holocaust. Will Conner prove to be a false prophet or a genuine savior? (For a hint, check out his initials: J.C.). Yet the fourth installment of the "Terminator" series mostly stresses the crunching metal, grimy joints and sheer industry involved in maintaining killing machines. It makes viewers question whether that iPhone in our pocket is as warm and friendly as we imagine. But are some machines more humane than others?

X-Men Origins also demonstrates the dangers of technological experimentation. Blinded by a hunger for revenge, Wolverine submits himself to an excruciating procedure that infuses his spiky claws with the super-metal "adamantium." Wolverine turns out to be the tenth experiment ("X") performed by army Colonel Stryker in his search for a super-soldier. Stryker extracted the most volatile genes to create a mutant of mutants named Deadpool. Like many Marvel comics, the X-Men series questions scientific experimentation, particularly in service of military ends. In X-Men and Terminator: Salvation, the results of those experiments eventually turn against those who've exploited them.

FIGHTING FOR PEACE

These action-packed blockbusters express our enduring hunger for peace, and each begins with a threat to family. James Tiberius Kirk is born as his father gallantly goes down with his spaceship; Spock faces the loss of his mother (and his civilization); the Terminator series began with a son rescuing his father (thanks to time travel!); and in X-Men Origins, Wolverine endures the death of both the father who raised him and his birth parent. Tired of running from his past, Wolverine seeks domestic bliss in the Canadian Rockies. In each film, reluctant warriors adopt violent means to secure a fragile peace.

Amid the battles, the question we began with emerges again: "Why we are here?" A hotheaded James T. Kirk is asked, "Do you feel you were meant for something better?" Spock is challenged to get beyond logic, to tap into the human, "feeling" side of his family tree. Star Trek also raises questions of destiny. Time travel allows for multiple paths and alternative realities (including two Spocks!). The multicultural members of Starfleet must deal with the Other. The Romulans torture their prisoners, while those pledged to the Federation operate on a higher moral plane.