Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The ordinary world is the entire universe…but it's the universe where everything's going more or less according to plan.
The various Dr. Marcuses are working on their big project, Kirk and the gang are training a new crew, and all is well. Even the training cruise – featuring the Enterprise majestically moving out of space dock – doesn't constitute a Call to Adventure. Just another Tuesday morning in Starfleet.
Call to Adventure
In this case, the call to adventure is literal: Carol Marcus is on the horn to Kirk, yelling at him about trying to take Genesis away from her. Sounds like trouble to us.
There's a hurried discussion with Spock and McCoy, and then we're off to see what's what over at Dr. Marcus's pad.
Refusal of The Call
No refusal of the call here. Kirk's not some shmoe who wants to find better things to do when trouble arises. He tells Mr. Sulu to punch it and heads out towards Regula One.
The Galaxy ain't gonna save itself, guys.
Meeting the Mentor
The mentor situation is tricky here, because Mr. Mentor also does double-duty as a good buddy.
But Mr. Spock has some wisdom to lay down on Lirk…as well as on his students. So once they get the garbled signal from Dr. Marcus, Kirk sits down with Spock to discuss the situation. It seems like two old friends hashing out strategy, but considering some of the wisdom Spock lays down, it sure feels like meeting the mentor to us:
SPOCK: If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.
Crossing the Threshold
The Threshold officially arrives where Kirk takes command of the Enterprise. We're no long on a training cruise: the safety settings are off, and they're heading into a real situation. Kirk apologizes to the crew for forcing them to "grow up a little sooner than you expected."
In other words: it's on.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
We've got allies, we've got enemies, and we've got allies who turn out to be enemies until they become allies again.
It starts with the attack of the Reliant, which is ostensibly a Federation vessel but has been hijacked by Khan and his gang of space pirates. It continues when they arrive at Regula One to find Terrell and Chekov under control of the space worms and through the confrontation in the Genesis Cave.
Things are rarely what they appear to be and there's danger all around. Luckily, after stumbling out of the gate, Kirk gets back in the saddle again pretty quickly.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
You could argue that the innermost cave is the Genesis Cave in the center of Regula One. It is, after all, an actual cave.
But the challenges it presents are fairly easily overcome, and there's no sense of finality to the threat. Kirk's not worried, so why should we be?
No, the real innermost cave is the Mutara Nebula, where shields and sensors won't work and Kirk needs to face his nemesis on an equal playing field. The nebula's ability to disrupt sensors riffs on the classic Campbellian notion that the hero can't take any special gadgets to get him off the hook. Whatever he does, he needs to do it himself, with no help.
The ordeal itself is the final battle with the Reliant, pitting Kirk's nerve and experience against Khan's intelligence and thirst for revenge. It's a pretty harrowing sequences, and we're pretty sure once it starts that at least one set of combatants isn't getting out of there alive.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Canny thinking by Kirk (coupled with a suggestion from Spock) gives the Enterprise the edge. They start playing in three dimensions when the Reliant is stuck in old-school 2-D.
Up pops the Enterprise right behind the Reliant, close enough to phaser the righteous snot out of it and order Khan to surrender.
The Road Back
"No Kirk…the game's not over yet."
Wait, there's more to do? Yup: like outrun the Genesis wave, which Khan triggers to destroy both him and the Enterprise. Better hope you can get those engines fixed, guys.
Resurrection in this case comes packed with a big helping of Final Sacrifice to take it down. The Enterprise restores its engines and zips away just in time…thanks to Spock absorbing lethal amounts of radiation in order to get the engine fixed.
He dies…but in so doing, he saves the ship from certain death, while simultaneously ushering in the birth of a new world with the very energy that was supposed to destroy them. The resurrection is more cosmic than personal, but hey: that's what Campbellian heroes are supposed to do.
Return with the Elixir
There's plenty of elixir to be had here. Khan is dead, the crew of the Reliant is on its way to being rescued, and we even got a whole new planet out of the arrangement.
True, we've lost Spock, but that too carries with it the rewards of wisdom and insight…and the peace of mind that comes with the universe unfolding more or less as it should. And as the final shots suggest, death may not be the end after all.
Not as long as there's profit to be made from a properly marketed sequel.