Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ask JKM a Question # 64: Abrams Star Trek/Wars!

I’ve received a lot of e-mail in the past few days asking me my feelings about the news that J.J. Abrams is directing the next installment of Star Wars.

I have two thoughts about it. 

The first is that J.J. Abrams is probably a better, more natural fit for Star Wars than he is for Star Trek

Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film was exciting, and the characters were well-drawn, and appealing.  I did miss, however, the franchise’s trademark social commentary.   I feel the film still gets a pass on that count because Abrams accomplished what several previous Star Trek directors had not.  He re-introduced the franchise to a younger audience.   So I applaud him for making a colorful, exciting, and fun (if relatively superficial…) action movie that rejuvenated the Star Trek experience.  I want Star Trek to be there for my son, and for his children, and I think Abrams' Trek went some distance in making that a possibility in the way that Nemesis and Enterprise simply did not.

Now, there is rampant speculation about Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) at this point, but I’m not at all encouraged by the film’s premise of another mad-man bent on revenge, using a weapon of mass destruction as his tool of choice, as I’ve written here.   

And yes, I’ve read that the film features a kind of post-9/11 vibe to it, but having the “feel” of a certain earthbound context is different than boasting a social critique.  I’m open to the idea that the film will thread that needle successfully, but we’ve had so many post-9/11 movies and TV programs already (Battlestar Galactica, for one,) that I find it difficult to get too enthusiastic with it as a context for a Star Trek film in the year 2013.  It’s not as if 9/11 is the only important event that’s occurred in our culture and is worthy of comment.

So Star Trek: Into Darkness may be as much fun as the first film, but it isn’t going to be met, at least by me, with the same level of appreciation as the first film if the social commentary angle isn’t present to some significant degree. 

But Star Wars is a different animal, and a different kind of epic. It is not as didactic as Star Trek, and more mythological in nature.

Star Wars films need not contain deep social commentary about our existence here on Earth to live up to the best aspects of the franchise’s history.  And J.J. Abrams is more than competent in terms of staging action sequences, presenting colorful, humorous characters, and integrating state-of-the-art special effects.  As long as he makes his Star Wars look different than his Star Trek, I believe the Star Wars universe is likely a good place for him to tell us a great story.

My second thought, however, is that it’s an absolute shame that one man gets to shape the appearance and content of the two most popular “space” franchises of the last three decades. 

That’s not a direct knock against Abrams, by the way.  I’d feel exactly the same way if anyone were taking on both assignments virtually simultaneously.   

There are plenty of talented directors who could take on Star Wars at this juncture, and so to choose Abrams -- who is now associated with Trek --  just seems, well, kind of underwhelming on principle. 

I’ve been incredibly impressed, for instance, with the way that Kathryn Bigelow handles action sequences over the years.  We’ve never seen her take on a pop culture phenomenon like Star Wars, and she would have been a far more interesting, daring, unique, and out-of-the-box choice at this juncture.   We don't have any pre-conceived notions of her as a director in the genre, so she would have more freedom, in some sense.  With Abrams, there's a feeling that we are familiar with what he can do regarding space adventuring.

In geek circles, we all pre-judge, even if we claim we don’t pre-judge, or don't intend to pre-judge.  I’m trying very hard not to pre-judge Star Trek: Into Darkness, though all my instincts tell me to maintain low expectations so as not to be crushed at the prospect of yet another generic “explosive action thriller.”

Contrarily, an explosive action thriller falls more in line with my expectations for Star Wars, I readily acknowledge.   Does this mean that I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars?  Well, in general, I like Star Trek on television, where it boasts the freedom to experiment (and sometimes fail) with big ideas, and I like Star Wars on the big screen, where it can be epic and beyond that, mythic.

I suppose I want Star Trek to inspire me and make me think, and I want Star Wars to thrill me.  

J.J. Abrams has proved he can do the latter, but the jury is still out on the former.


  1. Consider this the unfortunate inevitable: Star Wars has now officially been (or is about to be) cannibalized by the nostalgia obsessed, fanboy-ComiCon geek culture. After all, who better the epitome of said culture than J.J. Abrams? Expect Episode VII to look like a music video or a smartphone commercial or a Michael Bay movie, or just about any other blockbuster slicked up with similar flashy cosmetics. And expect TV-drama platitudes in spades.

    Optimism? Okay. Here's hoping that Abrams ups his cinematic storytelling considerably.

  2. Anonymous10:57 AM

    John, I agree with your thoughts regarding what is Star Trek, Star Wars and Abrams directing both. Abrams is surely happy to helm the two most powerful science-fiction franchises. As a Star Trek fan since my '70s boyhood, I approved of his Star Trek 2009 and the 2013 sequel looks like another success.


  3. Star Wars has now officially been (or is about to be) cannibalized by the nostalgia obsessed, fanboy-ComiCon geek culture.

    That horse left the barn years ago.

  4. "That horse left the barn years ago."

    Not at all, in fact. If anything -- and this might seem counterintuitive, but hear me out -- Star Wars, at least the six feature film installments, has always remained divorced from whatever the impulses of geek culture, even if it did originally spawn so many fan-types we see today. This is because Star Wars has always been under the creative authorship of George Lucas, and Lucas is not someone who grew up watching one set of films or the other; not someone who’s ever invested in them with nostalgia or memories of youth; and, frankly, never someone who’s gone anal over trivial alleged plot inconsistencies or a resurrected Boba Fett, what-have-you.

    He created the world as a template for telling big mythic stories imbedded with old human truths, and to express himself in a particular cinematic fashion; he’s always been, first and foremost, a cinema nerd. In other words, they’ve always been more personal films than most seem to realize. Hell, both the Special Editions and the Prequels are evidence to the fact that Star Wars continued following in one direction the creative aspirations of Lucas while general fan expectations went in another or remained stagnate (and far less interesting, in my opinion).

    Now what we’re seeing, what I’m predicting, at least, is almost the complete reverse. So I reckon that disgruntled fans up to this point have finally won the day, with Abrams as their collective champion avatar. I say to them, "Congratulations, Star Wars is now officially yours. Enjoy."

    ...forget the fact that it’s about to be completely diluted, standardized and reduced to a superficial paintjob of geek whimsies. I hope I’m wrong. Sincerely.

  5. John, I agree with your views on this. I think Abrams is a much better fit with "Star Wars" than "Star Trek". In fact I remember Abrams saying something along those lines when he was asked to direct the 2009 film. I think "Star Wars" will find a solid and entertaining incarnation. And we'll get a great musical score by Michael Giacchino - who I know is a huge fan of the series.

    I also agree with your take on the Abrams "Star Trek" films. The 2009 film was a great achievement in that it managed to bring the franchise back from the grave, inject some fun, and bring in some new fans. For me, the "Star Trek" films had stopped being fun around the time of "Generations". So I commend him.

    But like you I missed the social commentary and actual "science" that the franchise was known for. I was hoping the sequel was going to go more in that direction, but the trailers have kept me from being too excited. I hold out hope, but I'm also keeping expectations low.

    I also hope that Abrams is able to adjust his style a bit, so that the new "Star Wars" films don't feel like the recent "Star Trek" films. I think a great musical score will be a huge help, but the script is where the real test is.

    Cannon - Lucas is... "not someone who's ever invested in them (films) with nostalgia or memories of youth". I actually don't agree with that. I think Lucas very much fixated on the serials and adventure films of the 30s and 40s. I think nostalgia played a big part in using them as templates for the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" series. I believe that fixation on these elements is what made the prequels less engaging and entertaining than they could be. I also think it is what hurt the latest "Indiana Jones" flick. I think Lucas has some great ideas and he also has some ideas that just don't work - and that his films work best when he's got someone around to balance those good and bad ideas.

    With that said, I see what you're saying with Abrams, and in the back of my mind I'm kind of afraid of what can happen here. I don't doubt that the films will be entertaining, but "Star Wars" for all it's heights and lows is still very much George Lucas. Abrams may try to capture that, and in doing so, may end up making a movie that loses it's shine after it's first shiny splash. I'd rather have Abrams go with his own voice and make a "Star Wars" movie that he wants, instead of one that "Lucas may have made".

    Of course the other factor in all this is that Lucas gave away creative control for a reason. He gave Abrams a thumbs up. It's possible that Lucas has said all he wants to say with the franchise and is more than willing to let it get "diluted, standardized and reduced to a superficial paintjob of geek whimsies." In fact, he may find the whole thing really funny.

    Anyway, if memory serves, you're a huge fan of the prequels and so you probably won't agree with my opinions. But I think that Lucas is just as entrenched with nostalgia as the rest of us geeky fanboys.

  6. Roman, that's not the point I was arguing. Because George Lucas directed/produced Star Wars, he did not grow up with it. His investment in the first three films was not one of nostalgia, but creative drive, which continued on its course when the time came to make the prequels. Naturally, that means new ideas. And this causes a problem. Fans have a tendency to only know what they like and only like what they know. When you introduce new ideas, or subvert old ones (i.e. midichlorians, awkward teen romance ...Indy going after aliens) fans get upset, because different = bad, not the same, not like thing use to be.

    My overall point here is that geek culture's fixation with Star Wars (or potentially anything) has proven counter-creative. Abrams is a self-proclaimed fan of the original trilogy while also stating his disconnect with the prequels, though he's never outright criticized them. That's understandable, I suppose; and likewise do I understand the desire to start the series anew with higher spirits equal to the 1977 original. I just hope that he doesn't do with Episode VII what he did with Super 8: going through the motions, without understanding them on a deeper level, simply as a means to manufacture "movie moments" from his (our) youth. That's just not very interesting filmmaking. I really, really, really wanna give Abrams the benefit of the doubt, but...

    1. Cannon - I do see where you're coming from, and I agree with you. I'd much rather have Abrams make a "Star Wars" movie that is truly his own, and not something that is what he thinks everyone wants to see. Any time this occurs in film making the end result ends up being a disappointment. Sometimes it takes a couple viewings, but the luster and gloss starts to wear thin.

      This is where I think John was on the right track with finding someone who could bring a great "Star Wars" story to life in their own way.

      But it seems like Hollywood is very adverse to trying new paths and new voices at this time. Abrams is a safe choice for Disney. He will make an entertaining movie. It will make a ton of money. But in the end those of us who enjoyed the series for it's mythic and thematic elements may be left out in the cold.

      Hard to say. I'll keep my fingers crossed along with you.