Of Lightsabers and Lens Flare: J.J. Abrams Does Star Wars
The nerdworld exploded yesterday when news leaked that Disney had selected J.J. Abrams to direct the next Star Wars movie. J.J. Abrams is best known for the under-watched Alias, the over-watched Lost, and of course for resurrecting and rebooting the other great sci-fi franchise: Star Trek.
As one would expect from the most rabid fanbase in the world, hatred spewed forth.
But not from me. I say let him at it.
But Star Trek...
When I first heard Abrams was rebooting Star Trek, I was cautiously optimistic. It was a bizarre kind of optimism, as despite my adoration for the franchise, it had been so horribly wrong for so long only a massive change in direction would save it. It was clear Paramount felt the same way, firing everyone previously involved (good) and hiring a mainstream director (maybe good?). My feeling at the time? Let's see what he can do. I shockingly, amazingly, unexpectedly, kept an open mind.
The result was a fantastic movie. It was not, I would argue, a Star Trek movie. It was an action movie that happened to feature familiar Star Trek characters, but not something The Great Bird would have ever imagined. It was, however, the only way the franchise would survive in the 21st century.
What do I mean by this? The best example of Star Trek at its movie finest is probably Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales. This is not my favorite, but it is a good example of what Star Trek could be. It is a pure sci-fi story, yet done in a classic fish-out-of-water (sort-of-pun intended) fashion that worked for Star Trek fans and popular audiences. It's about a team working together and using their heads to overcome a huge obstacle. There's very little "action" in it, but it works flawlessly as a movie and is accessible to wide audiences. This, is a Star Trek movie. Star Trek (the most recent one), is an action movie.
Let me be clear, I love Star Trek for what it is, and I can't wait to see the new one, but it is not a Star Trek movie. This is neither a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. Not sure why this is such a difficult argument for some people to wrap their heads around. Why can't I enjoy it for what it is, while at the same time comment that it isn't Star Trek and is barely sci-fi? It's not less of a movie because of this. In fact, it's a better movie because of this.
Star Wars getting this exact same treatment could be brilliant.
Why this is a good thing
Star Wars, unlike Star Trek, is a grand fantasy space opera, full of epic battles, tales of courage, action, adventure, Wookiees, and all the things that make for great movies. It's not sci-fi by any stretch, has never pretended to be anything but an opera, and is more popular as a result. I'd argue that the first Star Wars (A New Hope) was as perfect a telling of the Hero's Journey that has ever been put on film.
J.J. Abrams, despite his many idiosyncrasies as a director, understands characters and story. These are two things that George Lucas, if he ever knew, forgot long long ago. Characters and story are what make any movie (or book or TV show) work. Both Star Wars and Star Trek at their best are, at their core, about interesting characters working through a story: Luke's rise from a hapless farmboy to galactic hero; Kirk coming to grips with age and his past; Picard, Data, and Worf throughout their show (but not the horrible movies). This is what got lost somewhere in the late 90s by the caretakers of both franchises. They went off the rails.
However, Abrams also understands what it takes to make a successful movie. With Star Trek, this involved wrenching it away from the esoteric sci-fi that made it popular with its fanbase, but away from wider popularity. He was able to keep the core of what made the characters work, while moving the franchise into the mainstream world. He got a lot of flak for this, but without it, Star Trek was dead.
You're sure to see all sorts of jokes about Abrams' love of lens flare, and how the look of a new Star Trek movie will be different. This is superficial, and largely irrelevant. Go deeper. Imagine a Star Wars movie with tightly written characters, actual sets, interesting camera angles, sharp dialog, and a compelling and interesting story. Even Abrams at his worst could easily do something like this, and that would already be better than the prequels.
Adding to the possibility of greatness? Michael Arndt is writing the screenplay. Arndt won an Academy Award for Little Miss Sunshine, a movie about interesting and quirky characters. He was nominated for his work on Toy Story 3, a franchise known for well written characters, and a fantastic movie throughout. Again, this shows Disney going with people who know what they're doing and letting them do it. The Mouse gets a bad rap, but look at the fantastic films from Pixar and Marvel since they got tucked into the castle.
Would the nerddream of Joss Whedon writing/directing have been better? Sure. Would a Christopher Nolan Star Wars have been fascinating? Sure. But I'm fine with competent people being in charge, and once again, I'm keeping an open mind.
Will any of this work out as currently speculated? Maybe, maybe not. Hollywood is a weird place, and only more so given the literal billions at stake here.
Then again, maybe there isn't much at stake. The prequels made tons of money, and were some of the worst movies ever made. A Brett Ratner/Akiva Goldsman Star Wars would probably make a billion dollars while simultaneously being the most unholy abortion to ever grace the silver screen.
When it comes down to it, there were few directors/writers working today that would vomit up worse Star Wars movies than the prequels. Given Abrams' track record of solid-if-not-spectacular TV shows and movies, and his expert distilling (and some would say turbocharging) of the Star Trek characters, I'm cautiously optimistic about his helming of Star Wars. And besides, it's not like I wouldn't have seen it anyway.
In the mean time, check out the trailer for Star Trek into Darkness which looks amazing.