J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS: It Could Go Either Way
Well, it took a STAR WARS announcement for me to dust off the old blog.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, J. J. Abrams will be directing the next STAR WARS movie, EPISODE VII: (INSERT TITLE WITH EPIC SOUNDING WORDS HERE).
I was originally pessimistic when it came to this announcement, but I’ve changed my tune somewhat. Don’t get me wrong, I still have misgivings about the choice. They are, in no particular order (though I’ve always felt that making an order “non-particular”, is, in itself, a particular way to order something):
Inspired choice? Not really.
First off, I was hoping for something of a more interesting choice, something more outside the box. It could have been much less original for sure, we could have gotten Zack Snyder or Brett Ratner. Abrams is a clearly much more legitimate talent, and one with a unique “voice”, but at the same time, the guy has become an obvious goto for any sort of high profile franchise. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, STAR TREK, and now, STAR WARS. Granted, he’s become a goto because he’s consistently produced films that make money. Lots of it. And that’s the real reason behind the choice. Disney/Kennedy weren’t looking for someone who would make the best STAR WARS film. They were looking for someone who would make the most profitable one. And not just by the film they eventually produced, but by branding it to an extent. And Abrams is a brand, one with name recognition that’s vastly popular.
And there’s nothing wrong with that mindset, by the way. The film industry is just that. An industry. It exists to make money. If it also happens to make interesting art, well that’s icing on the cake. I just think that, creatively, there were far more interesting choices. (Alfonso Cuarón, anyone?)
Kathleen Kennedy and Disney undoubtedly lobbied Abrams aggressively, as is evidenced by his admission several months ago of having no designs on directing the next STAR WARS, both out of loyalty to TREK and because he wanted to “be a fan” in the audience and not know what was coming. And yet, Kennedy and Disney still pursued him. It makes me wonder what kind of deal it took to secure his involvement.
Another reason I dislike the choice is that there seems to be something almost morally wrong and off about having the same guy helm two such completely iconic (and different) franchises. STAR WARS is a far more mythological storyline than STAR TREK, and everything Abrams has done to this point has been much more grounded in reality (which, TREK lends itself to more). It’s kind of his thing. I’m not sure he really has the right sensibilities for STAR WARS. You can’t do a gritty, realistic version of STAR WARS. It just doesn’t work. But, beyond that, it feels like Hollywood is cannibalizing itself here. You’ve taken the two most successful, iconic, relevant science fiction franchises in film history…and given them to the same guy. Why not branch out some? There’s a lot of talent out there, and a lot of guys who are a better fit creatively, than simply asking Abrams to punch his time card on something else.
Another thing that worries me is the possibility of a Michael Giacchino film score, who is seemingly Abrams’ go to composer. Giacchino is decent at what he does, but I don’t think he really has the chops to fill in for John Williams. I’m not suggesting Williams should come back, he’s getting up there in age (though, I wouldn’t complain if he did), but I do think the music to STAR WARS has always been an integral part of the story. The music to those films is beyond epic. Hyperbolic is probably the right word, it’s so over the top, and I mean that in the best possible way. That music defined much of my childhood, and I still listen to it regularly.
Giacchino isn’t a hack, he’s actually very talented, but, like most composers (or artists in general), he has strengths and weaknesses. He’s great with stirring, emotional theme work. No question. It’s one of the reasons LOST resonated so much on an emotional level. But, his contribution to JOHN CARTER, for me, showed he isn’t as great with epic, climactic action music, which, hopefully, Abrams’ STAR WARS will need a lot of.
I just believe that Giacchino is the wrong choice to replace Williams, when there are so many other incredibly talented orchestral composers out there whose style is directly influenced by the man. Sadly, I don’t think all filmmakers really have an affinity or understanding of just how important film music is to a movie. We’ll see if Abrams does or not.
That other Sci-Fi thing he did
But, my biggest worry about Abrams helming STAR WARS is his treatment of his other Sci-Fi staple franchise. I found STAR TREK to be an utterly forgettable film, riddled with plot holes, logic faults, shoddy characterization, a paper thin villain, a disjointed plot structure, and set pieces that felt like they were developed by a committee rather than anyone with a singular vision.
Obviously, I was not a fan.
But, my biggest criticism is the one which worries me the most about Abrams’ involvement in STAR WARS. It is this. The reboot of STAR TREK shows, by anyone involved creatively in that project, no understanding (or a complete disregard) of what STAR TREK actually is.
STAR TREK is, and always has been, a ship based story. The Enterprise is an integral part of that world, indeed, its most critical aspect. Everything should revolve around that ship. It is a character unto itself. But Abrams (and the dynamic duo writing team of Kurtzman and Orci) seem to have approached the idea from the opposite viewpoint. The Enterprise becomes just another ship, an expendable part of the story that no one is very interested in exploring. Traveling to other worlds is a secondary (if not non-existent) concern (which is pretty shocking, considering the second word of the series’ title), replaced with an emphasis on clichéd “Saving the World” plotlines, wrapped up in an uninspired revenge story. The trailer for STAR TREK 2 does nothing to suggest this story will be any different (you don’t even see the Enterprise in that trailer, other than a ship coming out of the water which may or may not be it). In fact, it reconfirms that approach, with the (angering) inclusion of one of the series’ most iconic villains, and a revamp of its most successful past film’s revenge story plotline. Would it have killed Lindelhof, Orci, Kurtzman or Abrams to come up with something original and new, instead of trying to recycle the emotional impact of an almost perfect movie from the 80′s? Apparently, it would have.
Look, I get that it’s a reboot. I get that we’re updating it. But, if you don’t want, at the very least, to stick with the foundational principles of what STAR TREK really is…then why make STAR TREK at all? Why not make something original and unique? Is it just to have a title with brand recognition? The pessimist in me thinks probably so…
In the end, it’s either a failed understanding of a landmark franchise, or complete disregard for the tradition of what made something great. Neither option bodes well for Abrams’ involvement in STAR WARS.
Doom and gloom
But, I’ll be the first to admit I seem to be in the minority who hold this opinion of STAR TREK. The film was a monster hit and I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times I’ve heard people singing its praises, fans and non-fans alike. I’m not sure what lesson I should draw from this. Is it just a question of style over substance? Direct something with a cool enough brand, make it visually cool enough, get enough cool actors to read their lackluster lines in a cool way, have some cool music, and you will rake in a cool audience response? I don’t know. Maybe…
But, it’s not all doom and gloom. For one, Kurtsman/Orci aren’t writing STAR WARS. A major step forward. For all the reasons I think Abrams is an unoriginal choice for the directing chair, Michael Arndt is a pretty interesting choice to pen it. There are far more uninspiring scribes they could have gone to, with a connection to Lucasfilm. I’m looking at you, David Koepp.
And for all its perceived failures as a story, STAR TREK certainly looked great. Abrams has a great visual style, one that’s definitely more sophisticated than George Lucas’. It’s possible (though unlikely with all the chasing around Kennedy/Disney must have done to land him) that Abrams will have less control on the story than he did for TREK. If he has a true willingness to stick with (and be bothered to understand) the heart of what STAR WARS is, and not try and radically revolutionize the entire franchise to something he is more comfortable with, he might turn out to be a great choice.
I understand that the counter argument to that, given the lukewarm reception of the prequels, might be that the franchise needs a radical re-visualization. Touché. I just can’t say I’ll be very interested in watching, if that’s the case. Then again, I doubt Disney really cares. I’m sure it will be a giant success, either way. And STAR WARS does get to live on. That’s no small thing…
Who would have been your dream choice to direct the next STAR WARS?