Or, Why Your Beloved Franchise Is About to Become More Powerful than You Could Possibly Imagine
Since the news that J. J. Abrams will be directing the seventh installment of Star Wars hit, back in January of last year, fandom has been more or less polarized on the prospects. For many, cynicism came as the dominant knee-jerk response; others adopted what can only be called a cautious optimism. A collective groan seemed to resound across the net. But I must admit, I found myself rejoicing in the knowledge that these works—which have been such an integral part of my imaginative life for nearly two decades—are to be kept in competent hands.
As for all the smugness and nerd rage? I still can’t say for certain what makes Abrams the most triggering name in geek culture. Arguments could be made regarding his occasionally sexist decision-making in the rebooted Trek series, perhaps. That is not something I’m prepared to defend or condone in any way. I strongly suspect, however, that he simply evokes the ire of so many fans for some perceived misstep regarding the final season of Lost, which may or may not have had anything at all to do with Abrams himself.
To which I say, it’s [Star Wars: Episode VII](movie:711158). These things are bound to happen. There’s simply no intellectual property in existence that has such passionate fans. You give us a character like Jar Jar Binks, you’ll witness an outcry of hate on a galactic scale. You deliver a poor 3-D conversion job for an already shaky, disappointing film, and you’ll find us weeping on our way back out to the parking lot.
And plus, y’know, Han did shoot first! Don’t get us started.
All that stuff aside—The People vs. George Lucas laid that era of Star Wars fandom peacefully to rest, I’d say—Abrams really is the best thing that could possibly happen to this mythology. To be honest, prior to the official announcement, I hadn’t even entertained the idea as being a remote possibility. He had reportedly declined involvement with the as-yet-untitled Episode VII early on, for one, and he’s been at the helm of the equally colossal Trek franchise since his 2009 reboot. Probably not somebody with a lot of free time on his hands. But now we’re told he’s taking the reins of Lucas’s career-making brainchild, and I genuinely could not be happier about it.
Um, yeah. Star Trek.
There’s been a lot of criticism leveled at Abrams’ two Trek films. (Some of it warranted; most of it nonsensical.) People like to give him a lot of grief about the lens-flare gimmick, but seriously? C’mon. I mean, do you go around knocking Tarantino because all his scripts are bloated and dialogue-heavy? Or crucify Scorsese for dropping too many F-bombs in a gangster flick?
Gimme a break. Even Lucas used the lens flare technique to great effect during some his key lightsaber duels—in the prequel trilogy, sure, but let’s face it: Revenge of the Sith is one of the best things Lucas has ever given us as a director, outside of THX-1138 and American Graffiti.
Before the ’09 Star Trek, I didn’t give a hoot about Trekkie culture. Whatever Kirk and Picard had to offer just didn’t appeal to me as a kid. I was a Lucas loyalist, I guess, having never seen the original series from the sixties, nor The Next Generation and its various subsequent spinoffs. None of the many pre-Abrams Trek films ever appealed to me.
Those early Angry Robot teasers sunk their hooks into me, though. Got me curious enough to watch just this one, and so when the thing finally landed in theaters, I was there. Cautiously optimistic. Buttered-popcorn smell permeating the air.
And then . . . suddenly I was reading the Alan Dean Foster-penned novelization. Watching the original series (or TOS, as it’s often called) for the first time and totally digging it. Giving this old, slightly dated bit of film-and-television history a chance after finally having glimpsed a bit of promise in it. Experiencing The Wrath of Khan at long last.
Because, my friends, J. J. Abrams had made it all new again: with familiar faces delivering great, memorable performances; with a Beastie Boys song sitting right at home in a galaxy-spanning space opera; with a heightened sense of drama and peril, from the genocidal destruction of an entire planet by birthing a black hole in its core to having a young Vulcan meet his much older, wiser self courtesy of accidental time travel.
He’s bringing science fiction into the mainstream.
And unlike the heyday of Michael Bay’s overhyped Transformers movies, we no longer have reason to be embarrassed about it.
When Into Darkness landed in cinemas around the world a year ago, it swiftly became the highest-grossing entry in the history of the franchise. Regardless of where you stand on the issues of whitewashing Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as Khan and Alice Eve’s gratuitous stripdown scene, it’s hard to deny the more positive aspects of the film within the larger context of Star Trek as a pop-culture staple with undeniable staying power. (See another of my essays, “Jingoism and the Culture of Fear in Star Trek Into Darkness,” for my exploration of the film’s attempts at social commentary.)
If Abrams and the marketing folks at Paramount can make something like Star Trek look cool and exciting to a wider, younger audience—make it feel mainstream, even—then I count that as a very good thing indeed. Science fiction literature surely benefits from a growing interest in cinematic SF. Oftentimes, media tie-ins act as gateway drugs into that otherwise overlooked corner of the bookstore. You grow your audience, you grow fandom as a whole; to count this as a loss simply feels pedantic and elitist.
Can you name a more impressive directorial debut than Mission: Impossible III?
With the possible exceptions of Moon, District 9, and The Adjustment Bureau, I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent first-time directing effort half as much fun as Abrams’ first summer popcorn flick. Sure, it may feel a tad over edited in the second act, and the romance subplot does overwhelm the maguffin-centric main storyline a bit, but the third Mission: Impossible film is arguably the best in the series, Brad Bird’s breathtaking Burj Khalifa sequence notwithstanding.
Cruise made a solid decision hiring Abrams to give his flagship franchise a gritty, slightly more believable aesthetic for its third outing—and in doing so gave him the conduit necessary to prove his filmmaking chops. It’s undoubtedly the very reason we have the latest Star Trek films.
And let’s not overlook all his metatheatrical theses from Super 8, a film I found to be enormously heartfelt and affecting.
No, I’m not joking.
The guy’s got a lot to say, and as much as people love to bash family-friendly fare like Super 8 and its spiritual predecessors in Spielberg’s filmography, it managed to convey a profound love for the art of visual storytelling.
The character of Charles Kaznyk in particular (played expertly by newcomer Riley Griffiths) spends much of the film espousing wisdom gleaned from his journey as an amateur screenwriter and director. He discovers through various filmmaking magazines that story is not just about action, violence, or mystery, but rather the characters who are made to suffer through it. His inclusion of Alice Dainard’s character (Elle Fanning) in their zombie-horror Super 8 film is meant to add depth and humanity to the drama, thereby gaining audience sympathy.
Exactly the kind of thinking that added a new level of relatability and excitement to the Star Trek franchise, in other words.
Super 8 isn’t an alien invasion movie. ’S not a monster movie. Not really. It is a story of adolescent dreams, of familial loss and reconciliation, which all the while celebrates the shared magic of storytelling.
“It binds the galaxy together. . . .”
George Lucas’s limited involvement with the forthcoming sequel trilogy signifies the end of one era and the dawn of another. By allowing new screenwriters and directors to take up the mantle of Dark Lord of the—well, y’know, to write and create their own worlds, characters, and myths within the larger Star Wars universe—he is giving the fans a real go at shaping his legacy.
Something that, arguably, he’s been doing with tremendous success since the 1980 release of The Empire Strikes Back, when Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, brought the saga to what many consider to be its very pinnacle.
Lucas made film history with the original Star Wars in 1977, and he almost lived up to its brilliance when he hit his stride once more with Revenge of the Sith (’05). But the franchise has unquestionably shone its brightest in the hands of the fans themselves.
As with Troops, Kevin Rubio’s award-winning mockumentary film featuring Imperial stormtroopers making their daily rounds across the dunes of a Cops-inspired Tatooine, complete with the familiar “Bad Boys” theme and a certain smoldering pair of moisture farmers. Or Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith companion novel, which I consider vastly superior to . . . well, at least five of the Star Wars movies, in terms of the writing. The examples go on and on: Shadows of the Empire; Robot Chicken Star Wars, Blue Harvest, and the other Family Guy spoofs; LucasArts’ The Force Unleashed and its sequel; the various Dark Horse Comics runs.
Some say that the Clone Wars series is the best thing to happen to the franchise since ’77.
Star Wars is a realm forever defined and upheld by its fans. Always has been, always will be—and Abrams himself knows that as well as anybody. No doubt that’s why he initially denied any involvement whatsoever with the forthcoming sequel trilogy.
As far as this fan is concerned, having one of us behind the lens this time around means the best of that galaxy far, far away is still yet to come.
So, what do you think? Is J. J. Abrams the right man for the job? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!