J.J. Abrams -or- How Not To Take Over A Franchise
Recently, since 2009, one man has been given the helm to two of the most important science fiction franchises in history. J.J. Abrams, the lead mind behind Lost, Cloverfield, Fringe, Super 8 and more, was chosen to direct and develop the newest entries in the well known and loved Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. Star Trek hadn’t been on the silver screen since Star Trek Nemesis in 2002, and Star Wars wrapped up the prequel trilogy in 2005. Was Abrams able to please the masses with his two chances? No. Well. Not exactly. The answer is a bit complicated but it boils down to this: He was not a fan of Star Trek, and too big of a fan of Star Wars, and it shows.
To start let’s look at his two Star Trek movies: Star Trek, sometimes called Star Trek 2009, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Admitting in interviews that he wasn’t a fan of Star Trek before taking on the franchise fans were understandably worried about what this would mean for a universe with so much lore and history going into it, and one loooong and persistent timeline of events. The result was Star Trek 2009 which was a bold statement to trekkies. The movie cemented an entirely new canon universe for Star Trek to explore that rebooted the events of The Original Series, starting over the adventure of Kirk and Spock while also deliberately acknowledging the “old” Star Trek by including Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and tying it all together in the plot details. “Look!” he said with this movie, “Look and see, I know you fan love your original Star Trek, so here it is over here…and we’re now moving over here to my new Star Trek.” The new Star Trek was young and lean, with clean surfaces and high action. Star Trek 2009 was all about proving that this new Star Trek would be something special and unique. Spock was far more emotional, Kirk was…well…the same…but the ship was new, the crew had to be introduced for the first time, and it ended on a note of “Let’s see what happens next!”
Unfortunately the next thing that happened was Star Trek: Into Darkness. This, being the 2nd new Star Trek film, could have set a bar for new content in the series. Instead, being the 2nd new Star Trek film…he remade the 2nd old Star Trek film, The Wrath of Kahn. People love Wrath of Kahn right? Fans are always talking about it. It really is one of the best films of the entire Star Trek canon. Abrams took the reverence for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn and attempted to channel it, but channeled it too much. The movie was a boring rehash of a plot we all knew, bringing back a previously established character and just twisting a few details instead of striking out and trying something totally fresh. Millions of dollars and zero care went into trying to bring back and improve on something that not only didn’t need improving or reviving, but didn’t feel in line with the final message of Star Trek 2009 in that this universe was going to be something new. One specific beef, and a really damning indictment of how ham handed Into Darkness was handled, rests in the climax of the film. In The Wrath of Kahn towards the end of the movie, Spock and Kirk have a famous scene wherein Spock dies of radiation poisoning while a grief stricken Kirk looks on through the glass. Into Darkness flipped this moment on its head by having Kirk “die” of radiation poisoning while a distraught Spock looks on, only to come back mere moments later thanks to Kahn’s special science blood and a transfusion. All of the drama, all the emotion and gravitas of the moment they deliberately duped was cut right out from under it thanks to their goal of pleasing the fans while ALSO trying to strike out in their own direction. The resulting mix of old and new was clumsy at best and the film left some feeling that Abrams and his company had taken the easy way out in terms of storytelling and development. This could be due to the known lack of reverence for the franchise from its new visionaries, but nevertheless it really hurt confidence in Abrams ability to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” To do that, you actually have to go “WHERE NO ONE HAS GONE BEFORE.” This issue finally came to a head though, with the most recent entry in the Star Wars series: Episode VII The Force Awakens.
Abrams is a huge Star Wars fan. He knows the films well, has a history of passion for the universe and was probably eager to work with Disney to bring a new Star Wars to new and old fans alike. The Force Awakens was hotly anticipated but arrived with mixed reception. For the most part the film is a very exciting sci-fi epic with gorgeous visuals and excellent pacing. It looks and feels like a Star Wars film should look and feel, but the levels of similarity to the original entries in the franchise start to reach uncomfortable levels soon after that. Read this:
A robot is lost on a desert-climate planet with an important map in its databanks. It’s found by a local, who teams up with a grizzled smuggler and his wookie friend to deliver it back to the resistance. Meanwhile, the evil Empire is building a battlestation capable of destroying entire worlds which they test, ensuring it’s gruesome capacity for murder. The Empire’s number one soldier, a black clad Sith warrior wielding a red lightsaber (who harbors ill will towards his former master) searches for the droid as well. The good guys end up uniting with the leader of the rebellion, an older woman with lots of political experience, and attacking the Empire’s battle station. Also, the young and promising force and their hotshot rogue friend are made to watch as their mentor figure is cut down by the evil sith warrior, an awful event they cannot prevent because they are across a large chasm inside the facility. During the film the good guys are attacked by a creature with tentacles, and they receive wisdom from a small, bug-eyed alien who hides away on a remote jungle planet in obscurity. At the end of the film, the evil Empire’s battle station is destroyed thanks to the skills of the rebellion’s hotshot pilots, and a critical point of weakness in the Empire’s schematics, just before it is able to fire on and destroy another world.
That’s a big list of plot details. If you’ve seen all of the films, you may not be able to tell if I am describing A New Hope or The Force Awakens. That’s kind of a big problem.
Again, we see that Abrams is unable to let go. The Force Awakens was a big love letter to George Lucas. It seemed to say that there was nothing worth changing in A New Hope, and instead, everything was worth redoing…nearly exactly as it had happened back in 1977. The key additions and changes weren’t enough to scrub away the feeling that we had seen all of this before. Few risks were taken, zero new ideas were established, and in all it felt as though this new Star Wars film was doing its best to just retell the old Star Wars film. Maybe it was for the new fans, but A New Hope still holds up as a classic film and starting point for watching the series…so maybe this was all just for Lucas, a weird way for Abrams to put that original work on a pedestal with a deeply ingrained homage. When homage becomes imitation however, that’s a line too far. He may be a fan of Star Wars, but he’s a fan of the old star wars…and it doesn’t feel like he’s interested in establishing any new precedents with The Force Awakens.
Hollywood right now is hungry for new ideas, but most have been coming in the form of rehashing or retelling older ideas. Star Trek and Star Wars suffered the same fate at the hands of their new owners, blatantly retelling us the same stories but with a wink and a nod, and no one is really biting on that. Star Trek is defined by new experiences, and Star Wars was ready for an actual new beginning. Only time will be able to tell if the next installments in both series finally realize that audiences still have access to the original experiences. Money talks, and sequels sell. But this was supposed to be Star Wars Episode VII not Neo-Episode IV, and it was supposed to be Star Trek: Into Darkness not The Wrath Of Kahn 2. Trying to hard to please everyone, or being too much of a fan yourself, can often limit your ability to tell a good story.