It's hard to overstate how boring Star Trek seemed in 2008. A pointless prequel had sucked the life out of it, the movies were crud, and the whole thing become a source of bland jokes on late-night TV. There were comics, games and novels for the die-hard fans, but as far as mainstream culture was concerned, Trek was toast.
J.J. Abrams brought Star Trek back. And now, with Star Wars in a not totally dissimilar situation, he's been brought in to repeat the feat. Can he do it again?
All images by Ralph McQuarrie
So first of all, yes, the comparison between Star Wars circa 2013 and Star Trek circa 2008 does seem apt. This happens to every popular universe from time to time: malaise sets in, everything feels like a retread, and too many iterations of the same old thing have invoked the Law of Diminishing Returns, which is way more unbreakable than the Prime Directive.
True, Star Wars has the Clone Wars cartoon, which is keeping it exciting for a new generation. And the Expanded Universe has a bigger reach than things like Star Trek's attempts to create an extended continuity. But to most people, Star Wars is still mostly a set of six movies that first captured our collective imagination... and then starved it.
Like Star Trek five years ago, Star Wars isn't just in need of a new coat of paint, or another jaunt down memory lane. Star Wars needs to be reinvented. Whoever directs a new Episode is going to need to take some liberties with the source material. (And really, why would you ever want a new installment of anything that doesn't reinvent the concept to some extent? You can always pop in the DVDs if you want the unadulterated original. A new movie, in any series ever, should be new. Or what's the point?)
So I guess the questions I'm wondering are, Will Abrams be willing to take chances with Star Wars? And will he take the right chances? And most important, will Abrams be able to get to the heart of what Star Wars is really about?
(Of course, now's a good place to point out that Abrams isn't writing the screenplay to Episode VII in any case — by all accounts, that's Toy Story 3/Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt. But of course, whoever directs the thing would have a decent amount of leeway to screw around with Arndt's script. And actually Abrams seems more likely to respect the words on the page, based on what he's said about other projects he directed and didn't write, than a lot of other writers.)
So let's take those questions one by one. Will Abrams be willing to take chances? He certainly took some pretty major liberties with Trek, to the point where some fans still hate the film. Abrams took the classic TOS characters and gave them a massively different context, while blowing a large hole in the Trek cosmology. And yet, Abrams and his writers balanced all of this sacrilege with a healthy dollop of fan-service, throwing in green Orion women, the Kobayashi-Maru test and a random Tribble.
On the other hand, Abrams made a big deal out of not being a Star Trek fan when he directed Star Trek. And he has made an equally big deal out of being a Star Wars fan. So he may be instinctively more reverent when approaching this particular chalice, and that would be a bad thing for all of us. At the same time, after watching most of Abrams' stuff at once, it feels like surprises and twists occupy a huge section of his storytelling toolbox.
Look at it this way — back when we had the oral tradition, you had storytellers who went around repeating the same tales that other storytellers who came before had told. And some storytellers probably stuck pretty close to the classics, but they were popular because they knew how to embellish a bit, or just milk the dramatic moments in a way that was fun to listen to after a few cups of goat wine. And then there was probably a second group of storytellers, who changed things up more, maybe inserting some new twists or even making the story's ending something different than what other storytellers had taught you to expect. A third group of traveling fabulists might actually make up a brand new story from scratch sometimes, including some classic elements but also fashioning a whole set of characters and events.
Of those three types, Abrams usually seems to be the second type — he'll tell the stories you've heard before, but he'll find a way catch you off guard.
Will Abrams take the right liberties? A lot, obviously, depends on whether you like the liberties he took with Star Trek. And whether the splashy, gooftastic take on spy lore in Alias and Undercovers worked for you. And whether you thought Super-8 was a great tribute to 1980s Spielberg, or an unforgiveable bastardization. And so on.
Based on all that stuff, we can generalize: to the extent that Abrams has an influence on the story of the new Star Wars, it won't entirely make sense if you think too much. (But it was never going to make sense in any case.) And yet, Abrams reliably brings a lot of energy and a sense of fun to whatever he tackles, along with a commitment to personal drama in the middle of huge set pieces. I've never been bored watching something Abrams was directly involved in. Even if you hated Abrams' Trek, you have to admit it packed in some powerful emotional moments, and was way more entertaining than the best moments of the last two TNG movies put together.
Here's the thing people often say about J.J. Abrams: he's addicted to mysteries and cryptic plot elements. But that's actually based on a misreading of his oeuvre — he certainly knows how to jerk fans around using viral marketing and the internet rumor mill, but that skill is not integral to his storytelling.
I often think about the Rabbit's Foot in Abrams' Mission Impossible III. That's the mysterious object that Ethan Hunt has to deliver. And we're never told what it is, beyond a few random hints. So is the Rabbit's Foot a mystery? Only if you're the sort of person who analyzes movies after watching them. For the purposes of the movie, it's a pure McGuffin — Abrams isn't saying, "You should obsess about the nature of the Rabbit's Foot." He's saying "It doesn't matter what the Rabbit's Foot is. The bad guy wants it, that's all you need to know."
People often talk about J.J. Abrams as a guy who cares too much about plot devices — but if anything, he's someone who doesn't care about them at all. Red Matter? Sure, it gets the job done. Rambaldi Artifacts? Yeah, whatever.
So if you're tired of Star Wars being all about midichlorians and the finer details of galactic politics, J.J. Abrams is probably your guy.
Will he get to the heart of what Star Wars is about? Abrams didn't really get what Star Trek was about, at least in his first movie. (And based on what we've seen thus far, Star Trek Into Darkness will be more of the same.) The emphasis on exploration, on pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, on using our power wisely, on trying to understand the Other, IDIC, all that stuff — it's not in the first Abrams Trek movie at all. Which is one reason people complain so much.
And this is where Arndt being the screenwriter, and Abrams being an O.G. Star Wars fan, might come in handy — those two guys, between them, might actually get what Star Wars ought to be about. (In a nutshell, avoiding the Dark Side of the Force, the little guy winning, a hero achieving his/her destiny, cool aliens, insane fun and optimism. I wrote a whole thing about what we want to see from a new Star Wars here.)
All Abrams really has to do is make the Force seem cool and spiritual and relevant — to do what he absolutely did not do with "boldly going where no man has gone before" — and we're sold.
Final thought: Whoever directed the new Star Wars was going to be a product of Star Wars. George Lucas and the ILM crew changed movies drastically, ushering in a new era of special effects-heavy tentpoles — the same emphasis on special effects that eventually ruined Star Wars. The ultimate challenge of a new Star Wars is to get past the VFX and the awesome spaceship battles and get to the characters and the emotions. That's a tiny exhaust port that's hard to hit — but I think Abrams has a fair shot.