All Your Rebel Base Are Belong to Us: In Defense of J. J. Abrams

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J. J. Abrams | starwars.com
Photo: Lucasfilm / starwars.com

(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 a couple weeks back, fandom has been more or less polarized. While some rejoiced in the knowledge that their beloved franchise is to be kept in competent hands, the haters elsewhere could be heard collectively groaning.

Hell, even our own John M. Whalen voiced his concerns about Lucasfilm’s choice.

To which I say, it’s Star Wars — these things are bound to happen. There’s simply no intellectual property in existence that has such passionate fans.

You give us a Jar Jar Binks, you’ll witness an outcry of hate on a galactic scale. You give us a poor 3-D conversion on an already shaky, disappointing film, 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 franchise. To be honest, before the announcement, I hadn’t even entertained the idea as being a remote possibility. He’d 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 Star 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 brainchild — and I genuinely could not be happier about it.

Here’s why:

Um, Yeah. Star Trek.

There’s been a lot of criticism leveled at the Trek reboot. People like to give Abrams a lot of crap about the lens flare gimmick, but seriously? C’mon. I mean, do you go knocking Tarantino because all his scripts are 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 of his key lightsaber duels. In the prequel trilogy, mostly, but let’s face it: Revenge of the Sith is probably the second- or third-best thing Lucas ever gave us as a director. Don’t invoke THX-1138, either, because you know it’s not really all that great.

Before the 2009 Star Trek, I didn’t give a hoot about “that other fanboyish franchise.” I was a Lucas loyalist; had never seen the original series from the sixties, nor the Next Generation and its various later spin-offs, and certainly not any of the many pre-Abrams Trek films.

Those early Angry Robot teaser trailers hooked me, and so when the thing finally landed in theaters, I was there with all the Trekkies. Sleeping with the enemy, so to speak.

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 really digging it. Giving this old, slightly dated bit of film-and-television history a chance after finally having glimpsed a bit of brilliance in it.

Experiencing The Wrath of Khan at long last.

Because, my friends, Abrams had made it new again: familiar faces who delivered great, memorable performances; a Beastie Boys song sitting right at home in the realm of science fiction; 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 man meet his much-older, much-wiser self with the aid of time travel.

He’s Bringing Science Fiction into the Mainstream.

And unlike Michael Bay’s big-screen Transformers films, we no longer have reason to be embarrassed about it.

We’ve yet to see what happens when Into Darkness lands in cinemas around the world this summer, but I think this is a fair assumption to make: it’s going to do really, really well at the box office. People who have never before in their lives watched a Star Trek film or television episode, most likely, are going to go and see it. Because of marketing; because it looks like a big, action-based epic along the lines of The Avengers or Man of Steel.

My girlfriend absolutely loves the Abrams Trek reboot; but you’d never, ever catch her agreeing to sit down and watch an episode of TOS or TNG. And she’s a big-time Twilight fan. A frequent watcher of MTV, for chrissake.

If J. J. can make something like Star Trek seem cool and fresh and exciting to a new, wider audience — make it feel mainstream, even — I count that as a very good thing. 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 feels pedantic and elitist.

Can You Name a More Impressive Directorial Debut than Mission: Impossible III?

With the exception of maybe Moon, District 9, and The Adjustment Bureau, I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent directorial debut half as good as Abram’s “thrilling summer popcorn flick.”

Sure, it may feel a tad overedited, and the love story 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 the 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 the reason we have Star Trek and the forthcoming Into Darkness; I’ve no doubt about it.

Oh, and All His Metatheatrical Theses from Super 8.

Hey, stop laughing. It ain’t a joke. Dude’s got a lot to say, and as much as people like to bash family-friendly fare like Super 8, it managed to convey a deep 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 his own personal journey as an amateur screenwriter and director — just a kid with big dreams, like so many burgeoning writer-directors. He discovers through various filmmaking magazines that story isn’t just about action, violence, or mystery, but about the characters who suffer through it. His inclusion of Alice Dainard’s character (Elle Fanning) in their zombie-horror Super 8 film is done in an effort to add depth to the drama and gain audience sympathy.

Exactly the kind of thing 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. It isn’t a monster movie. Not really. It is a story of adolescent dreams, of familial loss and reconciliation, which celebrates the shared magic of storytelling.

“It Binds the Galaxy Together. . . .”

George Lucas’s limited involvement with the forthcoming sequel trilogy — Episodes VII-IX — signals 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 finally giving the fans a go at shaping his legacy.

Something that, arguably, he’s been doing with great 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 its very pinnacle.

Lucas made film history with the original Star Wars in 1977, and he very nearly lived up to its brilliance when he hit his stride once more with Revenge of the Sith in 2005. But the franchise has unquestionably shone its brightest in the hands of the fans themselves.

Troops. Matthew Stover’s brilliant Revenge of the Sith novelization. Shadows of the Empire. The Robot Chicken and Family Guy spoofs, not to mention the upcoming Star Wars: Detours series. LucasArts’ The Force Unleashed and its sequel. The various Dark Horse Comics runs.

Some say the Clone Wars series is the best thing to happen to the franchise since ’77.

Star Wars is a realm defined and upheld by its fans. Always has been, always will be; and Abrams himself knows that as much as anybody. No doubt that’s why he initially denied any involvement in the making of the sequel trilogy.

As far as I’m concerned, having a fan behind the lens means the best of Star Wars is yet to come.

4 COMMENTS

  1. J.J.Abrams is a talented man as demonstrated by his past work. For any director to take on "Star Wars" would be a daunting task unless they had the confidence that comes with collaborating with other talented people. His Bad Robot productions is filled with talented crew, writers, directors, show runners… who prove time and again that they can produce quality TV and movies. I may not believe in much, but, I believe in J.J. and his desire to do good work. Plus, the news that Larry Kasden is involved bodes well for this movie and how ever many more are to come.

  2. I was at ground zero when Star Wars originally hit. I was a nine year old swept away by the magic of movies and the Star Wars universe. Over the years my passion for Star Wars is still strong but my perspective has shifted some.

    I share your eagerness for the upcoming films both for the main story and the spinoffs. JJ was no my first hope for the director, but I think he will do a good job. Like anything your reaction to it is tempered by the attitude with which you approach it. Some films and books I set my expectations too high and then was disappointed. Other films with low expectations I am pleasently surprised.

    I have a copy of the original screenplay "The Adventures of Starkiller" by George Lucas. This later bacame Star Wars: New Hope. You can see the evolution into the final screen adaptation.

    Yes, this is a complete money grab, but looking objectively at it, we know that every film that hits the megaplex is there for one reason: make money. (Or the studios Oscar entry.) This is a business and us science fiction fans would have no movies to watch if not for the massive amounts of money made from our pocket books.

    As a writer myself, I would be more than willing to accept $4B for the rights to my world, so that fans until the end of time can enjoy my creation. Star Wars has passed into the realm of Superman and Batman and Robin Hood and King Arthur. It has transcended its creator and has a life of its own. How many years will go by after George Lucas passes before we see the remake of Episode 1-3 and dare I say Episode 4-6? How many variants of Batman and Superman have we seen?

    Lucas changed the film industry. He has had the greatest impact on Hollywood in my lifetime. Now all commercial films are trilogies. (BTW who would you attribute the creation of the trilogy in the publishing industry to? Tolkien? Someone else?) The Industrial Light and Magic has allowed the imagination of the writer to be translated onto the big screen in a way that surpasses the pre-Star Wars era of B movies. He continues to push the envelope on technology and push us forward. While his film making skills are not top shelf (as director or writer), his ability to shape the film industry is unmistakable.

    One famous English author once wrote an essay that suggested to think art needs to be perfect is to misunderstand art. Some Native American tribes believe that to try and be perfect in their art is to offend the gods. They would purposefully put in flaws in their bead work to avoid offense to the gods.

    JJ may not be my first choice, but I think he'll do a good job. I don't think Peter Jackson was particularly good before LOTR or since. (And when I look close I can find flaws in LOTR.) The Episode 7 writer has some credits and awards, but Toy Story 3 is not Star Wars 7. But I'm optimistic. I eagerly anticipate the launch of the movie and will be there opening weekend. I hope it is good. I know I'll pay enough to see it.

  3. Alex,

    It's pretty clear you've drunk the Kool Aid, And that's fine. Far be it for me to put down a man who wants to defend somebody or something he loves. Enjoy it. Just don't say you were disappointed later. My problem with the whole Disney/Lucas deal and the selection of Abrams is that the bottom line in all of this is the bottom line. It's a crass commercial decision on everyone's part that will make tons of money for all involved. If by chance it turns out to be a good thing for Star Wars fans or the movie watching public in general, it will probably be by accident. I'm not saying JJ will set out to make a bad movie. Nobody does. But judging by what he's done so far, the prospects seem dim. I don't share you're enthusiasm for his work. Your anticipatory elation at the prospects,however, makes me think it won't matter. You'll love it no matter what. I hope your girlfriend does too. Cheers.

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