The cultural response about the appointment of J.J. Abrams to the director’s chair for Star Wars: Episode VII, seems to be a begrudging, quasi-unanimous “makes sense, I guess.” Yet I would argue that this sort of half-excited, half-confused shoulder shrug from pop culture pundits and geek commentators alike actually sums up exactly why the decision is so terrible. Yes, I admit it! J.J Abrams is a logical choice. But, the idea of Abrams helming Star Wars, while likely to produce a movie that’s visually tantalizing, is boring beyond belief, to the point of being soulless. I have no doubt that the J.J. Abrams Star Wars: Episode VII will be exciting, stunning, and palpitation-inducing. I’m also fairly confident that its texture and essence will be exactly like his other work, which leads to the bad news:
The J.J. Abrams Star Wars will be too well made.
Making the case for why J.J. Abrams is a sound, reasonable choice to direct Star Wars: Episode VII isn’t too tricky, but it does have a bit of an ex post facto thing going on for it. When Star Trek came out in 2009, Abrams made it clear he was more of a Star Wars guy than a Star Trek guy, and as many have pointed out, it totally shows in his work. Star Trek (2009) is thematically not about science fiction, exploration, speculation about alien cultures, or any of the other nifty stuff that defines the spirit of Star Trek. Instead it’s a movie about destiny, good versus evil and unlikely heroes coming together. In other words, it’s the the same stuff that makes Star Wars awesome, but also what makes it really generic. I don’t have to point toward some sort of conspiracy to find evidence that Lucas employed archetypal characters and basic hero’s journey story arcs in Star Wars. The Joseph Campbell stuff as it relates to Star Wars has been pointed out, confirmed, and re-hashed to the point of nausea. Yes, we get it: Lucas (and some the folks who worked with him) have an awesome grasp of how most of us will react, psychologically speaking, to certain types of characters and story structures. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those structures have inherent value, nor are they intrinsically interesting. If we’re talking about pop science fiction/fantasy, the only thing we understand about it in relation to Jungian archetypes and all the mythology stuff is simply that IT WORKS.
So, if something works, don’t eject the warp core, right? Well, here’s where the ex posto facto problem comes in with Abrams. He did a little bit of a mash-up with Star Trek and it worked. He and his screenwriters churned out a really well-made, tightly functioning Hollywood blockbuster that looked slick as hell and evoked an overwhelming emotional response from the audience. It was also totally reliant upon nostalgia, familiar imagery which clearly resonated with fans, and appropriated themes taken from every single previous incarnation of the giant franchise. Slap a Star Wars-style story into the mix, and BOOM, you’ve got a hit. And making a hit is really, really hard, and J.J. Abrams is super-talented when it comes to making hits. But a hit is not a classic and as much as I really liked Star Trek, and will likely enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness, this stuff doesn’t approach the level of being classic nor memorable. J.J. Abrams is seen as the logical choice to direct Star Wars because he mashed-up Star Trek with Star Wars, so why not just give him Star Wars proper?
Just because he was able to sneak in a Star Wars pastiche inside of Star Trek doesn’t mean he’s the right person to do real Star Wars. Plus, he’s already done it. After Spielberg successfully proved Indiana Jones was more awesome than James Bond back in the 1980s, should Cubby Broccoli have called up Spielberg and said, “Yes, sure, now you can do Bond, too, because clearly, you kind of already did.” Would you have wanted Spielberg in charge of both Indiana Jones and James Bond? No! Because too much of the same texture is boring and bad for creativity in general.
So…what about the writers? A lot of us have heard that this awesome guy Michael Arndt is writing the screenplay for Star Wars: Episode VII. (Not to mention the fact that Orci and Kurtzman did a decent job with Star Trek, right?) Well yes, the director is the director and writers are the writers, but let’s get real. George Lucas didn’t write the damn screenplay for Return of the Jedi, but he’s all over that. Furthermore, it’s not like Disney robots aren’t totally “developing the story” with J.J. Abrams and Arndt. Lucas not being involved in Episode VII is positive from an entertainment/quality perspective, but it’s actually bad from an artistic perspective.
Folks like Lucas and Spielberg were pioneers for taking the pulpy stuff they loved from the past and mixing it up with their own ideas and artistic vision. This isn’t the case with a J.J. Abrams. He’s influenced by Lucas and Spielberg. Are “original” J.J. Abrams films like Cloverfield or Super 8 truly memorable, or even all that good? I would answer with a big “no.” These films certainly don’t suck, but I can’t make a strong argument for their artistic merit in terms of originality. Having J.J. Abrams’ signature texture all over Star Trek already makes Star Trek retroactively like Star Wars. Putting Abrams’ texture on Star Wars will make Star Wars into a parody of pastiche of a copy of…Star Wars.
In his stories and novels, Philip K. Dick often created characters who got really freaked out by tightly controlled media products being created for specific public consumption. In terms of pop culture, the J.J. Abrams brand reminds me less of storytelling and more of a product. Yes, I admit to liking fast food, or even gourmet-style cheeseburgers. Star Wars has always been a kind of fast food, but with just enough substance (like a side-salad that you can eat if you want). Star Trek, at least in its correct and ideal form, never was fast food. J.J. Abrams changed that, and now with Star Wars, I think he’s poised to take away the side-salad. In terms of movie-making chops he (and Arndt) are totally at the top of their game. But what we’re talking about here is—more or less—the technical aspects of movies, featuring very little substance at all.
The assembly is perfect, but the parts are not greater than the whole. This is the main fallacy with the praise of J.J. Abrams: just because he’s good at assembling something that looks the way it should, doesn’t mean it’s good.
In a documentary about the making of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, John Cleese pointed out that “the problem with filmmakers is they are too concerned with film.” For me, this means it shouldn’t matter how slick or technically well made a big movie is. We shouldn’t care if the boxes are being ticked off on the Joseph Campbell/Jungian archetype chart. We shouldn’t care too much about rapid fire editing or awesome cuts. Instead, we should hope for something new and interesting that might linger in our thoughts and consciousness for longer than we’re sitting in the movie theatre. The plots and themes of several of the more recent blockbuster movies are already pretty similar—do we really want them to all look the same too?
One can talk a lot of shit about how bad/flawed/annoying/delusional the Star Wars prequels were, but at least they certainly weren’t calculated and designed to appeal to exactly what the fans wanted. The flaws of the prequels prove their artistic integrity. Art should take chances, which is what Lucas was doing in 1977. But now, something like Star Wars is the status quo. And thanks to J.J. Abrams, that’s what Star Trek is now, too: a beautiful product that can do no wrong (technically speaking). If Star Wars (and Star Trek) were potential suitors for our affections, I’d argue that they’re too safe, too eager to make us happy. We happen to like nice movies, but, really, there are just not enough scoundrels in our life.
And J.J. Abrams is certainly not a scoundrel.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.