Friday, January 25, 2013

J.J. Abrams is directing Star Wars Episode VII. A look at how the surprising politics of Star Trek may bleed into Star Wars.

So, it's officially official.  Disney just put out a press release, which means I can write about it without fear of it being debunked moments after publication.  J.J. Abrams is indeed directing Star Wars: Episode VII.  And what do I have to say about that?  Well... not much really.  There is indeed a part of me that feels that it is wholly inappropriate and/or unnatural that the same director will be behind new Star Trek *and* new Star Wars movies.  Back in the old days, I believed in the perhaps simplistic idea that every franchise would get their own special director.  Sam Raimi had Spider-Man, Bryan Singer had X-Men, and Chris Nolan had Batman.  Obviously that idea no longer exists. Bryan Singer can helm X-Men and then go on to attempt to reboot Superman with Superman Returns before taking back the X-Men franchise from Matthew Vaughn, who is now rumored to be among Warner's top choices for a Justice League movie.  Even with more and more franchises being rebooted and/or changing hands, it seems like an awfully incestuous little circle, with only a handful of directors seemingly ending up helming these major properties.  Say what you will about Marvel, but they deserve kudos for thinking outside the box on pretty much every major film thus far when it comes to a director.

Putting aside J.J. Abrams's work on Star Trek, he is the prototypical safe choice.  He is absolutely competent yet a relatively uninspired cinematic storyteller.  He has the geek cred but he won't rock the boat.  Frankly I was far more excited last week at the quickly debunked rumor of Zack Snyder directing a stand-alone action picture set in the Star Wars universe than I am at the comparatively bland Abrams helming Episode VII.  Snyder is a potent visual stylist with a keen eye toward crafting creative and inventive large-scale action sequences and the ideas behind Sucker Punch are indeed challenging even if you don't feel that the film pulls off its intended commentary.  Disney has too much at stake for too much of interest to occur in the 'official' Star Wars episodes beyond visceral action and spectacle, so even the angry liberal politics of the prequels would arguably be considered too much for these official episodes (after all, they have to play in China too, remember?).   This isn't a swipe at the potential quality of a J.J. Abrams Star Wars film, as I imagine that Disney will make sure that we end up with a solid action-adventure picture come hell-or-high water (again, they have too much at stake to strike out at their first at-bat).  Abrams is surely a better choice that the likes of Jon Favreau or Rob Marshall, and I'm frankly a little relieved that Disney didn't just hire some music video director with absolutely no credits to his name.

But theoretical side-projects would be where the real risk taking might occur, both in terms of storytelling and ideas at play.  That would have been where we might have gotten our 'Wouldn't it be cool if X directed a Star Wars film?' fantasies.  Tim Burton, M. Night Shyamalan, Kathryn Bigelow, Terrance Malick, Sophia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, etc, etc.  Is there anyone out there who found themselves hoping that they'd see J.J. Abrams directing a Star Wars film?  Oh you might say he already did with the 2009 Star Trek, but you'd only be half right.  Yes he upped the energy and emphasized character relationships among young adventurers in a way that brought to mind the original Star Wars trilogy.  But the film's odd mix of manifest destiny (Kirk is absolutely entitled to be the heroic Captain of the USS Enterprise despite being an arrogant cheater and general cowboy jack-ass) and distrust of authority (Starfleet is helpless to prevent the destruction of Vulcan and very-nearly the destruction of Earth if not for the rebellious actions of Kirk) isn't just at odds with Star Trek (where Starfleet was a shining example of governmental institutions bringing about general utopia and an 'ahead of its time' monument to positive progressive change) but the relatively liberal/progressive nature of all six Star Wars films.

The initial Star Wars film was a rebuttal to the pessimistic national mood following the Vietnam war and Watergate, an intentional throwback to a theoretical time when the sides of good and evil were clearly defined.  And Return of the Jedi is pretty much a giant Vietnam war analogy, with the indigenous Ewoks fending off the heavily-armed Empire with just sticks and logs at their disposal.  The original Star Trek series operated as an antithesis to the Cold War paranoia and rampant racism of the period, presenting a future where people of both genders, all skin colors, and all ethnicity worked side by side to maintain peace in the universe.  J.J. Abrams's Star Trek basically served as a parable for the 2000 election, where the arrogant reckless cowboy (Kirk/Bush) successfully staged a coup de-taut against the cold, logical, and hyper-intelligent Captain (Spock/Gore) and ended up saving the day as a result.  What we've seen of Star Trek Into Darkness seems to further play on the idea that Starfleet is an ineffective, if not outright dangerous, government institution, with only the individualistic James T. Kirk standing between a possibly righteously indignant Benedict Cumberbatch and total destruction. I don't know what Abrams's politics are and the 'individual > institution' ideology may very well have come from noted conspiracy theorist Roberto Orci (who wrote both Star Trek films), but Star Wars and Star Trek were always about the combination of talented individuals  and the organizations behind them.

Luke may have been destined to be a Jedi, but he had to earn his place among the Rebellion.  And Captain Kirk may have been a swashbuckler and an occasional rule-breaker, but he was a proud member of Starfleet and earned his stripes without having a time-traveling Spock explaining how he should overthrow his ship's authority due to some perceived 'destiny'.  Even when Lucas's films focused on corruption and/or incompetence in the Republic, it was always the individuals who were faltering rather than the organization itself.  Whether or not this matters in terms of the film's quality is debatable. I'd argue it's a big part of why Star Trek falters so hard in its third act, with old Spock basically having to instruct young Kirk exactly how to take his rightful place in the universe.  Star Trek Into Darkness is obviously pretty entertaining and/or successful in its goals if Disney was willing to give Abrams the keys to the Empire.  But it's worth wondering how much this new Star Wars film is going to feel a part of the prior six films.  If Abrams takes the same social/political route with Star Wars as he did with Star Trek, then we'll end up with two iconic sci-fi series that traded in their "united we stand" for an upgraded coat of "manifest destiny".

Much of this is speculative and frankly much of this may turn out to be irrelevant come summer 2015.  All that arguably matters for most is to see what Abrams can do with a genuinely good screenplay (something he hasn't had yet in his big-screen escapades) and whether he can make Star Wars a relevant franchise for the third time in just under 40 years, just as he did for Star Trek back in 2009.  And now the rumor mill will be filled with potential contenders to take Abrams's place on the inevitable Star Trek 3 (unless Into Darkness ends with everybody dying and/or the initial film's time-travel mischief being undone).  Even if the new Star Wars films end up being merely kick-ass action adventures, I suppose that should be enough, and there's always The Clone Wars for more introspective looks at the various moralities of the Star Wars universe (although I'm a little behind on season five, as the god-awful Darth Maul resurrection silliness cooled my enthusiasm for a time).  Abrams will be fine because Disney won't let him fail and Disney will now get to plot what massive franchise to buy next.  I don't care how much we see lens flares and I hope that Abrams continues the notion of Star Wars films pushing cinematic technology ever further each time.  Hell, I hope Lucasfilm uses the opportunity to, I dunno, invent a 60fps IMAX Red HD 3D camera.

But it is indeed curious that a Star Trek film marketed as tapping into a post-Obama optimism ended up being a parable for the righteous triumph of George W. Bush, which in turn took a famously liberal/lefty franchise in a more conventionally conservative direction.  Will the genuine leftist bent of George Lucas's universe survive the same kind of transformation that Gene Roddenberry's creation underwent four years ago?  Does it matter to you (or Lucas) if it doesn't?  Is it merely enough that we're getting new Star Wars films and that yet another generation will thrill to an original franchise that has somewhat survived and mostly thrived in one medium or another for 35 years?  Will we ever be able to come to terms with the notion of the same person directing both iconic franchises?  Now your turn to vent accordingly.

Scott Mendelson                   


Martin said...

That you can, in the same post, argue that there's a paralell between Kirk/Bush and Spock/Gore in J.J.'s Star Trek, and claim Snyder (who hasn't directed one good film so far) would've been a better choice to play in the Star Wars universe, honestly baffles me beyond words.

Scott Mendelson said...

Dawn of the Dead is a terrific and character-driven horror drama with strong work from the likes of Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames. I'm not an overall fan of 300 but it's a visual wonder. Watchmen is arguably the best possible adaptation of a truly unadaptable comic book. Legends of the Guardians is one of the most beautiful animated movies of the last several years, and it's a potent commentary on the lionization of soldiers and glorification of war. I've said my piece on the challenging and creative Sucker Punch and even if you don't like the film the action scenes are exactly the sort of big-scale triumph that we want from a Star Wars films.

RyanB said...

"Starfleet was a shining example of governmental institutions
bringing about general utopia and an 'ahead of its time' monument to
positive progressive change."

I don't recall many episodes from any of the series where starfleet fit this description. I also don't buy the premise that Abrams's Star Trek portrays Starfleet and Kirk in a fundamentally different way. Starfleet may be a shining city on the hill, but when the shit hit the fan, it was always the individual that saved the day. In fact, I more often recall Starfleet being shown as a slow, inefficient bureaucracy (albeit with good intentions). Furthermore, most Star Trek captains seem to used the "it's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission" philosophy when dealing with Starfleet. Starfleet is what it is: a progressive force for positive change, which occasionally needs its ass saved by a few good men.

I think that is why Star Trek worked. It struck a nice balance between utopia and reckless cowboy. Perhaps Abrams leaned a bit heavy on the reckless cowboy side (entire worlds were blowing up after all), but I wouldn't say he pulled a 180 in regards to Star Trek's political tradition as you seem to suggest.

All that said, I'm just hoping Abrams can improve upon Lucas's fascination with god-awful dialog. It's time for Star Wars to grow up a bit and get rid of most of the campiness. I'm tired of watching a bunch of superhuman emotional robots who are only programmed to kick ass and speak in Rodney-Dangerfield-esque one liners.

Scott Mendelson said...

I would argue that this makes the rather pointed political parable found in Star Trek all the more interesting and worthy of discussion. It is of course possible to have certain ideologies that extend to one side of the political isle without expressively supporting that ideology's respective political party (Log Cabin Republicans Reagan Democrats, etc.). I could very well be wrong about the above, but it's something that's been on my mind for four years and this seemed a worthwhile segue way into discussing it.

Brandon Peters said...

Just wanna throw in that the Kobyashi Maru test was not something JJ came up with or had anything to do with. That test and its result (Kirk cheating to pass) was a big proponent of Wrath of Khan. In AbramsTrek, we were moreso seeing the even take place. Kirk was always kinda an arrogant bugger. JJ's take may have put this a tad more as a driving tool, but its nothing new.

Martin said...

I forgot about Dawn of the Dead. Credit where credit is due: that was a really good film. My bad on that one.
I don't agree with the others. And I found Sucker Punch's action scenes to be unrealistic and unengaging (even though I have fond memories of the film, since it was then that I was introduced to my actual girflriend).
Too much slow motion does not make good action scenes, though, and gosh, does that man abuse it!

(it's probably unnecessary to add, but I totally want to be clear that I'm not being confrontational... I love your blog and value your opinions, even in those cases I do not agree)


Related Posts with Thumbnails