Help Me, J.J. Abrams. You’re My Only Hope
Well, you weren’t my only hope. I had lots of options, but I could certainly have done worse. And by “I” I mean adults who are obsessed with movies about cute robots and ray guns.
There was a great disturbance in the Internet this week when Lost creator and Star Trek rebooter J.J. Abrams was hired to direct the forthcoming Star Wars movie, an event that singlehandedly snuffed out the once-promising “Who is going to direct the new Star Wars movie?” cyber industry. Now half of the entertainment page at Huffington Post (the non-Kim and Kanye half) will be blank. Once they play out the Joss Whedon SNUBBED! angle, that is.
Indeed, even I had to scrap the Star Wars piece I was working on, which I planned to call “Which J.J. would direct the best Star Wars movie?” Good Times co-star and alleged comedian J.J. Walker? 1980s MTV veejay J.J. Jackson? J.J., that half-albino kid I went to school with? I don’t remember his last name, but he seemed like a nice guy.
Turns out Lucasfilm went with the right double J. In his previous projects, Abrams has proven to be adept at balancing humor and action, working with complex special effects, and wringing as much characterization and tension out of a movie about spaceships as anyone can. His films and shows are crowd-pleasers, which is what you want in a summer blockbuster. If I were Kathleen Kennedy hunting for someone to take the reins on Star Wars – Episode 7, J.J. Abrams would have been at the top of my list.
So, naturally, IMDb’s message boards and other movie sites exploded with outrage upon the announcement, replacing the aforementioned director-speculation industry with a grassroots movement aimed at proving that millions of grown men can still throw infantile temper tantrums. You’d think people who spend so much time obsessing over movies would have the slightest concept of how the industry works and what a director does.
For the uncertain amongst us, a director takes the $250 million budget Disney gives him and does his best to turn out a commercially viable product, on time and under cost, that puts asses in theater seats. Perhaps it’s the marketing department at Disney’s job to get the butts in the seats once, but it’s the director’s job to get those same asses back for a second and third go and to drag their friends who haven’t seen it yet. That’s how film companies stay solvent: getting us to watch their movies.
Perhaps the most common complaint around the ‘net is that Abrams “already ruined Star Trek, and now he’s going to ruin Star Wars.” Now, just because I’ve had girlfriends doesn’t mean I’m not a closeted Star Wars and Star Trek geek. I know both universes and storylines, so I am comfortable saying that the majority of Star Trek episodes and movies are bad, and Star Wars was ruined as soon as someone said the word “Ewok” back in the early 1980s.
You remember those old Star Trek flicks when each supporting character would get an individual introductory camera shot, and how every time something emotional happened the camera would pan across the group so each supporting character could react melodramatically, and how, for wide shots, the cast would be staged in hierarchical order, with the three main characters in the middle, and the fourth and fifth billed people on either side, and so on. People complain because J.J. Abrams didn’t do those kinds of things in his reboot.
You know why he didn’t? Because those shots are hokey garbage that have no business appearing in a well-directed film. The original Star Trek actors who played those supporting characters were notorious for complaining that William Shatner acted like he was more important than the rest of them. This is what happens when a low-rent director kowtows to die-hard fans’ expectations instead of aiming for a mass audience: He teaches actors whose job it is to say, “They’re jamming our frequencies, sir” to bitch about the star getting more screen time and attention. Seriously, can you imagine Ms. Moneypenny making a big stink in the press because James Bond thinks he’s the star of The Spy Who Loved Me?
Yeah, but what about Abrams making his Star Trek reboot so… populist? He went for the laughs and crowd-pleasing gags instead of staying true to the serious tone of the earlier films. For an example of a serious Trek movie, recall Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when they went back to 1980s San Francisco and didn’t know how to use computers or money, to repeated comic effect. And when Spock did his nerve pinch on a punk rocker for playing a boom box too loud. Ha ha ha. How about that slapstick hospital chase? Or the hundred other “fish out of water” gags that comprised 90% of that script.
Adjusted for inflation, that one was the most successful Trek movie of them all. It was the time Paramount said, “Screw the nerds. Let’s make a movie normal people want to see.” It worked then, and it worked when Abrams did his reboot in 2009.
As for the “ruining Star Wars” argument, it is hardly necessary for me to point out that the three Star Wars prequels released between 1999 and 2005 are some of the most hated films of all time and, by almost any measure other than financial, are grave disappointments. I’m not sure how you can sink a ship rusting on the bottom of the ocean.
For laughs, let’s pretend it’s 1978 and Irvin Kershner has just been hired to helm The Empire Strikes Back, the sequel to the world’s biggest blockbuster. Only this time, the Internet exists. I can almost see the IMDb message board. “They hired the guy who directed The Eyes of Laura Mars??? What business does he have doing a space opera with robots and light saber fights? Nothing happens in that Laura Mars movie. It doesn’t even take place on Mars! It’s just some chick having bad dreams and talking to a psychiatrist. Worst. Director. Ever.”
Then someone brings up Loving, Kershner’s drama about a guy tempted to cheat on his wife. “Gad! Empire is going to have flat lighting and be set in a SoHo apartment! How much you want to bet that one character says ‘I love you,’ and the other one replies, ‘I know’?”
Relax, Internet people and man-children everywhere. J.J. Abrams is going to do right by Star Wars, if one recognizes that Disney invested four billion dollars in a commercial property with the expectation that they will make it back someday. Instead of freaking out, take a deep breath, find your Jedi chi, and ask yourself “What would Yoda do?”