I spent all of last week annoying my friends on Facebook with my hate-boner for JJ Abrams. So let’s get this out of the way right now: I do not like JJ Abrams. I think he’s overrated as fuck, I think it’s bizarre that people keep backing dump trucks full of money up to his house, and I think he’s really bad at making movies and televisions shows and probably his morning bowl of cereal.
Mocking JJ Abrams might seem like an odd thing to do in the week leading up to the release of Star Wars The Force Awakens. It might seem to the uninitiated that I was doing it because I wanted to be that guy. This is not actually the case. I was planning on seeing the new Star Wars opening weekend, if for no other reason than to immunize myself from the unavoidable spoilers. In truth I wasn’t planning on it at all, except for the first thing I saw on Monday morning.
That is the worst thing that’s ever happened to Star Trek, hands down. It also somehow damages the Beastie Boys and insults two different film franchises with the line “From the Director of Fast & Furious.” I didn’t think it was possible to insult the movies Vin Diesel keeps making to keep his dreams of a Riddickverse alive, but here we are.
My big beef with JJ Abrams all week was basically how he’s an asshole who doesn’t understand Star Trek and gives no shits about the fans of Star Trek. The fact is, though, that I could (and, probably, have) said the same thing about Rick Berman and Brannon Braga and yet I haven’t spent weeks at a time mocking those douchebags on Facebook.
I have now seen Star Wars The Force Awakens. I have also hate-watched Star Trek Into Darkness because it was on FX and I was out of random episodes of America Unearthed to laugh at. I have many, many thoughts about JJ Abrams now. Also, I’ve been referring to him as Jar Jar Abrams since Friday. I shamelessly stole that from someone else.
Let’s start at the beginning (for me): Lost. Lost was, for a couple seasons, one of the best things going on TV. It was an intoxicating mystery that, in many ways, helped launch the current golden age of television. It came up right as hanging out on the internet and discussing pop culture was going completely mainstream. This was the early days of Facebook and the rise of blogs and the point where hanging out on message boards trading fan theories was stepping out of the realm of nerds on Usenet into the realm of everyone’s mother and crazy uncle. I think this is why JJ Abrams got the reputation he did. Lost was that one pup culture artifact that happened to be in the exact right place at the exact right time with the exact right formula to capture the cultural zeitgeist. Had Lost happened a few years earlier it would have been a blip. Had it happened a few years later it would have been lost in discussions of Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, and Breaking Bad.
Lost is now a footnote because in the end it sucked. JJ Abrams knew how to start a mystery but had no idea how to finish it. He also didn’t give a shit about that, because by that time other people had taken over and he’d gone off to do Fringe, which was basically marketed as “The guy who did Lost is doing The X-Files.” Also, it sucked. Then he did Undercovers. Oh, you don’t remember that? Neither does anyone else.
Somewhere around there Paramount backed a dump truck full of money up to his house and asked him to do Star Trek. It made sense at the time, I suppose. Star Trek was basically a dead franchise and Abrams was the hot hand on the sci-fi scene. The fact of the matter is that the first Star Trek movie in the JJverse wasn’t really that bad. It wasn’t particularly Trek, but it wasn’t particularly bad.
It did begin to expose the truth about JJ Abrams that I’d come to realize somewhere in the middle of Lost. In short, JJ Abrams knows absolutely nothing about science. Part of the reason that Lost fell apart and Fringe never got off the ground is because JJ Abrams could never come up with a believable scientific explanation for anything that happened. It was kind of okay in the TV shows because the entire point was that the things that happened defied scientific explanation, but whenever he tried to use real science to explain what was being broken on the shows it was laughably bad. Star Trek is a different beast because while Star Trek often falls back on technobabble it still tries to honor hard sci-fi concepts.
JJ Trek didn’t even try to understand that. First of all, the central plot is impossible to take seriously. Basically, a star somewhere went supernova and then, somehow, destroyed the central star of the Romulus system. This is scientifically impossible. Period. End of story. A star going supernova is immediately catastrophic to its own solar system. It might then push out enough radiation to eventually be really bad for nearby star systems, but that’s something that would happen years or decades later, depending on distance. The Star Trek reboot had Spock racing against time to save Romulus from a catastrophic event no one saw coming. Then there was the matter of Scotty’s miracle transporter that allowed him to transport from a planet onto the Enterprise which was moving at warp speed. No. Just…no. Transporters in Star Trek had a range of a few tens or hundreds of kilometers between relatively fixed points except in the most extreme circumstances. Scotty’s transporter could transport matter a few light years onto a target moving many times faster than the speed of light.
It was some time after the Star Trek reboot came out that news broke JJ Abrams was getting the helm of Star Wars. I still remember my initial reaction and it was fairly positive. All of the things that made JJ Abrams a lousy choice for Star Trek actually made him a decent choice for Star Wars. Star Wars is not and never has been science fiction in the way Star Trek is. Star Wars is mythology with lasers. JJ Abrams tells mythological tales that use sci-fi elements.
It’s here that my major problems with JJ Abrams begin, though. Sometime after the news of JJ Abrams’ new role in Star Wars broke I saw Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness. This is where I began to realize that JJ Abrams is actually a really bad director.
Let’s start with Super 8. It basically sets out to answer the question, “What if we re-made ET, but ET was a big scary monster instead of a cuddly little dude?” That’s really all it is. Super 8 just re-makes ET but doesn’t do it as well. If it were anybody other than JJ Abrams who made that movie the headlines would have been “Director makes bad ET ripoff.” Somehow JJ Abrams got away with it, though.
Star Trek Into Darkness, meanwhile, pissed me off literally from the first 30 seconds I knew about it. I still remember seeing the first trailer released online with the big, central mystery of who Benedict Cumberbatch’s Big Bad was and realizing before the trailer was over that Cumberbatch was Khan Noonien Singh. Abrams could have gone anywhere and done anything but all he did was remake Wrath of Khan. But then he remade it so, so much worse. There’s a dumb plot of going to war with the Klingons and the Enterprise takes on the Reliant’s role of the smaller, weaker ship that has to outsmart the big, powerful warship. There’s also some bog-standard JJ Abrams awful science, this time in the form of a transporter that allows Noonedict CumberKhan to transport from San Francisco to the Klingon homeworld of Qo’nos in the matter of seconds. This is universe-breaking stuff that Abrams just basically ignores because he’s too fucking lazy to come up with something believable, like, say, Khan transporting to a goddamn ship that then hauls ass for Qo’nos. It also contains a lot of JJ Abrams’ signature references to things fans will get as a stand-in for actually creating something fans will like. For instance, when Kirk, Spock, and Uhura try to sneak into Klingon space it’s in a ship that the Enterprise apparently confiscated from Harvey Mudd and a Tribble makes for an important plot point. Also Carol Marcus is in the movie and gratuitously prances about in her underwear for some reason.
The Star Trek Beyond trailer, meanwhile, looks like it’s just The Search for Spock to Star Trek Into Darkness’s Wrath of Khan. But it looks more like it belongs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than anything. Because Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers are hot shit right now and Paramount doesn’t care about anything but dollar signs.
My whole point here, though, is that Abrams has two gears: original ideas that are all promise with no payoff or blatant rip-offs of something someone else already did better. The latter category is fine and can give us some great stories. For instance, there was a little film in the late ‘70s called Star Wars that was created by a man named George Lucas who was just ripping off Akira Kurosawa and some other directors. Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career of making films that just say, “Hey, remember when so-and-so made that one movie? Wasn’t that awesome?”
JJ Abrams is just following in that grand tradition. The problem is that JJ Abrams is really, incredibly fucking bad at it. However, to explain why I need to talk about Star Wars The Force Awakens. So, please, don’t scroll below the footnotes if you don’t want to see spoilers. If you’ve seen it or don’t care feel free to scroll down.
He puts the milk in first and then claims it’s because that’s how Spielberg does it. But he pours it right up to the rim. Then he pours a bag of Reese’s Pieces in.
To the uninitiated: the first season or so of Star Trek: The Next Generation was pretty much awful. Gene Roddenberry was dying and definitely going through a Howard Hughes phase at the end. Berman stepped in and basically saved the show from season 2 or 3 on and made it great. Then he and Braga started Deep Space 9, which was pretty much awful for the first couple seasons. Then they decided they’d rather do Voyager and handed the show over to Ira Steven Behr, if I recall. After that it got really good. Voyager, meanwhile, occupies the same space in my mind as the Star Wars prequels. Berman and Braga then did Enterprise, which had a lot of potential and a lot of stupidity, an absolutely inexcusable third season, and finally had a good season in its fourth and final season when they handed the show over to Manny Coto. But that’s just inside baseball, since no one knows or cares who Rick Berman and Brannon Braga are, anyway.
I can no longer take Ancient Aliens, so America Unearthed is my current stupid Bullshit Channel conspiracy show of choice. It follows the adventures of forensic geologist Scott Wolter as he tries to prove that the Knights Templar made it to America and get The History Channel to fund his vacations to Europe and China.
All in all, I’ve realized I fucked up by not being a crazy conspiracy theorist. Apparently you can get TV networks to pay you to travel to really cool parts of the world and all you have to do is look like an idiot on TV for an hour a week. That seems like a great trade-off.
There’s one episode where Scott Wolter tries to prove the Gavin Menzies theory that China discovered America. It doesn’t directly reference Gavin Menzies, but I nearly had an aneurysm anyway.
I can’t entirely hold this one against Abrams, as he’s just Executive Producer. Paramount brought in the guy from Fast & Furious to direct and nearly gave poor Simon Pegg an aneurysm by forcing him to do re-writes because his original scripts were “too Trek-y.” I feel bad for Simon Pegg.
Star Wars the Force Awakens Spoilers begin below.
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Okay, I feel I’ve done my due diligence. So we’re going to talk about JJ Abrams’ incursion into Star Wars.
First of all, I know that the House of Mouse threw out the Extended Universe when it bought Star Wars from Lucasfilm. That’s fine. I am familiar with the Extended Universe and think it would have been awesome to see Timothy Zahn’s trilogy as the base story for JJ Abram’s incursion into Star Wars but also understood it was extremely unlikely we’d see it. I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is what we actually got.
All Abrams did was mash together Episodes IV and V and call it a day. I cannot stress this enough. That is the entirety of what happened with Star Wars Episode VII.
For one thing, in the opening crawl we’re informed that there are now three factions: the Empire-esque First Order, the new Republic, and the Leia Organa Solo-led Resistance. Why is there a Resistance? We don’t really know. It’s just there and it’s General Leia and a couple dozen X-Wings on a secret base. We’re also informed that there’s a Resistance agent trying to find the location of Luke Skywalker.
So we go to the planet Jakku. Where we meet a hotshot pilot who has just gotten a bit of secret information. Stormtroopers show up. Our pilot friend puts the information in BB-8, which is this movie’s R2-D2, and sends BB-8 off across a desert planet on its own. Anyone who doesn’t immediately have flashbacks to Leia putting the Death Star plans into R2-D2 and ejecting R2-D2 and C-3PO to Tatooine has never seen the original Star Wars movie. It’s the same goddamn scene. Jakku, just in case you miss the parallels, also has moisture farms like Tatooine and its own Jawa analogs. It’s also eventually where Rey, Finn, and BB-8 just so happen to steal the Millennium Falcon to escape from the New Order.
In the interim we meet Kylo Renn, the Big Bad, who’s introduced exactly like Darth Vader in the first movie. It quickly becomes obvious that he’s Han Solo’s son because JJ Abrams has never met a mystery he can’t telegraph from a mile away. This is a huge problem, by the way. In the first big fight scene one of the characters tells Kylo Renn he knows what his real identity is and it seems like this big, fascinating mystery…right up until the next time we see Kylo where we’re told who his father is. At that point I guess there could be a mystery as to the mother, but, really, who could it possibly be? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.
Also, Kylo Renn is a shitty big bad. I hate to say this, but he’s way more prequel Anakin Skywalker than Darth Vader. He whines, he obviously has an inferiority complex compared to the movie’s Grand Moff Tarkin equivalent, and we see him throw multiple temper tantrums on screen. He’s a terrible character and by the time we get to the last big fight I found myself wishing they’d Darth Maul him away at the end. Seriously, though, Star Wars can only go as far as the villains and if the villain is a whiny little shit there’s nothing to talk about. Kylo Renn is a whiny little shit.
So they try to escape from the Empire, erm, New Order, but the hyperdrive fails. Which is exactly like the asteroid field sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, right down to the Millennium Falcon getting swallowed by something much bigger, but in this case it’s a giant freighter crewed by Han Solo and Chewbacca, who just so happen to show up to set up a long action sequence while they’re all literally in the same system as a goddamn Star Destroyer that has a vested interest in tracking our heroes because, again, JJ Abrams knows fuck-all about how space works.
They then take the Millennium Falcon to a bar run by Moz Kantana, because it would be totally weird if they went to the Mos Eisley Cantina. There’s another giant set piece battle. During said battle the New Order fires off its current superweapon, which is a giant laser built into the Death Planet. The Death Planet is the Death Star, but basically dug into a planet and, therefore, on a much larger scale. Because that’s how Star Wars works. The Death Planet fires a big-ass laser that somehow can be seen instantaneously from multiple planets across the galaxy, including the one that our plucky heroes are on, and then somehow splits into 5 beams that destroy 5 different planets/moons in a single system. I will admit that this immediately took me out of the movie because, seriously, how the goddamn fuck does that work? The answer is that it only works in a universe controlled by JJ Abrams.
Scientifically speaking, however, even if that were possible it sure as shit wouldn’t be visible from another planet in another system at the same time. For me what it actually did was make the universe too small. It basically forced me to imagine that the superweapon, the planets and moons that made up the Republic, and the random planet where our heroes were fighting for their lives were all in the same star system. This wasn’t a galaxy-wide conflict. It was a fight for control of a single star.
And so but anyway, after the scientifically impossible superweapon (which draws its power by pulling 100% of the energy from a star, by the way. This does not, apparently, exhaust the star, as the weapon doesn’t seem to have any sort of drive capability and they charge the weapon enough for 2 shots during the movie) destroys the Republic by blowing up a half dozen planets/moons in a single star system and zero warships our heroes realize they need to go to the Resistance’s secret base. They end up on not-Yavin 4 where Leia is leading the Resistance and its totally-not-Rogue-Squadron. This, again, is a JJ Abrams-level fail. He cannot conceptualize a universe where the Galactic Republic is fighting on more-or-less equal footing against the remnants of the post-Return of the Jedi Empire, so he makes this New Order the new Empire, destroys the Republic with a line of dialog, and now it’s the Resistance against the New Order, which is the Rebellion against the Empire and we don’t have to actually think about it.
This is actually a place where Star Wars the Force Awakens fails miserably to match up to Lucas’s prequel trilogy. As bad as that trilogy was Lucas at least had the ability to imagine what it would look like to see a galaxy at war against itself. We saw the Trade Federation and Old Republic build navies and throw them at each other. That’s what the new Star Wars movies should look like. The New Republic has built a navy and is trying to drive the remnants of the Empire from their strongholds. Instead we have the New Order with a single Star Destroyer, some TIE fighters, and a superweapon against the Millennium Falcon and a dozen X-Wings. That’s the same damn movie George Lucas made in 1977 with a budget of ten bucks and no CGI. There’s even a gratuitous Trench Run sequence because JJ Abrams has never met a reference to a better movie he can’t flog for all it’s worth.
So here we come to it. JJ Abrams made a Star Wars movie in the tradition of the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies. Which is to say he made an okay movie that used up all of his good ideas and still had major problems. The Force Awakens isn’t terrible, but it’s definitely the canary in the coal mine for whatever comes next much like the Star Trek reboot presaged Into Darkness. It’s not that JJ Abrams can’t recognize good movies, it’s just that he thinks making references and stealing the plot from good movies means that his movies are good. They’re not. They’re derivative and referential.
So I’m going to call it now. While we’re not all getting our hate on for JJ Abrams destroying Star Wars like we did back when Lucas shat out The Phantom Menace that won’t last long. The Star Trek reboot didn’t shit all over the Star Trek legacy, after all. But Into Darkness did and holy shit does Beyond look terrible so far. Just remember that I told you this would happen right around the time we all first see the trailer for Star Wars Episode VIII and it’s about how Boba Fett is building an even bigger Death Planet and Rey, Finn, and Chewbacca have to join forces with the Smurf people of Rodne to stop it.