JJ Abram’s movie “Super 8” is an underrated masterpiece. It leads me to believe that he actually “gets it”. But then, everything else JJ has done convinces me he really doesn’t. He destroyed Star Trek, and I’m convinced he’ll do the same to Star Wars. I thought I’d list the things he almost certainly gets wrong in the “Star Wars: Force Awakens” movie.
The movie hangs on spoilers
The original Star Wars was known for the way that people repeatedly saw it in theatres. There were no spoilers. Sure, they blow up the Death Star, but knowing this ahead of time detracts not a whit from the movie. In Episode I, most of us know that Palpatine is the Emperor. Knowing this spoiler doesn’t detract from the movie, but adds to it. Sure, the original series had the “Luke I am your father” spoiler, but knowing that ahead of time detracts nothing from the movies.
But JJ loves the big reveal. It’s like Lost, where season after season we didn’t know what was going on. Worse yet, it’s like his second Star Trek movie, where we weren’t supposed to know it was really Khan. It makes watching the movie a second time a chore.
My bet is this: we won’t be watching Force Awakens multiple times, unlike the original sextology.
It’s just one episode in an epic saga
As everyone knows, Lucas created a huge, epic story, and then told only one episode in the original movie. This requires two disciplines. The first is that you create that epic story, and think through all the various threads. The second, and harder discipline, is that you don’t tell the epic story. Instead, let the audience imagine what that might be. Luke killed womprats with his T16, but we never actually learned what a womprat or T16 looked like.
I doubt that JJ has created the epic story that Lucas did, but more importantly, I don’t think he has the discipline to restrict which parts he tells. JJ loves movie masturbation, showing us everything that’s in his head, not guiding our imaginations as Lucas did. The only time he hides things is behind excessive lens flar
Many believe the good vs. evil in the original movie was black and white, literally, with Darth Vader wearing black and Luke Skywalker wearing white. In fact, it was more nuanced than that. Luke is excited by the Rebellion, but not because he really shares their aims, but because it’s interesting. In fact, Luke wants to attend the Imperial Academy in order to become a pilot, leaving it ambiguous which side he’d fight for. Han Solo is both an evil smuggler (who shoots first, damnit!) and has a change of heart that saves the day at the end.
In most movies, “evil” is simplistic, we never learn its motivations, other than evil is just what the bad guys do. In Lucas’s Star Wars, “evil” is complex, whether it’s Grand Moff Tarking squabbling with his advisors, or Palpatine’s struggle to become emperor.
Indeed, the entire point of the series is that we aren’t sure which side we are rooting for. The Jedi council has become hopelessly corrupt, and pretty much deserved what it got. In the first movies, we are rooting for the side of the Republic against those evil separatists – only to find the Republic becoming the Empire that we root against in the later movies.
JJ may have nuance. Apparently, one of the heroes is a former storm trooper. But I’m hoping for more. I want Luke wielding the Dark Side. Instead of remnants of the empire being the bad guys, I want the victorious Rebellion of the first movies to have become tyrannical overlords. I want good vs. evil to not be determined by which side you happen to be on (us vs. them), but your core principles that are inviolate. Action should be driven by the fact that your side changes its principle to suit its desires, which makes them become out-of-step with your own fixed principles.
It’s not an action movie
Sure, Star Wars has lots of light saber duels, but ultimately, it’s not an action flic, but a thinking flic. The tension is that action is always on the periphery, ready to break out, even when nothing special is happening. It’s like when they go to Mos Eisly to get passage off planet, calmly getting a drink at a bar and negotiating with a smuggler. Action is ready to break out at any moment, especially with storm troopers breathing down your neck, so there is constant tension -- but the action that does happen is brief.
Or, in the prequels, there is a lot of time spent debating crap in the senate, even while action continues to happen on Naboo. We don't see the action to know that it's happening.
But JJ doesn’t do “thinking” well. That’s how he ruined Star Trek, removing all the deep thoughts by Gene Roddenberry about the future, and converting the franchise into a cheap gimmicky sci-fi action flic fully of explosions.
You see that in the trailers. The original Episode I trailer, while promising action, also promised deep thinking pauses. The Force Awakens trailers promise little but action.
OMG the Tropes
A trope is like a cliche, something that movies overuse (see TVtropes.com). A master filmmaker like Lucas knows that he audience is familiar with common tropes, so he only has to hint at a trope in order to use it. Joss Whedon is a another master at using tropes well in TV/film.
It's like when Luke arrives in Leia's cell "I'm here to rescue you". Yes, that's a boring "guy rescues girl" trope, but then everything after that point happens nothing like the trope, with Leia taking control and rescuing the hapless party from themselves.
Everything in Star Wars is a trope. You are supposed to draw the lines back to Kurosawa or WW II movies. And you are supposed to appreciate how Lucas didn't simply copy them, but morphed those tropes into a wholly original and new film.
JJ, on the other hand, is like most filmmakers who simply repeats the trope, adding nothing to it. Watching his Star Trek movies was painful, as he reused trope after trope. It's like he decided James T. Kirk was a rebel, then consulted TVtropes.com for all the stupid rebel tropes he could stick in the movie.
It's a franchise, damnit
Lucas famously got rich off the first Star Wars not from the movie itself, but from the merchandising. The movie is only one part of a larger franchise. It's the franchise that's the money maker, not any particular movie.
TV shows get it. Some shows are bad, but exist not to be watched by themselves, but to service the larger story arc. That's why some of the original Star Trek movies were flops -- but yet were essential to the overall franchise. Sure, the first movie with Vger was high concept art that didn't work well with audiences, but at the same time, was essential to establishing Star Trek among fans.
My fear is that JJ Abrams wants this movie to be a big hit, sacrificing everything else in the franchise. That's what he did to the Star Trek movies, creating sci fi action flics that did nothing to service the larger Star Trek universe, exploiting the fan base rather than servicing the fan base.
The Force Awakens looks like a good movie. We all want to see the Millenium Falcon soar again, so it looks exactly like what we want. But at the same time, we want more than cheap thrills, we want substance. JJ Abrams' past work shows that he can sometimes deliver substance, but he fails to do so in the bulk of his work. I fear that he's going to destroy the Star Wars universe, to become known as Jar Jar Abrams for the rest of eternity.