by Gabriel Valdez
It’s a safe announcement trailer, built not to sell a story but rather to shore up a fan base. J.J. Abrams was not a popular choice among fans to direct Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The new Star Wars trailer had to show some visual muscle, and it did. If it had relied solely on a mysterious tease, fans would have blown up about what mistakes Abrams had made that Disney was hiding. Millions of voices would have cried out in terror, but they would have never shut the hell up. We needed a safe trailer that nonetheless got our pulses racing and, well, that’s exactly what we got.
Why does so much negativity swirl around Abrams anyway? His Star Trek reboot was viewed as being clever and respectful of the original material among many fans. As someone raised on a steady diet of Next Gen, DS9, and Voyager, it felt playful and loving, featuring some visual moments that I hadn’t realized I’d always wished for from the franchise until I saw them.
Sure, the sequel Into Darkness was a misstep that succeeded in the impossible task of miscasting Benedict Cumberbatch. Abrams first went after Benicio del Toro, however, so his initial instinct was on the nose. Mainly, the whole affair just made me yearn for Dr. McCoy to ditch the bunch of them and adventure through space on his own, healing bodies and sniping egos as he went. Sort of like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but with Karl Urban, sharp one-liners instead of heavy breathing, and more phaser fire. “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a Kay Jewelers spokesmodel.”
Into Darkness made mistakes, but looking at the rest of Abrams’s catalogue…how is this guy so viciously hated? As a TV producer, he’s brought us Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe, each one a show that stands near the top of its genre. The short-lived Almost Human was briefly among the best programs on television and gave us a Karl Urban-Michael Ealy odd couple more rewarding than most relationships on TV. Revolution and Person of Interest aren’t too shabby either.
There’s a reason subsequent espionage programs like Blacklist, Chuck, and even NCIS stole vast swathes of plot from Alias, which deftly translated the Greek tragic form while giving us some of the best fight choreography ever put to television.
Lost was the best show on TV for a few years, inspiring rabid loyalty among fans. Ten years ago, it was THE cultural touchstone. Even though it lost its way a few times, it maintained its mystery without compromising its hard sci-fi values. It lasted seven seasons this way. No show that copied its Twilight Zone-gone-large storytelling lasted more than a handful. Most didn’t make it a season, which makes Abrams the only producer who’s successfully pulled it off.
As for Fringe? Name for me another show that came as close to living up to The X-Files‘ combination of science-fiction and supernatural horror. In terms of Golden Age science-fiction, Fringe even equaled its predecessor in heartbreaking standalone episodes like “Johari Window” and “White Tulip.”
As a director, Abrams changed the direction of the quickly sinking Mission: Impossible franchise, successfully remixed Star Trek before his too-clever-for-its-own-good sequel, and gave us the phenomenal Super 8. The last of these is sometimes criticized as being too much of a riff on Steven Spielberg’s early career, which focused on the intimate story of a broken family juxtaposed against world-changing events. I’ll tell you what: Super 8. Mud. The Devil’s Backbone. Those are the three films since 2000 that have most successfully melded coming-of-age stories into an epic framework. J.J. Abrams, Jeff Nichols, Guillermo Del Toro. That’s pretty good company.
As a film producer, he gave us Cloverfield, among the best found footage films, the severely underrated Rachel McAdams-Harrison Ford comedy Morning Glory, and Brad Bird’s follow-up to Abrams’s own Mission: Impossible entry, Ghost Protocol.
Abrams also changed TV in another important way. It often gets overlooked as a simple inevitability of history, but Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe all shared one thing – women as protagonists, asskickers, and leaders. Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner, Evangeline Lilly, Yunjin Kim, and Anna Torv all led their shows as equals or superiors. TV history was meandering this way already with shows like Ally McBeal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Abrams gave the medium a hard shove in the right direction that sped the process up. Without Russell and Garner in particular, television wouldn’t be so brave about running shows led solely by female protagonists.
Abrams has a high floor for quality. His missteps are rare. He can find the personal and quiet moment inside the larger, chaotic scheme of plot. He can back up and find the epic moment that frames us in another world. He can translate classic and mythic forms of storytelling while infusing his work with the style of other directors. Most importantly, he shows inventiveness within the storytelling restrictions of a variety of forms. While not all of his films have put women and minorities front and center, all of his TV shows have. I can’t help but notice his Force Awakens trailer primarily features an African-American man (John Boyega) and a woman (Daisy Ridley).
Is Abrams the best choice? No, but I don’t think David Fincher’s going to do a Star Wars, Ridley Scott turned the offer down in the 90s (and may’ve jumped the shark since), and Guillermo Del Toro turned the offer down a few years back.
I don’t know that Brad Bird would have been better, and I’d rather have him working on Tomorrowland. If you saw the up-and-down Elysium then you know that Neill Blomkamp simply isn’t there as a director yet. Davids Cronenberg and Lynch turned Return of the Jedi down in the 80s and, by the way, have you seen Dune? I mean, I like it better than most, but is this really what you want Star Wars to be?
George Lucas? Empire‘s Irvin Kershner? Jedi‘s Richard Marquand? I might love some of their films, but let’s face it: J.J. Abrams is the best director who’s ever taken the helm on a Star Wars movie. Period.
At least Lucas isn’t doing it again, or we might have this: