Tag Archives: Fringe

That “Star Wars” Trailer — In Defense of J.J. Abrams

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:

Should You Watch? ‘The Strain’

Strain Airplane

The Strain
“Night Zero”

“Screw the inevitable vampire outbreak, let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.” This isn’t a direct quote, but it covers close to half the run time of The Strain‘s two hour premier. There’s a certain thinking in TV drama that vampire outbreaks and murder and planes full of people dying and zombie thralls and worms that eat their way through your eyeballs just aren’t interesting enough unless the main character explains his broken family life to everyone he encounters.

Yes, it’s important to establish your protagonist has a life before his first episode, but just maybe we could hear a bit about the supervampire’s family life, or the ancient vampire hunter’s family life, or – I don’t know, crazy thought here – the plane full of 200 dead people you’re supposed to be investigating instead of telling random passersby about your divorce proceeding.

The Strain is based on a series of novels horror maestro Guillermo del Toro co-wrote with Chuck Hogan. Now, FX’s original programming has been consistently inventive and off-kilter. Nip/Tuck, The Shield, and Sons of Anarchy were long the network’s flagships, now replaced by American Horror Story, Justified, and the Peabody-winning The Bridge. FX has also made a habit of dissecting and lampooning the male gaze in comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, and Archer. This year’s Fargo has made the network’s biggest mark on the Emmys in years and, while I haven’t seen it, The Americans has been critically lauded and keeps Keri Russell employed, so I’m all in favor.

Yet FX wants a bigger piece of the cable pie, to go toe-to-toe with AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead), and this summer season’s shows have left us wanting. You can’t help but feel Tyrant is filmed on a series of L.A. backlots, which is all the more strange since it’s filmed in Israel, but strange filmmaking choices and subpar editing make it feel too precious to be taken realistically.

Strain Abraham

Which brings us back to The Strain, which FX has pushed hard. The show begins much like the pilot for Fringe, with a plane that stops responding mid-taxi on the runway: it’s gone dark, the pilots don’t respond, and all 200 passengers on board suddenly appear dead. Yet there’s none of Fringe‘s colorful, pop-art sensibility or whip-smart casting (let alone its quantum theosophy), and there’s none of the investigative, tone-poem build-up we once loved about The X-Files.

The Strain wants to be a procedural, or at least its pilot episode does, yet no procedures are followed. Characters do as they want, and not in a tongue-and-cheek, I’m-the-hero kind of way, but in a where’s-my-mark, what’s-my-line style that makes it seem like so many monkeys with typewriters submitted drafts and nobody bothered to check that it all fit together. The Strain‘s one-note mood of incredible self-seriousness means that it’d better have some logic or a damn good lead actor to fall back on. Instead: “let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.”

The Strain is far more concerned with characters’ intersecting broken romances than with the 200 dead people on a plane, and its moments of gore – while splattery enough for a midnight feature – are so out-of-place that you wonder if the cat sat on the remote and accidentally switched you to Starz.

The main character, a CDC epidemiologist played by Corey Stoll, is named Ephram, or Eph for short. Every time someone addresses Eph, it sounds like they started to swear but suddenly remembered they’re on cable TV, where you can graphically smash a man’s head into cement pudding for a minute straight, but you’d better not cuss.

Few shows in history have so desperately needed a script supervisor. Before knowing how the disease spreads, Eph and his CDC crew inspect the plane’s unloaded cargo in plain clothes, using no precautions. Two scenes later, CDC personnel are sealing up that same cargo Eph and friends just ran their hands up and down, except now they’re using protective gear and contained breathers.

Strain Have I Told You About My Divorce Today

Even after the CDC establishes that the virus is passed on by disgusting, little, wormy things that crawl through your skin, they fail to warn the coroner, who’s autopsying all 200 infested dead bodies alone (because that seems like an efficient use of resources) and whose protective gear amounts to a pair of latex gloves. Instead of calling and saying, “Hey, there are these crazy wormy things that burrow through skin,” Eph wanders the airport, bringing his little box of highly contagious wormy things that just killed 200 people on a field trip to the security office, to the main concourse, to the parking lot, and waving them around as he talks to everyone in sight.

For its first few seasons, The X-Files could barely afford cameras or sets, but it made the world around us terrifying by giving its horrors consistent logic of their own, logic which gave every shadow down every hallway the possibility of hiding something vicious just waiting to be misunderstood. Consistency. Logic. It’s what good horror is built on. It’s why we don’t mind every X-Files takes place in an office building or a dark cave, and every Supernatural takes place in the same hotel room. Yet it’s what’s wholly missing from The Strain. Guillermo del Toro’s other work (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone) prides itself on these qualities, but he both co-wrote the teleplay and directed the pilot for The Strain, so the blame for this mess has to lie with him.

Furthermore, I don’t expect every TV show to get the procedure of federal agencies right, but if you’re going to house yourself in the structure of a bone dry procedural, then you shouldn’t be embarrassingly ill-researched. At the very least, if you’re just going to make it up, at least be consistent about those details you yourself create. Making it worse, The Strain‘s complete disregard for credibility is combined with a relentless humorlessness and misplaced character struggles – at one point, the 200 unexplained deaths, a missing vampire coffin, and wormy things run amuck are all sidelined so we can spend time on what’s really important: Eph’s very mild discomfort with public speaking. Lord knows why. He opens up to everyone else with, “Let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.”

This gives way to the pilot episode’s worst scene, when Eph addresses the media and victims’ families. A grieving father charges him, slaps him across the face, and – despite security and police essentially hanging out of Eph’s pockets – the father turns around and monologues at length to the world media about how cheesily he misses his daughter. This dad explains he couldn’t care less if his daughter’s dead or not, but it’s unfair the CDC hasn’t released her body for a whole two hours. Talk about confused priorities. If he were evil, we could see a motive, but he’s not, so it doesn’t make any sense, let alone an emotional connection. It only makes one wonder how the hell such a scene got past…well, anyone involved.

Future episodes look like The Strain‘s dull faux-CDC shell might be cracked for some shiny vampire-bashing. This would require the show shifting more time to elderly vampire hunter Abraham (David Bradley), who gives the show a little cogent mystery, but is otherwise thoroughly wasted. I’ll give The Strain a second episode out of loyalty to del Toro, but this is by far the worst thing he’s directed. Any goodwill I had stocked to forgive the show any potential flaws has been completely tapped out. The Strain has some good set design at points, but that’s it. Everything else insults the viewer at the most fundamental levels of storytelling.