Tag Archives: Star Wars

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:

Orphans of the Sky — “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Guardians Knowhere

Beginnings. If you get those right, the rest of your film can sing. If you get them wrong, you spend two hours playing catch-up. Guardians of the Galaxy has a beautiful beginning.

Young Peter Quill is in a hospital, losing his mother. He shares a last moment with her. She slips away, and he runs. Outside, in the dark, foggy night, he is abducted by a UFO.

It evokes those two sides of the Spielbergian coin – fear of loss and the magical possibility of the unknown. Do that in the first three minutes of your film, and I’m yours. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a gun-toting raccoon or a talking tree or a bald, robot Karen Gillan, I’m on board. Where do you want to take me?

We rejoin Peter (Chris Pratt) 26 years later. He’s now a spacefaring rogue plucking a mysterious orb from the ruins of a vanished civilization. He’s not the only party interested in the orb, though – the armies of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) are hot on his tail, as is the fleet of his ex-partner in crime Yondu (Michael Rooker), the aforementioned pair of raccoon-and-tree bounty hunters, and the traitorous assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana).

Assassin, raccoon, tree, and Peter are captured as they fight over the orb. They’re sent to one of those high-tech space prisons that only ever seem to be able to hold protagonists for a day (I call them Kirk Specials). All four characters need each other: Gamora needs Peter for the orb, Peter needs Gamora for her buyer, and Rocket & Groot (the raccoon and tree I) need Peter for his bounty. Toss in the prisoner Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista), who wants revenge on Ronan, and you’ve got an unlikely band of heroes that makes the Avengers seem downright functional.

Guardians Assemble

There’s an easier way to understand these five characters as they race across the galaxy – they’re all orphans. We saw Peter’s mother die in the first scene, and he never knew his father. Gamora’s parents were killed. Rocket the Raccoon was seized from earth, torn apart, and reassembled with cybernetics as someone’s cruel experiment. As a sentient tree who can grow limbs at will, Groot is the last of his kind. Drax might not technically be an orphan, but his family was murdered and we strongly suspect he’s the last of his kind as well.

Bands of misfits aren’t anything new to adventure filmmaking, but what makes this group feel unique is that none of them has a particularly good moral compass…until they’re stuck together. They bring out expectations in each other that they’ve never had in themselves. Guardians shares some good habits with Star Wars (including colorful world building and intricate spaceship battles), but if there’s a film Guardians really takes after, it’s 80s classic The Goonies. They’re both centered on a group of wisecracking, immature kids. It’s just, in Guardians, the kids are older and never grew up. How could they? There was never anyone to teach them how.

Even before the adventure starts, their circumstances are dire. In The Goonies, it was their families’ financial desperation – fear of loss –  that drove them to seek out the mythical and magical for an answer. Here, the Guardians are aimless, tortured, or desperate because of loss they couldn’t stop as children. Beginnings…if you get those right, your film can sing. It’s only in each other that they finally find some guidance. They’re not people (or trees, or raccoons) who will ever amount to much apart. In finding others who’ve been jettisoned from their families, each is finally able to identify with someone beyond him or herself.

Guardians Saldana

None of them is courageous enough in themselves to do what’s right, but they each have the courage missing in the person next to them. It’s a remarkable idea for a film like this, and credit should be given to writer-director James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman for calling on these notions. This is the year that comic book movies need to be seriously considered for best screenplay Oscar nominations.

Inevitably, you have to compare it to Marvel’s other films. Guardians is hilarious, surpassing Thor: The Dark World as Marvel’s funniest movie. It may lack the grittier spirit and social commentary that Captain America: The Winter Soldier possessed, but Marvel’s success lies in allowing its various franchises to take on different tones and inhabit other genres (be warned as you toy around with your 50 Shades of Blue versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder).

The closest Marvel comparison to Guardians is Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and, honestly, Guardians is the better movie. Its action isn’t as elaborate – in fact, the action in Guardians has to be a bit deliberate in order to include so many jokes and sight gags – but it’s the more poignant science-fiction film, a more colorful adventure, and a better comedy.

Guardians Gillan

While it lacks the Robert Downey Jr/Scarlett Johansson/Samuel L. Jackson triumvirate of star power, Guardians offers Marvel’s best Easter eggs yet for the practiced cinephile. If you’re familiar with the supporting players, you’re in for a treat. Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies; The Fall) is an absolute joy to watch in full-throated villain mode as Ronan. I mentioned a bald Karen Gillan (popular, redheaded companion Amy Pond in Doctor Who), who is nearly unrecognizable as fractious robot assassin Nebula. Benicio Del Toro’s overacting as The Collector simultaneously makes you laugh as he makes your skin crawl. Josh Brolin (a former Goonie himself) voices the ubervillain Thanos, while Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel voice Rocket and Groot. John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Honsou, and Gregg Henry feature in prominent roles, not to mention blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Whedon alum Nathan Fillion, Seth Green, and Alexis Denisoff, heavy metal rocker Rob Zombie, and of course Stan Lee.

Just…go see it. If you’ve been staying away from the theater, then you’ve been missing the best summer for movies since before this reviewer was born. Guardians is one of those films so full of event, color, and joyous spectacle, it’s meant to be seen 50 feet tall. Stop reading, leave work, call your friends, ditch school*, whatever, just go see it.

*Stay in school, you guys. There are evening shows.