Op-Ed: On Abrams, Star Wars, and Episode VII
After rumors started really picking up about the next director of the Star Wars franchise, Disney released a statement officially confirming that JJ Abrams, director of the 2009 reboot of Star Trek and the more recent Super 8, will head up Episode VII. So the guy who successfully resurrected an old science fiction show has been assigned to another iconic franchise – cool, right?
I mostly enjoyed the new Star Trek film, and I thought Super 8 was a sweet (but imperfect) ode to the films many of us grew up on – E.T., The Goonies, The Iron Giant, and so on. On that note, I’m eagerly anticipating how the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness film comes together. However, as the folks at Film School Rejects pointed out, Abrams hasn’t really blown anyone away with his moviemaking thus far. To quote them directly, “It’s easy to imagine he will craft some stunning work in the future; he just hasn’t done it quite yet.” This isn’t to say he doesn’t have talent for the genre, but he hasn’t created any sort of masterpiece of science fiction just yet. But if we’re going to examine whether Abrams is the right choice for Star Wars, it is important to put our feelings about about his raw talent as a director aside. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that Star Trek and Star Wars are, at the end of the day, two very different franchises.
To understand the difference between Wars and Trek requires a bit of film theory background. You may remember last year I wrote an op-ed on genre designation, using Star Trek and Star Wars to illustrate my point. I still like that piece, but I realize now that using more precise and incisive terminology may have helped clarify my thesis a bit more.
It turns out that in writing that article, I was actually dancing around an idea that had been developed in film theory as far back as the 198os. In a University of Texas Press article entitled A Semantic/Syntactic Approach To Film Genre, film scholar Rick Altman applies linguistic and cultural parameters to how audiences view genre. In his essay, he opines that there is both a syntactic (or structural) approach to designating film genre, as well as a semantic (visual, aesthetic) approach. In other words, he distinguishes between a film genre which merely appears to fall in one particular category of film and another which follows a more rigid blueprint for how that genre typically plays out.
Here’s an example.
Back during the heyday of the Western, there were certain things audiences could always expect. Usually, a lone gunslinger wearing a cowboy hat and wielding a pistol would roll into a small, troubled frontier town. Meanwhile images of a dry, desert-like environment, replete with cacti, tumbleweeds, and flat terrain, would permeate the film. As an audience member, one could surmise from these “semantic” features that this was, undoubtedly, a Western.
Similarly, the plot would also follow a standard formula. The gunslinger enters the town, deals with the conflict with the bandits or native people, and would finally ride off majestically into the sunset once everything is resolved. These are the “syntactic” features of the genre, and again a member of the audience might guess from these clues that they are watching a Western.
But what happens if the semantic dressings of a Western are suddenly translocated into space? Similarly, what happens when everything looks like a Western, but the plot plays like an intense drama with no clear resolution? Are Firefly and Deadwood (respectively) true Westerns? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but it is a relevant question to consider when looking for a good director to take on the next Star Wars film.
I still hold, much to the chagrin of many of my friends and colleagues, that Episode IV: A New Hope is easily the best and most accessible film in the entire Star Wars franchise. A large part of the film’s success was that it takes the semantic dressings of a science fiction tale and superimposes them on the syntactic framework of a fantasy adventure film. This made the strange world of science fiction appealing to the general public because, well, it wasn’t really science fiction at all.
As the films continued, however, they became more and more bogged down in the trappings of science fiction syntax. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but this shift turned many audience members off of the franchise as Star Wars began to lose its popular allure. From the influx of new protagonists and antagonists in Episode V to the Ewoks in Episode VI to every terrible choice in Episodes I-III, George Lucas and Co. became wrapped up in adding more and more crazy characters and alien species to a franchise that should have remained a simple character-driven adventure.
JJ Abrams has proven twice now that he can handle science fiction admirably well. With both Star Trek and Super 8, he has shown that he knows science fiction both syntactically and semantically. But Star Wars isn’t (or wasn’t) a true syntactic science fiction franchise – and I worry that Abrams may not understand that very important point as we move into the next trilogy of films.
Ultimately, time will tell if JJ Abrams is the right man to salvage Star Wars from the deep hole George Lucas dug in creating the prequel trilogy. He probably can’t do worse than those movies, but as audience members we can certainly ask that he try; here’s hoping he can remind us all why we fell in love with Vader, C-3PO, R2D2, Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie for the first time so many years ago.
What about you? Do you think Abrams is the right person to salvage the series?