On Abrams, Star Wars and Episode VII

Little known fact: JJ Abrams can breathe in space

Little known fact: J.J. Abrams can breathe in space.

After rumors started really picking up about the next director of the Star Wars franchise, Disney released a statement officially confirming that J.J. 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.


…sort of.

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.

This certainly looks like 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.

Really, I think we all just want this to happen on the big screen - settle this thing once and for all

Really, I think we all just want this to happen on the big screen. Let’s settle this thing once and for all.

J.J. 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 J.J. Abrams is the right man to salvage Star Wars from the deep hole George Lucas dug with 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?

~ Søren

  • deathleaper

    If anyone could direct a new Star Wars in a way that both appeases most hardcore fans, while still maintaining a mass-market appeal, it would be J.J. Abrams,, as the 2009 Star Trek reboot showed. Someone like, say, Guillermo del Toro would do fantastically weird things with the franchise, and probably please the dedicated fanbase, but in the end likely make something too esoteric for the wider audience in the process. Luckily, it would leave him time to make “At The Mountains of Madness.” I want to believe.
    At the other end of the spectrum, and the worst-case scenario for many fans would be a Roland Eimmerich or Jerry Bruckheimer sort of director, who would do what many fans (myself included) dreaded, and dumb down the series into the most palatable mass-market focus-group tested vehicle possible. Luckily, this did not come to pass, and J.J. Abrams should be a reasonable hand on the tiller.

    With regards to the ‘what is science fiction’ question, and how it qualifies J.J. Abrams to direct the next ‘Star Wars’, I would go in a different direction, classifying them not by their genre trappings, but by how they approach the genre conventions. When classifying franchises and settings within the same or very similar genres, it can be useful to group them together in a manner not dissimilar from the D&D alignment system, with a Noble-Neutral-Grim scale on the y-axis, representing the themes of the setting, from optimistic and positive to pessimistic and hopeless, and Bright-Neutral-Dark on the x-axis, representing the actual situation in that setting. Using this scale, Star Trek in most forms falls in Noble-Bright. The setting is utopian, and the goals of the gleaming Enterprise are exploration, diplomacy, and high adventure. In the middle of the Noble grouping falls something like Mass Effect, with its heroic aspects tempered by nuanced realpolitik and extremism. On the far end of the scale is Star Wars, which (especially when one looks at the EU material) exists in a borderline dystopic setting. At the start of Episode IV, the Empire has consolidated absolute power, and the Rebel Alliance is fleeing with the only knowledge of the impregnable battle-station’s weakness. The only one who can save the Alliance is on a backwater world, and has to hitch a ride out with a drug smuggler on his ramshackle starship. Even the prequel trilogy has this, where the Republic is decadent and corrupt, and Coruscant under the spires of the rich and powerful is as crime-ridden and dangerous as any ghetto in our world. Despite all this, the story has a strongly positive and hopeful thread running through it, in contrast (or some would say because of) the darkness in which it is enveloped. Maintaining this balance between dystopic setting and noble ideals may prove difficult for Abrams. Star Trek, with its shiny utopian iPod future, is easier to do right, and even has room for some deconstruction of the more pie-in-the-sky concepts, as Abrams has shown he can do. It will be interesting to see how Abrams approaches it.