The day approaches. A new Star Wars film is set to rise upon the world, and many of us await The Force Awakens with emotions that run the gamut from overjoyed excitement to palpable dread. When I first heard there would be new films, my reaction was as close to “meh” as one can get. (Okay, so there was excitement and interest mixed with the feelings that I’d been burned before, but it balanced out to meh. Hey! The prequels brought balance to the Force!) And yet, as time progressed, my interest higher. Since the first trailer, I’ve been holding steady at cautious optimism, despite the voice in the back of my head telling me not to get drawn into the hype.
In truth, I’ve been doing my best to avoid the hype for the past month, primarily because I’m trying to avoid any spoilers. When the last trailer came out, I told myself that was it: I’d allow myself no more information about the film. I’ve been avoiding the interviews, the additional footage, even the TV ads. When that yellow narration scroll–the first new one we’ve seen in over ten years–crawls its way across the stars, I want to be completely fresh. But am I also avoiding the hype because I fear disappointment? That’s entirely possible. But today’s Guest Geek has some interesting points to make on the subject. Please welcome back previous guest Nick Fraser to the blog, and share your thoughts in the comments!
Star Wars, Star Trek, and Disappointment
With less than two weeks to go for the opening of the latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, the geek world is abuzz with excitement—along with worry and trepidation. What if it sucks? Remember all the buzz around Phantom Menace? Remember how it was a big let-down? And trekkies weren’t all that happy with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot— OH GOD!! What if we’ve been played again!???!!
While I think the chances of The Force Awakens completely sucking to be somewhat low (we’ll get to that), I think these concerns are understandable, if a little overblown. ALL of moviemaking runs on hype; one writer (who knew whereof he spoke) compared the publicity campaign of a major movie release to a political campaign—make sure they show up on the appointed day—rather than a refrigerator, which just lays out the features of a product. And Lord knows there have been plenty of movies with massive publicity budgets (as well as production budgets) that most of the public just didn’t think were very good. No one wants to be manipulated by hucksterism.
I think, in this particular case, there are actually several things happening at once, contributing to this gnawing sense of doubt.
One, clearly, is that Star Wars—the original, and ever shall it be, to this old man—is something encountered in the warm golden years of childhood, which greatly colors its memory. I know that was certainly the case for me. I remember when it was first released in the theaters, just in my last year of elementary school. There had simply been nothing like it the theaters; people stood in line and went back to see it, three, four, ten times. It was great looking, it was FUN, it was Adventure! IN SPACE!!!
Now, of course there had been stuff like that in the theaters before, but I was much too young to actually remember such stuff. I grew up in one of the great eras of American filmmaking, but I was too young to understand that, and, besides, this was all dark, grown-up stuff that at the time I had little interest in. No, Star Wars was Science Fiction Adventure, looking better than ever before! This much I think is indisputable.
I think it’s important to remember, though, there were a lot of snide sneers from Serious Critics of the day—and not without some justification—at the lack of depth in Star Wars. (The popularity of Star Wars drove Serious Critics nuts, in fact.) And it’s not a morally complex film (that game doesn’t get stepped up until the end of the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back). I remember when people were grousing about the Phantom Menace, I heard one guy—the living impersonator of Comic Book Guy—loudly huff “George Lucas made a kid’s movie!!!!”
Dude…. have you really looked at Star Wars??? It’s not exactly thoughtful adult cinema. Yeah, he made a kid’s movie—it was called Star Wars, and he did so quite consciously.
Which brings up the first red flag people have: The Phantom Menace. The first Star Wars story in over 16 years (seems longer somehow, doesn’t it? Well, I was younger then), if NO marketing accompanied this film, it would have been a hit. And we got…. trade talks. And midi-chlorians (DEEP fan hatred for this, the depth of which always puzzles me). And, oh, let’s not forget the questionable performances and thinly veiled racial-stereotype aliens (here’s MY hatred). All badly paced with a bloated Ben-Hur race tribute in the middle!!! YAY!!
In my opinion, the problem is NOT that Lucas made a “kid’s movie,” it’s that he tried to make a kid’s movie and failed. Partly because the theme of the second series—the fall of Anakin Skywalker—is a more grown-up story, but one that starts with a kid. And the second series is supposed to be a tragedy—we should know that going in. But the problem is that Anakin is so goddamn annoying that you WANT him to die by the end of the series—hell, in the MIDDLE of the series. And really not helping is the fact that somewhere between American Graffiti and Phantom Menace, Lucas seems to have forgotten how to direct actors as human beings.
But let’s just stop here, because, honestly, enough pixels have been wasted on the dubious nature of the “prequels”. Let’s just acknowledge that they were a disappointment for most fans of the first series. My point regarding this next series is that Lucas set the bar SO LOW that, short of The Force Awakens being directed by the reanimated corpse of Ed Wood, I really don’t see it was being worse than the Phantom Menace. Or as bad.
(Plus, Star Wars is owned by Disney now, and say what you will about the House of Mouse, they definitely have a handle on targeted marketing and quality control).
Which leads us to the director of the upcoming film, Mr. J.J. Abrams. He helmed two major motion pictures for another major science fiction franchise, a little thing called “Star Trek”.
For me, Star Trek always came first. If Star Wars was my first girlfriend, Star Trek was my mother (ok, really weird bad analogy that should stop now!!). Star Trek was always in my life, first as the original series, and then, years later, The Next Generation. However, aside from being set in space, these two are about as different as can be, and it always…astonishes me that people get into heated discussions as to which is better. Ok, maybe not. Us bald monkeys will argue about anything, so, why not? But there’s a serious difference of focus here. Star Wars was consciously echoing the Westerns and serials of George Lucas’s youth (along with huge slabs of Joseph Campbell); Star Trek comes from science fiction of the pulps of the 1950s and 1960s (whereas Star Wars’ pulp roots are even earlier), and optimism of the science-based space program of the 1960s. This was paired with Rod Serling’s belief that he could make social statements with science fiction on The Twilight Zone that never would be allowed on the air in a straight drama.
It’s a Star Trek, not a war—“to seek out new worlds, and new civilizations—to boldly go where no man has gone before!” It’s about exploration, cooperation, and trying to solve problems, not blow them up. It’s a (mostly) thoughtful examination of the human condition. No, it’s not perfect; what is? I mean, it was on network TV, for godsake. But it was quite explicitly in Gene Roddenberry’s vision not about running around shooting at people. Star Trek is about hope in a common human future, that things will eventually get better.
J.J. Abrams—who I acknowledge has made stuff I found quite entertaining— said in an interview that he thought Star Trek was “too smart” for him—and it turns out he was right!
Look, it’s so very easy to fall down the nitpicking nerd-hole of “what Abrams got wrong” in his two Star Trek movies. But it’s not the nit-picky details that are the real problem. It’s not even the bull$*#% his writers (remember this, his writers) make up out of whole cloth that make NO INTERNAL SENSE to the movie they are in; hell it’s not even that Into Darkness isn’t even a barely disguised remake of Wrath of Khan, but in fact a re-write of an old Alias episode.
It’s the fact that Abrams & Co. get the tone of Star Trek so completely wrong, even for the Trek movies, as separate from the TV series. That thrilling quote above? It’s not “to seek out new civilizations and kick their ass!” It’s not Alias; it’s not Tom-Cruise-wannabe-James-Bond Mission Impossible. It’s to seek out new life.
Star Trek IS smart (certainly for its day). The most powerful piece on the board—Spock—is also the smartest. Kirk frequently tries to think his way out of a conflict rather than beat on it with his fists (that’s not always the case and it doesn’t always work). Kirk frequently argues that people can be better than they are.
Star Wars—for whatever its virtues—is NOT smart. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s an epic, mythic thrill ride. But it’s not smart. It’s fairly obvious in its divide of good and evil. And it really doesn’t ask you to question that.
Star Wars IS Myth. There’s a reason why Star Wars led me to The Lord of the Rings in a way Star Trek never could. The characters are all drawn in broad mythic strokes. Remember that you spend much less time with Luke, Leia, and Han in the entire movie series than you spend with Kirk, Spock, and crew in just one season; hell, you spend more time on the Enterprise than the original trilogy and the prequels combined. That’s really getting to know the Enterprise crew. Compared to Star Trek, there’s only so much in Star Wars to mess up, character-wise.
And actually, I think it’s this mythic quality that makes Star Wars more unbreakable in Abrams’ hands than Star Trek. First off, Abrams is NOT using the same trio of writers who served him so badly on the Star Trek movies and failed him on Lost (you know, the three guys who get whiny when confronted with fan displeasure?) And while I’m not thrilled with having another desert planet with a different name (Why not just Tatooine? Will there be a reason?), it seems that Abrams understands that mythic elements of Star Wars, and was an actual fan (unlike Star Trek). Here actually I think stuff like Alias and Mission: Impossible will serve him well. It might in fact—dare I say it—give us a Star Wars story that will actually be more intricate—and in a good way?
Cheer up, fellow geeks—it probably won’t be that bad.
And if it is,you do know it’s only a movie, right? 🙂
ABOUT THE GEEK
Nick Fraser was raised by the mutant lizard people underneath Los Angeles, where his mind was permanently warped by the electric shadows the city produces. Escaping the desert to the perpetually soggy Pacific Northwest, he learned to read while hiding in the basement of a bookstore attached to a hidden underground city. He currently lives inside the ghost of an ancient stream, where he writes on the wall in crayon.
You can also find Nick on Facebook.