Somebody Please Stop J.J. Abrams!
Back on January 25th, the whole world was stunned as Disney announced that after J.J. Abrams finished reinvigorating the Star Trek film franchise, he would also now be tasked with doing the same for Star Wars after months of speculation by the media and repeated denials by Abrams that he was even interested in the job. It turns out the die-hard Star Wars fan was cozying up to George Lucas in secret while he maintained public disinterest in directing Episode VII. On Wednesday, at the D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, Abrams went onstage with Valve co-founder and former Microsoft wunderkind Gabe Newell to announce that they would be partnering on upcoming film adaptations of Valve’s wildly popular Half-Life and Portal franchises. Abrams’ exact role in bringing these games to the big screen remains unclear at this point as does the timetable for when these films will be released, but even if he takes a stewardship role a la Christopher Nolan on Man of Steel, I still think J.J. Abrams needs to take a step back before he dilutes his own brand.
Before anyone presumes that I dislike Abrams or his work, let me state that nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I have tremendous respect for Abrams as a filmmaker and a storyteller. His ability to bring genre entertainment into the mainstream without alienating hardcore fans has been nothing short of remarkable. He has already been responsible for reingniting two major film franchises in Mission: Impossible (he directed the third installment and produced the fourth) and Star Trek, both of which had long been presumed dead before he got his hands on them and made them relevant to moviegoers again. My favorite feature film of Abrams’, 2010’s Super 8, may have seemed like blatant Spielbergian pastiche to some, but to me, it stood on its own as an engaging and thrilling film that evoked the feeling of the films Spielberg made thirty years ago as much as the style and also featured some of the most believable child protagonists to ever grace the screen. Yes, Abrams’ propensity for lens flares is well-known and well-mocked by hordes of Internet commentators, but as the opening scene of Star Trek and the train crash for Super 8 proved, he is capable of creating iconic screen moments that resonate with audiences long after they walk out of the theater. Purely as a filmmaker, I have absolutely no problem with Abrams taking on Episode VII. I would have personally preferred Brad Bird, who was in the running early on but made unfortunately made his lack of interest fairly clear (though his next project sounds just as intriguing). However, while I have no problem with Abrams as a craftsman, I do have to wonder about Abrams as a brand.
It strikes me as very disconcerting that Lucasfilm played it so safe in hiring Abrams. Many names were thrown about for directing the new Star Wars film, including the aforementioned Bird, X: Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn, and even Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow, to name a few. I would completely understand if those three and others were offered the position and decided to turn it down. Perhaps no film in history will be under more scrutiny than this one, and it takes a special kind of person to be able deal with that pressure in addition to that already imposed on a production of this scale. Maybe none of the other candidates considered wanted to be under that pressure, no matter how enthusiastic their vision for a new Star Wars film might be. I still find myself disappointed, however, because it appears that Lucasfilm will not follow the path of their fellow Disney subsidiary Marvel, who consistently has hired unconventional yet capable filmmakers to direct their films, culminating in the brilliant move to hire Joss Whedon to helm The Avengers. Some might see the Abrams hire as a similar move to Marvel hiring Whedon because they both initially made their names in television before graduating to franchise filmmaking. While it has been no secret that both men were huge fans of the properties they took (or are about to take) on, I cannot help but feel less enthusiastic about Abrams than I was about Whedon, which ultimately brings me back to the announced partnership with Valve.
I realize it is not my place to urge an artist to cease creating new material. Most people in the industry would kill for the power that J.J. Abrams currently possesses in Hollywood. He can pitch any movie or TV show he wants to a studio or network and it will almost certainly get greenlit. Every writer or filmmaker dreams of that kind of success, so kudos to Abrams for utilizing that clout to get project he wants off the ground that would most likely not see the light of day otherwise. Having said all of that, if Abrams, Bryan Burk, and the guys at Bad Robot are allowed to spread their influence so widely through the mainstream genre entertainment community, what will be left for the other unique and interesting voices in science fiction? Asking Hollywood to take risks and give potential franchise opportunities to new artists is a fool’s errand, sure, but from a fan’s perspective, it is unfortunate that Hollywood is going back to the well. Film versions of Half-Life and Portal bring with them exciting possibilities and we may finally get at least one good videogame-to-movie adaptation, but ultimately, such success will feel somewhat hollow. Despite both properties’ renowned originality, any Abrams-led adaptation will still somehow feel unfortunately familiar. When these games were released, they changed the medium. To expect their film counterparts to do the same may be unreasonable, but with Abrams involved, they will most likely be entertaining but ultimately forgettable and will leave the millions of fans of the games wondering what could have been if their beloved properties were not repurposed for the big screen by a burgeoning science-fiction monopoly.