Why JJ Abrams’ Star Wars Succeeds Where His Star Trek Failed

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[NOTE: I have tried to keep this discussion as broad strokes and spoiler free as possible, though if you’re trying to go in without knowing even the most basic conceptual details you might wish to tread carefully]

JJ Abrams has now been responsible for new installments in America’s two biggest juggernauts of space-themed popular culture: one outing magnificent, the other an unmitigated disaster. Abrams’ claim that he watched not a bit of the original Star Trek series or films before taking the helm of the reboot is a matter of rather infamous public record, his adoring fandom for the Star Wars franchise equally well known. And while we can, and will, get into the various aspects contributing to that gap of successful adaptation, I can also go ahead and sum it up for you in a quick sentence. It is amazing what happens when you give a damn about your subject matter.

Looking at both franchises from the outside, it’s easy to assume from their aesthetics that they are basically the same: shooty ship battles in space where lasers go pew pew and the good guys always win at the end. This is on the same level of good idea as a Spiderman fan picking up a Deadpool story because they have vaguely similar costumes. It’s certainly not impossible to enjoy both, but the type of story being told is worlds apart. Star Wars, traditionally (we’ll come back to how the new movie has evolved these concepts), is a fantasy story set in space; it takes place “long, long ago” with brave knights and princesses utilizing a universal magic to play out a great story of Good vs Evil.

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Star Trek, meanwhile, is utopian sci-fi: set in a future with technology that has since proven achievable in many ways (flip phones, to name only one example, were patterned after Trek’s communicators), it portrays a society where capitalism has become obsolete and the show’s various disparate groups are ever striving to communicate and understand one another (even the more action focused original films contained this focus – Wrath of Khan is nothing less than a meditation on aging and death threaded through with heavy reference to Shakespeare and Moby Dick). It’s an idealization of what the future might be and an engagement with the societal fears of the present, rather than a romanticizing of a past that never was and an appeal to the oldest storytelling archetypes we continually return to.  Both of these narrative styles have merit and have been used to tell wonderful stories, but they anything but similar (one could argue that this is a major failing of the Lucas’ prequels, actually – which borrowed the technobabble and political ruminations of Trek but none of its vibrant, thoughtful humanism and then tried to graft those elements onto an inherently mythic story).

The Abrams Trek films – particularly the first one, which at least lacks the glaring plot issues that even Abrams has admitted plague the sequel – do not understand the distinction. Indeed, for the longest time I thought of them as “how can I make a Star Wars film with the franchise rights I was able to get.” Having seen what an Abrams Star Wars film looks like, I no longer think this is so (though Nero is certainly the most blatant attempt to write a Star Wars villain I can think of). No, the problem with the Trek reboots is that a truly ingenious base concept (canonical Alternate Universe fanfiction? Yes please!) and talented cast are hamstrung by the sheer amount of vitriolic hate for the source material that oozes from every pore of the thing, scrunching its face and stomping through the motions like an angry teenager being forced to attend family dinner after their grounding.

Kirk? Reduced to a bro-ish jackass with no regard for women beyond one night stands (is it time to bring up that “Kirk is a feminist” post? I think it is). The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better in being pared down to the pop cultural remnants of themselves, at which point they are then handed sniping, acidic dialogue that makes it quite the feat when the script calls on us to believe that any of these people like each other. And it somehow got less progressive in its depiction of female characters than a show created in the 1960s, reducing Uhura’s role to “Spock’s girlfriend,” pushing Christine Chapel all the way offscreen as one of Kirk’s meaningless one night stands, making Carol Marcus a combo Macguffin-damsel-sex object, killing off Amanda so that Spock can have something to angst about, and resolutely refusing to add any new female characters of note or even cross casting a la Hannibal. They are ugly, teeth-gritted films that resent their own existence, refusing even to do what a good remake does: to nurture the enduring parts of a story that has allowed it to speak to multiple generations and enriching that with the diversity or thematic complexity that have become commonplace in the meanwhile.

darling protags

And that is one of the best surprises of The Force Awakens: it buries, in a shallow and spit upon grave, the notion that just because a new production born out of nostalgia need be beholden to the cultural mindset in which the original was made. The new cast is vibrant with diversity, finally giving fans who aren’t Straight White Dudes to see themselves reflected in their favorite geeky media. More thrilling still, the script’s fantastical designs also help it to avoid more general stereotypical writing: Finn is not the Wisecracking Black Friend, nor is Rey a Strong Female Character incapable of showing human warmth but also paradoxically in need of rescue. They’re flawed, likeable characters drawn simply but vividly, enough to fit in with the straightforward story but also to allow the actors to layer inner life into their performances. The predominate casting of unknowns winds up being one more mark in favor of the film, letting the young actors bring their roles to life without predetermined audience expectation. It shows a movie that has faith in its story (and, yes, comfort in the pull of its brand alone), to front the characters rather than using big names to lure in viewers.

Even the movie’s Good vs. Evil battle has grown up. There are still plenty of ominous Space Nazis walking around in crisp uniforms and thinly veiled jackboots, but there’s also a full spectrum of grey that was never a real consideration of the older films (take the “Han shot first” debacle, a pure example of Lucas’ nervousness at allowing moral greyness even in a character whose redemptive arc was already thoroughly defined). Here the Dark Side is not the singular metaphorical death dangled before Luke. It’s societal conditioning, fascism, depersonalization of others. The faces of who is and isn’t “good” is a theme across almost every major character, and even characters under the Good Guy blanket are pushed to expand their sense of what the right thing to do is. There’s a push for compassion, a sense that these people actually care about one another even when they come into conflict. There’s a reason to care about what becomes of them beyond waiting for the next flashy set piece to get rolling.

the flare

Speaking of the effects, on a technical level the film is a marvel. Abrams’ dedication to practical effects (that labor of love element showing through again) brings the sets to life, and there is a heartening lack of lens flare outside of a singular scene where it actually lends a sense of scope to the proceedings. The callbacks and inclusion of the old cast feels, by and large, organic rather than stinking of fanservice for its own sake (though the inevitable inclusion of “I have a bad feeling about this” is quite cringe-inducing). And while one potential criticism of the film is the fact that it steals, all but perfectly intact, the skeletal structure of the original Star Wars, I would counterargue that seeing a female protagonist enact the empowerment fantasy of the traditional Hero’s Journey narrative is so rare in modern Hollywood that I managed to spend two hours and change being endlessly delighted at one of the oldest tricks in the storytelling book.

Love breeds affection and understanding, introspection at what makes a story work rather than just what’s marketable about it. Finding that heart at the center of one of the most profitable marketing schemes of the new millennium is a heartwarming surprise. If they can keep this up, populating future installments with a team that both loves what they’re working with and are willing to help it evolve where it has become outdated and tired, then the wave of new Star Wars films might just be a real joy rather than a cynical cash grab after all.

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26 comments on “Why JJ Abrams’ Star Wars Succeeds Where His Star Trek Failed

  1. The Prequel were Grayer then TFA which is the main reason I still like them more.

  2. The only problem is the film still doesn’t pass the Bechel Test. Even the her scene with Maz was ultimately about Luke.

    It’s a disappointment this film didn’t do much to help the MaleSlash FemSlahs dis-balance. We got Finn and Poe, and we Kylux, and some possible Het ships for Rey, and of course an OT3 for the leads. But the only Women Rey interacted with were older maternal figures.

    We know little about the other 6 Knights of Ren, no faces even. I hope 3 or 4 of them are Women.

  3. If you’re going to cite the increase in Diversity as vital to why The Force Awakens was what Star Wars needed at least give the Prequels their due for making the SW universe more diverse.

    We have Mace Windu who was not stereotyped at all, but rather it was rare then for Smauel L Jackson to not be a role that required him to have a vital Angry black man scene. Lando was very much a stereotype. And Jango Fett, who actually did stuff unlike Boba-Fett (and Phasma). And Bail Organa.

    Ya know it kinda feels like the only people who are white in the PT are Qui-Gon and the ones the canon of the OT required to be white. Luke and Leia’s biological ancestors, Obi-Wan and the Emperor.

    And plenty of the CG character were played by non White actors.

    And Padme is a much better female lead then Leia. Her treatment in Episode II was unfortunate and pretty much the only criticism I have of the Prequels. But Episode II alone she outdoes what Leia did in an entire Trilogy. She is my personal favorite Star Wars character.

    And even if they’re only in the background seeing that Female Jedi existed was cool. Obi-Wan’s attitude in V and VI kinda doesn’t make sense with him knowing women could be Jedi, but that’s a continuity error I’m cool with.

    And Slash shipping Anakin and Obi-Wan comes far more naturally then Luke and Han.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      Mace didn’t actually get to do anything in the plot aside of a single fight (which is, in fact, pretty alright when they finally let him act), Padme is forced by contrivances of the plot to be completely passive, and there are no other meaningful female characters. And CG characters are nice as far as giving those actors work but don’t do much as an argument for diversity. The prequels’ diversity is window dressing, worthy of a golf clap at most.
      TFA does everything it can, within its constraints as a sequel, to give its leading influential roles to women and people of color. To make heroes out of its non White Dude characters. There are things to enjoy about the prequel films (Williams does some undeniably strong work, and some of the action set pieces actually work), it’s swell that you like them and all, but they’re structurally a damn mess and deeply confused as to their own identities.

      • Mace was as Important as Yoda up until his Death. And his Death adds a new Layer to ROTJ when Vader makes his decision. The scene parallels that for a reason, Vader is taken back to the moment he first made a decision to side with the Dark and then makes a decision to side with the Light.

        Padme is not remotely Passive in Episodes I or II.

        Their Structure is perfectly coherent to me.

        Did you see my comment on your Sailor Moon post?

  4. You’re spot on here. Abrams loves Star Wars, didn’t like Star Trek, and it shows.

    Another major factor to take into consideration is a matter of structure. Star Trek works best as a TV show, as you can flit from idea to idea, episode to episode, and draw on the strengths of your ensemble cast. It doesn’t translate well to the standard summer blockbuster model.

    Star Wars, on the other hand, INVENTED the standard summer blockbuster model, so JJ Abrams can just plug in all the big action setpieces he wants without anyone batting an eye. Well, almost all of them – I think he could’ve easily cut at least one sequence (you know the one) without losing anything.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      Oh I believe I do, yes (home of the only cringey callback). You’re right about the movies, too – I love all the original Trek films (well, okay, not V, but I like the other odd ones sincerely, as Spock studies), but really they’re most fascinating as these elegiac little snapshots of aging that happen to have explosions and whales

  5. nitrateglow says:

    Though I was bothered by the fanservice-y moments, I loved this new film, certainly miles ahead of the dull prequels which don’t come across as morally grey so much as a mess of “dark, adult themes” transplanted onto a juvenile action film. Just curious, have you ever seen The Clone Wars TV series. I felt there was actually allowed to be moral grey areas in that, Anakin feels like a nuanced character, and even Padme is given tons of agency and awesome moments.

    Anyways, the one thing which I loved the most about TFA was the new characters. Finn, Rey, and Poe are all human and fun to watch. I really feel like the pulpy, even slightly cornball, aspects of the originals has returned. I’m excited for the next episodes.

    • Every Morally Grey area on Clone Wars is merely expanding on what was already there in The Prequels.

      • nitrateglow says:

        Yeah and making it one hundred times better, like Anakin not being a psychotic creeper and more of a good man seduced by the dark side. If anything, it felt like a rewrite half of the time.

        Okay, I’m sorry. I mean, if you love the prequels, good. I wish I did too, because it would be great to have three more SW films to enjoy, but I do not. I saw them before the originals as a kid and even then, I did not care for them. I am sorry that prequel fans are given so much garbage from other fans. You are allowed to have your opinion and Vrai and I are allowed to have ours.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      I watched the original Clone Wars miniseries back in the day and really enjoyed it (that animation! that style! Grievous as an actually interesting villain to go with the cool design!). I haven’t watched the new series, though I’ve heard consistently good things about it

      • nitrateglow says:

        I loved what they did with Darth Maul, who’s become one of my faves, plus the episode which is pretty much a remake of Hitchcock’s “Notorious”, ha! Rebels is pretty good as well, though Gravity Falls has taken my attention away from it in all of the meantime.

  6. vilsal says:

    Spoilers will follow.

    I’m more bothered by the recycling than you. Sure, finally getting a female jedi who gets to do something in one of the films is wonderful (and almost enough to offset my sadness at Kreia becoming non-canon), but it is also now the third Star Wars to end with the future of the galaxy riding on a few scrappy pilots being able to destroy a planet-sized super weapon. It was already boring when Lucas & co. did it in The Return of the Jedi, but at least they cross-cut to fuzzy Vietcong and the superb Vader/Luke/Emperor fight. Here we occasionally see rewritten parts from A New Hope’s second act. It’s still a good film, but I don’t see it becoming anywhere near as iconic as its predecessors.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      I can see that. Though I think that what makes Star Wars work has never, ever been the uniqueness of its core plot (which are licking the toes of Joseph Campbell every damn step of the way) but how that plot is executed. And the flavoring here is just so damn wonderful (Ren as Anakin-done-right, REY, Finn and Poe’s fantastic chemistry, actually daring to axe a major character even if it WAS basically ANH again). Though I’m 1000% with you that if this new entrypoint doesn’t become a springboard for more daring exploration in future it’ll be really frustrating.

      • vilsal says:

        I see Star Wars as kind of a balancing act between the familiar and the original. The basic plot points do indeed come from Joseph Campbell, who supposedly got them from every myth ever, and ANH is basically cobbled together from bits and pieces of old scifi serials, WWII films, Akira Kurosawa and Leni Riefenstahl. However, those scenes and ideas were put together like nothing before, and at least Lucas had the good sense to steal from sources his audience was unfamiliar with. With TFA, every person in the theater knows where these images come from. I will give Abrams the lightsaber duel in the snowy forest, which looked splendid. I’m not sure Rey should have won that clearly, but that’s perhaps a different matter.

        But yeah, I may end up changing my mind completely once we get the other films in the series. Maybe they’re even about the traumatic past repeating itself over and over on a galactic scale and Abrams turns out to have been really clever.

        • Vrai Kaiser says:

          The best part is Abrams doesn’t even have to be clever (He really is Lucasian in his approach of just recycling old plots with convincingly veiled reference. All of em). All it takes is the next director to pick up on that theme and be smarter or more ambitious, and THEN we’re in business. It’s the potential of what’s on display here that I really love (I’d say the same is true of ANH anyway – it’s a fine pure adventure story, but it’s what was built out of it by the next two scripts that’s really fantastic)

    • The Star Wars films are supposed to Rhyme, that is the point.

      So much of what’s similar is notable in how it’s different. And while the marketing would never admit this, I feel this film echoed The Phantom Menace equally as much as A New Hope. I’d argue in the third act Rey was Episode I Obi-Wan more then she was any Skywalker. Skywalkers always lose their first battle with a Sith.

  7. arbitrary_greay says:

    Others are bemoaning Too Trek Too Furious, but reading this, I’m actually more optimistic for the upcoming Justin Lin movie. His film hallmarks have been the love of the characters, even as he also leverages their stereotypes, and ensuring that the action matters through consistent character and relationship development scenes. Vin and Dwayne get to ham it up and go larger-than-life in various tropes, (gang leader, military man, big brother, cowboy for justic) but they are also allowed to access a wide array of tropes to create characters with depth in their summation. Finally, Justin tends to address cultural aspects as they are relevant to the characters. (Ludacris and Dwayne vs. classist racism in F&F6, the themes about the cycle of crime and how both external and internal factors continually draw the Toretto family back into it)

    Better Luck Tomorrow was cynical as per its subject matter, but that did not decrease its passion and empathy. That’s also what elevated his F&F moves from the cynical cash grab the franchise original was. So I see no reason why the next Trek won’t have love, affection, understanding, and introspection.

  8. Ben says:

    While I absolutely agree with you about the value in finally bringing a diverse cast front and centre in Star Wars, I think you’re understating the significance of TFA’s imitation of ANH. When Lucas started Star Wars the underlying themes may have been older than the written word, but he presented them in a way not quite like anything that had come before, creating something new.

    But when you’re playing in a well established setting it’s pushing your luck to recycle the plot, character arcs and even the background business of the film that *established* that setting. There’s a line, however fuzzy, between inspiration and replication and I left the cinema with the feeling that TFA was much more the latter than the former. The treatment of Kylo Ren (finally a Sith who’s an actual character and not a cardboard cutout monster) is the only thing in the movie that feels truly new.

    It’s the strength of the performances that make TFA a worthy sequel. Ridley, Boyega, Driver and Isaac are hugely talented but also hugely likeable – and it’s that likeability that carries much of the story. To me, that’s a sign of how weak the story is. TFA is good, but with better bones it could have been great. And with the characters now established the sequel(s) really need to take them new places.

    Rey and Finn deserve better than to simply re-enact, step by step, the stories of their spiritual predecessors.

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