[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.
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.
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.
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.