Friday, December 25, 2015

J.J. Abrams: Theologian (Or, Fate Has Everything to Do with It)

Merry Christmas, everyone. The gifts are open, so let's talk spoilers about The Force Awakens, which we saw as a family as our Christmas Eve movie yesterday. For the record: we all loved it, though to varying degrees and for varying reasons. Here are mine.

My mostly positive reaction to this fine, fun space-opera-action movie essentially begins with my overwhelming negative reaction to this horrible, space-action-without-the-opera trailer for this summer's looming Star Trek horror, Star Trek Beyond:

Obviously, it's just a trailer, and even one of the stars of the film has told us fans to hang on for the traditional "Star Trek stuff." But it's hard to doubt, on the basis of the mess of Star Trek Into Darkness, that this is where J.J. Abrams wanted the whole property of Star Trek to be: uprooted from the broad, even sprawling, complex, organization-based, thoroughly human (and humanistic) context of the United Federation of Planets, and forced into an enclosed, operatic, action-based mold of lucky/tragic/magical/fated heroes and heroines facing off against universe. A lot of us saw this coming with J.J. Abrams's original re-boot Star Trek, but that first movie included such winning reconstructions of the core characters that even those deeply devoted to the original Roddenberry vision of Trek--and I'm not nearly as devoted as many--gave the coincidences of that film a pass. But those coincidences and retreads became simply clumsy and manipulative in the second film, and even though Abrams has handed off the director duties for the third, my hope that it'll avoid giving us even more of the same is weak, and thus I am fearful that one of the essential science-fiction story-telling properties of the 20th-century is going to be weakened further.

Was Star Trek really science fiction? Yes, it often was, of a particular, rather optimistic sort. I once described it as "human-science-meets-the-infinite, I-put-on-my-space-suit-and-plug-in-my-time-machine-and-touch-the-face-of-God" type of tales, a way of telling stories cinematically in which ordinary human organizations and bureaucracies interact with and are challenged by the unknown, and those challenges--even when they are tragic and chastening--are ultimately positive. There are, to be sure, lots of other types of science-fiction tales, but Star Trek's is--hopefully not was--an important source of one of them. The Star Wars movies is the source of another--one much more in line with Abrams's basic perspective--more dramatic, more individualistic, more heroic, more outrageous, more enclosed (zipping across the galaxy in mere "parsecs"!). And The Force Awakens demonstrates that particular perspective very, very well.

The primary knock against TFA--which, to be clear, is a very minority perspective; just about everyone has said how much they enjoyed this rollicking adventure down memory lane--is that it's not adding anything to the Star Wars story-line; it's just repeating everything that the first film did. I respect those who want to take the film on its own terms and suggest how Abrams hurried, plot-hole-filled reset of the whole original story-line could be, with a few tweaks, made to work. While I was watching the First Order march about and Supreme Leader Snoke pontificate during the movie, I kind of did the same thing, imagining a way of making a couple of weird assumptions, shifting a couple of story arcs, and leaping directly from The Empire Strikes Back (the Empire disorganized but still powerful, the Rebel Alliance presumably settling in for the long haul under the leadership of Leia and Luke) directly to The Force Awakens, and seeing if that might make an equal amount of sense. But ultimately, I forgot about all that. Such re-jiggering of the sloppy, confusing, but utterly delightful film that Abrams made simply doesn't matter much to me.

Instead, I dug seeing Abrams play around in a story-world that clearly fits him. He gave us a storm-trooper--Finn--who suddenly, somehow, realizes he wants to be good, and dives into that heroic life without really knowing why or how, almost consciously acting out a script that is not his own. He gives us an angry, immature, scarily powerful yet undisciplined, striving yet divided young man--Kylo Ren, who hates himself for his dividedness and hates his family even more, the sort of dangerous punk who would put ridiculous laser guards on the hilt of his light-saber, because wanna-be tough-guys always dress up their monster trucks that way, don't they? Finally, he gives us an obviously blessed individual--Rey--who may or may not be Luke's daughter, and who becomes the linchpin of the whole story, a plucky and resourceful and independent thinker and actor, and through whom the wonder and the desperate fate of the whole galaxy comes to depend. Along the way he gives us either new chapters or ending chapters for characters that we fondly remember from decades ago. (For the record: I managed to avoid the spoiler of Han Solo's death entirely, but I knew what was coming the moment he walked out on the gangplank towards his son.)

Most of all, Abrams embraces unapologetically and unambiguously the magical character of The Force. Maz Kanata, even more than Yoda, insists that the Force is a mystical but also natural law, a balancing agent that operates wherever and however it will. (Note that there is nothing, in any kind of philosophical or theological sense, "natural" about Star Trek.) No miserable mitochlorians here; whether such pseudo-scientific explanations come up in the subsequent movies or not, in TFA it is simply a given that there is this power that picks people out, makes them special--capable of fighting with a light-saber, flying a junky old starship, or taking command of people's minds. Is that, ultimately, the moral theology of the force which Abrams was suggesting in the way he portrayed the torture scene between Ren and Rey, and their later light-saber duel? That the former idolizes his grandfather Darth Vader because he's come to believe (thanks to the corrupting suggestions of the evil Snoke, no doubt) that he knew how to use that power to control others, to force the universe to work the way he wanted it to, and he, in rebellion against his parents, wants that too? Whereas the light side of the Force is one that is reflected in the end of Ren's and Rey's fight--the planet falling apart around them, and a chasm emerging exactly between them, like the universe making its point clear. Nature itself is insisting upon the real differences here, both demanding a ultimate distinction, while also delaying the fated final confrontation.

The best understanding of the Star Wars science-fiction world has always been, I think, more religious that scientific. Science, with all its presumptions and possibilities, was a Star Trek concern. That means the best of Star Trek really was better science-fiction than Star Wars, because it is only with those scientific presumptions and possibilities can you communicate a real sense human-grounded wonder, confusion, and amazement. Star Wars is more about thrills, more about adventure, more about the existential realized through the world around you: less, in other words, about confronting the unknown and more about confronting one's fate. It really is a "space opera." Abrams gave me that this Christmas, and I'm delighted with it. So stick with Star Wars, Mr. Abrams, please, and leave Star Trek alone--I want both kinds of stories, and I'd rather the streams not cross, if we can avoid it.


Kyle said...

Fwiw, those extra blades on Kylo's light saber are vents...he built his weapon with a very powerful, very unstable crystal. Hence the ragged edges, and the need for plasma vents on either side.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Hmm. I like my explanation better, Kyle, but from your detail I assume you're speaking with canonical knowledge. Where from? An early novelization of some sort?

Nathan Sullivan said...

I thought the movie was well organized, it was a combination of 4-6 opening up brilliant new story paths for our young heroes to take and the development of a new sith lord and with that I add "and I will drop my gun".