Friday, January 25, 2013

Goodbye Space Lincoln: JJ Abrams and Cultural Homogeneity

I’ll admit that when I first heard that JJ Abrams was poised to direct the new Star Wars film, my initial geek blurt was, “That’s good.”  This was the director of the LOST pilot, Mission Impossible 3, the rebooted Star Trek film.  Those are all solid entertainments, infused with a mixture of solid character work and action that is not just kinetic, but coherent (a point on which his is often superior to the chaotic approach of Christopher Nolan).   When adapting an old property, as with Star Trek, Abrams has demonstrated the ability to infuse it with contemporary sensibilities while also demonstrating his own obvious admiration for the source material. 

It could easily be argued that 2009’s Star Trek film wasn’t really a Star Trek film, as it eschewed the philosophy and social critique of the original series to make room for sick ass sky jumps and “splosions”.  But the Star Trek films have been moving in that direction since the failure of Star Trek the Motion Picture all the way back in 1979.  What troubles me about this is the idea of a single voice holding the reins to two most prominent science fiction mythologies of an entire culture.

Artists impart sensibility.  Likewise, the level to which a character or universe is available for interpretation can provide for greater degrees of interpretation.  There are currently three active interpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes characters; two different television series and a chain of feature films.  Regardless of personal preference or relative accuracy in relation to source material, this demonstrates how a property’s status in the public domain can contribute to a more robust cultural landscape.  Had Warner Brothers retained the copyright to the character upon the release of their 2009 film, the subsequent adaptation would never have happened.  However, the character remains open to constant reinterpretation, fulfilling the role of a kind of modern folk tale in that it maintains certain key elements (the triumph of deduction, let’s say) while filtering others through contemporary taste.  The character lives on through reinterpretation. 

Not like i have a preference or anything. 
Even in terms of storytelling there is a greater freedom here.  There is no official Sherlock canon.  Even the books are simply starting points, and there are as many different universes and time lines for Holmes as there are iterations.  Compare this to the news of Abrams directing this new Star Wars film.  He responded to previous Star Trek continuity by literally wiping it from existence through time travel.  You can have your stodgy old tribbles and Space Lincoln, but in this brave new world, there is no room for the past.  There can only be one “official” timeline, and this is it.  

Now we have news that the same man will be providing a likely similar take to another huge property, itself with a pre-existing universe of characters and events that has been unfolding steadily for almost a quarter of a century.  Now, with this new film looming, fans of those stories are about to be told that those events never happened.  Make way for the new universe.  Just as Peter Jackson and Weta have become the sole arbiters of what another man’s universe might look like, so too does this directorial appointment seem to indicate a continuing homogeneity of approach.

Science fiction looks to the future and wonders what could be.  It envisions a better world, or a smarter world, or another world entirely, and dares us to achieve it in our own.  Star Trek’s creator, Gene Rodenberry, famously insisted that his Starfleet would not be driven by internal conflict among crew members.  This was a future where we were past that.  It pushed up against the boundaries of what could be depicted during an era of intense racial segregation and gender normativity.  

Star Wars, meanwhile, took the monomyth at the root of our story telling and dressed it up in new clothes. It said that the old stories were still powerful, that all they needed was a new outlet.  But what remains of these aspirations and these undercurrents when two entire canons are handed over to a single individual, himself representing the best choice of a profit minded pair of mega corporations seeking to challenge as little as possible?  What happens to that optimism?  It doesn't go away, but it becomes harder and harder to hear over the drum of the status quo endorsing juggernauts that are now wearing its skin.         

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