There are a lot of obstacles to making a good Star Wars movie, which Mr. Lucas himself discovered when he tried to return to the franchise after 15 years only to produce three of the worst bad-but-successful movies ever (until the recent Transformers films).
The original trilogy has become culturally iconic, setting a standard that is unreasonably high. Their story is largely self-contained, meaning that any new movie has to begin with a lot of world-building and can’t simply happen in the universe people already adore. Their scope is mythic–probably by accident–which is an arduously difficult original intention and even harder to recreate. (Myths don’t naturally beget sequels, even modern ones like the Lord of the Rings.) I could go on.
The single biggest obstacle though is J. J. Abrams. Judging from his past work anyway, he’s simply unfit for the attempt.
Just to be clear, I’m sure his new Star Wars movie will be exciting. I’m sure it will make a lot of money and launch a financially successful franchise. (As Michael Bay’s work frequently exemplifies though, that’s more an indictment of audiences than any statement about the movies.) I’m even relatively confident that it will be better than Mr. Lucas’ prequels.
But it will also be vapid, forgettable if not regrettable, over-rated, and degrading. Mr. Abrams has not merely proven himself to be incapable of creating iconic myth; he actively undermines the elements that would make that sort of enterprise possible. He has shown that his interests are exclusively–in the sense of destroying alternatives–focused on showiness over substance, on excitement over engagement, on intrigue over insight. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Of course, if all you want is an exciting movie involving spaceships and explosions in which some people fight with laser swords, none of that matters. But then, if he added some laser swords to the recent Star Trek, you would have the same thing.
Actually Star Trek is a good place to start, because Mr. Abrams explicitly described his endeavor with the Star Trek movies as trying to make them more like Star Wars. The result indicates how he sees Star Wars, and I think that ought to be disappointing for fans of either classic Science Fiction franchise.
He gutted a series filled with complex relationships, piercing social commentary, and some truly remarkable vision–a series he apparently found boring–and developed instead a group of empty caricatures who pursue half-heartedly disguised macguffins along a roller-coaster of gratuitous and incomprehensible action sequences. About the only thing that remains is that both vaguely happen in or near space. I suppose a lot of the names are the same, too.
Two scenes from the first movie that stand out to me–the monster chasing Kirk across the ice and Scotty stuck in the pipe–are good illustrations, not least because they happen near each other. Neither serves any story purpose; they’re not even connected to the rest of the story and could be removed without creating any sort of continuity problems. Their only function is to maintain excitement. In the middle of the movie where the plot is supposed to be advancing and the characters developing, neither plot nor characters are sufficient. In Mr. Abrams’ Star Trek, there needs to be an action sequence every couple of minutes, even if it’s entirely random and entirely irrelevant. Otherwise, I suppose, people might think about what they’re seeing.
Therein lies the difference. Actual Star Trek wanted people to think about what they were seeing.
Star Trek Into Darkness is arguably worse, in part because it rips off not just the best Star Trek movie ever, but one of the best movies in general ever made. Star Trek II is an incredibly artful treatment of human frailty and human strength. There’s this point of emotional crisis at the end, when Kirk–old, tired, and alone–runs through the battered corridors of the ship, fearing but knowing that he’s going to see one of his best friends die. Then the movie lets that death hang in the air, because that death is the point. It’s the fulfillment of both strength (friendship and self-sacrifice) and frailty (mortality and vulnerability). And it’s entirely transformative, because Kirk (the frail), who has spent the entire movie trying (and failing) to be strong, finally understands strength. It’s brilliant; I’m not explaining it well.
Star Trek Into Darkness shakes things up a bit, and has Spock–young, vital, stoic–run through the ship to witness the death of a man whom he has heretofore not even considered much of a friend. Fortunately, the movie then goes on to make the emotional crisis a fist-fight between supermen on top of what appears to be a garbage scow. And then the death is undone by convenient tribble-magic, because that’s better.
No amount of derision is sufficient.
Either way, that sort of incoherent, inconsistent, unrelatable, empty, inhuman movie apparently represents what J. J. Abrams thinks of Star Wars. If that’s what he produces from excellent source material, I shutter to think what he creates on his own.