Monday, May 10, 2010

J.J. Abrams, Please Stop Killing People

I saw a movie trailer this weekend for a film that looked promising... at first. The trailer itself was fairly minimalistic: A cargo-laden train rolling down an empty stretch of land at night. Words appearing out of nowhere, describing how a large portion of what was contained in Area 51 was slated to be relocated... but the train never reached its destination. An explosion. Gradual zoom on one car that clearly has something inside that's trying to get out. From director Steven Spielberg.

This looks good, I thought.

And director J.J. Abrams.

Well, shoot. There's another movie I don't have to see.

My knowledge of Abrams' work is extremely limited: I saw Cloverfield and the 2009 Star Trek movie. I also saw Mission: Impossible III, but that was a long time ago, and I'm only pretty sure I liked it. Spielberg's track record isn't perfect in my book, but when he lets me down, I write it off as a disappointing movie; when Abrams lets me down, I just get frustrated and annoyed.

After giving it some thought, I've determined I'm not fond of J.J. Abrams' directorial style because of how he handles his characters. For instance, I liked Cloverfield on a conceptual level--it's a documentary-style, unconventional story of a group of young'uns trying not to get killed in a monster attack--but all of the characters were utterly unlikeable. They were the kind of people I tended to avoid hanging out with at college, and some of their personality traits aggravated me--especially their penchant for making bonehead decisions--which made the film incredibly difficult to watch.

Thinking about Cloverfield in this way brought me to a revelation about why I'm so down on the 2009 Star Trek movie: J.J. Abrams made Kirk, Uhura, and the rest of the Enterprise crew unlikeable. I'm not talking about radically transforming the characters or egregiously miscasting anyone; the subtlety of their unlikeability is such that I'm only just now beginning to discover it.

As I've harped on before, Uhura is the biggest offender in this department, mostly because her floozie disposition neither fit the character I knew, nor did it flow logically that NuTrek Uhura should be that different from Nichelle Nichols' portrayal of Uhura. At least Kirk's extreme recklessness and unapologetic disdain for authority made sense given the setup for the movie, but that still didn't make me like him all that much.

Here's the thing: J.J. Abrams was watching the same Star Trek TV show I've watched, but he emphasized or extrapolated from certain character traits in a way that didn't jive with my way of thinking about the characters. Where I saw a chief engineer whose enthusiasm stemmed from the love of his work, Abrams saw a really happy Scotsman. I'm not saying that the actors didn't have a hand in developing the characters one way or another, but I don't want to downplay the impact I suspect the director had on this film.

How a writer or director handles a character's life can be just as important as how he or she handles a character's death, and I find that I differ with Abrams on this point as well. In my mind, character death should either be meaningful (a heroic sacrifice, for instance) or the unfortunate result of a series of decisions and circumstances that might have been avoided (such as getting eaten by a velociraptor). Abrams seems to create a third option that is utterly distasteful to me.

There's an unspoken rule about which characters are "safe," and which ones are fair game for the Grim Reaper. Firefly, for example, makes it very clear from the first episode that no one is safe, and part of the thrill of the show is that you don't know if the heroes are going to pull through. Star Trek, on the other hand, is a "safe" show--of course they can't kill off Kirk or Spock; the excitement comes more from guessing how the crew is going to get themselves out of trouble this time.

With Firefly, death is a very real possibility, and just like real life, people don't always get to go out through the heroic door. With Star Trek, death is something reserved for very special and often meaningful occasions--with few exceptions, if a character dies, their death was for something. You might not like how they die, but the story developed in such a direction their death was, in most cases, the only way out of the situation at hand.

J.J. Abrams indiscriminately kills people to shock the viewer or to force the plot in a certain direction. Death isn't an ever-present and realistic risk, nor is it a plot device reserved for the climax of the movie--characters die whenever there's a need for convoluted shock value, or whenever the plot needs to go in a different direction. It's like playing Civilization III and killing off peasants to build your stupid granary faster. The story isn't about the characters; the characters exist to advance the plot. It's a subtle difference, but a very important one that helps to explain why I lost interest in that Area 51 movie after seeing J.J. Abrams' name in the trailer.


Scott said...

It sounds as if you think of him as some kind of cinematic George R. R. Martin. I can certainly see where you're coming from, but I also think that it's part of the new "modern" tradition of media that insists that things be "grittier" and "more realistic." Lots of scare quotes there to show my disdain for the new tradition.

Flashman85 said...

I agree that it's "hip" to be "more realistic." But the vibe I get in that department from other movies is usually more like Realistic = Life Stinks, whereas here, I just don't like the people.