How ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ Highlights J.J. Abrams’ Biggest Weaknesses as a Storyteller

     March 18, 2020

jj-abrams

Spoilers ahead for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

I had a lot of dread leading up to The Rise of Skywalker, not just because I enjoyed The Last Jedi so much, but because we know who director J.J. Abrams is at this point as a storyteller. I hoped I was wrong and that Abrams would surprise us, but as The Rise of Skywalker shows, he’s still the same guy who has never grown beyond his shortcomings. If anything, those weaknesses seem to have calcified and hardened, making them even more prevalent in his storytelling.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am not making a statement about J.J. Abrams as a person. By all accounts, he is a lovely human being and people seem to really enjoy working with him. He’s also obviously worked very hard at his career. However, since Abrams is one of our most dominant filmmakers in Hollywood right now and has had a hand in shaping some of its biggest franchises, I feel that it’s important to examine and critique his storytelling.

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Image via Lucasfilm

For me, the film that’s the key to understanding Abrams as a storyteller is 2011’s Super 8. While Abrams had a long history of being a showrunner (Felicity and Alias) and screenwriter (Regarding Henry and Gone Fishin’) before moving to motion pictures with 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, Super 8 is as close as he’s ever come to making a personal movie. Abrams’ career directing feature films has always revolved around franchises, and even in his one movie that’s not based on a pre-existing property, he chose to soak it in Amblin’ tropes, which in turn positions Abrams as an heir-apparent of sorts to Steven Spielberg by combining ideas between the two directors. Curiously, given all of his success and name recognition, Abrams has never tried to helm material outside of a blockbuster sphere. As a basis for comparison, while Spielberg broke out big with one of the first blockbusters, Jaws, in 1975, by 1985, he was pursuing dramatic material with The Color Purple and two years later, Empire of the Sun. By comparison, Abrams’ feature directing career over the past 13 years consists of two Star Trek movies, two Star Wars movies, a Mission: Impossible movie, and Super 8. (It should noted that while Abrams co-created Lost, he had little to do with the show creatively beyond the pilot and has had a similarly reduced executive producer role on other shows like Fringe, Person of Interest, and Westworld)

When you look across all these features, what you see is someone who loves the comfort that fandom provides and the nostalgia of iconography. You also see someone who never really works to drill down deeper into what his characters or his story is doing. For Abrams, movies are about the ride and the moments, not about the cohesive whole, and he’s able to cover that up through strong characterization and breakneck pacing. You don’t really have time to consider that an Abrams movie isn’t working or that its story beats don’t connect because he’s already moved on to the next thing. For a guy who got his start as a screenwriter and should have some concept of storytelling, it’s fascinating that his stories are consistently kind of weak and rely far too heavily on revelation.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

If you look at Super 8, you’ve got all the hallmarks of a 1980s Amblin movie, especially E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The movie is filled with endearing characters played by terrific young actors and it’s motivated by a mystery box plot: what is the creature that escaped from the train and what is happening to the townsfolk? The setting and visuals drip with 80s nostalgia (with little to no questioning of the 1980s or the cinema of the 1980s), and the final reveal is that it’s a big angry alien intended to mirror a young boy’s grief. When the townsfolk bid the alien good-bye, it’s a mirror of the young boy saying good-bye to his anger over losing his mother and learning to heal. It’s a nice ending, but also one that overlooks the monster killing a bunch of people. However, since Abrams wants the moment more than the cohesion, he skips past it.

For Abrams, it doesn’t really matter if a film is less than the sum of its parts because parts are all that matter. If you just hit the individual scenes, then it doesn’t really matter if the connective tissue is weak or non-existent. The button he wants to hit is nostalgia and recognition of the audience. So, for example, when “John Harrison” exclaims, “I am Khan!” in Star Trek Into Darkness, the reaction Abrams wants from his audience is surprise and adulation because they remember Khan from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It’s meant to piggyback on a previous positive memory you had, but Abrams doesn’t acknowledge why this reveal fails to work in his own movie. The Kirk and Spock who learn this information shouldn’t be shocked. Their reaction should be, “Who?” because Abrams created a different timeline. But Abrams goes for the bits of nostalgia at the expense of the whole.

In The Rise of Skywalker, you can see the twin forces of Abrams’ storytelling at play: nostalgia and mystery. Even though The Last Jedi gave us a pretty good answer to Rey’s lineage, Abrams rejects it to reignite the mystery. And the answer to the mystery is nostalgia. You ask a question: “Who is John Harrison? Who are Rey’s Parents?”, and then you answer it with nostalgia: “It’s Khan. It’s Emperor Palpatine’s son and some lady.” Abrams never has to build anything new because the worldbuilding and solutions always exist in the past. There’s nothing to create because someone else already did it, and you can just take that goodwill and graft it on to your thing.

This makes J.J. Abrams the perfect director for major studios, especially in the Internet age. If you whip up a bunch of mysteries, then people will discuss them furiously on social media. It’s even better if you don’t have a specific answer in mind; that way people can come up with all sorts of different theories. If people are talking about it, then the brand is healthy and people are engaged. They’re not engaged with the narrative or themes, mind you. They’re engaged by playing a game, and Abrams is good at keeping people in the game.

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Image via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Then, if your entire world is just nostalgia, the studio is even happier. The new work reinforces the old work. Nothing has been dramatically changed, so you’ve avoided negative controversy. The brand congratulates itself on being the brand, and things like “cohesive plot” and “consistent characters” aren’t important because you made sure to hit the big nostalgia moments. Like a spaceship lightspeed skipping between worlds, it doesn’t really matter how you get there as long as you reach the destination.

But The Rise of Skywalker exposes how shallow and self-defeating this approach can be. I’m sure Disney shareholders, who prize maximum reward for minimal risk, will love it and the movie will easily cruise past $1 billion at the worldwide box office. But for the rest of us, we’re left with a movie that’s deeply unrewarding and kind of insulting.

Take Palpatine for instance. Here’s a character you had a strong emotional attachment to because he played a major role in past Star Wars films. The reasoning goes that if you drop him into The Rise of Skywalker, then the strong emotional attachment carries over and you haven’t had to really create anything new to do it. And yet Abrams has clearly missed the necessary story beats and thematic consequences of this action. Palpatine needs to die at the end of Return of the Jedi because that’s how Vader and Luke reconcile. That act has emotional and thematic meaning for major characters. If Palpatine doesn’t die, then Vader lost his life for nothing. The bad guy wasn’t defeated, only impeded.

Based on his attachments to major properties, J.J. Abrams will be very popular (at least with studios) for years to come. He’s seen as someone who can revive moribund franchises by slapping a new coat of paint on them, casting well, and pumping in humor and nostalgia with some fast pacing. Given the new, mega-expensive partnership between his production studio, Bad Robot, and Warner Bros., I would not be surprised to see him take the reins of the Superman series. And I’m sure there will be big moments like Clark Kent opening his shirt to reveal the Superman logo and perhaps a mystery about the true origins of Lex Luthor.

However, the story won’t be there because for Abrams the story is never really there. The story is a thing that gets in the way of moments, and moments are built on memories of previous movies. That’s what’s so disheartening about Abrams as a storyteller and what’s so apparent in The Rise of Skywalker. He’s a storyteller who’s terrified of doing something new and taking a creative risk that might be unpopular. For a guy who clearly loves the films of Steven Spielberg and the original Star Wars movies, he’s taken the wrong lesson from those works. When it was released, Star Wars was a risk. When it was released, E.T. was a risk. Risk is essential to a good creative endeavor. Trying to make everyone happy by showing them familiar things is a great quality if you’re planning birthday parties for children. But great storytelling is more than asking a question where the answer is, “That thing you liked as a child.”

For more on the future of Star Wars, click here.

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