7 - The Michael Bay of Rehashes

"Sorry about him. He's dealing with being an inker." - Ben Affleck as Holden McNeil in Chasing Amy (1997)
"Oh, you trace." - Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa Jones

In retrospect, the writing was on the wall for "J.J. Abrams Movie Director" after Super 8. He did what up-and-coming directors are supposed to do: made serious money with studio pictures that nobody really wanted made. Star Trek 11 is a reboot, and Mission Impossible 3 is a straight up sequel. Neither are the kind of creative projects that allow people to build worlds or stretch their imaginations. Then, when Abrams was finally given his own movie to do whatever he wanted, he chose to do an E.T. remake that didn't have E.T..

What Star Trek 12 and Star Wars 7 have in common is that they aren't quite remakes and they aren't quite sequels. Both are new entries in long running franchises that repeat lines, scenes, and entire stories from previous films, yet make no attempt to use those elements as anything other than superficial fan service. It's no coincidence that the best stuff in both films are the parts that are the least recycled.

A rogue Starfleet admiral secretly building a super-ship to start a war with the Klingons is a pretty good idea for a Star Trek story. Khan adds nothing to it other than a familiar name. A stormtrooper with a conscience who rebels against the Empire ("First Order", whatever) is a great Star Wars character. Dropping him onto a desert planet among a search for droids with missing data and then having him repeat the TIE Fighter-Millennium Falcon fight from Star Wars is completely unnecessary and makes an original creation feel like a copy.

These movies aren't remakes and they aren't reboots, they're rehashes. Abrams and his collaborators have no trust in the contextual universes that have made their characters and stories enduringly popular. Instead, they take as their creative axiom that what audiences really want is to see the same stuff they've seen before, but with bigger explosions and more computer animation. If the norms and rules that made the franchises popular in the first place get dropped by the wayside, so be it. And if short, pointless, and nonsensical action sequences make the trailer look better on YouTube, all the better.

Anything's possible, but it's sure hard to imagine that thirty years of better effects from now, anyone's going to say, "Episode VII's my favorite, remember when they flew down that trench?", or "That one with the skinny British dude playing Khan really holds up". Rehashes like this sacrifice any chance at being classics for comfortable familiarity. But while imitations are always inferior and less memorable, they are profitable. It's hard to imagine movies that are safer financial bets than these, and that's a big reason why they suck.

The calculated cynicism and anti-artistic greed that underpins them is so naked as to almost be admirable. Faced with the wreckage of ambitious if misfired efforts, Abrams and his bosses took as few chances as possible and gave audiences exactly what we expect. Doing so sells tickets the same way McDonald's sells hamburgers, by making things just familiar enough to distract from the poor quality.

Like Michael Bay before him, as a director J.J. Abrams is a savant hack. He can do a very narrow range of not particularly impressive things, but he does them well enough that tickets will always get sold. But while Bay at least sometimes strikes out in his own direction, Abrams never so much as looks off the rails. And that is the creative void that defines J.J. Abrams as a director: his movies have been made before and much better.

Continue to Appendix A: For Fuck's Sake, Let These Copyrights Expire