Along with Beatles vs. Stones and Microsoft vs. Apple, “Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek” is one of those fundamental pop culture arguments that’s always bound to spur discussion wherever the topic is brought up. Even if some feel that the argument has become sort of banal, cliché, and pointless by now, it’s hard to hold back when one of these eternal oppositions becomes a conversation topic.
Though this is, of course, a bit of an over-simplification, in this argument “Trek” is generally thought to represent the virtues of intellectualism, more thoroughly explained sci-fi “tech,” and more overt commentary on our present day world, seeing as how the characters are meant to be our descendants and not “In a galaxy far, far away.” For its part “Star Wars” is generally supposed to represent the virtues of more straightforward action-adventure, mysticism in the place of overly detailed explanations, and pure escapist fantasy versus moral or political dilemmas that are meant to have some resonance to our present day world.
All of these dualities became confused when J.J. Abrams took the reigns of the “Star Trek” franchise. His 2009 “reboot” of the franchise pretty much ditched the intellectualism, moral and ethical dilemmas etc. that had been a hallmark of the franchise in every incarnation, even the more swashbuckling original William Shatner iteration. Instead Abrams offered straightforward sci-fi action adventure and was met with great box office success and general critical praise, aside from a handful of cranks like me who expect at least a soupçon of intellectualism with our “Star Trek.”
Going forward, it looks like whether you go out to see the latest big budget sci-fi extravaganza that has “Wars” or “Trek” somewhere in the title, you’re likely to see something similar to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot. In a big surprise it was announced yesterday that Abrams will be the director for the first Star Wars film that Disney will release since buying Lucasfilm late last year, this despite Abrams making numerous protestations that he would never take the Star Wars job because it would be too much pressure since it was the franchise of which he was a bigger fan, because he didn’t want to be directing films for both franchises at once etc.
Regardless of what you think of Abrams as a director per se, as much more astute and widely read pop cultural commentators than I have already said, this decision is troubling because it represents too much consolidation, too much power in too few hands, in the world of big budget genre filmmaking. It’s a further flattening out of a big budget franchise landscape that was already becoming to homogeneous to begin with. It’s a conservative decision, not in a political sense but in the literal sense of being risk averse.
As I outline above, “Wars” and “Trek” were once thought to represent such opposed sensibilities in popular sci-fi that the idea that the same director would direct films for both franchises would’ve been unthinkable. Now, in a world where an ever dwindling number of enormous media conglomerates control all of these popular properties, the franchises are apparently thought to be so interchangeable that the same directorial vision can suffice for both. The resulting lack of distinctiveness at the multiplex can only be bad for fans of either franchise.
Again, this argument has nothing to do with Abrams’ merits as a director or even his suitability as a director for “Star Wars.” (I actually think he’s a better choice for “Wars” than “Trek.”) It has to do with the troubling trend of media consolidation now being replicated down to the level of individual hiring choices. And it has to do with one single person’s vision being allowed to so thoroughly dominate all of genre filmmaking, crowding out other perspectives and making big budget genre movies generally more homogeneous and indistinct.
This has nothing do with my feelings about lens flares, daddy issues, violin music, or whatever the internet thinks are the signifiers of Abrams’ directorial style. It has everything to do with one person being given an extraordinarily outsize influence over pop culture and the closing off of other perspectives and possibilities that represents.
Just as Joss Whedon has effectively been given control over the entire Marvel Comics superhero universe it looks like J. J. Abrams will most likely soon have control over the entire Star Wars and Star Trek franchises simultaneously. Are we entering a genre filmmaking world where you either see a J.J. Abrams sci-fi film or a Joss Whedon superhero film? While devoted fans of either man probably don’t see the problem with that, I’d like to see a genre world with more possibilities and perspectives, not fewer.