Dec 20, 2019
I’m so tired of writing about J.J. Abrams.
It feels like from minute one of the LOSTaissance, we’ve been on our heels reacting to his unique brand of storytelling, one best embodied by his now infamous Ted Talk on the mystery box. Even then, many understood that the mystery box is 1) just a cheap, but effective method of marketing and 2) something making people curious about what will happen next (I even referenced this when I saw the talk ), but once you get past the initial allure, it ultimately leads to complete dissatisfaction. His career has been full of this kind of ultimate let down. That’s because the vagaries of the mystery box have nothing to with tried and true notions of set ups and payoffs, nor the construction of mysteries with their purposeful evolution of information, but instead simply “hide and tease” the story until it’s practically ripped out by sheer demand. And when ripped, the sad, disappointing truth of what was really in the box is laid bare. But maybe we should expect this of someone who literally told us, “the answer doesn’t matter.”
They do, but that’s only because stories aren’t actually about “answers” at all. What he’s calling answers are actually the artful creation of dramatic catharsis- climactic moments of emotional import that hold deep meaning for us. To be done properly, yes, they require cinematic verve and emotive acting, but most of all, they have to be set up with rigorous story that understandings set up and pay off. But in attempting that last part of storytelling, Abrams only offers false solutions. Most notably, he tries to give answers that already mean something to you. We saw the sparks of nostalgia first get hastily assembled in Super 8, then get hid with more endless references in the convolution of Star Trek Into Darkness. But then the copy and paste nostalgia technique hit is zenith with The Force Awakens, a film that virtually offered a beat-for-beat remix, all while alluding to the idea that one day you could get the moments you truly wanted before passing the lightsaber like a hot potato.
But here, at the end of things, especially after a film that really set the stage for character growth, there would be no hiding. Here with Rise of the Skywalker, the answers, the catharsis, the whatever you would want to call it, would need to come to fruition. The problem? Well, the problem is what it’s always been…
Abrams has no idea how to tell a story.
I’m tired of trying to say that any other way. The problem has always been that there is “nothing in the box,” from the beginning. Yes, he’s seen stories. Yes, he has taste. Yes, he’s seen what impacts people. He’s not a “bad robot,” but like some A.I. bot compiling algorithms, we get them to spit back out no real understanding of what story principles made those moments work in the first place. I’m not trying to paint him or his artistry as inhuman or robotic. I’m saying that his process and instincts are hopelessly imitative because he doesn’t know how to come organically at a story. Or at least, Abrams has never shown that he knows how (and I’ve been watching since Todd Mulcahy, folks. If you’ve never seen the clip, well, here you go). I say all this because often when you sit down with professional writers to talk about story, you are constantly coming at things through a core set of questions…
What does the character want? What does the character need to learn instead? How are they going to learn that? How is the character feeling about what is happening right now? Why do those wants clash with other characters and create psychological conflict? How does this create cause and effect in the plot? How does that conflict create more conflict? Or new resolutions that create a different conflict? How does the outcome propel the plot forward in a meaningful way? How does that outcome change the character? How does it all add up to a meaningful psychological journey? What’s the one thing this character could do at the end of the movie that they were unable to do at the beginning? How did this journey make it possible? How does all this characterize a larger, evolving idea and strike at a theme that resonates deeply? How can all of this happen so seamlessly that it is all naturally dramatized through singular, organic actions, rather than didactically explained?
These questions may seem overwhelming and difficult to answer, but they are the backbone of all good writing. Surprise! Writing is hard! But it needs to be, because answering them well is precisely what allows you to build a story that both satisfies the needs of the given moment while building into a larger evolution of drama, character, plot, and theme. Good movies all do this, which means, yes, you have to sit down and ask these questions for every second of every scene. But that’s just what writing is.
And when you look the work of Abrams? I just don’t see those questions being asked. Even from evidence, he said that when making The Force Awakens they would look at every moment and ask, “is it delightful?” As if his sole intention was to shovel scoop after scoop of ice cream upon us. All throughout his work it’s like he’s been asking a different set of questions: What can I write to manufacture the audience’s affinity? What can I reference that would make the audience happy? What is the quippiest thing I could have the character do right now, regardless of it fits their personality or emotion of the scene? What’s the thing that would most surprise the audience, regardless if its appropriate? What line of dialogue can I use that sounds nice or gets at a vaguely established idealogical notion, but actually has nothing to do with the characters behavior, psychology, or the larger story? How can I best hide what’s really going on the plot? How can I cryptically hint there is more going on without actually answering or pointing toward anything? What framework of conflict can I put in place that just allows the characters to move through it as fast as possible? How can I make it seem fast and exciting without any actual ingrained drama between the characters, just constant threats?
It’s a completely different set of questions and the difference in the results is everything. Going with the first set of questions builds a functional and meaningful movie that has a chance to last. In short, it builds the original Star Wars trilogy. But people often pick the second set of questions because, well, it’s a hell of a lot easier and more seductive (which is exactly what Yoda said about the dark side). And to fill the void, Abrams relies on the dull hum of manufactured conflict, often throwing diversion after diversion at us. He’ll introduce vague ideas before literally cutting away from them (known as plot-blocking). He’ll pile McGuffin after McGuffin on top of each other (many of which should really be characters to create meaningful conflict). He’ll constantly interrupt events because there’s nowhere the scenes are actually going.
With my article on The Force Awakens I linked above, I referenced the old screenwriting adage “when in doubt, have two people come in with guns” (which is itself a bastardization of a quote) and remarked that Abrams must be FULL of doubt if that’s the case. I mention it again here because Rise of the Skywalker puts that film to shame in that regard. Bad guys showing up with guns is a CONSTANT device, rarely culminating in any feeling of power reversal or dynamic, but just more of the constant hum, the loud noise, the mere idea of a threat. Which is precisely why the film can feel so fast, but still never really feel like a chase- It’s only in a rush. All par for the course of what might be the most rushed film I’ve ever seen in my life. To the point that I’m certain the majority of the running time is just characters running as fast as they can from one of side of the screen to the other, as characters literally shout plot details that have nothing to do with anything. But don’t take my word for it, take Chris Pine’s…
“I tell the story about J.J. (Abrams) in the first film when I’d run on the deck of the ship and say something to the blue screen about something. And I had no idea what I was talking about. And I said to J.J., “I’d love to do with more time, cause I don’t know what I’m saying. if you could tell me what I’m saying, it would be a great help.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter. You just run, you say it as fast and earnestly and urgently as possible, and no one is gonna care.”
I didn’t see this quote until recently and it speaks to all my worst suspicions. No, it’s not some deep insight into the Meisner technique. Instead, it might actually be the most cynical thing I’ve ever heard from a filmmaker of his level. Proof positive of everything I’m talking about here, the lack of care, the cynical way of seeing the audience and the story, along with the ease of manipulation behind them. It’s pure Dark Side Filmmaking. Now you might say, “But Hulk! No one cares about exposition!” But that’s not actually true. A lot of people think exposition is boring, but only bad exposition is boring. Because every film you love doesn’t magically get by with zero exposition, it just knows how to layer explanations in meaningful conflict, subtle cinematic cues, or purposeful transitions. In other words, it knows how to make information feel organic and integral into scenes. And the best know how to make it not feel like information at all. But Abrams doesn’t seem to know how to do it, so he just makes the character yell nonsense as they run real fast.
It’s just another way of hiding the nothing.
Look, I know there’s so much I could write about in Return of the Skywalker. I could take another few weeks and go scene by scene and break it apart. I could talk about the films surface level charms (3PO gets to be really funny! Keri Russel! Babu Frik! No one should be immune to funny cuteness!). I could talk about how those charms largely get erased by much of the decisions that come after them (Spoilers from here on in, I guess, but 3PO gets a meaningful action and goodbye! Then it all gets undone! Same goes for the Chewie fake out! Which barely registers!) I could also talk about the sudden, awkward, absurdly weird manner in which the Emperor was retconned back in the beginning and basically turned into Super Shredder Husk (the whole thing feels almost impossibly dumb). But honestly, I’ll suffer nonsensical plotting, if the themes still strike true.
Too bad the film’s messages get reduced to a bunch of trite aphorisms that have no real bearing on the deeper character journeys or overall ethos. Particularly the films groan-inducing reveal of Rey’s parentage, which then has the insistence to argue “blood doesn’t matter!” But it actually matters a lot according your own dang movie, what with the force dyads and Palpantines and inherited lightning powers and what not. It sadly turns out that the force doesn’t belong to everyone, just the ancestral leftovers of some archaic game between king wizard grandpas. Which isn’t even a bad idea to explore if you really want to, but like everything in Abrams’ work, the “blood doesn’t matter!” line is just rendered to lip service. But hell, even I’d forgive that if it was able to find pathos in rousing story moments.
Too bad even that fails. We’re all left to wonder, how did Lando convince the entire galaxy to show up when no one at all showed up last time? What new words of hope did he offer? What actually changed between now and then? Well, we don’t know. They just did cause it’s the end of the trilogy and it feels nice. Like most of Abrams’ work, the film so badly wants to surprise you that it forgets the most important parts of dramatization. Because the Han Solo moment of A New Hope works precisely because of the set up of Chewie guilt tripping him with the money and you just see that look on his face, which sets up the transitional save that comes later. Those moments aren’t unnecessary. Dramatically speaking, they are everything. Because they are the moments where the important themes most resonate in the character’s dilemma, thus, they resonate in us.
It’s the moments where it’s not just lip service.
But Abrams is not interested in the actual meaning under the lessons. If he was, he wouldn’t have just slinked back and repeated Poe’s “want to be a leader like Leia” arc from The Last Jedi, only he does it by putting in two unconnected scenes of lip service in the film while having his larger plot have nothing to do with that whatsoever. Nor would Abrams have beat-for-beat recreated Finn’s risky sacrificial choice from The Last Jedi (which is also muddled in its codifying of it as such?) only to have Rose slink back, signifying the exact OPPOSITE of what was learned last time. And all while still using the “saving what we love” mantra as lip service in a completely different part of the movie. Dramatically speaking, this is gibberish. And it’s the kind of stuff that makes me think that Abrams really only knows how to draw direct scenic copy and paste parallels while inverting details for “surprise,” without understanding how it messes with the meaning of them.
Everything is the most surface level comparison or juxtaposition. It’s the reason that instead of being paired with Rose in some kind of completion of their journey, Finn is now paired with Jannah, another former Stormtroooper who is just like him! But they have nothing actually happening between them except for the basic empathy of pointing at each other and going “we’re the same!” Again, part of Abrams not understanding that characters mostly learn lessons from those who are different from them and have something to teach them. I’d be more willing to get into to it if I felt like the film was actually trying to say something at all with these decisions for his character. But it all goes nowhere. That’s right, Finn, the character with a closest thing to a grand arc in the first two movies (I said closest), gets abandoned here. But he’s just another person in a list of psychological interiorities that are left unexplored. What's Finn want to tell Rey? Doesn't matter. Because there's nothing in the box.
So instead, Finn spends the film getting pushed and shoved around (he’s mostly confined to shouting “Rey!” as other people do things). All par for the course in a film that shoves and pushes together every detail within it. Like the endless rows of starships on starships, Rise of the Skywalker feels “big” by constantly suggesting a scale that moves past the frame, never once filling the space inside it with any kind of composed emotion or relationship of what’s happening on screen. It’s all shoved and cut together, never really adding up. It’s an endless series of juxtapositions, allusions, and references to prior films that all crash endlessly as Abrams sits back hoping against hope that it will “feel” like it makes sense, even if it doesn’t actually make sense. But putting something on screen is just the cinematic form of lip service. Without context to purpose, it’s not part of the story. It’s just an artful staging of relics, like buried lightsabers. A ceremony outside of narrative. Just another diversion from “the nothing” behind it.
So I’m sorry. There can’t really be a big 12,000 word essay as many of you have asked for, largely out of a sense of bewildered confusion by what we all just watched. But I can’t get in there and parse out the engineering of something that was never really put together in the first place. The common refrain is that Abrams is "good at the beginning of stories" and bad at endings. But that's not how it works. It's the old Billy Wilderism "if there's a problem with your third act, you really have a problem with your first." Because it's all about the innate connection of set up and pay off with a clear understanding of where its going and why. But there's no artful set up with JJ. Like everything about his work, it's just bombastic promise with nothing behind it. And I have no idea if Abrams understands all this or not at this point. So, to be frank, I think I’m done trying to get at the “why” behind it all. This isn't the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” anymore. People have been talking about these problems in his work forever now, as have I. This is isn't about willing to say what hasn’t been said. This about the Emperor themselves.
The is about J.J. Abrams. A person who in real life, may be kindness and generosity incarnate, a person who I wish more than well, but still a person whose cinematic identity is that of one who only moves with charm and surface, a placating instinct for iconography and a seductive kiss before its out the door. This Emperor only has groove. A way of being, an essence, a bestowal of a certain exhilarating feeling that only wants you to move alongside him. Come on. Join the fun. You practically hear this Emperor offering of a quick and easy path, “It doesn’t matter. You just run alongside me, I’ll do it as fast and earnestly and urgently as possible, and no one is gonna care.” And in the end, it leaves you feeling hollow.
So I’m not sure I care at this point, either. I’ve written so much about J.J. Abrams. In fact, I think I’ve written more words about him than any other filmmaker. And yet every time I come back to his work, I’ve genuinely tried to engage it optimistically. Every time, I’ve hoped for this film to be the one where it all finally clicks for him. That this time, the filmmaker we’ve seen with verve, a sense of humor, a keen eye, and the best casting sensibility in the fucking business will somehow grow past those terrible instincts, acknowledge the notion, and display willingness to embrace the path which is not quick and easy. But maybe there’s just the nothing. So like Lucy and the football, it happens again and again. Somehow, even now, I still like him. I’ll always like him. There just seems like there’s nothing that’s going to change. So the real question is, “what now?”
I can’t help but think of an already-seminal line from another film this year, The Irishman by Martin Scorsese. Because there’s a point where a big problem cannot be solved. It’s a heartbreaking one where someone is refusing to change or admit or give in. And when that point is reached, when reconciliation seems impossible, another character gives a simple, devastating note of the reality of how to handle it, “it’s what it is.” If you’ve seen the film, you understand what it means to reach an impasse. But for the love of god, please understand I’m not trying to invoke this moment to imply that what I’m talking about here is anything that serious. I mean, we’re talking about film discourse. It’s inherently silly. There could be nothing worth such intensity, dislike, or vehemence (and certainly not enough to ever direct ill will). But unfortunately, it’s also something I care about because I love movies. Because I’ll always care about understanding them. I’ll care about how we engage with them, how we parse them, and how we let them live on in our souls. And in talking about them I’m always hoping to broaden, shape, and explore.
And if a filmmaker genuinely brings something meaningless at me and does as fast and earnestly and urgently as possible? I’m always going to care.
But sometimes you have to care about it in a way where you understand you are in an irrevocable situation. So barring some Emperor-like resurrection miracles, or some convoluted meta plot-twists that another universe, or even a real, tangible, earnest growth of can be found within that old mystery box- I just have to stop writing about J.J. Abrams.
There’s no big essay.
It’s what it is.