How JJ Abrams and George Lucas hurt Science Fiction

It seemed an uninspired but safe choice when Disney picked J.J. Abrams to direct the first installment of the new Star Wars movies. He has had solid success at the box office and on television with science fiction shows. Star Trek made $385 million and Lost dominated the water cooler for six seasons. At the same time, the Star Wars property itself is an amazing cultural milestone. George Lucas created a genre classic that was instrumental in moving science fiction into the mainstream of popular culture.

Yet, something has been lost, and the mash-up of J.J. Abrams and George Lucas, Star Trek and Star Wars, seems emblematic of this sad trend. Science Fiction, or speculative fiction, can have enormous power. It has shown to have a unique place within fiction. The very best of it is deep and meaningful. Through its ability to create distance between the reader and modern reality, or even historic reality, it allows us to probe some of the most complex and difficult questions that face humanity.

This goes back to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (a biting political satire) and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (How do we look at history?). This exploration of ideas is Science Fictions core genius. It is the most important aspect of speculative literature. It includes George Orwell’s 1984 (Fascism), Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (Censorship and knowledge), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars (life, immortality), William Gibson’s oeuvre (Corporatization, the role of Mass Media, merging of humanity and technology), and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Religion, What is god?).

Science Fiction at its best challenges our very beliefs. It can flip our social mores and provide a perspective void of historical, cultural and societal biases. It can ask the deepest of questions without the burden of the expected realities that dominate our existence. It not only has the ability to ask such questions but also explore the possible answers. It can lift us into the heavens and fling us to the farthest reaches of space, and in doing so it can create a mediating barrier between our small, personal and human existence and the deep, seemingly unknowable questions of life, existence, god, death, gender, sex, race, family, community, love and friendship. It can break down our expectations and make us evaluate our own beliefs.

But where is this in today’s science fiction movies?  What did J.J. Abrams Start Trek have to say?  Did it answer any moral, ethical or humanistic question? Did it even ask such a question?  Thinking back, did George Lucas use his massively successful science fiction franchise to ask any of these questions?  Did it challenge us in any way?

I suppose it is no surprise, but it is disappointing that directors and producers like Lukas and Abrams don’t use their massive popularity to do anything more than create big budget action movies. The two really are a perfect fit. The new Star Wars movies will be enormous hits and make billions of dollars for a small hand full of people.  And the public will climb all over itself to go and see a few more explosions, lots of gun fire (and phaser fire and sword fights) and a villain trop we have surely all seen before. It will also be male dominated, with women placed in secondary roles at best.

None of this needs to happen. It is time for these directors to start using their power to create more stories like District 9, Children of Men, Minority Report, Contact, and Gattaca. There are stories to be told and they can be successful. Star Trek made $385 million on a $150m budget, netting $235m while District 9 made $210m and only cost $30m, netting a strong $180 million.

I’m just not sure that people like Abrams, Lucas, Nolan, Bay and all the other big name directors (and studios) really care at all about their stories or their art. All they care about are ticket stubs, 3D-glasses and the bottom line. 

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7 Responses to How JJ Abrams and George Lucas hurt Science Fiction

  1. Sam Gafford says:

    I wouldn’t even classify either film as science fiction. After all, Roddenberry himself pitched STAR TREK as “WAGON TRAIN in space”. But part of the reason the original Star Trek series worked so well was because it did have a philosophy and that is something that is sadly lacking in science fiction movies and television shows. These are nothing more than “creation by committee” entertainment that are painfully crafted to appeal to the widest common denominators to make the most money possible. And that, particularly to the demon corporation Disney, is the only thing that really matters.

  2. Ronnie says:

    Exactly, they are not science fiction. They simply use science fiction for its ability to have cool special effects. It is amazing to see the difference between the STNG tv episodes and the movies, where they move from Picard being a “thinker” and running into all kinds of conflicting moral quandaries and into a rifle carrying, screaming rage monster. He goes from being the man who refused to kill the Borg because it would be genocide into this line from First Contact

    Picard: NO! NOOOOOOOOO!!! [smashes a display case in anger; Both pause, shocked] I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We’ve made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far and no further! And I will make them pay for what they’ve done!

    Who is this person? This is not Picard!

    • daniel says:

      George Lucas himself declared that the STAR WARS saga is not science-fiction, at least not in the strictly sense…But deffinitely Works as it´s meant to be; as a Space fantasy, and though Lucas ain´t J.R.R. Tolkien, he deffinitely improved modern mythology, using the hero´s quest of old folk tales with a varnish of Space opra ala FLASH GORDON.and mythology explains through fantastical allegory many man´s issues, but more to the heart, than to the mind, in this case things like the nature of Good and Evil, the conflict man vs. machine / freedom vs. tottalitarism, just like the original trilogy, through its storybook approach, conveyed very well. Does STAR WARS “hurted” science-fiction reputation, according to some snobish sci-fi elitists? I doubt so, because it was precisely the success of the 1970′s-80′s trilogy that that “Little” swashbuckling Space adventure that helped to bring a chance to films like ALIENS, or BLADE RUNNER, to pop up in the big screen

  3. Marko Jezernik says:

    I agree, this isn’t science fiction genre in any way. It’s just CGI rolercoaster and nothing more.

  4. Daniel says:

    George Lucas himself declared that the STAR WARS saga is not science-fiction, at least not in the strictly sense…But deffinitely Works as it´s meant to be; as a Space fantasy, and though Lucas ain´t J.R.R. Tolkien, he deffinitely improved modern mythology, using the hero´s quest of old folk tales with a varnish of Space opra ala FLASH GORDON.and mythology explains through fantastical allegory many man´s issues, but more to the heart, than to the mind, in this case things like the nature of Good and Evil, the conflict man vs. machine / freedom vs. tottalitarism, just like the original trilogy, through its storybook approach, conveyed very well. Does STAR WARS “hurted” science-fiction reputation, according to some snobish sci-fi elitists? I doubt so, because it was precisely the success of the 1970’s-80’s trilogy that that “Little” swashbuckling Space adventure that helped to bring a chance to films like ALIENS, or BLADE RUNNER, to pop up in the big screen.

  5. Daniel says:

    P.S.
    Saying that STAR WARS is “sexist” it´s bullcrap! You are either biased, or a convenient mendacious bitching toward other people´s stuff, in order to pretend that you are “morally” superior just because you root better a different sci-fi series, which at the end it´s just another vission in the big sci-fi universo, and not the measure of all things!

  6. Daniel says:

    P.S. #2
    If STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT did something right was portraying Captain Picard as a true human being with faults, and real emotions, and not just as a “self righteous pompus idle jerk”, which it´s apparently the way of most of the Trekkies…

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