On J.J. Abrams and the Fallacy of the Geek Idol

Having previously examined (i.e., bitched about) the rise of geek culture within the realm of popular media (and not having completely exhausted the reservoir of bile I had accumulated in the process), I’ll resume my examination with a critical evaluation (i.e., evisceration) of some of the prominent contemporary icons of the genre, through which I’ll induct a new honoree onto the hallowed scrolls of The Shit List. Endemic to the rise of the popular geek culture is the rise of the so-called “Geek Idol”, which is not to say that icons of the culture haven’t always been exalted for their various contributions, but the mainstream popularity of (and corresponding revenue generated by) geek entertainment has amplified this phenomenon to grant individuals powers over the genre which are, in some cases, in dangerous proportion to their actual talent or credibility.

There’s probably a dozen names of equal consequence I could throw in as my first case-study, but I’ll start with Peter Jackson, who’s probably marginal, at best, in terms of actual Geek Idol status, but at one time was probably a serious contender, and, regardless, will probably remain in control of and be granted additional power over various geek properties in years to come. Although not perfect, I’ll admit he did a relatively bang-up job on Lord of the Rings, considering that the odds of a live-action cinematic adaption were always long on it not being a magnificent piece of shit. However, in the intervening years, he hasn’t produced a damned thing of any particular merit (I really don’t care about King Kong and I thought the CGI dinosaurs looked like shit), perhaps suffering from some massive Hobbit hangover, which I can understand, but upon returning to the well, instead of returning to form, he apparently suffered some form of Tolkien-induced dementia and The Unexpected Journey I saw in the theater was only unexpected in that it felt like the 2,000-mile roadtrip I took with my parents when I was 12 years old. But assuming the rest of The Hobbit films don’t tank, I think it a safe bet he’ll be given the reins of some other epic fantasy or science-fiction property, although he’ll probably just end up doing The Sillmarillion (assuming that he didn’t try wedge it into the second Hobbit movie), but in any event, he would be better served by a long-term stay at a Middle Earth rehab facility instead.

Of the more prominent Geek Idols christened by the masses, I would actually give the most credibility to Joss Whedon. I don’t consider myself a Whedonite, and, to be honest, I never really understood Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I stopped giving a shit about vampires long before it became counter-culturally cool to actively not give a shit about vampires) and, for that matter, never really cared about most of his television shows, but I respected them. I did enjoy the hell out of Firefly and Astonishing X-Men, but more importantly, I appreciate the fact that, unlike a number of peers, he’s proven himself capable of original ideas (even if I didn’t care for many of them) instead of recycling the same goddamned tropes ad infinitum in the style of untalented hacks like J.J. Abrams.

To be fair, I don’t dislike J.J. Abrams so much as I can’t fathom his ill-deserved appointment as some sort of Elder Geek within the entertainment sphere or his cult of followers who display a slavish devotion to anything he touches in almost the same manner as, say, a George Lucas before he became senile. Being admittedly possessed of a natural contrarian disposition, any of this, in itself, would make me want to instinctively condemn him, but in the interests of fairness, my opinion on this matter is informed strictly by the empirical evidence available, and, based on such, his body of work, to-date, is either largely derivative (notwithstanding that a substantial portion is based on existing properties) or has a natural tendency to devolve into a dense narrative clusterfuck (if not both).

Like most people, my first exposure to his work (only because his prior work was pretty damned inconsequential, as far as I’m concered; I’m aware that Alias existed, but by the time I tried to get into it, it had already reached clusterfuck status) was probably Lost, and I’ll freely admit that I enjoyed the hell out of it until it went flying off the rails, which, as I recall, was somewhere around the point that Locke started turning the fucking Wheel of Time (pun intended), but I stuck with it until the end, at which point I officially renounced any hope I had previously maintained in the possibility of an afterlife. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m sure that there’s any number of disciples who will go to great lengths to point out the great metaphysical poignancy and how it was all truly the work of some meticulously crafted master plan, but I’m practiced enough in the art of bullshit that I can, almost without fail, detect the unmistakable scent of a story being pulled out of someone’s ass. But despite the pomposity, I can handily summarize the entire show in one sentence: The caretaker of a magic island brings a group of “candidates” to the island by way of a plane crash (incidentally killing a shitload of innocent bystanders in the process) and spends the next several years “interviewing” them by way of systematically torturing and mind-fucking them until he eventually decides to retire and picks one to take over for him. The rest is basically an inconsequential miasma of plot-holes and misdirection.

I also blame J.J. Abrams and the success of Lost for establishing the current trend that demands a science-fiction series have some overarching, impenetrable mythology that dominates every aspect of the series, such that I can’t enjoy the show unless I’ve seen every fucking episode from the beginning and have a notebook to keep track of the 1500 ongoing subplots or recall the minor character or plot point they’ve referenced from 50 fucking shows prior, which is pointless, anyway, since the writers will inevitably lose track and either abandon 80% of the plotlines or just decide to pull some kind of deus ex machina from their asses. In total fairness to J.J., I assign part of that blame to Ron D. Moore, as well, although he’s done a much better job of holding the story together or at least pulling the plug before things spun completely out of control (notwithstanding Starbuck’s ghost and Cylon “angels” or whatever the fuck they were supposed to be). This isn’t to say that some of their predecessors haven’t been guilty of maintaining some manner of convoluted mythology, but they didn’t tend to let the mythology hijack the entire show. I’ll be damned if I can explain the overarching alien apocalypse plotline from The X-Files, but at least they usually had the good sense not to overdo it and kept The Smoking Man and black oil on the backburner for a good portion of the season.

But in that regard, I find Fringe a bit more satisfying, if only because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s essentially a poor man’s X-Files, though I do give Fringe credit for having the dignity to call it a day before everyone got bored and started phoning it in (and bringing in the T-1000 to sub) and not making a (second) movie that might as well have been subtitled “Go Fuck Yourself” (although I suppose the last part remains to be seen). However, I can’t help but feel that the show only existed to satisfy J.J. Abrams’ obvious fetish for time travel and alternate universes, since, of course, the central conceit is the existence of the alternate universe which is “just like ours, only slightly different”, in this case “slightly” meaning that since (I assume) the Hindenburg never crashed, presumably no one bothered with the principles of aerodynamics, making zeppelins the transportation of choice, the Green Lantern is red (which I assume means that the Red Lanterns are green and the Sinestro Corps is possibly burnt umber), and the butterfly effect apparently doesn’t exist since almost everyone in Universe B seems to have the exact same life as everyone in Universe A, despite the fact that every other person’s doppelganger in one universe either has a completely different personality or is dead in the other. Still, I admit that I mostly enjoyed Fringe, despite the fact that someone had to reach so far up their ass to find “soul magnets” that it didn’t even merit a pseudo-scientific explanation and, since presumably Olivia’s vocal chords didn’t physically transmute into those of a eighty year-old man, Leonard Nimoy obviously made a conscious decision to imitate his own voice while possessing her body (via the aforementioned alchemistic “soul magnets”).

I won’t bother with Revolution, other than to briefly mention that had it not fallen victim to J.J. Abrams and cohorts’ inexplicable need for unnecessarily complicated or pseudo-meditative story arcs, it could have been an entertaining romp through a steampunk-cum-neo-medieval America with cool swordfights, but so far it’s been little more than an assortment of snotty kids and brooding adults pouting their way through some obtuse conspiracy involving magical nanites. So far as that’s the sum of my personal experience with his involvement in television, I realize it doesn’t make for an exhaustive critique of his work, but I believe I’ve captured most of the high-profile examples (especially considering his subsequent career was arguably a direct result of the success of Lost), so I consider it a pretty damned representative sample, and as such, I’m quite comfortable grading his overall television resume as average, at best. But I’ll concede that some of his television shows had some decent ideas, if not promise, even if they misfired or eventually ran headlong into the fucking ground.

In contrast, the best I can say about his movie career is that some of his films weren’t shit. However, giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that Armageddon was the result of a failed experiment with the Hunter S. Thompson method of writing, I’ll just stick with the more recent high-profile examples.

While Mission: Impossible III was a serviceable film (particularly compared to the second film, in which Tom Cruise spent fully two-thirds of the movie flying through the fucking air, if memory serves), Mission: Impossible is actually supposed to involve some overly convoluted conspiracy with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, and instead we get Ethan Hunt saving a kidnapped loved one from an evil mastermind, which is basically the same fucking plot as 90% of the action movies from the 80s. I was momentarily hopeful during the fake-out death scene, because that would have actually been somewhat original and, more importantly, would have eliminated the endangered-wife scenario as a plot device in future installments of the franchise.

Super 8 was okay, although it was essentially a rehash of 80s-era Spielberg movies (or more specifically, E.T. by way of The Goonies), marketed as an “homage” (which, along with reboot, is the official marketing term for a rehash), which for some reason reused the monster from Cloverfield (of which there’s not much to say other than it was Godzilla shot with a handicam and released at a point in time when the glut of “found footage” films had overstayed their welcome by a number of years). Once again, it wasn’t an offensive offering, if not especially interesting, or more importantly, original, which brings me to the most controversial contender of the lot, being the Star Trek “reboot”.

I have a lot of very strong and mixed feelings about Star Trek, which is why I’m devoting a separate article to a detailed critical analysis of the movie, but for the time-being, I’ll simply offer that my wife liked Star Trek, an endorsement coming from the same person who told me to “turn that shit off” (I’m admittedly paraphrasing) when I was recently watching “The Galileo Seven”, presumably because Leonard Nimoy isn’t quite as dreamy as fucking Sylar, although in reality, she didn’t have a fucking clue what I was watching, anyway. But this basically demonstrates the mentality with which Star Trek was made, which was to appeal to the same assholes who also think The Big Bang Theory is funny (shitty jokes about science and comic books are still shitty jokes, but in its defense, I’m sure it’s probably just as funny as any other primetime sitcom, which makes it roughly about as funny as the stand-up comic on a Carnival Cruise ship). (For the record, I don’t include my wife in this latter group.) And ultimately, the “geek chic” success of Star Trek is what cemented J.J. Abrams’ status as meta-geek within the entertainment industry (however underserved, based on his creative track record).

Which, of course, is why he was given the reins to Star Wars, because, at the end of the day, Disney would happily release a film of the Seven Dwarves gang-raping Snow White, if they thought they could make enough money on it, which is why, although putting the same person in charge of Star Trek and Star Wars is heresy akin to putting the Pope in charge of Judaism and there’s no shortage of accomplished directors that would probably do something interesting (as opposed to pandering) with the license, they’ll inevitably go with whichever “Geek Idol” currently has the highest perceived bankability. I would still be okay with it, if they would actually do something as sensible and straightforward as adapt the Thrawn trilogy for the next set of movies, but it’s a safe bet that they’re just going to piss on the expanded universe out of principle (which is probably just as well, since the expanded universe mostly went to shit as soon as they let Kevin J. Anderson start writing Young Jedi books), which means we’ll more than likely get an Episode VII with Darth Vader having been resurrected through some horseshit alternate timeline or parallel universe. But I’m not really obsessing overmuch about how J.J.’s going to fuck over the Star Wars universe, since George Lucas handily beat him to that particular distinction by a rather wide margin, and I honestly stopped giving too much of a shit about Star Wars after I walked out of The Phantom Menace feeling much the same way I did when my mother forced me to watch a video of my performance as Frank Gibbs in my high school production of Our Town…disappointed in a very profound way, yet desperately trying to convince myself that what I had just seen was actually a good thing (for the record, she thought it was just sublime, but I’m sure she would have said the same of The Phantom Menace). Being of a generally sunny disposition, though, I maintain a cautiously optimistic outlook on the future of the franchise, J.J. Abrams’ participation notwithstanding.

At the end of the day, this is just my opinion, based on my subjective appraisal of what I consider to be a representative sample of his work, which I’ll grant isn’t all bad, but isn’t by any means worthy of engendering the kind of cult following that would enthusiastically endorse his stewardship of two of the cornerstone franchises of the science-fiction genre. Of course, in reality, the promotion of the “Geek Idol” is, as much as anything, a cynical marketing tactic used by the entertainment industry to generate free publicity, but then again, there’s not much these days that isn’t. But regardless, let J.J. go back to his Macbook Air and punch out something original that doesn’t depend on time travel, alternate universes or a plot that doesn’t suffocate under the weight of its own crapulence, and I’ll be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. In the meantime, I’ll take my “geek” entertainment as it comes, free of the exhausting burden of holding aloft any of its various icons in exaltation. Ultimately our so-called Idols, geek or otherwise, just like your Congressman and your Senior VP at work, are doomed to let us down because a) they’re only human and b) they don’t really care about us, anyway. And from what I vaguely recall from Catechism class as a child, God will punish us for worshipping them…presumably by sending us to the fucking afterlife from Lost.

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