We get it, JJ. You’re a geek. A nerd. You have been well and duly accepted as one of us.
Now just… go take a little siesta.
Ever since the news resurfaced that JJ Abrams would be helming film adaptations of Portal and Half-Life, I’ve been stewing, trying to figure out why the development irritated me so much. It’s partially that I don’t think either game needs to become a movie. But I found that what really ticked me off is that I don’t get why Abrams feels he has to be the one to do them.
It’s certainly not that he’s untalented. The man’s track record in creating intricate worlds and compelling characters speaks for itself. Lost, Felicity, Super 8, Fringe: all projects that show a real gift for science fiction storytelling.
But lately, Abrams has become more than just a savvy sci-fi creator. He’s far outgrown niche status and is now teetering on the kind of Hollywood ubiquity that could start turning people off.
The first issue is one of uniformity. Abrams, king of the lens flare, has a visual look that forms the bedrock of his directorial projects. Ditto for his writing voice. That’s how it goes for any creative person, and there’s nothing wrong with having a personal style. The problem is that as prolific as Abrams has become, his style could become the default for how any and all sci-fi should look.
Part of the beauty of geekdom is how it encompasses so many things, so many perspectives and ideas. If only one person is guiding the sci-fi films and TV getting made…well, you’re essentially telling those legions of other people to shut it. The current status quo, where it’s a small cabal of talents whose bylines seem to be on every single new sci-fi project (Ridley Scott, Guillermo Del Toro, Joss Whedon, I’m looking at you gents), makes it harder to see the full breadth of what the nerd world has to offer.
The second issue is that once Abrams’ mere presence is being used to sell projects of more middling quality, his name and credibility lose any meaning they might have once had. You also don’t want people to start calling you “the Michael Bay of sci-fi.”
I get that science fiction has a mainstream following, and thus is subject to the pressures of major studios’ rules and standards for success. Hollywood wants that well-known, well-established name emblazoned in the trailer. And this isn’t about some hipster concept of “selling out.” I do think that you can be a financial success while still presenting an artistic vision that pleases mainstream and hardcore sci-fi fans alike. The problem is a reliance on remakes as the way to hit that sweet spot.
And that’s why the Valve projects have got me on edge. Abrams’ penchant for filming existing properties is a more recent trend in his career and it’s decidedly more worrying. Because on one hand you’ve got a gem like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And on the other, you have the sacrilege that was Star Trek Into Darkness.
From his interviews leading up to the release of his first Star Trek movie, Abrams made it clear that he wasn’t a Trekkie. Yet he still decided it was a totally reasonable thing to dive headlong into the existing canon and muck it around. Abrams’ take on the Trek world dismissed so much of what made that property special – its philosophy, its characters, its idealized representation of the future – and turned it into a run-of-the-mill action movie set in space. It was a blatant disregard for the original concepts underpinning the TV shows and felt like a slap in the face to many fans.
Now Abrams turning his remake attention to games with the pair of beloved and critically acclaimed Valve titles. He’s been talking the talk about how much he loves Half-Life and Portal, so maybe he really has some vision for how to make them into a cinematic experience. But the trust has been broken once; who’s to say he won’t hurt us again?
So, JJ, I ask you why? Why must it be you to shoulder the responsibility of all the geek adaptations? I think you’re too creative to fall into the remake machine. Even your latest producer project, Westworld, is a redo of an old concept. An excellent one, yes, but it’s still treading old ground.
I’m glad you want to put your considerable clout and finances behind other people, other equally creative but undiscovered people, who are trying to tell their own sci-fi stories. Keep racking up those producer credits on projects you really believe in. But quite frankly, I want to see you come up with your own new thing. So take a nice long nap. Get whatever weird and wild ideas are bouncing around in your brain down on paper and then onto the screen. And sleep on it before you move into yet more projects with existing worlds and passionate existing fan bases, and make sure that you really, really, REALLY think that’s a good idea.
And don’t you dare screw up Portal for me.