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Convenient coincidences in ‘The Force Awakens’

J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot leaned too heavily on unlikely coincidences. Kirk just happens to get marooned on the same moon as elder Spock. Monsters just happen to chase him straight into Spock’s cave hideout. Scotty just happens to be stationed a few miles away.[4]

Abrams’ latest sci-fi epic, The Force Awakens, features several similar plot holes:

WARNING: spoilers below!

  • BB–8 somehow rolls its way to Rey. What are the chances that the droid who knows Luke Skywalker’s location runs into the Force-sensitive girl with apparent ties to the Skywalker clan?[1]
  • Finn stumbles onto Rey and BB–8. Improbably, the fugitive stormtrooper happens upon the fugitive droid and its new master. Jakku must be a very small planet.
  • The Millennium Falcon is rusting away on Jakku—of all the planets in the galaxy. I actually liked the Falcon’s reveal, but doesn’t it seem improbable that the same ship that ferried Luke from Tatooine has been waiting around to carry Rey away from Jakku?
  • Maz Kanata, this film’s Force-sensitive guru character, possesses Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber. That’s very convenient, since it triggers Rey’s Force awakening. Kanata brushes aside Han Solo’s question about how she acquired it. But… seriously, Maz, why’s this thing in your basement?
  • Finn knows too much about Starkiller Base—more than his low-level First Order position would explain. A stormtrooper peon knows the superweapon’s key weakness?[2]
  • R2-D2 reactivates at just the right time. Why did the trash-can droid pick that opportune moment to wake up? Talk about Deus ex Machina.[3]
  • In general, what are the chances that the events depicted in The Force Awakens would mirror the original trilogy so slavishly? A twenty-year-old orphan on a desert planet finds a droid sought by both the evil imperials and a noble resistance. The droid carries information that could sway the balance of power in the galaxy. Our hero teams up with a roguish outlaw and an older mentor aboard the Millenium Falcon. The mentor character tells stories about the Force and legendary Jedi. A short alien guru guides our hero toward the Light side of the Force. The insurgency destroys a gigantic space weapon just before it blasts them out of existence. Welcome to Deja Vu: the Movie.

    “It’s like poetry. It rhymes.”


Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed The Force Awakens. But these plot seams show where the filmmakers valued nostalgia over storytelling. The writers wanted Han Solo to find our young heroes, so they placed the Falcon (which Solo could track) on Jakku. They needed Luke Skywalker for the cliffhanger, so R2-D2 waits until the denouement to power up.

These twists may cater to aging fans’ sentimentality, but they make little sense in context.


  1. The movie doesn’t actually make Rey’s identify clear. It’s still theoretically possible that she’s just a random orphan, who’s not connected with the Skywalkers at all. But then why even mention the “family” she’s waiting for on Jakku? And why does Anakin’s old lightsaber trigger her Force vision?  ↩
  2. Or was Finn bluffing so that he could rescue Rey?  ↩
  3. One potential explanation: R2-D2 can use the Force. That’s an intriguing theory, but it’s never actually been confirmed by the movies.  ↩
  4. I’ve heard these happy accidents explained away as “fate”—i.e. the universe “course-corrects” and finds a way to bind these characters’ destinies together. Bullshit; that’s screenwriter-speak for “We couldn’t think of a good story reason.”
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Killing Kirk

J.J. Abrams’ sequel to the 2009 Star Trek reboot fell flat. Into Darkness’ story was ridiculous; never before has a film taken the phrase “Man the torpedoes” literally. The movie also wasted Trek’s best villain, inexplicably transmogrifying Khan from a sly, brown-skinned Indian to a mopey, pale-faced Brit. Finally, a jarring bra-and-panties scene felt like a cynical attempt to make the film’s trailer appeal to over-hormonal teenagers.

All that considered, there’s no easy fix for Star Trek: Into Darkness’s many flaws. But I would argue that a single, key change would have proven that the filmmakers at least took Trek seriously: Kirk should have stayed dead.

In the film’s climax, Captain Kirk climbs into a lethally radioactive chamber, fixes some key machinery, and saves the U.S.S. Enterprise from certain doom. The scene echoes a similar moment in Star Trek II, in which Spock sacrifices himself on the crew’s behalf. This time, it’s Kirk who succumbs to radiation poisoning. He dies with Spock by his side—the ultimate end to their space bromance.

Or… not. Just in time, Dr. McCoy discovers that Khan’s blood can (magically!) raise the dead. A quick blood transfusion, and Kirk is resurrected!

Faux-killing Kirk leverages fans’ Wrath of Khan nostalgia without actually risking the franchise’s future. And, as with Spock’s death, it was a mistake.

Imagine an Into Darkness that definitively kills Kirk—the franchise’s iconic character. The reboot could then veer into uncharted territory; as the Enterprise visited its “strange new worlds,” the audience could also enjoy a new Trek universe, free of Shatner/Nimoy baggage. What happens to Spock after Kirk’s death? Does grief overwhelm his Vulcan commitment to cold logic? Or does he banish emotion altogether to avoid the pain? Even re-hashed plot lines from the original series could prove interesting; what happens without Kirk in the captain’s chair.

Alas, as with Spock’s return in Star Trek III, Kirk’s resurrection siphons dramatic tension from the rebooted franchise. The creators apparently lack the guts (or the authority) to take big risks or make big bets.

Even worse, they’ve invented Khan’s Magic Blood—a silly plot device that can rejuvenate any key character who inconveniently croaks.

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Un-killing Spock

People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

Steve Jobs

A few years ago, V’ger answered my prayers; my wife learned to love Star Trek.

This was a Very Good Thing™; I’ve loved the franchise for at least twenty years. I couldn’t wait to watch Trek with her—to see her fawn over each entry in the series. But as we progressed through these films, one uncomfortable fact became clear: as with other movies I loved as an 80s kid, most of Trek isn’t great.

The Star Trek films, at their worst, demonstrate the dangers of “fan service.” Studio suits want to protect a money-making franchise, so they steer the creatives toward audience-pleasing plots. But fans “don’t know what they want”—not really. They think they crave more of the same: more Spock. More Kirk. More Enterprise. But rehashing familiar tropes inevitable wears your storytelling thin. It strangles compelling drama. It forbids risky twists.

Star Trek III offers the quintessential example. Its predecessor, Wrath of Khan, featured one of the gutsiest plot twists in cinematic history: killing off Mr. Spock. But outraged fans protested the death of their favorite character.[1] The studio flinched, and per its direction, Search for Spock resurrects the beloved science officer.[2] The film’s denouement, in which Vulcan gurus reunite Spock’s soul with his body, serves up a feel-good ending for the fan base.

Star Trek III cheapens the genuine heartache of Spock’s death. More problematically, it also eliminates any trace of dramatic tension from the franchise. From that moment on, any tragic event could simply be undone. When the starship Enterprise blows up, we know it can’t really be gone forever. Star Trek IV wastes that bold move by introducing an entirely identical, replacement Enterprise. Or consider J.J. Abrams’ latest Trek entry, Into Darkness. That film echoes Wrath of Khan by killing off Captain Kirk. But Kirk stays dead just twenty minutes.

What if the franchise hadn’t lost its nerve? What if Spock had stayed dead? Looking back, this would’ve been a cleverer, bolder, more rewarding approach than surrendering to fan service. Make the audience feel the loss of Spock. Show us how a grief-stricken Kirk spirals out of control. Tell how his recklessness, untempered by Spock’s cold logic, eventually derails his Starfleet career. In other words, let Trek take risks.[3]

If it had, I might have shared Star Trek III with my wife less apologetically.


  1. As Khan director Nicholas Meyer recalls, “We had been getting letters from a lot of people who were very alarmed at the prospect of Spock dying. I remember I got one that said ‘If Spock dies, you die.’”  ↩

  2. Technically, the seeds for Spock’s return were planted in Wrath of Khan. But that was a late alteration to the script, resented by the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer. As he explains, “I just thought this was so unfair to an audience of people who really care about this shit, and then saying, ‘You know, oh, it was just a dry hustle.’ No, I didn’t think that was right…. At the time, I just thought that my vision of the thing was being insensitively overruled. But that’s when they made that insert, about ‘Remember’ and put him on the planet in his torpedo.”  ↩

  3. Admittedly, ST3 deserves some credit for blowing up the original Enterprise. It’s the best scene in the entire picture.  ↩

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Trek envy

J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot focused on the franchise’s original characters: Kirk. Spock. McCoy. Scotty.

It must feel unfair to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After all, in terms of sheer screen time, they’ve got the original cast beat. We have many more hours of Trek with Picard at the helm than with Kirk. Yet no one’s seriously considering a TNG reboot. And even hard-core fans would squirm if Abrams tried to shoehorn Troi or Geordi into the alternative timeline established by the new movies.

That hasn’t stopped the actors from trying. Every so often, Brent Spiner or Jonathan Frakes shameless pitch themselves for the next Abrams flick. “Of course they could bring me back!” they protest, “It’s Star Trek, for God’s sake! A malfunctioning transporter! A clone experiment gone wrong! Time travel! You fans should write letters demanding my character’s return!”

This sort of self-promotion irks me, for several reasons. First, it reeks of desperation. Open groveling breaks my heart. Second, it proves how little these actors understand storytelling. Fan service does not a good plot make. Finally, such role-grubbing seems ungrateful. Where’s the respect for the fictional universe that brought them international fame and commercial success?

Then again, maybe they shouldn’t be grateful. Trek has a way of hijacking actors’ careers. Once you’re typecast as the childlike android or the chair-challenged commander, it’s tough to earn a non-Trek gig.[1] You’re doomed to attend an endless series of nerdy conventions, answering the same questions again and again. There’s only so many times you can wax eloquent about Wesley’s sweaters or Riker’s beard before you go mad.

It’s no wonder that the TNGers hunger for a more mainstream spotlight.


  1. The only notable exception is Patrick Stewart, whose British theater connections (and sheer awesomeness) kept his career from going Picard-centric.  ↩

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Teasing Khan

In 2009, J.J. Abrams successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise. This was no small task; Trekkies are notoriously picky. The filmmaker took pains to include many details that only true nerds could appreciate.

Several of these fan-pleasing scenes were cut from the final production. For example, William Shatner’s cameo apparently made it into the script but was never shot.[1] Another scene that the filmmakers considered, then decided against, was a post-credits teaser for the inevitable Khan-centric sequel.

Here’s how I imagine that scene playing out:


INT. U.S.S. ENTERPRISE BRIDGE

Close-up of KIRK, slouched confidently in the captain’s chair. OLD SPOCK stands beside him.

OLD SPOCK
Once again, Captain, I am sincerely grateful for…

KIRK waves hand.

KIRK
…Our pleasure, Ambassador. We’ll get you to New Vulcan safe and sound; it’s the least we can do. In fact—

YOUNG SPOCK (concerned edge in voice)
—Captain.

KIRK
What is it, Spock?

YOUNG SPOCK
We’re picking up a vessel off the port bow.

KIRK spins to face YOUNG SPOCK, who is staring into his viewscreen.

KIRK
Out here? What kind of vessel?

YOUNG SPOCK
I… do not know. It is… quite old.

KIRK
On screen.

Cut to shot of crude-looking ship, its hull scarred and pitted. It floats adrift, spinning slowly.

Shot of OLD SPOCK, brow furrowed—as if trying to remember…

KIRK
Life signs?

YOUNG SPOCK
Several dozen humanoids… [looks up, hint of concern in voice] Captain, their signals are quite faint.

Decision made, KIRK springs into action. He flips his chair’s comm switch.

KIRK
Bones! Meet us in the transporter room!

MCCOY (over comm)
On my way.

KIRK leaps up from his chair.

KIRK
Spock, you’re with me. Sulu, you have the conn.

YOUNG SPOCK and SULU
Aye, Captain.

KIRK and YOUNG SPOCK exit via turbolift. Camera follows SULU to command chair, then pans back to OLD SPOCK, who’s looking down, puzzled. Shot hovers on him for a few seconds, then zooms out to include CHEKOV.

CHEKOV
Look!

Close-up of OLD SPOCK as he raises his eyes to the viewscreen. His mouth drops open. Recognition and fear flood his face.

Cut to viewscreen. The unnamed vessel continues its driftless spin. As the ship turns, its name emerges from the shadows. The words are clearly legible: SS BOTANY BAY.

Cut to black.

  1. Somehow, no one has yet to splice together a fan edit of this unshot scene. Get on that, Trek nerds!  ↩