The Abrams ‘Effect’

2009-05-08 (General release)

Someone posed an interesting question to me the other day. “Why,” they asked, in classic essay intro parlance, “are audiences and critics going so insane over J. J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film?” The question wasn’t one of contempt but pure curiosity. You see, Hollywood offers dozens of entertainment options every year, and few if any resonate with elements both inside and outside the industry like this one. Of the 221 members of Rotten Tomatoes who’ve reviewed the film, only 10 have disliked it – and outright dismissals are rare amongst even the contrarians. Similarly, the film was projected to only do about $50 to $60 million at the box office over the 8 May weekend, and yet managed to rake in close to $77 million.

But my friend wasn’t quite finished with his inquiry. “Could it be,” he sniped, a small amount of sarcasm creeping through his typically serious demeanor, “that J.J. has done the impossible – that is, made a really good movie in a current realm of unmitigated mediocrity? What I mean is, could Star Trek‘s popularity in whole or in part be chalked up to the fact that, when inundated with junk for 364 days a year, the movie-going public will take a good old fashioned well made ‘movie’ any time?” In essence, the argument is this: Abrams hasn’t made a masterpiece, just a highly sophisticated and expertly helmed piece of pop culture eye candy. It was/is specifically created to please the widest majority of the populace, and will keep the Star Trek name on studio heads minds for sequels to come.

Of course, this perception comes with its own set of problems. If what my friend suggests is true (and it mimics something Movie City News‘ David Poland has been saying since the first onslaught of rave reviews came out) audiences today are so desperate for anything that provides a consistent level of cinematic amusement that they will embrace it as brilliant when it’s probably a bit further down the aesthetic ladder. In other words, like parched travelers in the most arid of deserts, we’ll take mucky, scummy brackish water because, well frankly, we don’t know any better. Naturally, this provides another interesting angle, in that most of Tinsel Town’s refreshments are often viewed as less than palatable. Even worse, the general public (including those who make some manner of living out of writing about film) has stopped being gourmets and, instead, are settling for a glutenous, gluttonous gourmand status.

It has to be said that, sans the insults, this POV might have some merit. When you see 260 movies a year (as yours truly did last year), you can definitely feel the weight of worth hanging around your tired neck and shoulders. By the seventh PG-13 horror film, you’re dying for a little blood and guts. By the ninth or tenth romantic comedy you’re praying for some kind of celluloid swine flu to hit the genre and cause a kind of production pandemic. Sure, there is greatness along with the groaning, but out and out ‘fun’ is difficult to find. Movies today are made for niches, for comic book geeks and underserved urban audiences. They are crafted out of focus group conclusions and intense marketing metrics. No one is suggesting that Star Trek isn’t, but its across the board approval implies something either far more rare, or far more reprehensible.

It’s hard not to tap into the whole ‘mass hysteria’ vibe when something becomes intensely successful. The whole popularity trend strikes a definite chord with anyone who views themselves as an individual and/or a non-conformist. The role of the contrarian is thereby mandated in situations like these, since the crazed don’t necessarily differ between the filmmaking forest and the studio shell game trees. But an interesting thing has happened to the Star Trek ‘haters’. While they have been attacked by the usual brigade of blowhards and messageboard trolls, the everyday cineaste has actually sat back and attempted to dismantle their disapproval. Some, like Anthony Lane of The New Yorker have made it easy. His angry review begins with a self-professed dislike of all things Trek, and then goes downhill from there. If you bother reading it, you’ll agree – it’s a lot like saying “I despise chocolate, and now I will explain why I don’t like this new chocolate flavored drink.” The only reasonable response is “duh”.

Some are a little more difficult to explain. Uncle Roger Ebert, the reigning Kael in today’s Fourth Estate wasteland, explains his shrugged shoulders sensibility by explaining several plot holes that he feels the movie’s script fails to address, therefore undermining his experience. Of course, any audience member looking away from their text messages long enough to pay attention realized that almost every one of his nitpicks were indeed explained in the film. Others seem to think the film is loud, soulless, and aimed at a younger, ADD addled generation. Aside from how shockingly intolerant that sounds (under said logic, all CG animations should be waved off for being geared toward kids instead of adults), it fails to address the basic elements of the business. Hollywood would go broke if it wasn’t for these should-be-arrested adolescents returning again and again to their local Cineplex. Not every film can be a three hour long meditation on one’s mid-life crisis and personal demons. Those are the movies that win awards, not the hearts of the fanbase.

With the question of “legs’ being the next commercial hurdle to climb (Trek faces competition from Tom Hanks and his Da Vinci follow-up Angels and Demons this week, and the one-two punch of Terminator Salvation and Night at the Museum 2 the next) and the continuing conversation over the validity of Abrams “effect” on audiences, the final verdict may be out on whether Star Trek will stay the course to be the biggest hit of Summer 2009. Some suggest that nothing can top this combination crowd-pleaser and franchise reboot. Others argue that the film has already found its larger-than-limited appeal, and will slowly fade away as the rest of the popcorn fluff comes tumbling through the turnstiles. Whatever, the case, J. J. Abrams has clearly touched a significant segment of the populace with his paean to the adventures of the Starship Enterprise. Whether it’s just a filmmaking fluke, or something more significant, remains open for debate.