Why J.J. Abrams (probably) can't ruin "Star Wars"

But the big reason we like “Star Wars” is that, quite apart from the plot and characters, it was a feat of imagination with a vast universe of spaceships, bizarre alien creatures, strange new planets, and — a big draw for boys — futuristic weapons. We come for the scenery, for the special effects, and for the look and feel of the place because they are just familiar enough to be understandable but weirdly different enough to be exciting.

It’s helpful to contrast “Star Wars” to “Star Trek,” a franchise that Abrams did ruin. He ruined it by creating a time travel plot that allowed him to throw out the entire timeline of “Star Trek’s” previous incarnations. Then he gave up the only advantage of this approach — freedom from existing story lines — by pilfering old “Star Trek” stories for characters and plot ideas. But most of all, he ruined it by turning it into just another action movie franchise: big on stunts and special effects and light on character development and thoughtfulness. The unique appeal of the “Star Trek” universe was its interest in big ideas and philosophical themes like the relationship between reason and emotion. Sometimes the films’ “big idea” pretensions were annoying, and they wore Gene Roddenberry’s liberalism on their sleeve. (“Star Trek IV” was one giant “save the whales” public service announcement.) Sometimes they were interesting explorations of the nature of individualism. But that was the unique brand of the franchise, and Abrams just wasn’t interested in it, so he turned the rebooted films into shoot-em-ups in space.

Fortunately for the “Star Wars” film, this franchise does not depend on so delicate a formula. Start with a young person’s journey of self-discovery set against a galactic battle between good and evil. Let him (or her, from the looks of the new film) find friends and a mentor along the way. Throw in a tragic loss and a little spooky stuff about the temptations of the Dark Side. And film it all with spectacular special effects, creative new designs of spaceships and robots, spectacular new alien landscapes, and oh yes, exciting battles. This is a shoot-em-up in space.