Daniel Saunders won a recent Minerva for his answer to a Minerva essay contest. It’s a really good answer but for some reason I forgot to post it.
Here, then, is Daniel’s answer to the question: "JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon, compare and contrast."
I’ve figured out what’s special about JJ Abrams: he’s the master of taking things away. He makes the kind of stuff I love most, which is genre fiction that is not stupid and childish. Of course genre’s roots are in the simple-minded and child-oriented, e.g. pulp magazines, comic books and action movies, so the first thing you have to do is to clear out a lot of the crap that comes with it. This usually includes racism and sexism, depending on how far back you’re going, but also the crushing repetitiveness of genre that makes it easy to parody. JJ Abrams realizes that if the audience knows exactly whats going to happen next, why not skip it?
I really noticed this skipping past the boring in a clever scene in MI:3 where Tom Cruise is going to do a complicated, time dependent heist in a building. I could feel myself start to go to sleep, but then was grateful to realize we were just seeing the outside of the building from the van – and then Tom Cruise sprinting the hell out of there. And there are countless other examples of that in Abrams’ stuff. Not only does it make you feel smart, and not deadened, but you’re more engaged, because your imagination is doing a lot of the work. You do get quite a few glimpses of the monster in Cloverfield, but most of the time you’re imagining what it’s up to and what it’s like – things are rarely overexplained. This is closely related to JJ Abrams devotion to creating a sense of mystery, that is earned, which he talks about in his TED talk, something that has led to great rewards in his non-franchise works like Lost and Cloverfield.
The limitation of JJ Abrams is that when you clear all the boring the crap from old cornball genres, you should have something to replace it with. You should be doing more than they tried to do. In fact, you should use that free space to create art: something that expresses a little of your worldview and ideas about life. I’m not convinced that JJ Abrams has those. Lost is actually, scene for scene, very sharply written, largely avoiding cliches and letting us connect the dots. But it’s a failure (as of partway through season 3) because it doesn’t have much to say. This is especially clear in the flashbacks that occupy half of an episode, which are a perfect storytelling venue in a way: peek into the soul of someone, learn the secrets of their background they don’t want you to know. But in practice, though they are well acted and all have little twists and surprises, they are stultifying, because they don’t add up to anything, they have no perspective on human nature. Some broader themes are emerging in the series, to do with authority and control, but they’re out of focus, and the flashbacks rarely contribute to them. Those flashbacks are truly just killing time. And the emptiness is extremely apparent in Cloverfield and MI:3 whenever they slow down for a second (which, fortunately, they rarely do)
So I will never care about JJ Abrams half as much as I do about Joss Whedon. Whedon clears out the crap, and in its place puts in urgent convictions about the world. Buffy is about growing up, Angel is about guilt and vengeance and negotiating with evil, Dollhouse is about desire and the desire to control others. Among many other things. Everything he’s done is packed full of rich themes, even the 45 minute Dr Horrible. I just read this today about Speed, by David Edelstein:
"Remember: Jack and Annie are on a runaway subway train heading for the end of the line, and she’s handcuffed to a pole. He tries to free her but can’t. Instead of leaping to safety, as she pleads with him to do, he settles down and hugs her tightly as they hurtle towards certain immolation. This might be the most romantic moment in any action picture, and it’s only because Jack is a risk-taker who faces death with stoicism."
Could this also be the cause of the other obvious difference, that his characters are far more loveable and memorable? Maybe it’s not enough for a character to be "well written"; maybe there has to be a point to them. Even Jack – even a Keannu Reeves character! – expresses something interesting about how you might approach life.
JJ Abrams might actually have the edge on some measures – the lack of heart might make it possible to be more streamlined and surprising. I will certainly check out everything he makes, as one of our few incredibly talented and successful genre writers. And I’ll bet there are themes out there that he could speak to deeply. James Cameron doesn’t understand people very well but made some of the best films ever about technology and the techno-warrior mindset, two things he does understand. Until then I doubt JJ Abrams movies will be more than skillful and creative amusement park rides.
Daniel Saunders grew up in Victoria, B.C., studied Computer Science at the University of Waterloo and he is now a graduate student in Cognitive Psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.