Regarding JJ Abrams and Genre

I’m a big fan of JJ Abrams. I loved Alias (well, until it started getting ridiculous, at least), Lost (even the ending!), Super 8, both the new Star Treks, Fringe (though I have yet to finish the show), and I’m extremely excited for the upcoming Star Wars movie. JJ Abrams is certainly one of the current standard bearers when it comes to science fiction and geekdom. But I think one of the reasons he makes such good work is that he didn’t start by making movies with lots of explosions and special effects.

He started with movies like Regarding Henry.

That’s right, 25 years before he got to direct Harrison Ford as Han Solo, he got to write a drama about Harrison Ford overcoming a severe brain injury. He even got to share a scene with Han, though unfortunately I can’t find the clip online at the moment. He’s very clearly the food delivery boy in the movie.

Now, Regarding Henry isn’t viewed as one of the great movies of all time. It’s only got a 6.7 rating on IMDB, but Denisa and I watched it last night, and it’s certainly a very solid entry as a drama. I found it thought provoking and moving, with excellent acting by Ford and Annette Bening. It’s a very well put together movie that hits all the major beats and executes them very well. It’s  on the predictable side, but other than that, I really liked it. 8.5 out of 10.

One of the many ways geek movies can go wrong is when creators put the explosions and the special effects first, in front of plot, character, and emotion. Do that too much, and you end up with a hollow movie. The pieces don’t fit together quite right, and the motivations just seem to be missing. In other words, they focus too much on being science fiction and too little on being an actual movie or story.

Sometimes people ask me if I think it’s important for writers to get a degree in English or to get an MFA, and I typically say no. There’s nothing you can only learn in a writing program. That said, there are some things you still need to know, and those are things that are often taught in a writing program. So while they don’t have a monopoly in the field, they are an excellent vehicle to learn those elements. Structure, story, character development, theme, etc.

Having watched Regarding Henry, it’s clear to me why Abrams can be so successful as a science fiction director. He understands the fundamentals of drama and what motivates characters. With that as a foundation, it becomes much easier to add on the genre trappings. This isn’t to say you don’t need to understand the conventions of the genre you’re working in, but rather that there are some basic story conventions that span across all genres. Don’t get those down, and no amount of chase scenes or explosions are going to save you.

Anyway. Check out Regarding Henry if you haven’t. It’s a solid movie. Thoughts?

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