Friday, September 2, 2011

JJ Abrams may be a sociopath

Did you watch 24? Every season? If so, I'm sorry - in large part because you witnessed 13,630 confirmed deaths, and even looking at so much fictitious death, violence, anger, and destruction must be bad for you. It's not as if audiences weren't warned, tho; 24 was always billed as an action-thriller dealing with terrorism. It makes sense that there's a lot of bloodshed over 192 episodes.

I've come to look over the career of a certain JJ Abrams (heard of him?) and I've begun to wonder whether he's a sociopath. Why? There were about 100 deaths in Lost's finale Season alone. And there were many, many more before it. Look at this list. It's got every single death from each season, and I don't have the time to count them all, so I invite your assistance.

Or watch this 6-min video set to Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died."

It's true that movies and tv shows often pick people off at a level that would cause an alarming drop in the human population in real life. JJ is not new or special in this regard. Any 1980s Schwarzenegger film - particularly the 80+ terminations in Commando - can show you that. So why do I take issue with Abrams' kill fetish?

Because a JJ Abrams story often does a lot to connect with the emotions of the audience. We see characters who clearly love their boyfriends, wives, daughters - the actors and dialogue for any of these moments really convey a deep and important affection. Even if we're witnessing a setup scene with a mom and her son, you'll clearly see that one of these people truly cares about the other.

Then wham! One of them is dead. It might be an unknown, rampaging monster, a planet-killing alien, or a technological terrorist group. Someone's life is snuffed out, and this not only means that a person is gone, it means that other people are left to suffer the aftermath of traumatic loss.

It's the two factors - the intentional emotional connection with the audience and the awful death - that have me looking at JJ in a different way. Given how often these deaths occur, an Abrams world is one full of mourning souls. Moving beyond mere fiction, I have to worry about the real humans watching all this.

Ourselves, the viewers, are thrust into a fake world full of strange and incredible events. We're rushed through exciting adventures like being a CIA spy or crash-landing on an impossible island with a group of strangers. Every JJ Abrams story has many moments to make you smile, laugh, or pump your fist at the screen. Isn't it weird that we're supposed to feel so good in the wake of so much loss?

Lost wasn't a show about stopping the sorts of people who plan public attacks, was it? It was a mystery/adventure about... heart and... love and... flawed people who did cool things and... learning about yourself and... destiny versus determination and people just saying stuff in important tones. And. And...

Come to think of it, Jesus, that series was a freaking charnel house. If it weren't in horrible taste, I'd say Lost should've been called "Concentration Camp Island: The Non-Nazi Edition." Those are rough words to type, yet the series certainly played out that way.

I could be dismissed as a disappointed Lost fan, I guess. But I wasn't simply upset because the end of that show didn't give me the answers I wanted; it's because my artistic tastes were being offended while these professional writers were still not providing a good resolution to the hundreds of tragic, comic, and sometimes ironic deaths that they put on air. Or perhaps better, "that they so cheaply used."

Does even that sound overboard, or defensive? Well, maybe it's better to talk about Alias, since that was something JJ made when he was just becoming a big shot. Deaths: 1362, in 5 seasons. Start to see my point?

I just killed her so I could look more badass.

Obviously, that body count will pale in comparison to 24. But remember that Kiefer's series had multiple plane crashes, a meltdown, and the bomb going off twice. 24 was supposed to be super OTT anti-terror action, whereas Alias was a character-driven spy thriller/actioner... So, maybe the problem is that Lost and Alias were crafted by a big writing staff. I can't lay the macabre attitudes of 14+ writers at Abrams' feet, can I?

I can, because I think Abrams' ideas encourage that in the writers' room. Just look at work that's all his own, like the JJ-directed, JJ-produced Star Trek from 2009. At least 8 ships are destroyed, as are two planets (the first is off-screen). And, though Spock sees his planet get destroyed, his mother (played by Winona Ryder for added Oedipal factor) is barely retrieved - then not - by a transporter. Yes: a guy whose homeworld is wiped out, according to Abrams, hasn't gone through enough pathos, so he watches his mommy die in front of him.

Because the death of your home planet and most of the people on it just isn't that personal. We need more motivation. More, damn you!

There's also Cloverfield, in which lower-midtown Manhattan (along with a group of annoying 20-somethings) is pretty much destroyed by a huge monster. 27 deaths occur on-screen, including the leads - and that pic has a really small cast, so it hits harder. Maybe JJA had less control over Cloverfield, as he just produced the film and created the titular monster. But damn if doesn't synch up with everything else he's made.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like killing off actors comes as easily as breathing for JJ. It makes a sort of sense - death is, to put it mildly, a big deal. It serves as something to easily make the roles that survive angry, suicidal, scared, or defiant. I mean, not every movie or tv show has the time to give people complicated and subtle motivations, does it?

And it does pull the audience in with all its loud drama, right? "You were my lover, but turned out to be a killer who wanted to run away with me, and I just realized who you were after stabbing you in self-defense! Oh, rue this day!" That sort of stuff must be engaging, huh?....

The problem starts to mount for me, because these deaths seem like killing animals for sport instead of food. I'm a city boy, and I don't know hunting. I've seen videos like When Animals Attack; I laughed hard at the hunter who pranked an animal by spraying deer sex scent on himself, only to find an angry buck kicking him til he needed to activate his medical plan. I love it when violent people get hurt.

I had a friend describe his hunting methods and process to me. His whole Ohio family not only chased deer for meat, they did it with something like a modern musket (a rifle that takes minutes to reload) and used as much of the animal's corpse as possible. I was fine with it because it's respectful. They ended a creature's life for their own sustenance, yet did so responsibly.

Similarly, I didn't laugh at a nature show wherein a hunter's "nest" collapsed onto a red ant mound and he was bitten into unconsciousness and hospitalization. I felt bad since he was hunting game with a bow and arrow - not a fully-automatic rifle or anything wild like that. It's always about intent - & it's always a matter of degrees, isn't it?

You've got a problem if you complain when someone catches one fish. It's another thing to see someone toss a stick of dynamite into a lake, kill everything in the water, then grab two fishes and leave the rest to rot. It's about having Respect for what you're doing, and I don't see a lot of respect from JJ Abrams for the roles he creates.

Let's see some Lost deaths again, set to Giacchino's lovely score. Plenty for everyone.

This death=whatever style can be used well. Stanley Kubrick's work took a very distanced view at humanity, and this has a particular impact on people who view 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. Dave from 2001 is chilly while speaking to his own child! And yet... And yet, Kubrick's coldness - his occasionally-robotic portrayal of people - was a part of his entire aesthetic and thematic approach. It created a particular tone for the adventures of Alex and Dave and other roles in Stanley's directorial CV.

JJ's work, however, often tugs at people's heart-strings, sometimes in cheesy/typical ways. After you take some time to think about it, you might also be bothered by that contrast - ice-cold fatalism combined with cloying melodrama? I'd give the man more credit if I thought that this reflected some thesis or purpose other than sucking in the viewer.

If you're watching an Abrams' effort, expect people to die. If you're an actor on Abrams' work, start prepping for your death scene. It's so consistent, it would happen if he directed a Care Bears film. Deaths occur because death, especially murder, is painful and "big" and people can relate to it, and any time someone dies, things are clearly becoming more "intense." And isn't that a really cheap way to reach your audience?

I want to use more quotation marks than the Zagat's guide.

Why treats us like cats whose owners got laser pointers, then try to tack on "heart?"

And what about modern viewers? Can't you reach them or engage them through anything less? I think it all boils down to the idea that ending one life - that one loss - really isn't enough for the audience. The logical conclusion of Abrams' "uplifting" endings further suggests that no matter what happens, we'll easily shift emotions to feel good because some kid smiles or someone has an in-your-face plan for saving the day.

I never watched Felicity, but I assume it ends in a catastrophic fire or alien-induced flood. And I think, in the end, the creative and successful JJ Abrams may be a sociopath. The death toll in his work supports my question excellently.

These movies and tv shows are, in the end, too much like Roman gladiator games for me. It also worries me that no one else seems to notice. Heaven help us all...


  1. I think you definitely made a good point including Kubrick in there. He's got a lot of death, but it serves to reaffirm his cynical look at humanity. JJ on the other hand is just looking to heighten the stakes. Which is fine by me...but it's definitely an overused tool by modern day directors and writers. The more people that die, the higher the stakes, right? Wrong. Then there's just a lot of people dying, most we don't care about, and the few we do care about we're afraid to get attached to because we know they'll be knocked off.

    Character deaths are much more powerful when they're few and far between, that way you really feel the emotional impact of them, and they actually feel important, treating the characters like real, decent people instead of swatting them away like flies. In short, while I don't usually have a big problem with massive character genocide, I definitely sympathize. Great idea for a post!

  2. Thank you! I was inspired by a rewatch of Star Trek & talking about the last season of Lost. I was worn out by all the people who show apparently just to snuff it, all the undeveloped characters, and that Lost's ending (which was touching at times) was all about the "named actors," not the hundreds of nameless chumps on that plane. Nothing in the finale gave respect to the murders of all those side-characters.

    You're dead on about about Kubrick. He wasn't trying to reach our hearts so much as engage our minds. That's why 2001 still works even though Dave was as cold as a popsicle; he was still human, even if you wouldn't want to get a beer with him.

    And for all my complaining, I'm with you. I don't want characters to die just to "angst up" the scene, or because the writers feel like they got a quota. It makes me feel weird for enjoying the show!


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