On JJ Abrams and Star Wars

Yesterday, the word came out that JJ Abrams would be the director for the new Disney Star Wars film, which has been called Episode VII since its announcement. Having read nothing other than headlines on the topic, here are a couple of thoughts on what Abrams is working with and what he might bring to the franchise.

First, a few thoughts on Abrams. I’d consider myself something of a mid-level fan of Abrams work. I’ve enjoyed most of his TV work (that I’ve seen), including Lost, Alias and Fringe. Abrams does have a habit of handing off his creations to other showrunners who make it their own thing, so it’s hard to tell how much credit he deserves for making Lost awesome, or how much blame he deserves for the decline in quality of Lost and Alias. Still, he puts a unique stamp on his work and he’s given some new life to genre TV.

I’m a fan of his debut film, Mission: Impossible III, though I’d still rank the original and M:I-4 above it. I’m not as keen on Super 8, which worked fine (for better and worse) as a Spielberg homage and featured talented child actors, but was hampered by sappiness in the last quarter of the film. Star Trek falls somewhere in the middle for me. I know it’s an unqualified box office and critical success, but I wasn’t entirely sold on reimagining these iconic characters. I’m only a mid-level Trekkie, but maybe I felt there wasn’t enough reverence to the original. Still, it’s better than some of the original Trek films (which might not be saying much when 1 and 5 are in the mix). Overall, I’m a fan of Abrams’ ideas and, for the most part, his execution. Based on Star Trek, though, I’m still a bit wary about how he might treat my beloved Star Wars franchise.

So where does Star Wars go under Abrams?

Things can only get better

One thing Abrams has going for him, that has nothing to do with his talents, is the recent history of the Star Wars film franchise. The prequel trilogy has engendered so much ill will among fans of the original trilogy that, though it may sound hyperbolic, it would be difficult for Abrams to do worse than Lucas did with Episodes I-III. I’m a fan of the prequel trilogy insofar as, like it or not, it is a part of the “official” Star Wars saga and, as a completist I accept that. Still, to paraphrase something I said to a friend, (and risk more hyperbole and tired George Lucas villainizing), Lucas took such a messy dump all over the Star Wars franchise, that fans should be ready to embrace something new, or at least give it a shot.

Abrams has a huge galaxy in which to play

Abrams has a strong foundation to build upon because, if you ask me, what really worked best about the original Star Wars trilogy was the Universe Lucas created. Sure, almost every character in the original trilogy is something of an icon, and probably has its own action figure, but the technology, the ships and the distant planets are what I really loved. I’m not trying to be a hater, but I’d much rather have a lightsaber than hang out with Luke. I’d much rather use the force than listen to Yoda and Obi-Wan babble on about it. I’d much rather ride a speeder bike than attend an Ewok party. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of those things we (or at least I) love.

Of course, this says nothing of the Extended Universe, which features several big-screen-worthy stories and characters from which Abrams could draw (pushes glasses up on nose, “Hellooooo Grand Admiral Thrawn!”). I don’t expect Abrams to look to the novels–dozens of which I’m guilty of reading–for inspiration, but perhaps a nod to them here or a cameo there might not be out of the question.

Abrams Knows Action

Say what you will about his characters and stories, Abrams knows how to craft a great action scene. I’m most excited about this. The original trilogy had great space battles and decent land battles (with wonderful, practical miniature model effects), but I don’t think it did quite as well with the small-scale stuff. I love old school Hamlet vs. Laertes-style lightsaber duels, but I’d argue that it wasn’t until Ray Park showed up in Episode I that we got a really great lightsaber fight (and honestly, given Lucas’ heavy use of CGI in the prequels, we haven’t really had a great one since). I think Abrams could bring a lot not only to lightsaber action, but also to blaster fights and other hand to hand, or more intimate action scenes. It’s hard to imagine him being able to go a more realistic route in the FX heavy Star Wars universe, but I’d love to see more practical stunts with real actors, even if they’re in a computerized world.

Abrams has Reboot/Remake Experience

Unlike Star Trek, it doesn’t appear that Abrams will be rebooting/remaking the original trilogy. However, Star Wars Episode VII might still be a sequel and continue some of the story from Return of the Jedi. Enough time has passed in the real world that I think Abrams will (and should) be forced to tell new stories with new characters. I’m not entirely opposed to seeing some of our old favorites back again, but I’d rather he not force the issue, especially if none of the actors are game to come back (Billy Dee needs a paycheck baby!). I’d also rather not see him cheat and bring back just the non-human characters that can be faked with voiceover work or CGI so we can’t tell that Chewbacca and C-3P0 are in their 60s. Regardless of how it shapes up, Abrams overwhelming success with Star Trek (my personal opinion aside), can only be an asset as he treads the line between the old and the new.

Side Notes:

Though I’d say the series is not exactly beloved, I think the way the Mission: Impossible film series has been handled is potentially a good template for Star Wars (and James Bond, I believe). Four films helmed by four known directors with unique styles is a fun way to go. Granted, it’s probably easier because every movie in the series is basically an action thriller with Tom Cruise (and Ving Rhames), so there doesn’t need to be much continuity. Doing things this way with a potentially serialized new Star Wars trilogy may pose more of a challenge.

What does Abrams’ hiring for Star Wars mean for the future of the Star Trek franchise? Clearly they want to make at least a third new Trek film, but will Abrams be able to direct? I highly doubt it, and I worry about what that might mean for everyone else who has worked on the first two Trek films. I expect that the cast is locked in for a third movie, but I’m sure a lot of the crew are Abrams regulars who my jump over to Star Wars with him. Unless they plan to keep going with more and more Trek films (something the studio probably wants, but something the cast probably doesn’t) it would be unfortunate for Abrams not to finish out his trilogy. That said, I’m not particularly worried about the quality of an Abrams-less Star Trek 3 (or 13, if you want to go that route). I’m more intrigued about who they might get to continue it and excited about it having a different style/feel. Because of this, I’d prefer it to be someone brand new rather than have Abrams pass it off to one of his collaborators like he’s done with his TV projects. Who knows, maybe Abrams ends up doing both.

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3 thoughts on “On JJ Abrams and Star Wars

  1. I feel like I trust Abrams to the point where I know I’ll get a solid, highly-entertaining movie out of him every time. (I haven’t seen many)

    That said, I’ll be thrilled if I get a good movie, plus that movie doesn’t begin in the Star Wars Universe before moving to a parallel universe where nothing we’ve already seen matters anymore.

    Also, Kyle Katarn!

  2. What do you think of the other folks rumored to have been considered? I don’t know anything of the decision, nor the validity of the rumors, but with names like Affleck, del Tormo, and Nolan in the mix (from what little I have heard), Abrams seems to me like the safest choice but by no means most intriguing

    • Given that short list (Abrams, Affleck, del Toro and Nolan) I don’t think it could have gone to anyone other than Abrams. None of Affleck’s movies are really genre films. Also, in hindsight, with all of the buzz Argo is getting, he and his filmmaking style, sensibility and audience are probably not in the same class as Star Wars. Despite the Dark Knight trilogy, I don’t think Nolan would do it. As fascinating as a darker take on Star Wars would be (though isn’t everything darker these days?), I don’t know that his colder sensibility could deliver the fun that an audience would expect of Star Wars. Now Del Toro is someone I could get behind. I’ve honestly only seen Pan’s Labyrinth and his Harry Potter movie, but but based on those, I think he could bring something new to a galaxy far far away. The concern with him is that he might make it just too weird, or his visual style wouldn’t mesh with what Star Wars has given us before. Now look at Abrams. His one “original” film (Super 8) was basically a Spielberg homage. The other two successfully breathed new life into “old” franchises, entertaining without offending. Given the long history of Star Wars (and even longer history of Star Trek), the new installments in those series need a director who will “color inside the lines.” Additionally, while a lot of fans hated the prequel trilogy and would love to see a change from that, they’re probably hoping for something more like the original trilogy and not something “new.” I think I’m even more interested in the possibility of standalone Star Wars films. Zack Snyder recently denied a rumor that he would be making one not directly connected to the Star Wars film series. If any movies like that actually happen, anyone could potentially direct one without being beholden to the central Star Wars mythology. I’d love that.

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