It was the best of jobs, it was the worst of jobs. The opportunity to take the reins of the most beloved and influential film franchise ever and make the sequel that fans no longer thought to expect, revisiting characters not seen in nearly 30 years while also salvaging a brand that, while still thriving in many formats, was not in the best shape when last seen on celluloid. So…no pressure.
Steven Spielberg said no. Brad Bird said no. J.J. Abrams said no. Ben Affleck said no. J.J. Abrams elaborated on why he said no. Guillermo del Toro said no. All was quiet. There should have been an announcement, but it didn’t come. A job which would seem on the surface to be one of Hollywood’s most coveted may actually have been its most feared. And then J.J. Abrams said yes.
Star Wars Episode VII has a director. And it’s the same guy who is currently in charge of Star Trek. Ben Kenobi once spoke to Luke Skywalker of sensing millions of voices suddenly crying out in terror. That loud noise you heard when this news broke on Thursday was millions of voices suddenly crying out in collective orgasm.
The fact that one person is now the shepherd of the two most popular and enduring science fiction franchises ever is a bizarre twist of events. I keep thinking about the cop played by Peter Boyle in Malcolm X who witnesses Malcolm’s influence over his followers at a crowded demonstration and ominously remarks, “That’s too much power for one man to have.” I don’t know what the implications are of one man making new Star Trek and Star Wars movies, but I take it as a good sign that the universe has not folded in on itself and created some kind of super black hole. Fans seem happy, and it didn’t take them long to start having fun with the fact that Abrams now reigns supreme as the King of Science Fiction.
I’d love to know how Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm and producer of the sequels, changed Abrams’ mind, and if any Jedi mind tricks were involved. Or maybe she simply told him, “Resistance is futile.” (Some vague details are mentioned here.) I’m sure he will have plenty of interview opportunities in the months ahead to explain why he decided to commit the next several years of his life to outer space. He’ll probably soon start collaborating on the script with Michael Arndt, who has already been hired to write the movie, plus he’s still in post-production on Star Trek Into Darkness. That comes out in May, so he’ll be promoting it, then he’ll likely have to move right into pre-production on Episode VII. Then probably back to Star Trek when he’s done in 2015, as he is signed on to direct one more installment of that series. And let’s not forget his nonstop work developing and producing TV shows; the day after the Star Wars announcement, NBC and Fox each bought a pilot from his Bad Robot label.
I’m excited by the selection of Abrams. I think he’s about as good a choice as we could hope for to redeem the cinematic corner of the sprawling Star Wars galaxy. The prequels left the franchise as burned and scarred as Anakin Skywalker after he was hacked to pieces and left for dead on the fiery shore of a liquid hot magma river. Now Lucasfilm’s new leader Kathleen Kennedy is playing the role of Emperor (minus the being evil part), encasing the charred remains in a shiny new suit, and Abrams is like Luke, come to redeem the franchise and help return its purity.
Okay, that may be an overreaching attempt at a metaphor, but you get the idea. Star Wars needs to be placed in capable directorial hands, and Abrams fits the bill. In an email thread discussing the selection on Friday, a friend of mine said he had hoped for more of an “actor’s director;” someone who could handle the action and special effects but whose most obvious gift was for coaxing performances. I wanted essentially the same, writing in November that I hoped the chosen director would be someone “who has shown skills handling mainstream content with good performances, editing and storytelling.” My friend likes Abrams well enough, but doesn’t think he’s the guy who can deliver that. I think he can. I see Abrams as a guy who can bring the spectacle, the humanity and the humor, and who can put it all together in a good-looking, skillfully assembled package. His entry in the Mission:Impossible franchise is my favorite of that series; 2009′s Star Trek did the legacy proud; and the pilot episode of Lost, for which he won a Best Director Emmy award, is two spectacular hours of television. His last movie, Super 8, was an homage to early Spielberg, but while I had problems with some of its sci-fi aspects, it really worked for me on a character level (although we all have our own radar for these things; my Abrams-resistant friend found the movie’s character development and quieter, “human” scenes to be lacking).
I am not without concerns when it comes to Abrams. While I enjoyed Star Trek overall, there were some traits on display that he needs to avoid when it comes to a new Star Wars movie, especially because they call to mind The Phantom Menace. At one point, Kirk crashes onto a planet of ice, and is attacked by a creature which is then swiftly attacked itself by another creature. Neither was necessary. They seemed to exist just to give Abrams the chance to design some monsters for a movie that didn’t have an obvious place for monsters. On top of that, both were generic-looking CGI bores. This tends to be another problem with Abrams. For a guy who loves monsters, the ones he’s come up with are usually bland. The creatures in both Super 8 and Cloverfield (which he produced) were kind of….meh. Star Wars may or may not call for creatures, but if it does, lets hope Abrams takes his cue from the Wampa, the Rancor or the giant asteroid worm rather than anything in The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, which his Star Trek creatures take after. I also want to see him strike the right balance with the humor. Star Trek occasionally went a little too far into goofy, Jar Jar territory, like when Dr. McCoy gives Kirk an injection (can’t remember why) which has the side effect of making Kirk’s hands swell up like balloons. The joke was milked and felt too silly. Humor is good, but it has to find the right tone. And for the love of Yoda, please none of Lucas’ potty humor. Again, look to the original trilogy. There are some really funny moments in The Empire Strikes Back, and most are born out of character dynamics, dialogue and great timing. That’s the model to use.
As I see it, there are two significant challenges Abrams faces. The first is finding a way to differentiate between Star Trek and Star Wars. The space battles in the former series were always tepid compared to the fast-paced, fluid action sequences in all of the Star Wars films. But Abrams brought that kineticism to Star Trek, so now he has to figure out how to keep the two from looking interchangeable. He’ll need a different color scheme (less blue, less orange) and he might just have to sacrifice his beloved lens flare.
His second challenge may be the thing that caused him, and probably others, to turn down the movie in the first place: reverence for the first three movies. Abrams has said on several occasions that one of the reasons taking on the Star Trek reboot appealed to him was that he was never much of a Trekkie/Trekker, and so he didn’t feel beholden to its legacy when relaunching it. That won’t be the case here. Abrams has often spoke about what an influence Star Wars was and how avid a fan he is. He cited that as one of the reasons he initially passed when Emperor Kennedy came calling with the keys to the Millennium Falcon. The burden of hopes and expectations that fans will place on his shoulders will be second only to those he places on himself. But you don’t get to be where Abrams is without a lot of confidence. So switch off the targeting computer, J.J. Lower the blast shield. Feel the Force flowing through you, and let it guide your instincts. And go ahead and read some of the articles that have popped up all over the web about what fans are looking for from the new movies. There’s plenty of good advice to be gleaned. Here’s one, from The Playlist. (Michael Arndt, you should be reading this stuff too.) Here also are a few articles about some Abrams trademarks that may or may not find their way into the new movie, again courtesy of The Playlist, as well as Vulture and TV Guide.
Even as I write this, it’s hard not to be a little excited. I remember May 19, 1999, the day Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace opened. I was in Ithaca, New York, experiencing my final days of college. A friend and I had tickets to the first show of the day, and the elation was indescribable; 16 years in the making. In minutes, the Star Wars titles would fill the screen, John Williams’ iconic theme blasting through the theater, and for the first time since I was six years old, the opening crawl would be unfamiliar to me. I would have no idea what was coming. I also remember that after the movie, we drove around aimlessly, talking about it, trying to convince ourselves that we liked it. We might have been successful for a short while, but reality soon set in. Now I’m an older, wiser, more jaded Star Wars fan, and I know to temper my expectations. A new Star Wars movie can’t possibly affect me the way that A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi did, nor does it have to. It just has to be good. And with a script by Michael Arndt, a producer like Kathleen Kennedy, a consultant like Lawrence Kasden (not really sure what Simon Kinberg brings to the table, but whatever) and J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair, the future of Star Wars looks bright…but hopefully not too blue or orange.
(Click here for more artist Star Wars/Star Trek mash-ups)