Why JJ Abrams Will Save Star Wars

JJAbramsThe last few months have been interesting for Star Wars fans.  First we got news that George Lucas was retiring, and his longtime collaborator Kathleen Kennedy was stepping up to help Lucasfilm.  Then shockwaves were sent throughout the internet when it was announced that Lucasfilm would be sold to Disney. Millions of nerds around the world cried out in terror, while some welcomed the new mouse-eared overlords with open arms.  Even the writers here at Walking Taco chimed in.  It was a done deal though, and for better or for worse there was nothing anybody could do except clutch their action figures, re-watch their movie collections, and wait with bated breath to see what the future would hold.  And lo, it was not long until we found out exactly what the Disney deal would entail: new Star Wars movies, the first of which is now scheduled to come out in 2015. With the bloated Pirates of the Caribbean franchise showing its age, and non-starters like Prince of Persia failing to ignite the box office, this is certainly a win for Disney–a studio that has shown time and time again it has no qualms when it comes to milking franchises for all they’re worth.

That still left a few lingering questions, such as who would write the script for the new movie? What characters would return? Most importantly, who would direct? With rumors circulating the internet like virtual wildfire, and fanboys clogging message boards and twitter streams with their own ideas and critiques, one thing soon became clear: no director could be chosen that would satisfy everyone.  And lo, it soon came to pass that our new benevolent overlords at Disney soon made their bold pronouncement that JJ Abrams would be helming Star Wars Episode VII.

Of course this decision was met with a predictable mix of anger, outrage, along with scattered pockets of cautious optimism and even praise, from fans and non-fans around the world. The online chatter reached such a fever pitch that The Onion did one of their characteristically sardonic send-ups of it a few days later, which pretty much hit the hydrospanner right on the head.  And now that the space dust has settled somewhat, and people have actually come to grips with the fact that George Lucas’ beloved Star Wars universe will be in the hands of the guy who is directly responsible for Keri Russel’s career, I think this could very well be the best thing that has happened to Star Wars in a long time.

Kershner

Empire Strikes Back, widely regarded as the best Star Wars movie, wasn’t directed by George Lucas. Neither was Return of the Jedi.

Before we take a look at what Abrams will bring to the table, let’s step back in time to 1977. Star Wars (originally devoid of a subtitle) had just blown the lid clear off any and all box office predictions, and George Lucas was planning the next iterations of what would soon become the beloved classic trilogy.  But between his duties at his fledgling visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic and working with his longtime buddy Steven Spielberg on an archaeology film, he was simply unable to commit the time and energy required to direct a sequel to his original movie.  So he handed the reins to his former film school professor Irvin Kershner, best known for directing little-known character dramas.  (Even 35 years ago George Lucas knew the value in letting other talented filmmakers be the caretakers of his beloved vision.) Lucas didn’t even write the screenplay, instead passing those duties off to Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett.  He was of course intimately involved in the production of what is often cited as the greatest Star Wars film, but he had the wisdom to step back and let other talented individuals into the fold as well.  A few years later he repeated the same process, hiring a Welshman named Richard Marquand to helm the third and final entry in the evolving franchise-slash-merchandising juggernaut with Kasdan reprising his role as the screenwriter. Again Lucas was personally involved in virtually every aspect of the production, even replacing Wookies with Ewoks to be more kid-friendly. After all, who wants to play with Han Solo action figures if Han Solo gets killed off halfway through the movie? And while Jedi does not reach the lofty introspection and high drama of its immediate predecessor, it serves as a fitting and action-packed bookend to the series that began a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

And here we are, decades later, with the George Lucas’ space opera not only enduring but thriving despite his more limited role in the production of the second two films.  Clearly Star Wars did not suffer due to the inclusion of outside talent, and many would argue that the involvement of other creative minds only served to strengthen the movies as a whole.  I would argue that it is precisely because there was limited input from other individuals that the prequel trilogy fails on so many levels. Instead of bringing on board a team who would push and challenge each other, Lucas surrounded himself with yes-men who simply did his bidding and did not question whether the characters and storylines were actually any good.

Myriad characters? Check. Magical forces? Check. Star Wars references? Yah you betcha.

Lots of characters? Check. Magical forces? Check. Star Wars references? Yah you betcha.

All this is somewhat irrelevant though, as George Lucas simply had no interest in directing future Star Wars movies. The question instead revolves around the choice of JJ Abrams as the person on whose desk the buck will ultimately stop, at least for Episode VII.  But is Abrams really the right pick?  Yes.  In fact, he might very well be the ideal choice for director.  His oeuvre includes a swath of both drama and action, with a healthy dose of intelligence and depth mixed in as well. Abrams’ seminal work of the last decade is arguably the television show Lost which, despite a somewhat frustrating conclusion, was rife with compelling characters and myriad plot lines–something that fits right in with the ever-expanding Star Wars universe.  Lost was peppered with references to Star Wars, with a subplot in one episode revolving around the idea of one character writing the script for Empire Strikes Back and sending it through time to George Lucas.

One of the clearest examples of why Abrams is a fantastic choice for the Big Chair is his recent reboot of another science fiction stalwart, Star Trek. The franchise was a powerhouse in the 1990’s, but had lost a great deal of steam in recent years thanks to lackluster movies and a poorly-executed TV series whose incredible ambition far outstripped its reach.  Star Trek had been swept into the cultural dustbin by shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, whose powerful storylines and compelling characters outclassed anything stamped with the Star Trek moniker since Next Generation left the airwaves. And yet Abrams found a way to not only retool the series with the 2009 movie Star Trek, but thrust it to the forefront of the sci-fi zeitgeist once again. Though Star Trek was far and away an action piece first, supported by solid if somewhat shallow characters, it showed that there was plenty left to discover in the Final Frontier and it would be a fun ride along the way.

This lines up perfectly with the Star Wars franchise sits today.  While still a cultural and merchandising force to be reckoned with, the quality of Episodes I-III certainly leaves something to be desired.  Nostalgia-fueled fans are still content to flood the internet with memes and videos that hearken back to the classic trilogy, but the heart and soul of Luke Skywalker and his freewheeling compatriots has been hollowed out and replaced with a synthetic CGI-drenched toy-selling contraption that bears little resemblance to its parentage.  Given his track record, it’s likely that the involvement of Abrams will likely end up with a movie that lands somewhere between the the old and new trilogies.  An Abrams-directed Episode VII will be fertile ground for all the action and visual-effects wizardry that we have come to expect out of Star Wars, which will no doubt give birth to another onslaught of toys, video games, spinoffs, and the usual flotsam and jetsam for which the series has become synonymous. But Abrams also knows a thing or two about character development and dialog–two elements that were painfully lacking in Lucas’ trilogy–and so does screenwriter Michael Arndt, who will be penning the next movie.

Joss Wheedon, hero to sci-fi geeks around the world.

Joss Wheedon, hero to sci-fi geeks around the world.

But why not Sam Mendez, who went from directing the critically acclaimed American Beauty to helming one of the best James Bond movies ever?  Certainly he would seem like a great fit for Star Wars fans longing for a return to the introspective depths of Episode V.  Or Christopher Nolan, who changed the very concept of what a comic book movie could be when he directed Batman Begins by mixing heros, villains, action, suspense, tragedy, and cool gadgets into a cinematic powerhouse whose effects reverberate throughout the industry to this day. What about Joss Whedon, at whose altar nerds around the world worship thanks to his untouchable geek cred with productions like Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a little indie film called The Avengers. Maybe you’ve heard of it? These, along with any number of other directors, would have been solid choices to take on Star Wars Episode VI.  But JJ Abrams’ track record demonstrates his unique ability to handle heady science fiction concepts but also make them (gasp!) enjoyable, while simultaneously balancing a complex cast of characters.

In 2011 JJ Abrams released a film called Super 8, which was in many respects an homage to E.T. and The Goonies.  In it a scrappy band of kids happen to witness a mysterious train crash and end up saving the world, and while the film had its share of action, suspense, aliens, and explosions, the core of the story was about a boy and his relationship with his buddies and his father.  This quaint tale, I humbly submit, is the prototype to which we ought to look for clues as to how Abrams will handle the biggest movie franchise in history.  Super 8 proved that Abrams, who was no stranger to blockbuster titles (his name appearing above the marquee for Mission: Impossible 3 and Star Trek), fully understands the importance of keeping a larger-than-life tale grounded in solid characters–people to whom we can relate on a basic level.  Luke Skywalker, the kid who whined about picking up power converters and complained about being blinded by his helmet’s blast shield, the boy who grew to become a man in the cockpit of his X-Wing fighter while facing some of his deepest fears, is a twentysomething version of Joe Lamb–the unlikely boy hero of Super 8.  It’s these basic elements–good vs. evil, the quest of a hero, the bond between friends, which form the foundation on which Star Wars was based, the fingerprints of which are all over Super 8 as well as other Abrams movies.  Before lunch boxes, action figures, video games, and questionable lollipops, Lucas inspired fans around the world by telling a simple tale with characters to whom anyone could relate.  Of all the directors who could pick up where he left off, JJ Abrams is ideally suited to continue that original legacy.

What Star Wars needs right now isn’t another Empire Strikes Back, but another Star Wars. We need a film that reminds us why we all love Luke Skywalker, the dashing Han Solo, the beautiful Princess Leia, the mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the fearsome Darth Vader, in their galaxy far, far away, so much in the first place. Bringing Abrams on board, with George Lucas sticking around to offer creative input, virtually guarantees that Episode VII will be all the things the Prequels were not, without getting too heavy and brooding (save that for Episode VIII) or blatantly kid-friendly (that’s what spinoffs are for). Will there be lens flares? Probably. Will there be more jump cuts and dolly shots than a Michael Bay film? Perhaps. But will also, in all likelihood, get a movie with enough action to appeal to casual moviegoers, while balancing all the characters we know and love from the classic trilogy, and throwing in a dash of mysticism and philosophy for good measure.  Not too dark, not too heavy, but also not too kid-friendly or overloaded with mindless action and explosions.  In Abrams’ hands, the Star Wars franchise is better off than it has been in a long time.

A long time.

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  1. Spot on response to this.

    I think J.J. is a great fit. I would have loved to see Joss Whedon take it on, but his plate is full-up with Marvel, and I’m okay with him continuing to make that whole series awesome. There will be spin-off movies down the line for him to take on.

    My only real qualm is the lens flare style that J.J. loves so much. Story, character, and action wise I’m fine with him, I just hope that he reigns in the flaring for Episode VII. (A few here and there is fine.) And for all those people who argue that his lens flare isn’t all THAT excessive, there is literally a moment in Super 8 where there’s lens flare on the girl’s face, with no visible light source in the frame. Yes it uniquely identifies his visual style, but Star Wars already has a visual style, so the fan in me says – don’t get too crazy.

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