14 ways of looking at J.J. Abrams' 'Star Wars'

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Image Credit: Joi Ito/Flickr

News broke this afternoon that geek-franchise uber-producer J.J. Abrams has officially signed on to direct the next episode of Star Wars, therefore making him the official onscreen shepherd of not one, but two science-fiction mega-franchises — the equivalent of owning Coke and Pepsi, with Mission: Impossible playing the role of Dr. Pepper in this metaphor. Details are still scarce, as Disney and Lucasfilm have yet to release an official statement, but the news set our minds racing. Abrams’ participation is exciting news for many reasons. But a good Star Wars geek is also a skeptical Star Wars geek. Follow along as we track our 14-step reaction to the news about a J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Wars.

1. First takeaway, neither positive nor negative: This is confirmation that Disney is not going to scrimp on the Star Wars sequels. They need a reboot, and they went straight for the Reboot King. It’s a remarkably simple idea. The thinking goes: “J.J. Abrams took one decades-old franchise with the word ‘Star’ in it, rescued it from box office oblivion and fandom purgatory, and transformed it into a multi-demographic-baiting modern blockbuster hit. Why not let him do that again?” Indeed, it’s an idea so simple that pretty much everyone else on the Internet thought about it, but then dismissed it: What would Abrams do with Star Wars when he already had Star Trek? (By comparison, the rumors about Matthew Vaughn were a bit disappointing: Vaughn is a stylish director, but he’s a far more mercenary talent — you imagine him directing an off-brand Star Wars spin-off, not an epic three-part trilogy.) In a sense, this new Star Wars looks like a companion piece to The Avengers. In both cases, Disney didn’t just pick a beloved director: They picked a guy whose name is synonymous with the whole millennial rise of geekdom as a cultural force.

2. And they picked someone who loves Star Wars. Back when he was denying any interest in the project, Abrams gushed about the original film: “It was funny and romantic and scary and compelling and the visual effects just served the characters and story. It galvanized for me; not for what was exciting about how movies were made, but rather for what movies were capable of.” The worst thing about the latter Star Wars films – not just the prequels, but the Special Editions, too — was the weird sense that George Lucas had lost track of the original energy that inspired the franchise in the first place. For Abrams, this is a passion project.

3. But passion is a tricky thing. Abrams himself has admitted that part of what made him an ideal candidate to direct Star Trek was that he wasn’t a big fan of that franchise. It made him an ideal outsider, at a time when the whole Star Trek mythos was ensnared in continuity and staid tropes. The rebooted Star Trek was bold and kinetic; the characters all had big emotions that exploded in big ways; the camera never stopped moving. It didn’t feel much like Star Trek. To tell the truth, it felt a lot like Star Wars.

4. Which brings up a problem currently making everyone’s head explode. What does it mean that one man — one single creative force — is now handling the two franchises which defined decades of nerd culture? And specifically, two franchises which defined nerd culture by their complete bipolarity? Star Trek was quiet and thoughtful, set in a culture that was essentially utopian: It was the portrait of humans who, freed from fears of starvation or poverty, could get down to the business of analyzing the great ideas of existence. Even when it indulged in outright warfare — the Borg’s attacks in Next Generation, the Dominion War in Deep Space NineStar Trek was a talky, character-based franchise. Star Wars was the opposite. The original trilogy was a war saga set in the trenches, featuring brash characters and pseudo-religious mysticism: Samurai flying fighter planes in space, basically. Does this mean that the two franchises will just gradually merge together into one Steadicam space duet? Will there ever be a major science-fiction movie with a bigger idea than “This time, let’s blow up TWO PLANETS!!!”?

5. Does this mean that Abrams is done with Star Trek after the upcoming sequel Into Darkness? Further, does this mean that he always intended to be finished with Star Trek? Is Into Darkness the second part of a trilogy — which, let’s be honest, we were all expecting — or is it the conclusion of the Captain Kirk/Spock Rebooted Origin Story? Will people really die and stay dead? And should we already be asking who should direct Star Trek 3?

6. But maybe we’re confusing the real meaning of J.J. Abrams. We tend to assume that, between Alias and Lost and Star Trek, he brought geekdom into the mainstream. But he also cannily brought the mainstream to geekdom. Science fiction as a genre trends towards the cerebral: Abrams is always primarily focused on emotions. (He produced Morning Glory, a film which explicitly values personal expression over intellectual expression.) In that sense, he’s exactly the man to take on Star Wars, a franchise which spent three miserable prequels staring at blank-faced heroes with bland motivations and emotionless line deliveries.

7. The chances of John Noble having a role as a sage old Jedi master (or a villainous Imperial officer, or as the voice of a Hutt crime kingpin) just increased approximately 75%. That’s a good thing.

8. The chances of Michael Giacchino writing the music for Star Wars: Episode VII just increased approximately 100%. That’s a good thing.

9. Lightsabers are giant walking lens flares. That’s not a good thing.

10. When he talked to EW’s Geoff  Boucher back in November, Abrams denied involvement in Star Wars VII. By way of explanation, he offered this statement: “I have some original stuff I am working on next.” In today’s franchise-strangled Hollywood, is there any phrase more appealing than “Original Stuff”? And isn’t it sad to think that now, Abrams is one movie — or perhaps three movies — away from that “Original Stuff”? George Lucas always insisted that he was preparing to set Star Wars aside to get back to smaller, more personal projects like American Graffiti or THX-1138Years passed; then decades; then Red Tails came out, more personal perhaps, certainly not smaller, definitely not good. And now he’s retired. Will “Original Stuff” be the tantalizing promise of this entire generation of young directors? Are we all just doomed to relive the franchises our fathers created? Will Jaden Smith star in Men in Black 4? Should we even care?

11. But the originality argument misses the point. Star Wars was already half a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Just because a franchise is as old as mass media doesn’t mean it can’t speak to a new generation; just look at Battlestar Galactica or The Dark Knight. Heck, look at Lost, a TV show which started as a TV executive’s idea to do a fictional version of Survivor. (Which was itself an untwisting of a twist: Survivor was just Lord of the Flies, except real.) Nothing Abrams has done post-Felicity has been “original.” His filmography comprises a threequel, a reboot, an explicit (and overt) homage, and a reboot-sequel. The TV show Fringe was built on a foundation of clichés — It was X-Files meets, well, X-Files – but over the course of time it grew into one of the great eccentric shows of this TV era. If it plays, it plays.

12. So what can we expect, really, from Star Wars: Episode VII? There will be less politics than in the prequels, and that’s a good thing. There will be chases. There will be X-Wing Fighters: Unless he hires a particularly baroque designer, Abrams prefers to feature iconic images from his franchises, rather than create whole new ones. (His main reinvention of the Star Trek universe was transforming the Bridge into an Apple Store.) There will be a female heroine, probably butt-kicking — and that’s exciting for Star Wars, a franchise where even the wry and confident and blaster-toting Princess Leia couldn’t stop getting captured. It will probably be colorful — aside from the Bourne-quoting Mission: Impossible 3, Abrams prefers bright colors and sparkly scenery. Per Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg will probably have a role somewhere.

13. It will probably also feature a mystery, certainly in the movie itself, probably in the publicity. Nothing could be more tiresome than the whole Khan-Not Khan debate about Star Trek Into Darkness, but you can’t deny that Abrams’ intentions are pure. He wants to return a sense of wonder to seeing a film for the first time. Almost all of his post-Felicity work is obsessed with that magic moment of surprise — the zig when you’re expecting a zag; the revelation that a character is not what they appear to be; “Luke, I am your father!” ad infinitum. In context, it might be wearisome. But Star Wars has always existed in a weirdly binary moral atmosphere — you’re good or bad, Rebel or Empire, Dark Side or Light Side. Could Abrams bring a sense of moral ambiguity to the franchise? Is there a Neutral Side of the Force?

14. J.J. Abrams is directing Star Wars: Episode VII. Joss Whedon is directing The Avengers 2 and making a TV show about S.H.I.E.L.D. Peter Jackson is making three movies out of The Hobbit. Bryan Singer is directing an X-Men movie called Days of Future Past. It’s like Hollywood is making a movie out of the geekiest comment board of 2003. Whatever happens, we asked for it.

[Photo of George Lucas and J.J. Abrams above courtesy of Flickr user Joi]

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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