Saturday, July 11, 2015

Episode VII: JJ Abrams

So it occurs to me that I haven't really been writing much at all about Episode VII, despite it coming out last this year. So, starting now, I'm going to hyperspace backward in time and cover all of the big moments in Episode VII news.

I already wrote about the Disney purchase and the announcement of the sequel films themselves, so you can read that here.

First up: J.J. Abrams' announcement as director.

JJ is an interesting filmmaker. On one hand, he's a genius that makes great stories. He's had a hand in creating lots of TV shows—Lost, Alias, Fringe, etc: fantastic stuff. He's also made some great movies: Mission Impossible III, Star Trek, Super 8, etc. On the flipside, he's got a bad reputation among some fans for essentially turning Star Trek, a highly cerebral science fiction franchise, into a dumb roller coaster ride. While I do definitely agree that the two Abrams Trek films are disappointments and only hurt Star Trek (particularly the second one, I don't particularly share the concerns about his involvement with Star Wars. Here's why:

It's been said more than once that Abrams only made Star Trek in order to help his friends, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, get their Star Trek movie made. He lent his storytelling ability to the project, yes, but he was largely there to pass forward Orci and Kurtzman's vision for Star Trek. Almost every single major fan complaint about the new Trek films is due to decisions made by Orci and Kurtzman, not Abrams. While Abrams is to blame for the "style" of the new Trek films, the real problems with those films were on a script level.

Also, JJ has said repeatedly that he didn't really understand Star Trek, and did the best with what he could. And that's not a crime; countless Trek directors didn't know what they were doing when they stepped into the captain's chair. If one thing is largely true about the Abrams Trek films, it's that they're never lazy. There are countless bad story decisions for sure, but the guiding hand behind the camera is never not trying. In any case, while JJ apparently didn't "get" Trek, he certainly seems to get Star Wars.

With Super 8, JJ showed that while he may not understand Star Trek's cerebral nature, he absolutely understands the Lucas/Spielberg filmmaking style of the 80s—which, of course, includes Star Wars.  There's a throughline in all of Abrams' films: feeling. In Abrams films, what's happening in the story, no matter how trivial or how epic, always matters to the characters. Mission Impossible III was the first time in the M:I series that the characters actually cared about anything or were ever in emotional jeopardy rather than only physical. More than that, the cast actually had chemistry. They weren't just Hollywood characters running around in a generic spy plot; they were people that the audience cared about. Star Trek, for all its faults, carries that torch. Kirk and Spock have personal stakes in what happens. Perhaps that's part of the problem: Trek can't be objective and cerebral when its characters are dealing too much with emotion. But just because that style is a bad fit for Trek doesn't mean it's a bad fit for Wars. Quite the opposite, honestly.

George Lucas has said many, many things about Star Wars, but one thing seems relevant here: Star Wars is an emotional story, not a cerebral one. That isn't to say, of course, that Star Wars can't be intelligent or stimulate the audience on an intellectual level, merely that Star Wars is primarily meant to pull at the audience's heart and soul. It's the relationships between people that make the Star Wars original trilogy work so perfectly, and why the prequels often fell flat. Everything that matters in Star Wars matters because it matters to the characters. Luke joins the Rebellion not out of blind principle, but because the Empire made it personal by slaughtering his family. Han saves Luke in the Battle of Yavin because he's come to care for Luke as a friend. Luke throws aside his anger towards Vader out of unconditional love for his father. It's those personal connections that made Star Wars great, and what can make it great again.

Now, of course, you may be wondering: if JJ Abrams wasn't able to make Star Trek great despite making the story personal and emotional, how is Star Wars going to be any different?

"It's not what you say, it's how you say it."
A writer tells a story; a director determines how that story is delivered. A script sets up the drama; a director makes you feel that story. If Episode VII's story is solid, JJ can knock it out of the park. Which leads me to my next point...

JJ is not the only one making the movie. Kathleen Kennedy, a producer who's worked with Lucas and Spielberg for decades, is the current president of Lucasfilm. From a creative standpoint, she effectively has George Lucas's old job: to oversee the story and guide it, even if not directly hands-on. Furthermore, Episode VII's script is largely written by Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It's not JJ Abrams alone making Episode VII: it's a dream team of incredibly talented people who are in the perfect position to make a great Star Wars movie.

So, yes, given everything I've seen of Abrams' work (all his movies and a good chunk of his TV career), I think he's a great choice to direct the next Star Wars movie. Last thought: in Super 8, we met a cast of children who were completely unimportant, aside from the fact that they were people, and at the end of the day, that's good enough. For all the talk about destiny and the Force, if there's one thing that made Luke Skywalker a great character, it was that he was essentially just a person. If Abrams can make us care about a group of annoying kids in the 80s, I can't wait to see what he does with the Skywalker legacy.

Next up: the movie's title and the first teaser trailer.

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