J.J. Abrams and the Future of Star Wars

Thought I’d take a break from the MMO world this week and talk a little bit about the whirlwind of changes with the Star Wars franchise. For those who haven’t been watching all things Star Wars, the big news is that George Lucas has sold all the rights for Star Wars to Disney Studios, and has bowed out of making any future movies, serving only as a consultant. Add to that news that Disney will produce a new Star Wars movie (set after the original series) which will appear sometime in 2015, and that J.J. Abrams will be directing. For those who don’t know J.J. Abrams, he produced the Lost television series, the Goonies throwback Super 8, and the 2009 Star Trek reboot. He’s produced a ton of SF television, including Felicity, Fringe, and recently, Revolution (the one about the power going out).

I have mixed feeling about the changes. On the one hand, it’s a great sign that Lucas has decided to hand over the reins to a new generation of writers and directors; he had really lost sight of, I think, what made the original series magical. The first Star Wars movie was full of grit and dirt, wonderful characters that radiated humanity and humor, and tight, compelling storytelling. The prequels drift into 3rd person mode, rarely getting close to its characters; when it does you find you really don’t like them that much. The prequels are devoid of humor, drifting into trade negotiations, senate speeches and clownish characters only Barney the Dinosaur devotees might appreciate. In one fell swoop, the movies completely trivialize the magical, Zen-like Force with a syringe of “midichlorians.”

Add to this Lucas’ stubborn refusal to allow the unaltered original versions of the movies to be released in the cleaned-up digital format, and the handoff to Disney can only be an improvement. Now a new group will have a chance to tell new stories in this universe, and that can only bring a second life back to movies loved by an entire generation.

I worry, however, that the lessons of the prequels have not been fully learned by this new generation of writers. With Abrams the pick for the new director, we can look at his past movies to see how a new series might fare. Most point to the Star Trek series reboot as the one that proves he is the man to remake Star Wars. Indeed, Abrams did a masterful job of recasting the actors to replace Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the others, and the actors did a fine job of playing those roles. But the film falls victim to the same problems many sci-fi movies fall victim to these days – pumping up the action, speed and effects over character development; speaking for myself, I felt exhausted when the movie was over, and not in a particularly good way – more stressed than elated. For me, The Wrath of Khan still stands as the single best Star Trek movie, for its quiet character growth (Kirk getting used to his glasses), ties to the original show, and nicely paced storytelling.

I heard recently that Ben Affleck had been in the running for directing Star Wars, and I can’t help thinking he might have been a better choice. Affleck’s direction of Argo, currently up for an Oscar for its depiction of the Canadian-CIA operation to rescue a group of Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis, is exceptional. Affleck truly captures the feel of the 70’s in a way I think would inform his direction of a Star Wars movie. His small-scale focus on character and storytelling would do well for a series (and genre) that has become over bloated with fist-pumping action sequences and explosions. Not that those aren’t needed, but they always need to be subservient to character development and emotional ties to the audience. Argo had very heavy duty action in its sequences, but Affleck conveys the suspense of the situation extremely well, weaving a story that has us truly caring about these characters in the end.

Abrams may do a great job – he certainly understands character, and the work on Lost was nicely done. The storytelling in that series was masterful. The initial scenes in Super 8 were also wonderful; Abrams captured the feel of the 70’s very nicely, hearkening back to E.T. and the Goonies; the problem in that movie is that once the action sequences start, much of that character development is overshadowed, and the initial connection with our young characters gets lost amongst the monsters and laserblasts.

Whoever the director may be, here are the scenes I would point to in the original series.  Watch these (and the first two movies especially) closely to see what makes the magic:

  • The bickering between the droids as they make their way across Tatooine – again, we learn about this world we have been tossed into through the dialogue, not some expositional sludge.
  • Luke and Uncle Owen strolling out to the Sandcrawler to buy droids. Watch how much information about the world and characters is conveyed with just a bit of haggling with the jawas. Notice how immersed you become in this strange world with this one scene.
  • Watch as Luke must clean the droids instead of hanging out with friends. These scenes are full of dialogue and action that draws us to these characters – they are like us, we like them because we recognize something of ourselves in them despite the strange setting.
  • Notice how dirty and real the world (and people) look. Contrast that with the glut of cgi in the prequels with its perfect lines. Don’t forget the use of sets – cgi is there to augment, not to be center stage
  • Notice the magic and awe that talk of the Force evokes when Ben and Luke first meet. Bring back that sense of specialness that the Force should be. Please destroy midichlorians.
  • Notice the irreverence of Han Solo, and the fights he picks with other characters. Contrast that with how agreeable everyone is in the prequels. The reason why Kirk, Spock and McCoy worked so well was that they bickered and fought sometimes, actually often. Same with Luke, Han and Leia.
  • Notice how Leia is a sparkplug in the series and not very “princess-like,” at least initially. These characters have substance, and they understand humor. More sarcasm and jokes and complaining and ribbing please.
  • Notice how the stakes are steadily increased throughout the movie, to the ultimate confrontation with the Death Star. Very similar in Empire, but with the lightsabre duel with Vader in that movie. Make damn sure we really care about the people about to get killed in that final confrontation.
  • Notice the growth of the characters over the series. See how they become better as they better understand the larger world around them, and begin to see that the world does not revolve solely around them.

So many of these things are missing in the prequels that I am frankly stunned that George Lucas is the same person who directed the original Star Wars. Disney has a chance to do better, though. I do hope Mr. Abrams knows what is possible, and looks back at the original movies with an eye toward what made them amazing to begin with.

Knocking loudly on wood.

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3 thoughts on “J.J. Abrams and the Future of Star Wars

  1. Alien Observer says:

    Good Post. I would hazard that a lot of what you are saying comes down to good writing. I don’t know how much Mr. Abrams will be involved with producing the original script, but would guess that a good director can improve a lot on a bad script (or make a mediocre one truly awful). “The devil is in the details” as you mention regarding scenes about price haggling and droid cleaning. Taking the time to include things like that and doing them well helps us suspend our disbelief and invest our selves emotionally in the characters and the story. I get the feeling that Mr. Abrams is as much of a “fan-boy” as us, and will make an serious effort to get it right, or at least I hope so 🙂

  2. gretch05 says:

    This explains why I lost interest in the later episodes.

  3. Dave Nolan says:

    I too am hopeful when it comes to the upcoming Star Wars movies and it seems like there is going to be both some sort of additional trilogy as well as stand-alone films.

    What I find frustrating with the prequel films is that they didn’t have to be the way they were. This is said from a standpoint that acknowledges that they did indeed have to be very different from the original trilogy given when they were occurring – set in the era of the republic and not the galactic empire of Darth Sidious’ design. And yes, the republic is in manifest decline, but much of it still exists as it had for over 25,000 years – for mere mortals and their cultures, a prodigious stretch of time.

    So we are talking about calcified traditions and moss-backed pomp and, literally, age-old governmental structures and procedures, so a bit of stilted quality to some of the scenes would not have been untoward. It’s just that the stilting and dry quality persisted throughout many of the scenes in the prequels and, as you rightly note, having the essence of character present would have made the movie fuller and more engaging.

    Notwithstanding, while the movies were bound to be different from the original trilogy, I do believe the prequels could have taken a different road and potentially could have been much better films. And not all of the ideas and approaches taken in these movies were of an unpropitious nature. It’s, as you have suggested, the missing pieces of character friction, world-building through dialogue and interaction, and more were missing.

    For instance, I think it is a really good choice to include intrigue and the covert manipulations of Palpatine and the descent of Anakin into the dark side in the movies. I think it’s more how these things were dramatized and reified in the films. And, by my measure, I think the inclusion of midichlorians as the causal factor for force abilities is emblematic of a far deeper concern, that being the removal of mystery.

    Whether it was an aged Obi-wan or an aged Yoda, both in their twilight years, their discussion of the Force really opened up the Star Wars universe to something beyond just exciting space opera to something that galvanized the heart and the psyche in perhaps very profound ways. The saga is replete with mythic elements whether there is the Force or no Force, midichlorians or no midichlorians. Yet it is this powerful mystical quality of the pictures, that this spiritual energy exists and then chooses to inhabit in both sentient beings and non-sentient entities (and even objects) that viscerally grabs the viewer and propels the stories.

    To be honest, it is not just the prequels that endeavor to block or even repudiate mystery. Witness the discussion of magic in “Thor” whereby it becomes nothing more than say the application of physics or maybe advanced hydraulics. Nothing at all against the latter, but if we are talking about Asgard, should we be shunning the supernatural? … Not in the least.

    I say to Mr. Abrams and whoever else will direct these forthcoming movies, bring back the mystery and let this underpin much in the movies. I don’t think you will be disappointed by the result.

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