Disney announcing that J.J. Abrams would be helming the seventh Star Wars film, after acquiring the rights from George Lucas, would appear to be the smartest move the studio could have ever made. Abrams seemed destined for greatness, having been hired by Kathleen Kennedy to clean up the old 8mm films of Steven Spielberg – who may arguably be the greatest living filmmaker today. The road that was paved for him, from Regarding Henry to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, points to the exact reason why he was the right director to reintroduce a new generation to that galaxy far, far away.
For some Star Wars fans, J.J. Abrams would not have been at the top of their list for possible directors to continue the franchise. After George Lucas disappointed millions upon millions of fans with the prequels, moving forward into this project was never going to be easy. Though many were happy to have the intellectual property given to Disney and taken out of Lucas’ hands, some were still severely burned and remained hesitant about the acquisition, due the prequels. For many fans of the series, Disney giving an incredibly large and delicate apology (in the form of The Force Awakens) was necessary in order to regain trust and faith. It’s safe to say that the film grossing $1 billion after two weeks of release was a sufficient acceptance of that apology.
Disney was going to have to play it safe for Episode VII, and bringing in J.J. Abrams to co-write and direct the movie turned out to be the absolute best choice. If for no other reason, Abrams has clearly established the ability to re-launch a franchise – with 2009’s Star Trek, and even delivering a solid entry in an already popular franchise, with Mission: Impossible III. Star Trek, in particular, successfully reinvigorated life into the franchise and turned out to be quite a critical and financial win.
But nostalgia – that seems to be the key ingredient as to why The Force Awakens is performing so well.
Star Trek: Into Darkness was criticized for what was perceived by fans as pandering, overwhelming amounts of fanservice and just flat out lifting whole scenes from previous films in the series. Even Abrams’ 2011 film Super 8, a love letter to the Amblin films of the ’70s and ’80s, earned some negative feedback, claiming the film was too much of a love letter to classics like The Goonies and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But, as accurate as some of those complaints may have been, this heavy-nostalgia may have been just what the Star Wars needed. Reminding audiences of the original trilogy – A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – and making them forget The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
Abrams is also the man responsible for what has to be one of the greatest pilots for a television show, with Alias, and later changing the fabric of pop culture with Lost. Even with his earlier efforts, like 1991’s Regarding Henry, which starred Harrison Ford, Abrams was adept at crafting emotionally satisfying material. He isn’t simply a director who can create a giant spectacle and popcorn entertainment and nothing more.
“We wanted to tell a story that had its own self-contained beginning, middle, and end but at the same time, like A New Hope, implied a history that preceded it and also hinted at a future to follow,” J.J. Abrams said in an interview with Wired.
Warning: Spoilers for The Force Awakens up ahead.**
As many critics and fans have already said, The Force Awakens is very much structured like A New Hope. Some may even go as far as to call it a flat out remake and even that assertion isn’t completely false.
An orphan is stranded on a desert planet, who bumps into a particular droid that is holding highly valuable information. Dark forces are hunting down the droid, constructing a gigantic super weapon, when our hero runs into an old character who implies having a history in the franchise. Throughout the film, he becomes somewhat of a mentor to the young hero. And in the end, that character is killed by a man dressed in black, wielding a red lightsaber, who knows this character on a very personal level. And the film ends with the villains still at large, implying more stories can be told in the future.
From that description, it would be impossible to tell if it is referring to A New Hope or The Force Awakens. But it is this same nostalgia that has brought in $1 billion in just two weeks. It was important to ease audiences back into the series and let them know that Star Wars is indeed back. J.J. Abrams provided the perfect setup, so that he could then pass the ball to Rian Johnson, an auteur who will surely take Episode VIII in a very different direction.
But, in all fairness, much of the praise is also reserved for Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote with Abrams. Kasdan was responsible for Empire and Return of the Jedi, so much of the charm of The Force Awakens is indeed thanks to him.
“Working with Larry definitely ties for first in terms of incredible experiences I’ve had with this project. The collaboration, for me, was an education in storytelling and doing so with clarity, with efficiency, brevity—wit. It was a little like taking an extended master class. And because he’s also a director, he knew what I was going through in prep and in production, and he allowed for my needs. Sometimes those needs were practical, other times they were creative needs or feelings I had. But he was there to help that process, the same way I would have been if I had known he was directing. It was always about moving this thing forward in the right way, about making this movie the right way. I can’t say enough about him.”
J.J. Abrams being regretful of his choice to decline helming Episode XIII will just have to be a bitter pill the director swallows. His work with this series is done and Star Wars: The Force Awakens did exactly what it needed to do.
[Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]