The internet is abuzz with the possible news that J.J. Abrams will be directing the newly announced Star Wars Episode VII. Ever since the announcement that Disney had acquired LucasFilm Limited, a parade of potential contenders have surfaced among fansites: Matthew Vaughn, Steven Spielberg, Neill Blomkamp, Alfonso Cuarón, Darren Aronofsky, Joss Whedon, Jon Favreau, Joseph Kosinski, Colin Trevorrow, J. J. Abrams, Brad Bird and Rian Johnson. Out of that list, there are some who are better candidates than others – and Abrams is in the top tier, and appears to be the one.
Consider his resume: He’s managed several highly successful television shows: LOST, Alias, Fringe, and Felicity (the first two of which belonged to ABC, which is in turn owned by Disney), and a number of highly successful films: Mission Impossible III, Super 8, and Star Trek (with the second Star Trek: Into Darkness, coming out this year). His name is invariably attached to a huge list of other projects at any given time.
I’ve seen Abram’s Trek as described as Star Wars in Star Trek garb. High on action, a wide band of characters and a fairly clear cut good vs. evil morality, Star Trek 11 felt less like a Trek story (from my limited exposure) than it did something like Star Wars.
At the end of the day, J.J. Abrams is the ultimate safe choice for the Star Wars franchise: lens flare grumbles aside (and keep in mind, Star Wars has its share of those every now and then), he’s got a good sense of visuals behind the camera, he’s worked extensively with CGI and particularly with space and action scenes, and his productions tend to have fairly good characters and dialogue.
A majority of Abrams’ productions are also very nostalgic. Mission Impossible comes from an existing franchise, Star Trek has an even longer and more robust franchise, and Super 8 is dripping with nostalgia in its very premise. His television shows, such as Alias and LOST are likewise heavily influenced by popular culture history, if not dropping back into the past at points. Star Wars is, in and of itself, a very nostalgic style of series, pulling in influences from a wide range of things that George Lucas enjoyed when he first came up with the series.
Couple this with Michael Arndt, who’s penned some utterly fantastic scripts, and I think that we’ll see a decent end result. Anyone who thinks that Lucasfilm is going to give anyone a long leash with Star Wars is most likely mistaken; the company has worked fairly hard to maintain a continuity, and while some EU work might be retconned or ignored, I highly doubt that we’ll see anything that really surprises us with the new Star Wars film. That, to my mind, is a bit unfortunate.
There was an interview with Joss Whedon that I watched when he was talking about the casting of Serenity, where he explained that he liked to cast comedic actors in serious roles, noting that he got an unusual or memorable performance from them. When reading up on the news yesterday, I couldn’t help but think that while Abrams might be a logical choice for a multi-billion dollar franchise – and in this case, the safe case is the right case, from a business perspective – another director with a different skill set might very well bring out a better film.
A number of major science fiction films are begun by first-time or fairly young directors. THX-1138 and Star Wars were helmed by a young George Lucas, Jaws and Close Encounters were Spielberg’s second and third films, respectively. Alien and Blade Runner were early projects for Ridley Scott, and District 9 and Moon were the projects from first time directors Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones. It’s not an exact measure, but there does appear to be a general pattern in the quality of really well known films by people who have just cut their teeth with the genre. Science Fiction, in a lot of ways, is an incredibly innovative field, one that doesn’t really allow directors to rest on their laurels for very long. Just look at Lucas’s efforts with the Prequel Trilogy, Speilburg’s efforts with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, David Twohy’s Chronicles of Riddick, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Abrams has come through the SF genre tested, and it’ll remain to be seen how Star Trek: Into Darkness holds up after Star Trek.
In the meantime, there’s a lot of good names that were put forward: Colin Trevorrow, who directed Safety Not Guaranteed, seemed like a promising choice, especially considering that he’s linked to a remake of Flight of the Navigator. Brad Bird, who directed the incredible Incredibles and Mission Impossible IV, as well as a mysterious SF Film 1952, could have also done great things. The name that surprised me in the early reports was that Argo Director Ben Affleck had been courted makes me think that he would have been a fantastic choice (The Town was fantastic, and I’ve heard good things about his latest). Other directors, like Alfonso Cuarón Rian Johnson or Darren Aronofsky strike me as being too much of a radical choice when you compare their works against what we typically find from Star Wars. 10 minute, single take scenes? I don’t think so.
Abrams brings little risk and little downside for Disney/LFL to helm a new film, given his background, film style and name recognition. But when it comes to designing an innovative, fresh and bright new science fiction film to an older franchise, it’s been done, and the weight of expectations will probably make it virtually impossible to replicate his success with Star Wars. It’ll be fun, dazzling, and might have a stronger story than the Prequel Trilogy, but I don’t see a hit out of the ball park like The Empire Strikes Back. Given the talent pool, maybe we’ll get one of the aforementioned directors asked to come in and play in Lucas’s sandbox.