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What JJ Abrams needs to really succeed with Star Wars 7

If you're reading this blog you likely know by now that JJ Abrams has agreed to direct the new Star Wars sequel, scheduled for release by Disney Lucasfilm in 2015. On this blog I haven't been covering any of the speculation surrounding who might write the film, who might direct it or who might star in it. That's partly because the internet really doesn't need me chiming in on the topic (I know nothing). Mainly, though, I keep quiet about that stuff because, as I struggled to explain to my wife the other day, I don't really consider This Sort of Thing to be a movie blog. It's about Star Wars--a phenomenon that started as a film but hasn't been just a film in a very long time. I frankly don't really care about movie stars or the movie business. I'm certainly not a movie buff. But I am interested in culture and fanaticism and storytelling and fatherhood--all of which are themes Star Wars has come to encompass. 

Reaction to the choice of Abrams as director has been overwhelmingly positive. Observers have pointed out that Abrams grew up with Star Wars (he's 46) and is a self-proclaimed fan. I liked Ben Childs' take in The Guardian:

It is, frankly, a thing of wonder that there is anything left of this once-proud franchise to be revived after George Lucas spent the past 15 years systematically destroying all goodwill towards him with dodgy CGI retrofits of the original trilogy and a lifeless, prosaic second triptych of films. Yet, miraculously, there is still a lot of love out there for Star Wars, and Abrams would have been at the top of most fans' lists to take charge of Episode VII and its two proposed sequels. On past evidence, we can expect a movie that holds true to the spirit of its predecessors but delivers a fresh and imaginative take on well-worn themes.

I've been skeptical about the prospects of launching successful new Star Wars films. But in the last few days the excitement surrounding Abrams started to rub off on me. I allowed myself to contemplate the possibility of a really good new Star Wars film in 2015. It wouldn't really be for me anymore. I'd see it, of course, but however good it might be it would likely just be another fantasy flick--fun but inconsequential. However, my son Zach will be four-and-a-half in May 2015--the age I was when I saw Star Wars in 1977. The idea of taking Zach to see Star Wars 7, and him really enjoying it, and me then sharing the original three films with him--that's what has now got me guardedly excited about the prospect of a successful revival of Star Wars. 

As I indulged further in this middle-aged-dad fantasy, the corrective potential of really good new Star Wars films occurred to me. Since 1999 I have viewed the prequels as a stain on Star Wars that couldn't be removed, a case of vandalism beyond restoration. But if Star Wars 7 were great, and if Star Wars 8 and 9 were great, too, the contamination of the prequels would be significantly diluted. Instead of three of six Star Wars films being drivel, only three of nine would be. Convincing Zach to never mind the bollocks and stick to the good Star Wars films would be much easier with such a high volume of quality material on offer. 

What, then, does Abrams need to do to make my daydream of sharing a rejuvenated Star Wars with my little boy come true? Lucasfilm seems to be off to a good start by recruiting talented people. But the key, for me, is for Abrams and everyone else involved in the Star Wars sequels to understand the significance, to 30- and 40-something Star Wars fans like me, of what they are being asked to do. 

The task is not just to make an entertaining, successful film. The challenge is to understand the phenomenon that Star Wars has been for our generation--the infatuation, the mystery, the frustration and disappointment--and to respond with a story that respects that while also speaking to the rest of the audience and saying something new. The benchmark are, of course, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Both of those films have an epic, mythic quality that run-of-the-mill action-adventure films do not. By "epic" and "mythic" I don't mean just mean Joseph Campbell mumbo-jumbo, though that is part of it. What I mean is that for the story being told to live up to the Star Wars franchise at its best, it cannot simply be exciting or fast-paced or visually impressive. It must be grand. There has got to be a grandeur about the next Star Wars for it to truly succeed. 

Grandeur, by the way, can not be manufactured through visually-impressive shots and scenes. Special effects were undoubtedly part of the magic of the original trilogy. But technological advances have made striking, even outlandish visuals so commonplace that they hardly matter anymore. If there is one thing the prequels emphatically taught us, it is that CGI, or any other form of special effect, must not be allowed to drive--or even influence--the story. We seem to have got to the point in filmmaking where we can show on a screen anything we want to show. All the more reason, then, to be judicious in the storytelling. I hope Abrams knows how to keep his effects people working in the service of the story, and not the other way round. I hope he builds a few sets instead of bluescreens. I hope he builds a few models instead of CGI.

It's a daunting task Abrams has taken on. You've got to admire his courage in daring to tackle it. I'll be rooting for him, and for the writers, too. 

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Reader Comments (2)

If Mr. Abrams doesn't get a good story, presented in an inspring script, he could be a modern combination of John ford, Ernst Lubitsch, and Frank Capra and still flop. It was characters with souls that made the original stor memorable; i hope the stript team remembes that.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterS. Cole

I agree that the story is crucial. However, directors seem to have real influence over the story, or at least the storytelling, e.g. Kershner in TESB. I doubt Star Wars 7 could ever "flop" in the financial sense--it will make $1 billion even if it's dreadful (see The Phantom Menace). But it could certainly be an artistic and sentimental "flop".

Thanks for your comment.

January 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterDark Helmet

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