The biggest news in Star Wars since Disney bought Lucasfilm broke early Saturday morning: J. J. Abrams, who directed the 2009 Star Trek film and this year’s sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, will direct Star Wars: Episode VII, based on a screenplay by Michael Arndt. Predictably, several people have asked me what I think of this development (including USA Today and MTV News), so I thought I’d write a brief blog post to explain my reaction.
First of all, there are more similarities between Star Trek and Star Wars right now than one might assume. Both are decades-old franchises (Trek has eleven years on Wars), both have experienced several different creative eras, and both have entered brave new worlds in the past few years. Star Trek had Abrams’ reboot and will soon have Into Darkness, while Star Wars has been focusing on the period between Episode II - Attack of the Clones and Episode III - Revenge of the Sith with the fantastic TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Now, Star Wars is about to experience yet another revitalization courtesy of the sequels, as well as the myriad other projects that I’m sure Disney can’t wait to announce (theme parks, live-action television series, and so on).
We know that Abrams’ Star Wars movie won’t be based on any of the Expanded Universe books and comics, and it’s equally likely (read: virtually certain) that it won’t reboot the franchise like the 2009 Trek film did to Roddenberry’s universe. What we don’t know is exactly when Episode VII will take place or how it will pick up the franchise. Those weren’t questions that Trek fans had to consider, because Abrams’ installment was announced as a reboot. In the case of Star Wars, however, Abrams is directing a film that will have to respect the cinematic stories that preceded it.
The man’s directorial chops have been clearly established. Lens flare issues aside, I think his work on Trek showed that he knows how to jump into a science-fiction/fantasy franchise that someone else started and adapt his style to that universe’s characters, situations, and themes. While he won’t have the freedom to reinterpret the Star Wars universe’s key events like he did with Star Trek, he has more freedom to expand the Star Wars universe as a whole because he can use the existing material as a springboard to tell a new story.
The most interesting about this huge news is that Abrams agreed to a role that he initially turned down. In December 2012, he told Empire magazine that he turned down an offer to helm Episode VII, saying, “I’d rather be in the audience not knowing what was coming, rather than being involved in the minutiae of making them.” We may not know what changed Abrams’ mind (perhaps a call from George?)* but it’s important to think about why he declined in the first place – or at least, why he said he declined.
Abrams is a self-professed major Star Wars fan. He even cited them as an inspiration for how he directed Star Trek. What will that mean for Star Wars: Episode VII? Will Abrams’ love of Star Wars keep him grounded and mindful of the true spirit of the franchise? Will he be cognizant of the fact that his fellow fans are expecting big things from the first sequel? (For that matter, would such cognizance help or hinder him in his effort to direct a great film?) How will his directing work on Episode VII reflect the fact that his boyhood self probably dreamed of having this exact job? Only time will tell.
It’s become a sort of catchphrase of mine to say that I’m “cautiously optimistic” about the Star Wars sequels. There are so, so many X-factors in play right now, and every announcement, be it writer or director, only compounds the speculation and hypotheticals. That being said, Abrams seems like a strong pick for Episode VII’s director, having already proved himself in the other major “Star” franchise and professed respect and admiration for George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away.
* Update: A few days after I published this post, The Hollywood Reporter published a profile of Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, it which it was revealed that Kennedy persuaded Abrams to reverse his stance on directing Episode VII by revealing that Michael Arndt was writing the screenplay and Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg were consulting on the project. Evidently, the trust that Abrams had in these men's abilities (as well as Kathleen Kennedy's guidance) convinced him to put aside his past reservations about "being involved in the minutiae" of directing a Star Wars film.