Saturday, January 26, 2013

J.J. Abrams to direct Episode VII - what does it mean for the story?

According to MTV, J.J. Abrams has been selected as the director for Star War Episode VII. What does this mean?

From a technical side, Abrams is a superb director. In both Star Trek and Super 8, he was able to craft tightly edited stories special effects bonanzas with compelling acting. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that, in terms of acting and special effects, Star Trek was the best of the 11 Star Trek films thus far. Super 8 had some incredible child actors, including Elle Fanning. It takes a skilled director to work all of these pieces into a coherent film.
However, I wish Abrams' films were about something more. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously used Trek to tell morality stories. Unfortunately, Abrams' interpretation of the franchise studiously avoided dealing with philosophical or moral issues in favor of epic battles and character moments. Star Trek certainly wasn't a bad movie, and I proudly own the three-disc blu-ray version, but I can't say I could write a journal article about its philosophical implications.

I had similar concerns about Super 8. Abrams claims he made Super 8 as a tribute to the sci-fi kids films of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Indeed, the first half of the movie really did evoke that nostalgia. I loved it. However, the second half turned into a typical Hollywood alien invasion story. Scenes of a giant alien attacking army troops seemed utterly out of place in a story that seemed about father-son bonding. I still like the overall movie (again, I own the blu-ray), but it had so much more potential as a small-scale human interest story.

One of the reasons the Star War trilogy - the archetype of the late 1970s/early 1980s sci-fi film - was such a hit is that it was about something more than action and aliens. The movies engaged viewers on so many different levels.  Star Wars used archetypal characters in order to explore broader mythological concepts. The first trilogy explored themes such as "man vs. machine", "the power of faith", "fate vs. choice", and "good vs. evil". Even the prequels, despite their technical flaws, presented a unique philosophical argument about choice and evil.

If J.J. Abrams had complete control over Star Wars, my guess is that we'd see more action, less politics. However, we do know that Lucas has already developed a story treatment for the Sequel Trilogy. If Lucas' past indications are any sign, he'll probably want to explore the theme of rebuilding and sustaining a moral society. The Prequel Trilogy followed the descent of a democracy into authoritarianism. The Original Trilogy showed segments of society attempting to regain control of government from a dictator. Now, the question is whether the heirs to the Rebellion can build a morally prosperous democracy. The Star Wars Expanded Universe has only dealt with these themes tangentially. Some of the books show the strains of democratic governance in which ethnic divisions threaten to tear the New Republic apart. However, we still haven't had the Maker tell his story.

In a way, Abrams is the anti-Lucas. By his own admission, Lucas, hates scriptwriting and finds working with actors difficult, but he does have interesting stories to tell. Abrams by contrast excels at encouraging actors to enliven their characters, but so far hasn't told any compelling moral stories. Hopefully, by pairing Lucas and Abrams, the yin and yang will complement each other so we'll get a rich Star Wars saga without the occasionally clunky dialogue of the prequels. If Abrams combines his technical expertise with Lucas' storytelling abilities, the next Star Wars trilogy could be a Force to behold.

UPDATE (1/26/13): An article on EW already speculates that with Abrams "So what can we expect, really, from Star Wars: Episode VII? There will be less politics than in the prequels..." Unfortunately, many news sites are already assuming that this is unabashedly a good thing, but I can't see how Lucas would write a story that wouldn't tackle politics. Again, hopefully the combination of Abrams and Lucas will create a balance within the Force.

No comments:

Post a Comment