JJ Abrams had one of the hardest jobs a director has ever been given: to RELAUNCH another trilogy of, arguably, the most successful franchise in the history of film. I think to call this task Herculean is not hyperbole. Moreover, making a sequel to a THIRTY TWO YEAR OLD film? On this scale? Simply unprecedented.
These are the groups who both Abrams and Kennedy wanted to bring into the theater:
1) MOST of the hardcore Star Wars fans. Notice that I said “most” and not “all”? That’s because bringing ALL of the hardcore fans together on ANYTHING is simply impossible. No other word for it. BBL is merely ONE example of a group which will NEVER be satisfied with ANYTHING Lucasfilm does at this point. (I mean, seriously, they are already bitching about the upcoming Thrawn book when a LOT of Thrawn Trilogy fans are ECSTATIC about it!)
2) All (or pretty close) of the, for lack of a better word, NORMAL Star Wars fans. I don’t know how else to describe this sort of fan other than to say that I am of this group. Saw Star Wars at my family’s theater when I was six pretty much EVERY TIME they played it. Bought the toys as a kid. Saw all six (whoops, now 7) in the theater. Loved the Thrawn Trilogy (STILL my favorite SW story since Empire), and read a good portion of other SW books. Played the RPG for years. BUT, I can’t tell you what type of droid “Red” is in A New Hope, I can’t tell you what type of ship Ackbar’s command ship is, and, well, can’t really quote from the prequels because, well, they didn’t resonate with me (and I’ll leave it there.) Am I hardcore? Probably not, but I love Star Wars. It’s always been a part of my life in some capacity.
3) ALL of the casual Star Wars fans (which, obviously, isn’t a hard get). They watched the movies. Maybe played with the toys. Probably fond memories of the OT, maybe the PT.
4) NEW FANS. Make no mistake, this is KEY. This is a sequel to a 32 year old trilogy, so JJ and Kasdan had to craft the screenplay in a fashion where someone who has NEVER SEEN Star Wars could walk into this film and be able to not only get into the new characters, but also, in a broad stroke way, understand what has happened prior to this film.
JJ succeeded, and it even surpassed the already-lofty expectations. The number 3 highest grossing film of ALL TIME, and that happened in under FIVE MONTHS. Now, there are plenty of Monday Morning Quarterbacks out there who have a problem with the amount of homage done to the Original Trilogy. I could go into a rant about the complaints of “remake” or “rehash”, but I can only hope that those people have rewatched ANH recently and realize that there are a lot MORE things going on in both the first act and the third act of TFA than there were in the corresponding acts of ANH. That’s one of the reason why ANH is so good and so different from “modern” filmmaking because it really takes its time to open up. TFA is a different animal.
Was there TOO MUCH homage? Not for me. After sitting through 7 hours of prequels that, well, made me feel NOTHING, watching TFA made me feel like the 7 year old me opening up that Death Star playset in Christmas of 1978. Couldn’t have been more pleased with it. Ok, I guess that’s not true. Luke Skywalker is the I Ching of Star Wars for me, so getting 60ish seconds of him onscreen was not…IDEAL for me, but seeing him again just make me think “Yes, I’m home”. By the way, if it were up to me, there would be an entire trilogy of Old Man Luke wrecking shop on the First Order like the Hulk vs the Chitauri (sorry, didn’t mean to jump franchises there).
Was there too much homage for others? Obviously, too much for a few. If so, hey, I’m not trying to convince anyone that they are wrong, I just want people to appreciate just how Herculean the task set for JJ Abrams was, and how well he executed that task. That’s it. My motto is, “Whatever you dig, dig it baby.” All I’m saying is that, the moment they announced that a new SW was being made, the first guy who came to mind was JJ because I felt that Super 8 was a film that felt like 80s Spielberg, and that’s exactly the vibe with which I thought a new trilogy should start. Do I want or need that from Eps 8 and 9? No. Empire is perhaps the greatest sequel EVER MADE, so that sets the bar pretty high for Rian Johnson, but I feel like he’ll do fine. I really like Looper, The Brothers Bloom, and, my favorite of his, Brick. (I’m a film noir junkie, so that follows.)
Honestly, though, the one thing by which films either live or die for me is performance, and that comes from writing, acting, and directing. When I think about what appeals to me about ANY film, I am reminded of this exchange between two characters in Woody Allen’s classic Bullets Over Broadway:
Cheech: You missed the idea.
David: I did
Cheech: Yeah, you did, plus nobody talks like that. You got that problem. You don’t write how people talk.
David: I take poetic license.
Cheech: “Poetic license”? BS. People believe what they see when the actors sound real.
Lawrence Kasdan could be my all time favorite writer. He’s written some of my all time favorite films (Empire, Raiders, Silverado, The Big Chill), so having him onboard to help JJ write the screenplay was HUGE. JJ is great at characterization in his writing. Plot, I won’t claim he’s awesome at it, but the great news is that they would be using the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey once again (a Star Wars STAPLE!), and the help of a screenwriting LEGEND.
JJ can handle the technical things that a director is supposed to be able to handle, obviously, but his true strength is as a performance director. I suspect that his extensive TV work has something to do with this, but, if you have any doubt as to how well he’s able to bring performances out of actors, look no further than Super 8 (particularly the BTS docs). Getting those great performances out of all of those teenagers really speaks for itself. The corresponding BTS docs for TFA also follow.
In any event, the performances in TFA were simply stellar, EASILY the best performances we’ve seen in Star Wars since Empire (maybe EVER). From Isaac’s “You talk first? I talk first?”, to Ridley’s and Driver’s brilliance in the interrogation scene, to Gleeson’s OVER THE TOP rally, this film was BRIMMING with great performance. And Harrison Ford. Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This is EASILY the best Ford has been since the underrated What Lies Beneath (written by Agent Coulson himself Clark Gregg!), and it may have been his best since The Fugitive in 1993.
Anywho...let's wrap this up. Love the new characters, love the old characters, and I'm looking forward to Rian Johnson shaking it up a bit. Just know that Rian might not have had that same freedom if JJ hadn't put so many asses in those theater seats.
Star Wars fans won. We won BIG. And we have a lot of winning ahead of us. Enjoy it, my friends, and may the Force be with you!!
Thank you for reading,
Chris White (aka evyllsummer on Twitter)