JJ Abrams' Star Wars may be stuck in the past

By Dean Hughes,

Back in the early '70s there was this young, rebellious filmmaker named George Lucas. Hot off the success of American Graffiti, he began passing a little script he was working on around Hollywood. Star Wars was a distillation of Lucas’s passion for the serials of Flash Gordon and Cambell’s monomyth. It flew far under the radar of the big studios. Sci-Fi was a “low” genre at the time and we were already in the throes of the golden age of cinema. Chinatown, The Godfather and so many other auteur works were not only critically acclaimed but were also making good money. These films were dark, haunting and politically relevant. Star Wars was none of these things.

Lucas was eventually able to squeeze 11 million dollars out of Fox to make his silly little space-opera. The executives were so confident that nothing would come of the movie that they allowed Lucas to keep all the merchandising rights. He endured a chaotic production that literally caused him to have a heart attack. His hard work paid off however, and Star Wars became an overnight global phenomenon.

Almost 40 years, and billions of dollars later, Lucas has now sold off his creation to Disney. He plans to live out the rest of his life directing multi-million dollar experimental films never to be shown to the public (as well as bathing nightly in liquid gold).

As you are likely well aware, JJ Abrams and company are hard at work on the seventh installment of the Star Wars saga. Despite his trappings as a filmmaker, Abrams seemed to be the obvious choice for the task. His short filmography lends itself heavily to the blockbuster era that Lucas and Steven Spielberg gave birth to; Super 8 was a love letter to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET and 2009’s Star Trek was, in many ways, a Star Wars movie with some minor cosmetic changes.

After being brought onto the project, Abrams started to talk about the “authenticity” of his vision. He wanted to return to the roots of Star Wars. The days when Fox was trying to sweep it and Lucas’s rag-tag cast of unknowns, under the rug. This rough-and-tumble flavor, combined with groundbreaking spectacle, is the secret sauce of the original. Essentially, Abrams wants to recapture this magic.

The problem is that Star Wars is one of the largest pop culture sensations of the 20th century. Almost every film since has it coded somewhere in it’s DNA. How do you make that formula fresh again? Abrams’s undying quest for purity could very well produce a highly enjoyable film for fans, but it could also age Star Wars, and drag it down into irrelevancy.

Part of Abrams plan to reinvigorate the franchise is to return to a focus on practical effects—models, real sets, et cetera. One of the perceived flaws of Lucas’s prequel films was the “overuse” of CG. Many mistook his lazy direction as some sort of weak “dependency” on computers to carry out his vision. But the problem was not the technology. It was Lucas himself. Some of the best films of the decade have “relied” on computers to generate a great amount of the world. Just watch behind the scenes of The Avengers. There was almost no on-location shooting, and the third act was almost entirely rendered inside a machine. Do people complain about its over-reliance on computer graphics? No, because the action is well constructed and we actually care about the characters involved. It is flawed thinking that using the technical methods behind a certain film will capture anything but its aesthetics. As I mentioned, part of the success of the original Star Wars lies in its groundbreaking effects work. At the time, it looked like nothing else that came before it but we have moved leaps and bounds beyond it. Not that models can’t still look great but the search for authenticity in old methods might subvert one of the most important aspects of Star Wars—the spectacle.

Some of the rumors that have been circulating about the plot of the film have me concerned for the viability of the franchise moving forward. Ever since Abrams joined the project, it seems the story focus has shifted more and more toward the original cast. Some of the rumors even claim that the plot revolves around Han Solo’s search for a missing Luke Skywalker. For Star Wars to live on, it can’t keep digging into the past. Yes, have supporting characters and Easter eggs that fans will recognize, but don’t make the entire movie steeped in six episodes of backstory. I, for one, am excited for new faces and new adventures. Hopefully the new cast members aren’t overshadowed by Harrison Ford and company.

It’s not that I think JJ Abrams can’t make a fun Star Wars movie, it’s that I don’t think he has the capability of making a great one. Maybe no one does. The novelty of the original films—their impact—cannot be recreated within the same franchise mega-structure. The only thing that filmmakers can do to keep Star Wars compelling is to make it fresh, and I don’t think Abrams can do that. Not in any meaningful way. That’s why I’m far more interested in the spin-off films being spearheaded by Josh Trank and Gareth Edwards. Rian Johnson’s involvement in Episode 8 is also very exciting. Abrams might be able to ape the look of late '70s Sci-Fi, but he’ll never capture the spirit. New blood is the only thing that will reinvigorate Star Wars.

Image courtesy of Jennifer Graylock/INFphoto.com

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