By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist January 25, 2013 at 3:09PM
So the question that's been dominating the movie world for the past few months has finally been answered. After lots of rumors and speculation, with Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, Jon Favreau, Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Vaughn and Colin Trevorrow among the many names linked to the project, firm news has emerged that J.J. Abrams, creator of TV shows "Felicity," "Lost," "Alias" and "Fringe," among others, and director of blockbusters "Mission Impossible III," "Star Trek," "Super 8" and the upcoming "Star Trek Into Darkness," has been hired to direct "Star Wars Episode VII," the continuation of George Lucas' classic sci-fi saga.
It's the biggest news since, well, it was announced that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and were planning new films in the franchise, and yet fan reaction has been decidedly mixed. You would assume that the news that the man behind some of the most popular pop culture phenomena of the 21st century is making a new "Star Wars" film written by the guy who did "Toy Story 3" would be greeted by geeks dancing in the streets like they just blew up the second Death Star. And while some are indeed rejoicing, others are concerned that Abrams has already rebooted "Star Trek," and they simply want a different sensibility behind the camera.
Anyway, we think he's as good a pick for the job as any, and we've already run down five of the qualities we think he'll bring to the new movie (for better or worse). But with more expectations than any film in the works over the next few years, there's still all kinds of pitfalls. So as Abrams, screenwriter Michael Arndt and producer Kathleen Kennedy get to work, we've suggested ten things that they need to bear in mind when making "Episode VII," in order to make it live up to the dreams of "Star Wars" fanatics and agnostics alike. Let us know what you'd like to see from Abrams' "Star Wars" in the comments section below.
In a recent Q&A, Joss Whedon discussed how the original "Star Wars" remains his favorite of the series, in spite of "The Empire Strikes Back" being a better film, because it's a contained story, while "The Empire Strikes Back" is ultimately an "episode" thanks to its cliffhanger ending. Regardless of your feelings on either, multi-part storytelling is becoming an increasingly prevalent, and toxic, trend in franchise movies (see "The Hobbit," the "Twilight" movies and all the franchises splitting their final installment into two). It's possible to have a movie trilogy and still tell distinct and satisfying stories (Christopher Nolan and Marvel -- with the exception of "Iron Man 2" -- have mostly managed it), and despite his TV pedigree, Abrams has done that as well, at least so far. "Star Trek" didn't feel like a pilot for a new TV series, which was always the risk, and his "Mission: Impossible III" was self-contained too. We don't mind if the new trilogy adds up to one big macro-plot, as previous "Star Wars" films did, but Abrams and screenwriter Michael Arndt should make sure there's enough story to split between them, and ideally try to give each film its own individual beginning, middle and end, rather than making them parts of a whole.
In George Lucas' defense, he always insisted while making the prequels that he was making movies for the young demographic that made "Star Wars" such a phenomenon in the 1970s. The problem was, the proof wasn't in the pudding, and plots about trade embargoes and Senate votes demonstrated how far Lucas had lost his touch. And in the post "The Dark Knight" world, the risk of a joylessly gritty franchise movie is greater than ever. "The Empire Strikes Back" isn't terrific because it's the darkest of the series, it's terrific because it has the best script of the series. And Abrams would do well to remember that as much as the aging fanbase of the original films will be flocking to cinemas, it's also a chance to make a new generation of kids fall in love with the property in the way that many of us did when we were still in short trousers. Let's not forget that the original films were essentially fairy tales, one of the things that lent them the mythic appeal that's made it so indelible. We're not saying dumb it down, but try and recapture that intangible magic that made the first trio of films so memorable (a tall order indeed).
Abrams said, when initially asked if he'd be interested in directing the sequel: "Look, 'Star Wars' is one of my favorite movies of all time. I frankly feel that – I almost feel that, in a weird way, the opportunity for whomever it is to direct that movie, it comes with the burden of being that kind of iconic movie and series. I was never a big 'Star Trek' fan growing up, so for me, working on 'Star Trek' didn’t have any of that, you know, almost fatal sacrilege."
And that's the risk here, that Abrams, having taken on his favorite series, becomes a slave both to his own inner fanboy, and to the hundreds of thousands of voices of other fans. Abrams needs to not treat the material like it's sacred, and approach it like he did 'Trek,' or "Mission: Impossible," or any other property. This isn't to say that his fandom can't be a force for good -- Joss Whedon demonstrated last year that having someone who knows the characters backwards can benefit a big adaptation. But the flipside of that coin is Andrew Stanton and "John Carter," who couldn't see the forest for the trees thanks to his blind love of Edgar Rice Burroughs' character. Fan service -- endless cameos or nods to the original trilogy -- might make a few happy, but it can also prove to be indulgent, and alienating for newcomers. Abrams has a big train set to play with, and should approach the new film as if it was the first ever "Star Wars" film, not the seventh.
One of the things that made "Star Trek" and the Abrams-produced "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" among the most enjoyable blockbusters of the last decade or so is the way that they were consistently funny, without losing the stakes. This sense of fun is something that's sometimes lacking from blockbusters these days, as we've discussed before, and that was certainly true for the "Star Wars" prequels. While it's a few years since we saw them, we're struggling to remember any genuinely funny moments from the films (Ewan McGregor's these-are-not-the-droids-you're-looking-for probably comes closest), and the tone was generally a portentous one, without the 1930s-serial feel that made the original trilogy so much fun. In part, this was due to the absence of a Han Solo-type rogue, who could roll his eyes and make fun of the characters. Abrams doesn't need to replicate that sort of character (though as we discussed, they may make an appearance anyway), but keeping a lightness of tone to the thing seems pretty essential to us. He managed it with "Star Trek" and "Super 8," so there's no reason to think he couldn't do it here.
Say what you like about the quality of the films, but the great advantage of "Star Wars" is that it has an almost endless sandbox in which to play around in. Lucas set up an impressive diversity of planets to visit (even in the prequels, there's some solid world-building going on), and while the tempatation to return to Tatooine, we'd like to see Abrams go to new places. Check in on old locations if you can find a new spin on them, but we don't want a "Hobbit" scenario, whereby the characters seem to be wandering around the same woods and mountains we've already seen. Arndt's script could go anywhere, so let's go somewhere new. And let's go with different kinds of people too. The prequels suffered because we had too many of the same kind of characters we'd already seen (noble Jedi master, upstart orphan, princess), but the various spin-off books and games have demonstrated that other kinds of characters can carry these stories. So let's mix up the protagonists a bit. Indeed, while the shadow of Jar-Jar Binks might hang a little heavy, motion-capture advances means that these leading characters don't even have to be human...