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.
1. Tell self-contained stories
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.
2. Remember it's for kids, not just for existing fans
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).
3. Ignore his inner fanboy
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.
4. Make sure it's funny
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.
5. Embrace the diversity of the universe
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…
6. Be weird
For all his success, Abrams is not a blindingly original creator of material. His strength comes in giving new twists — sometimes fairly out there ones — to established genres. "Alias" was a spy thriller with sci-fi tinges. "Lost" was "Gilligan's Island" by way of "Twin Peaks," with conspiracy, mystery and an ancient battle of good vs. evil thrown in. "Fringe" was "The X-Files," but with the weirdness turned up to eleven (and a more satisfying macro-plot and emotional backbone than Mulder & Scully ever had). "Star Trek" took the classic series and added a time-travel twist. Indeed, Abrams' greatest failures ("Undercovers," "Six Degrees," "Morning Glory") have tended to come when he leans towards the conventional. And let's not forget that, while we've been inured to it over 35 years, "Star Wars" must have seemed pretty weird to begin with. Space knights fighting with laser swords and telepathic powers? A weird frog-goblin thing that speaks in messed-up syntax? A camp robot butler? The temptation would be to play it safe, but the film will be far more interesting if Abrams lets his freak flag fly to a certain degree, and throw a few surprises into the mix. Speaking of…
7. Keep a sense of mystery
Abrams has always played things close to his chest, valuing his famous "mystery box", which has allowed projects to brew quietly, leading to surprise annoucement teasers for "Cloverfield" and "Super 8" (and the same secrecy is being with "Star Trek Into Darkness" with details kept firmy under wraps). Abrams even gave some insight into why this is recently, saying :"I will sit in a meeting before a movie with 80-some people, heads of departments, and literally say that all I ask is that we preserve the experience for the viewer. Every choice we make, every costume fitting, every pad of makeup, every set that’s built — all that stuff becomes less magical if it’s discussed and revealed and pictures are posted online. I just want to make sure that when somebody sees something in a movie they didn’t watch a 60-minute behind-the-scene that came out two months before. We just say up front that all the work we’re doing is about making this a special experience for the viewer; let’s preserve that as long as we can."
It's a refreshing approach, albeit frustrating for the I-want-it-now internet generation, and we'd love for Abrams to keep it up with his "Star Wars." Let's face it, it's going to have queues around the block whatever happens, so why not tread softly with the images, clips and spoilers. It'll only lead to more feverish speculation, but it should also mean that, unlike with the prequels, we won't know everything about the films going in. Hopefully, if this approach is taken, it'll also get rid of the midichlorians-aided demystification that came with the prequels. Of course that will mean he'll have to…
8. Don't cast veterans from the Bad Robot stable
Thanks to "Star Trek" (with the cast of rising stars and familiar names, carrying the movie even when the script failed it; they're about 60% of the reason that the film works), Abrams has form on this front, and the studio are likely to let him go with whoever he wants — they're not going to want to put Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp in it anyway, they're spending enough money as it is. But just as Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford were essentially unknowns back in the day, the key new roles should be taken by people with few existing associations, and that goes for actors that the director has worked with before. He can get away with casting Abrams-verse veterans like Keri Russell or Josh Holloway in small roles in a "Mission: Impossible" movie, but their presence here, for the most part, would only prove distracting. Want to give Greg Grunberg a cameo as the voice of a stormtrooper? We suppose that's just about ok. But much as we love him, seeing Simon Pegg as a wisecracking pilot is going to break the spell, when we should be getting absorbed back into the universe. There may be some exceptions to this here and there — we can see "Fringe" actor John Noble working in a role, perhaps, partly because he's a chameleon, and partly because no one watched "Fringe," so he doesn't have the same cultural association as, say, Bradley Cooper or Hurley from "Lost." But for the most part, Abrams should seek out some new talent when the time to cast up arrives.
9. Stand up to Disney
One of the best things about the hiring of Abrams is that he's already a golden boy, one of a handful of filmmakers around who can do pretty much anything he wants. The risk was always that the studio would hire a workman, who could be pushed around to make the blandest and most profitable film possible. Abrams has an enormous amount of cache in and of himself, and that'll hopefully buy him a lot of creative leeway. He's already flexed his muscles on this front, with "Star Trek Into Darkness," forcing Paramount to push the film back a year so he could get the script right. It was a disaster for the studio in the short-term. They were left without a summer blockbuster, and went months without releasing a film (thanks to pushing back both "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" and "World War Z" as well), but fingers crossed, it benefited the film, and in turn will likely help Paramount out in the long-run. Now that he's at Disney, we hope he keeps it up. Whehter it's Arndt's script, casting, story, marketing, whatever — they wanted Abrams, and so now, he should get to do it his way. As for George Lucas, who's indicated he wants to take a back seat on the film, but may yet change his mind, Abrams should of course listen respectfully to the franchise's creator, but not be afraid to ignore him if Lucas' storytelling instincts haven't improved since the last three films in the series.
10. Shoot it in IMAX
That said, there's one thing that Abrams probably won't fight the studio on, and that's making the film in 3D. Given the studio's love of the format (they've had giant billion-dollar hits in three dimensions with "Alice in Wonderland," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "The Avengers" and "Toy Story 3"), and the general economic benefits (plus the in-process conversions of the previous films), Disney are going to want the film to be released in 3D. And Abrams is likely to acquiesce, given that he's already done so on "Star Trek Into Darkness," and has been won round, saying recently: "The studio said, 'You have to make it in 3D if you're going to make it, for economic reasons. But my feeling was I didn't like 3D. I approached it very cynically. And the fact is that we've been using techniques that haven't been used before in 3D. They've figured out things. They've made enough movies now with this new process that they can understand ways to eliminate some of these problems. Things like breaking shots into zones, 3D zones, using multiple virtual cameras. A lot of this has made me a believer, whereas before I was really against it…"
But what he could do, at least, is throw us a bone and add a format that we're genuinely excited about. After "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," which Abrams produced, shot multiple sequences in IMAX to spectacular effect, Abrams has done the same with "Star Trek Into Darkness," so it's surely not too much to hope for that we get some of his "Star Wars" in giant mega-screen vision too? Christopher Nolan and 'Ghost Protocol' have shown both the format's potential for both spectacle and increased box office revenue, and we'd be lying if the idea of IMAX-ed "Star Wars" didn't make us a little giddy. Make it happen, guys.
P.S. The original "Star Wars" was only a touch over two hours, so let's try to keep it closer to that than the 150-minute mark.
Anything else you think the new film needs? Let us know in the comments section.