J.J. Abrams is a no-brainer for Star Wars: Episode VII. He’s proven himself as a popular storyteller of science fiction by working with, among others, a giant international franchise that takes place in space. He’s also a self-diagnosed fan of George Lucas‘ grand creation — a factor that went into his feigned earlier denial of the directing gig when speculation was at its peak. From a business angle, from a fan angle, from every angle, he’s the ideal filmmaker to take over for the franchise.
Which is why his hiring is potentially terrible.
It all boils down to two key problems. One, the consolidation of creative visions under too few roofs, and two, the potential for a generic future of a revolutionary franchise.
Abrams For Everything
When the news hit that Abrams had secured the insanely coveted job, there were mixed reactions. That’s no surprise. Any movie franchise with this much skin in the game would have gotten a similar mix no matter who they hired. Abrams brings his own baggage to that equation, but amidst the polarizing revelry and doom, there were a lot of people who simply felt weird about it. Off. Hiring the same guy who brought back Star Trek to resurrect Star Wars seemed somehow blasphemous, or at the very least, icky (if we’re using technical terms).
That confusing frustration is understandable, but it points to the deeper issue of media consolidation. No matter that Trek and Wars are supposed to be the Blue and the Gray of the geek world. Never mind that Abrams has made a career perhaps-too-closely aping Steven Spielberg’s Amblin-era swagger. Forget the feeling that all the presents at the party had the same guy’s name on them.
The concern that prompted people to start joking about the next franchises to be handed over to Abrams (Firefly! Battlestar! Murder She Wrote!) came from the bizarre fruit that blockbuster-obsessed Hollywood has borne: a shrinking pool of talent that can deftly handle event movies. That Abrams stands out as an obvious choice is the symptom. That he was hired is part of the disease. It’s the result of years and years of chasing away strong creative talent in favor of pliable commercial directors and placing almost every egg in the big budget basket.
So, sure, let’s call it somehow unfair that the guy who got to play around with Captain Kirk gets to do the same with Chewbacca, but the real question is whether there truly was no one else out there to do the universe justice, and if not, what does that say about the current state of big studio filmmaking? The secondary question is simple: if you have to excel at one tentpole in order to get another, what hope do other filmmakers have?
A Mickey Mouse Star Wars
Maybe it took hiring Abrams for the reality of the Disney-led Star Wars to really sink in. To be fair, he’s a dynamic filmmaker who is capable of jumping between franchises and making them look differently. The concern isn’t somehow that Abrams will plagiarize himself and blend Trek and Wars into nonexistence. Some fans may be worried, but realistically, that shouldn’t be a problem — especially when he’s working with a script from Michael Arndt and oversight by Kathleen Kennedy.
Then again, a lot of people were clamoring for Michael Giacchino to score Episode VII, so maybe there’s a contingent who wants it to feel like every other Abrams movie out there.
The problem is that he’s the perfect filmmaker for a studio looking to make their expensive movie accessible to as broad an audience as possible. After all, this is Disney we’re talking about — the studio that’s watered-down Pixar for profits from action figures and bed sheets. There’s no doubt that Luke and Leia went from DIY to mainstream long ago, but there’s a question of whether the studio will see that the unique nature of Star Wars is what propels it to a huge audience or if they’ll apply the same safe formula to it that has resulted in some forgettable work over the years.
Maybe a more dangerous, inventive choice would have alleviated those concerns, but Abrams feels so obvious, so perfect, that it’s hard not to assume Disney is going to aim right for the middle with the final product. He’s not a middling director by any means, but neither is he astonishing in his talent. It’s easy to imagine he will craft some stunning work in the future; he just hasn’t done it quite yet.
Which makes him perfect for Star Wars and potentially terrible for it.