Why JJ Abrams is the best thing to happen to Star Wars in a long time

Film critic Christy Lemire on why the departure of George Lucas from the Star Wars helm might be a vast improvement

This may sound sacrilegious to the legions of hardcore Star Wars fans, but having JJ Abrams direct Episode VII will be a vast improvement and the best thing to happen to the franchise in a very long time.

Yes, it was incredibly cool in 2005's Episode III — Revenge of the Sith to see the completion of Anakin Skywalker's transformation from plucky, love-struck teen to the embodiment of all that is deeply evil in the galaxy as Darth Vader — to hear him take that first raspy breath from beneath the iconic black helmet. But George Lucas' prequels were, for the most part, soulless, airless affairs and a far cry from the imagination and rough-hewn, can-do thrills of his original trilogy.

You don't go to a Star Wars movie — and watch it 18,000 times, then camp out in front of a theatre with your homemade light saber and Yoda sleeping bag waiting for the next one — for the smart, complex dialogue or well-drawn characters. But with Abrams at the helm and Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine screenwriter Michael Arndt crafting the script, there is some hope (a new hope, if you will) that the series finally will be infused with a deeper sense of humanity.

Lucas was correct in calling Abrams "an ideal choice to direct the new Star Wars film" in announcing the selection of a director in a late-night news release on Friday. And when he told the world in October that he was selling his Lucasfilm empire, including the lucrative and beloved "Star Wars" franchise, to The Walt Disney Co. for $4.05bn, Abrams was at the top of many fans' lists of dream directors.

He certainly was at the top of mine when I pondered what sort of fit various filmmakers might be for this material. Back then, I wrote that Abrams was "the most obvious choice, really. His sci-fi bona fides were already beyond reproach, and he solidified them with his reimagining of the Star Trek franchise in 2009. ... This just makes sense all around."

It's true. If you look at the way he handled the redo of that other revered space series, it might provide some clues as to what his "Star Wars" might look like. Abrams clearly aimed to please the broadest possible audience by remaining faithful to the Star Trek mythology in some ways while shaking it up in others; the film made nearly $386m worldwide and the follow-up, the 3-D Star Trek Into Darkness, is due out 17 May. Some fans were thrilled that he would boldly go to such daring places while some purists balked at the vast departures he took. And that might be true of the response Episode VII will get in 2015, when it's scheduled to come out; people tend to get proprietary when they're so emotionally invested in the stories like this.

Abrams' Super 8 from 2011 is another great example of his grasp of, and reverence for, the wonder that can accompany the best science fiction experiences. His homage to late-'70s, early-'80s Steven Spielberg productions is full of childhood innocence and the excitement of storytelling. And as he demonstrated with these films as well as his contribution to another beloved franchise, 2006's Mission: Impossible III, the man knows how to direct an action sequence. He also happened to work with Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound on post-production on all the films he's directed, so a comfort level already exists from an effects perspective.

He's a busy guy these days, though. Between steering these two massive franchises, he also has many other projects in the works through his production company, Bad Robot. Among them: a recently announced biopic of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, a possible Cloverfield sequel and the post-apocalyptic television series Revolution. As talented and visionary as he is, who knows how good of a juggler he'll be?

But Star Wars' influence on Abrams is well-documented, which is cause for optimism; he probably won't come up with some all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza with Jar Jar Binks at the center. And he spoke of it as recently as Saturday night at the Producers Guild Awards, where he accepted the Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television for the groundbreaking series he created, including Felicity, Alias and Lost.

He said being chosen to direct Episode VII is "as surreal as it is exciting." Asked what kind of spin he might put on such well-established material, he acknowledged that it was early in the process, but said: "I want to do the fans proud. I want to make sure the story is something that touches people. And we're just getting started. I'm very excited."

Others in the industry already are excited, as well. "Modern Family" co-star Eric Stonestreet said at the Screen Actors Guild Awards Sunday night that he was looking forward to Abrams' "Star Wars" based on the success of his "Star Trek."

"I have faith," Stonestreet said. "I'm hoping JJ does JJ, because nobody else is doing it that well."

AP

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