So, it's officially official. Disney just put out a press release, which means I can write about it without fear of it being debunked moments after publication. J.J. Abrams is indeed directing Star Wars: Episode VII. And what do I have to say about that? Well... not much really. There is indeed a part of me that feels that it is wholly inappropriate and/or unnatural that the same director will be behind new Star Trek *and* new Star Wars movies. Back in the old days, I believed in the perhaps simplistic idea that every franchise would get their own special director. Sam Raimi had Spider-Man, Bryan Singer had X-Men, and Chris Nolan had Batman. Obviously that idea no longer exists. Bryan Singer can helm X-Men and then go on to attempt to reboot Superman with Superman Returns before taking back the X-Men franchise from Matthew Vaughn, who is now rumored to be among Warner's top choices for a Justice League movie. Even with more and more franchises being rebooted and/or changing hands, it seems like an awfully incestuous little circle, with only a handful of directors seemingly ending up helming these major properties. Say what you will about Marvel, but they deserve kudos for thinking outside the box on pretty much every major film thus far when it comes to a director.
Putting aside J.J. Abrams's work on Star Trek, he is the prototypical safe choice. He is absolutely competent yet a relatively uninspired cinematic storyteller. He has the geek cred but he won't rock the boat. Frankly I was far more excited last week at the quickly debunked rumor of Zack Snyder directing a stand-alone action picture set in the Star Wars universe than I am at the comparatively bland Abrams helming Episode VII. Snyder is a potent visual stylist with a keen eye toward crafting creative and inventive large-scale action sequences and the ideas behind Sucker Punch are indeed challenging even if you don't feel that the film pulls off its intended commentary. Disney has too much at stake for too much of interest to occur in the 'official' Star Wars episodes beyond visceral action and spectacle, so even the angry liberal politics of the prequels would arguably be considered too much for these official episodes (after all, they have to play in China too, remember?). This isn't a swipe at the potential quality of a J.J. Abrams Star Wars film, as I imagine that Disney will make sure that we end up with a solid action-adventure picture come hell-or-high water (again, they have too much at stake to strike out at their first at-bat). Abrams is surely a better choice that the likes of Jon Favreau or Rob Marshall, and I'm frankly a little relieved that Disney didn't just hire some music video director with absolutely no credits to his name.
But theoretical side-projects would be where the real risk taking might occur, both in terms of storytelling and ideas at play. That would have been where we might have gotten our 'Wouldn't it be cool if X directed a Star Wars film?' fantasies. Tim Burton, M. Night Shyamalan, Kathryn Bigelow, Terrance Malick, Sophia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, etc, etc. Is there anyone out there who found themselves hoping that they'd see J.J. Abrams directing a Star Wars film? Oh you might say he already did with the 2009 Star Trek, but you'd only be half right. Yes he upped the energy and emphasized character relationships among young adventurers in a way that brought to mind the original Star Wars trilogy. But the film's odd mix of manifest destiny (Kirk is absolutely entitled to be the heroic Captain of the USS Enterprise despite being an arrogant cheater and general cowboy jack-ass) and distrust of authority (Starfleet is helpless to prevent the destruction of Vulcan and very-nearly the destruction of Earth if not for the rebellious actions of Kirk) isn't just at odds with Star Trek (where Starfleet was a shining example of governmental institutions bringing about general utopia and an 'ahead of its time' monument to positive progressive change) but the relatively liberal/progressive nature of all six Star Wars films.
Luke may have been destined to be a Jedi, but he had to earn his place among the Rebellion. And Captain Kirk may have been a swashbuckler and an occasional rule-breaker, but he was a proud member of Starfleet and earned his stripes without having a time-traveling Spock explaining how he should overthrow his ship's authority due to some perceived 'destiny'. Even when Lucas's films focused on corruption and/or incompetence in the Republic, it was always the individuals who were faltering rather than the organization itself. Whether or not this matters in terms of the film's quality is debatable. I'd argue it's a big part of why Star Trek falters so hard in its third act, with old Spock basically having to instruct young Kirk exactly how to take his rightful place in the universe. Star Trek Into Darkness is obviously pretty entertaining and/or successful in its goals if Disney was willing to give Abrams the keys to the Empire. But it's worth wondering how much this new Star Wars film is going to feel a part of the prior six films. If Abrams takes the same social/political route with Star Wars as he did with Star Trek, then we'll end up with two iconic sci-fi series that traded in their "united we stand" for an upgraded coat of "manifest destiny".
Much of this is speculative and frankly much of this may turn out to be irrelevant come summer 2015. All that arguably matters for most is to see what Abrams can do with a genuinely good screenplay (something he hasn't had yet in his big-screen escapades) and whether he can make Star Wars a relevant franchise for the third time in just under 40 years, just as he did for Star Trek back in 2009. And now the rumor mill will be filled with potential contenders to take Abrams's place on the inevitable Star Trek 3 (unless Into Darkness ends with everybody dying and/or the initial film's time-travel mischief being undone). Even if the new Star Wars films end up being merely kick-ass action adventures, I suppose that should be enough, and there's always The Clone Wars for more introspective looks at the various moralities of the Star Wars universe (although I'm a little behind on season five, as the god-awful Darth Maul resurrection silliness cooled my enthusiasm for a time). Abrams will be fine because Disney won't let him fail and Disney will now get to plot what massive franchise to buy next. I don't care how much we see lens flares and I hope that Abrams continues the notion of Star Wars films pushing cinematic technology ever further each time. Hell, I hope Lucasfilm uses the opportunity to, I dunno, invent a 60fps IMAX Red HD 3D camera.
But it is indeed curious that a Star Trek film marketed as tapping into a post-Obama optimism ended up being a parable for the righteous triumph of George W. Bush, which in turn took a famously liberal/lefty franchise in a more conventionally conservative direction. Will the genuine leftist bent of George Lucas's universe survive the same kind of transformation that Gene Roddenberry's creation underwent four years ago? Does it matter to you (or Lucas) if it doesn't? Is it merely enough that we're getting new Star Wars films and that yet another generation will thrill to an original franchise that has somewhat survived and mostly thrived in one medium or another for 35 years? Will we ever be able to come to terms with the notion of the same person directing both iconic franchises? Now your turn to vent accordingly.