A New Hope: Can JJ Abrams Appease The 'Star Wars' Faithful?

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I quoted lines from the original "Star Wars" trilogy like scripture. "Do or do not. There is no try" was my mantra. "The Trilogy" was my holy text, providing a moral universe — complete with lasers and star destroyers — in which to take these bon mots to live by out for a test drive.

Therefore, a few months ago, I greeted the news that three new "Star Wars" movies were in works with, shall we say, geeky ecstasy.

To bring non-fans up to speed: Back in October, The Walt Disney Company (Evil Empire One) announced its purchase of George Lucas's film company Lucasfilm Ltd. (Evil Empire Two). It also announced plans to churn out a third trilogy of “Star Wars’’ movies.

For sure, the movies are in good hands with Abrams... [But], my fellow dorkwads, before we fly our freak flags too high, there are serious issues to think about.

Lucas handing over the reins of his universe to Disney sent shock waves through the nerdverse. The most crucial plot twist of this news? The movies would not be directed or written by Lucas.

The decision to bring anyone — anyone! — but Lucas on board to make the third trilogy was cause for much rejoicing. Most older fans had turned against Lucas following his three mediocre-to-dreadful "prequels": "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" (released in 1999); "Episode II: Attack of the Clones" (2002) and "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" (2005). None of these three lived up to the hype, and brilliance, of "Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope," aka the original "Star Wars" (1977); "Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) or "Episode VI — Return of the Jedi" (1983). Not even close.

Over the years, superfans have also bristled at every change Lucas has made to "Star Wars," "Empire" and "Jedi." Lucas has digitally-enhanced his effects and meddled with scenes in his original three masterpieces to the point of nearly destroying them.

So his selling out to Disney might be Lucas's shrewdest move to date.

Now comes the latest dork news alert. Last week, it was announced that J.J. Abrams will direct the first of the new movies, the yet-to-be-named "Episode VII." Abrams is the man behind the TV series "Alias" and "Lost," and the movies "Super 8" and the recent "Star Trek" franchise reboot. The move should restore faith in those who have strayed from the flock. Myself included.

Help us Jeffrey Jacob... You're our only hope. Right?

J.J. Abrams (AP)
J.J. Abrams (AP)

Yes, and no. For sure, the movies are in good hands with Abrams, a self-professed "Star Wars" geek who, like me, was born in 1966. Coincidence? I think not. He was also 10 when he first saw Episode IV, and like me, was summarily warped forevermore. He gets why that first film was so powerful. Never before had the masses been so seduced by a filmic vision that blended a heroic story, science fiction and fantasy, hokey spirituality (the Force), and a palpable, believable world as beat up, and broken down as planet Earth.

“As a kid, 'Star Wars' was much more my thing than 'Star Trek' was,” Abrams said in an interview. For him, the story, characters and cutting-edge special effects (for 1977, anyway) "blew" his mind. "It galvanized for me," he said, "not for what was exciting about how movies were made, but rather for what movies were capable of.”

Abrams' deft handling of the nostalgic-tinged "Super 8" shows his true fealty to the era of Golden Age of the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas fantasy blockbuster. And most Trekkers dug his "Star Trek" (2009) prequel that revamped the franchise and injected new life into the old characters of Kirk, Spock, Bones et al. Abrams' sequel, "Star Trek Into Darkness," hits cinemas this May.

Still, my fellow dorkwads, before we fly our freak flags too high, there are serious issues to think about. Really serious.

1. The choice of a movie's director is crucial, but in the end, it's all about the story. Just think! If Lucas had written better screenplays for Episodes I-III, or received a smidgen more help writing them, perhaps they might have not sucked so badly. Reports are that Michael Arndt, who penned "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Toy Story 3," will write Episode VII. "Empire" and "Jedi" writer Lawrence Kasdan will serve as a consulting producer. More reason for hope.

2. Special effects. I think we've all seen what happens when directors gets so seduced by the digital eye-candy at their disposal that they forget how to tell a great story. Too many pixels, and that world on that big screen ends up looking eerily weightless and dismissible. To my eye, analog effects — real physical models, miniatures, and sets — can inject a sense of realism into fantasy and science fiction films that computer generated visuals cannot match.

3. As lousy as that second trilogy of "Star Wars" movies was, kids at the time loved them. Sure, adults like me who grew up with Episodes IV, V and VI were disappointed with Episodes I, II and III, but if you fell into the age 9 to 15 sweet spot back in 1999--2005, then pretty much any richly-realized, fantasy adventure movie is going to rock your world.

Despite my efforts, I can't be 10 again ... I can't so easily follow that endless, yellow scroll of text into a real, believable, world. That was a different me, who lived then, 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...'

Which raises the last question. For us 30- and 40-something nerds, can we go home again? To the deserts of Tatooine? The bogs of Dagobah? The icy plains of Hoth? (If you grew up in Alderaan, which was blown to smithereens, there's no home to return to.) Seriously, though. It's not that Abrams won't likely do a bang-up job rebooting the "Star Wars" universe. But can he reboot our imaginations? Our innocence?

This is the conundrum for adult viewers who want to return to the Star Wars universe of our collective youths and be blown away again. We can't.

Despite my efforts, I can't be 10 again, when I first read those words on the screen:

"It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire."

I can't so easily follow that endless, yellow scroll of text into a real, believable, world anymore. That was a different me, who lived then, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

And I can hear that kid saying to the adult me, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” I can see him recalling that moment from "Empire" when, using the Force, Yoda levitates Luke's X-Wing fighter from the swamp. Luke says, incredulously, "I don't, I don't believe it." To which Yoda replies, "That is why you fail."


Headshot of Ethan Gilsdorf

Ethan Gilsdorf Cognoscenti contributor
Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer, critic and author of "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks."



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