Here Today, Gone Trevorrow: JJ Abrams Returns to Land the Plane

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I don’t like for this site to do instant-reaction pieces very often because I want us to be measured at all times, and focused on the big picture rather than the heat of the moment. But sometimes an announcement comes along that’s so vaguely detailed that there’s nothing particularly informed or complex we as fans are in a position to say about it—so it’s either offer up our first impressions for what they are, or ignore it entirely.

But how could we possibly ignore something as big as the news that JJ Abrams will be returning to the franchise to direct Episode IX after Colin Trevorrow was put on a bus out of town? With most directors, Trevorrow and even Rian Johnson included, you can speculate a great deal about what their version of a Star Wars film would look like based on their other work, but Abrams is the only working director who has an actual Star Wars film already under their belt that we can pick apart for clues as to what he’ll do next.1

That said? I’m reasonably agnostic on this choice. I love The Force Awakens even more two years later than I did when I first saw it, so I’m completely certain he can produce another Star Wars film that I enjoy. But Star Trek Into Darkness (while I don’t hate it as much as many do) wasn’t anywhere near as good as his first Trek film so I’m not quite convinced he’s the kind of director who gets better at a given property with practice—TFA could very well be his high-water mark.

I also wonder how he’ll cooperate with Lucasfilm this time around; Bad Robot had a pretty heavy hand in TFA because LFL was still largely getting their shit together and figuring out how they wanted to do things—their trust in him was rewarded that time, but with a more firmly ensconced Story Group and a president who knows what she wants and isn’t screwing around, is he willing to accept more “outside” input this time around? Is he willing to take chances of his own? I hope so.

Since Abrams is such a known quantity in this fandom, I’ll make this a little more challenging for the rest of you—if you’re generally positive about this news, what’s the thing that most concerns you? And if you’re generally negative, what are you most optimistic about?

Nick: I’d sum up my reaction to the news that JJ Abrams is directing Episode IX as mostly positive, though with a tad bit of trepidation. My initial reaction to The Force Awakens was very positive, though I recall being a bit off put that it wasn’t the direction I expected TPTB to go with the sequel trilogy. Being a canon completist, I found that my love of The Force Awakens grew significantly as I read all of the supplemental material and connected stories. The more connected TFA felt to the original trilogy and other materials, the more it felt right to me. Having viewed it three times in the theaters and probably at least a dozen times on Blu-Ray, I can confidently say that it was an enjoyable, fun, and solid if somewhat safe introduction to the sequel trilogy.

JJ handed the baton to Rian Johnson without a lot of preconceived expectations on storyline, which I feel was a brilliant masterstroke that we’ll reap the benefits of this December. Now, if I am worried about something, it’s the always creeping worry that JJ will play it safe with Episode IX and mirror Return of the Jedi too closely. While I am not a believer that TFA is an A New Hope rehash, there are unmistakable connections. That works for the first film, but I feel it would be a disservice in the last film. As someone who was genuinely unimpressed with Starkiller Base, I’ll confess that if Episode IX concludes with a space battle to destroy the bigger and badder Starkiller Base II that I’ll be disappointed. Which is saying something, ’cause the Fleet Junkie in me craves space battles. However, I want something new and unique to wrap up the sequel trilogy. If JJ wraps up the trilogy with the New Republic being restored in a ceremony in the old Galactic Senate Rotunda on Coruscant (hell, throw in an Ewok band for a nice callback to RotJ), I’ll walk out of the theater a happy man.

Having said all this, I’ll restate the manta I have being seeing on Twitter and various social media- “In Kathleen Kennedy We Trust”. She’s two for two with me, most likely gonna be three for three in December. I trust her creative vision and decision making, so if JJ is her guy, I’m with her!

Mark: I’m more than a little dismayed. I’ve written on here before that The Force Awakens was my Phantom Menace Moment – the first time I left a Star Wars movie feeling disappointed and actually quite deflated. I came to appreciate it on repeat viewings, to the point that the good hugely outweighs the bad, and I can now sit and watch it and have a great time. I was happy, though, that Lucasfilm seemed to have left the Abrams take on Star Wars behind, and were moving it into areas that appealed to me more as a fan. So much for that.

The one shining light, though – the thing that gives me hope – is that he gave us Rey. The sheer joy of watching that character, and the performance Abrams elicited from Daisy Ridley, is still the thing that keeps bringing me back to that film. What appealed to Abrams and convinced him to take on the project was the opportunity to tell the origin story for a female Jedi, and that counts for something. He did it without objectifying her (remarkably, given Star Trek Into Darkness), or making her gender a running gag for the other characters to comment on – she was simply a great Star Wars hero, and he handled her perfectly. As her creator, he’ll want to do right by both the character and the actress, and give her the finale she deserves. And that’s the most important thing the movie has to get right.

And of course, his great redeeming feature is that he’s not Colin Trevorrow. I’m still nursing the emotional scars of my experience watching Jurassic World, so if you’d told me two weeks ago that Trevorrow would be out and Abrams in, I’d have taken that.

Sarah: I’m with Mark in that I’m also less than happy about this news. I’ve made no secret of my dislike for JJ Abrams, stemming back to Star Trek Into Darkness, and I left The Force Awakens feeling more than a bit underwhelmed. And while TFA has grown on me since then, it’s still my least watched Star Wars movie and one that I rarely have any desire to rewatch. Unfortunately my biggest issues with TFA are all things that I feel are inherent to Abrams’s style as a filmmaker (namely, an uncreative approach to the movie aesthetic and superficially recreating key emotional moments from other movies without the adequate buildup) so while I’m trying to be positive, this announcement has severely dampened my enthusiasm for Episode IX.

I will say though that while I felt TFA had many of the same weaknesses that I consider a hallmark of JJ Abrams, it fortunately did not have the boatload of misogyny (and whitewashed casting) that we saw in his Star Trek movies. As Mark mentioned, Rey was allowed to be a female hero without it being a huge in-universe statement. Her gender was never a running gag, nor was she objectified. The most important thing is that her story is wrapped up in a way that’s worthy of the character so I’m hopeful she’ll get that finale, especially since Abrams did create the character and will want to do right by her.

In fact, all the characters in TFA were great and clearly showed the beginnings of some wonderful character arcs without being cookie-cutter remakes of the original trilogy trio. Plus, since this is the third movie in the trilogy, Abrams won’t have carte blanche to do whatever. He’ll be constrained by the narrative threads left by The Last Jedi, and if that movie leaves us in a far different place then Abrams will have to be more creative in the direction he takes the story.

David: I’m just disappointed at what seems to be the least interesting possibility. Unlike Sarah, I really enjoyed TFA and it’s fallen next to A New Hope and Raiders in my list of popcorn movies I can watch over and over without ever getting tired, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have preferred to see a different point of view. I trust that, now that the sequel trilogy has its own character, JJ won’t feel the need to put much trust into cutesy winks and unnecessary references to the past. Plus he’s great at pulling heartstrings and I’m expecting the last movie to be very emotional. So I guess that it could have been worse.

But I guess I’m going to have to go there: at this time “please not another white dude at the helm” should almost be implied in our reviews, but it apparently needs to be stated once again. Unlike my teammates on this website of ours, I’m not excessively worried about the lack of on-screen diversity in the previous movies, although it’s annoying that the Rogue One Alliance was whiter than sour cream. I’m just thrilled that Cassian Andor exists and was such an amazing and important character. But when it comes to creator diversity, every time I see that the Lucasfilm stable of filmmakers looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch magazine spread I feel like a wooden stake is driven through my heart, and it kind of makes all the apparent attempts to increase diversity feel like a mere morsel thrown to the masses.

Seriously. Do better.

Ben C: Given the Vanity Fair revelations of a few months ago now where it turned out the sequel trilogy was not quite as planned out as might have been thought, I find this development quite, quite amusing. Abrams, who threw a whole load of stuff out there, never expecting to have to follow up on it, will now have to, albeit with Johnson having done some of the heavy lifting.

On the basis of reputation alone, what would I expect from an Abrams-helmed Episode IX?

  • Luke? He dead. Han’s dead. Leia’s dead, well Carrie Fisher is and no one’s going possibly match her, so who does that leave? Luke.
  • Starkiller Base v2.0? Why not? Got to get that RotJ homage in, maybe it’ll be a big superlaser tube with a pair of spherical Death Star-sized generators. (You may need brain bleach after constructing this imagery) Where did it come from? Unknown regions, bro, Unknown Regions. The First Order can pretty much pull out of their backside whatever they want. (Yes, a second dose of brain bleach is advised.)
  • Restore the Republic? Meh, I don’t think that’s ever really happening on the big screen.
  • Lots of stuff that comes out of nowhere that the books, games and comics will take years to explain.

My general view of it all? Flipping between being zen and ripping the mick out of it.

Ben W: I guess I fall into the camp of someone who enjoyed TFA more than disliking it. I never really think of myself as an Abrams defender, but considering that I enjoyed both of his Star Trek films as well, I certainly don’t hate him. His films aren’t great art, they aren’t intellectual masterpieces or some sort of Nolan-esque critical darlings. A JJ Abrams film is the epitome of a popcorn blockbuster, somewhere in the same school of filmmaking as Michael Bay but never sinking to his level of common critical revulsion.

Which is exactly why I enjoy them. Abrams is a director and writer who grew up in the shadow of the blockbuster, who understands how to entertain and craft the product to screen. His films aren’t boring, or slow, or lacking in action. His films are also eminently screenshot friendly, full of beautiful shots and sequences that resonate even when the film isn’t in motion. But his best, greatest strength as a director is that he puts together great casts and lets them have fun. He’s the one who brought us Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, remember.

But what about Episode IX specifically? How do I feel about that? Well, the story is already in place, we know who the characters are, and Lawrence Kasdan isn’t going to make Han the crux of the story this time around, so I have plenty of reasons to be optimistic that this won’t be a rehash in the vein of The Force Awakens. But I also have plenty of reasons to think it’ll be a fun and entertaining film as well—all of the ones I mentioned above. Abrams is a very known, safe sort of filmmaker, in that you can see his name on a marquee and know what you’re getting into. Whether you like what you’re getting into is a matter of personal preference, but I know that I will.

I also don’t share the fears of a lot of people when the writing team was announced, of Abrams and Chris Terrio, the man who wrote the Oscar-winning Argo, and also Batman V. Superman and the still-upcoming Justice League. Terrio is not a prolific writer like Abrams, he doesn’t have nearly the back catalog to serve as a cushion. I don’t want to go down too much of a rabbit hole explaining my reasoning, so suffice it to say that him having written only two major feature films is not a large enough sample size for me to either praise the selection or condemn it.

If I do have a reason to be pessimistic about Episode IX’s outlook, it lies in Abrams’s flaws as a filmmaker, which are just as pronounced as his strengths. His attraction to excitement and action often leaves logic by the wayside, stretching the suspension of disbelief past the breaking point. He also tends to get a bit too cute with references and homages. He’s far from the only person working on Star Wars to have that problem, but there it is. The most damning thing about Abrams though, is that as a filmmaker, he doesn’t have much of a personality of his own. His films slide so neatly into the pop filmmaking of the last two decades that, aside from the aforementioned visual qualities, Episode IX risks being the worst possible thing for a film of its pedigree and caliber: forgettable.

  1. Yes, I’m excluding Lucas—let the guy retire. []

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