The news that JJ Abrams will direct Star Wars Episode VII shocked the world today, almost having the power to move the story about a football player with a fake girlfriend from the front pages (school shootings and foreign affairs remain relegated to page five). The reactions have been varied, from ecstasy to people tearing their hair out. You might think I, someone who has never been a fan of Abrams, would be upset by this news. But in fact I think it was a pretty good choice.
To explain why I have to explain how I feel about JJ Abrams as a filmmaker: he's not very good. What he's very good at is creating sequences, individual scenes and set pieces that are riveting and exciting and emotional. The opening scene of Star Trek. The alien launch in Super 8. I'm sure there's a good sequence in Mission: Impossible: III. But while these films have sequences that work, as movies none of them really hang together. Star Trek is certainly the most successful as a whole, but even that film falls to pieces when even the slightest thought brushes up against it.
That particular skill set is exactly what's needed to make a Star Wars movie. All the good Star Wars films are just a bunch of sequences strung together, with a bare minimum amount of plot. George Lucas got into trouble in the Prequels when he decided he wanted to make films that were more plot heavy, as opposed to the best film in the series, The Empire Strikes Back, which sort of has no plot at all. That film is incident after incident, strung together in a really satisfying way, but without much of a throughline. That's pure Abrams.
When left to his own devices - Super 8 - Abrams can't make it work. But under the thumb and direction of Lucasfilm, Abrams would surely flourish. He gets the propulsive quality needed in a Star Wars film, but the corporate types will make sure that the larger story beats work as well. Don't think that Abrams is taking this on as an auteur - he's here to execute the corporate vision, and as one of the ultimate conformist corporate filmmakers, his vision is likely quite in line with that of the suits and the bean counters.
Finally, Abrams is fairly unoriginal. Super 8 is a stilted attempt at a Spieberg fanfilm, while Star Trek is straight up Star Wars in training. He'll bend over backwards to capture the feel of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but slightly jazzed up for Generation ADHD. Unlike other magpie filmmakers (Len Wiseman, for instance), Abrams is very good at recreating what he likes. Whatever Super 8's script flaws are, the look and feel of the movie evokes Spielberg perfectly. This comes natural to him, and he'll Zelig himself right into the form of Irvin Kershner.
I'm sure Abrams will put some sort of mark on the film. While the joke is played out, I'm sure the reality will find lens flares all over the place. And the announcement of JJ means the Star Wars mystery box is now closed. The question I have about the film is how Abrams will deal with Disney's marketing team, who will not want to go with the total secrecy scenario. I don't think Abrams is much of a filmmaker, but I do think he's pretty savvy at playing the media, and his methods are different from the normal corporate style. In fact, I suspect that the only time Abrams will butt heads with Lucasfilm/Disney will be when the time comes to start releasing images and clips to the public.
Will Abrams make a great Star Wars movie? I'm sure he'll make a satisfactory one. I remain unconvinced that he has a great movie in him at all.