I do. Because the success or failure of the next Star Wars film doesn’t rest on the talents of J.J. Abrams alone.
I’m not as super-thrilled as I would’ve been had Brad Bird gotten the gig (though Bird assures us that his next project—Tomorrowland—will still be very good), but I feel fine about the decision. Is Abrams the perfect choice? Probably not. But then, who would be? I mean that seriously—dozens of critics have already sounded off with a “yeah, but…” meme. If Disney had hired Guillermo del Toro to direct the film, another collection of critics would have hopped online with another set of worries.
The read I get from detractors suggests they feel that Abrams’s résumé is too uneven. Much of that reputation, I think, comes from the general reaction to Lost when it finished up, and possibly the fact that Abrams received a writing credit for Armageddon.
Lost had its faults (and we can argue over their extent some other time), but what many fail to realize is that all of them rest on the shoulders of Lost’s showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Abrams directed the pilot episode (from a script which may bear his name but is, by his own admission, mostly Lindelof’s), and didn’t guide a single nuance of the show’s trippy narrative past the very beginning of its third season.
As for Armageddon, eight writers (only four of whom received screen credit) worked on that film. When a movie has eight writers contributing to the chaos, the blame cannot land on any one of them alone. Armageddon was a true collage—love it or hate it, Abrams was just a cog in the mechanism.
All of that to say this: if we want to get a better understanding of what an Abrams-directed Star Wars episode is going to look like, we have to look at his actual creative output, not at the myriad titles that simply carry his name.
Abrams began his career as a screenwriter. Before Alias made him famous, his scripts for Regarding Henry and Forever Young earned him some renown. Besides his prolific television writing, he’s written, or contributed to, a total of eight films. (That I know of—it’s possible he’s done some uncredited work here and there that I just don’t know about.) I don’t want to get bogged down with critical analysis of every one of his filmed screenplays, but we can rest assured that he at least knows how to move a plot from A to B to C.
As a director, Abrams has four films under his belt: Mission: Impossible III, Super 8, Star Trek and its upcoming sequel. He only carries a writing credit on M:I:III and Super 8. Super 8, easily the strongest of the bunch, had its flaws, and I would argue that all of them had more to do with Abrams’s script than his actual direction. You could make the same case for the other films. Behind the camera, though, Abrams has demonstrated more than enough competency to carry a film; it’s the stories themselves that could have used improvement.
Which brings me to my final point: Abrams is usually only as good as his script, and he isn’t writing Episode VII. Michael Arndt is. And Arndt carries some solid writing cred.
Everyone looks to The Empire Strikes Back as the benchmark for future Star Wars films, and rightfully so. But another Star Wars film that rises to that level isn’t going to get there by trying to replicate Empire’s disparate production elements down to their finest details. Star Wars thrived best under the spirit of collaboration. For whatever reason, George Lucas decided to fly solo on the prequels, refusing to assemble talent that strengthened his weaknesses.
Kathleen Kennedy (Lucasfilm’s new chief) so far seems intent on avoiding that pitfall. As little as we know about the details that really matter at this point, that’s enough for me.