Destroy All Monsters: Stop J.J. Abrams
I cannot overemphasize the degree to which I am convinced that basing a new Star Wars movie around the septuagenarian adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo is an extinction-level error in judgment.
The Hollywood Reporter revealed this weekend that the reason screenwriter Michael Arndt left Star Wars: Episode VII after turning in his first draft was due to a disagreement about the "emphasis" of the new project. Arndt, like any halfway-sane human with a working understanding of the difference between what an audience wants and what an audience needs, wrote a story about the next generation of Skywalker children sparking up a new adventure that would carry them through the Sequel Trilogy. Luke, Leia and Han were to be featured in supporting, Obi-Wan Kenobi-ish roles.
J.J. Abrams, whose sole creative impulse is to repeatedly complete the sentence "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" with whatever Twilight Zone-inspired minutiae is in his head at that moment, has instead determined that Episode VII should be one last adventure for the aged heroes of the original Star Wars trilogy, giving them a proper send-off before focusing the rest of the movies on that next generation of Skywalker children.
Just about the only pleasure I can take from this idea is in imagining how much fun it will be, two years hence, when a generation of born-again Star Wars haters, who have vehemently insisted for fifteen years that George W. Lucas is the sole, malicious corruptor of their once-beloved franchise, will have to accept that Episode VII is just fucking terrible for reasons that have nothing to do with their favourite whipping boy.
Now, all of this is idle speculation on my part at this point. The reasons for Arndt's departure have not been substantiated by confirmed sources. And of course, I am engaging in the timeless Internet shell game of judging a product before I've seen a frame of it. But judge, I shall.
I've lived through three Star Wars movies and three Star Wars prequels (yes, those are distinct entities), and the attendant pop cultural explosion that accompanies each one. And I can tell you unequivocally: Disney, and Kathleen Kennedy, should stop J.J. Abrams right now.
Let me return to the notion of the difference between what an audience wants and what an audience needs. Of course the (mature) Star Wars audience wants to see Luke, Leia and Han back in action.
Actually, there's an important distinction to be made there, as well: the mature fan base wants to see that. The current fan base couldn't give a fuck. (The current fan base is not allowed to say "fuck" in front of their parents.) Stop an under-9-year-old on the street and ask him or her about Star Wars, and you won't be having a conversation about Luke Skywalker.
You might hear about Anakin, or Yoda, or Ahsoka Tano, but you won't be talking about Luke. Darth Maul might be the guy who got cut in half in The Phantom Menace, but he's probably better remembered for being the guy who came back from the dead with mechanical legs in The Clone Wars. If the franchise's child-aged fans are aware of Luke Skywalker at all, they're probably thinking of the Lego version.
Don't believe me? Look for any grade-school-aged child wearing a shirt that says "Star Wars" on it. Then look at what else is on the shirt.
In other words, Star Wars fans aren't really fans of Star Wars anymore. (You will never get me to call it "A New Hope.") The people who are going to be buying the majority of the tickets for Disney's Star Wars mega-franchise weren't alive when the original films were made, and many of them weren't even alive when the prequels were made. And from a basic marketing perspective, Disney should be courting them, not me.
But, fine: say the mature Star Wars audience wants one more chance to see Luke, Leia and Han have an adventure together, giving them a big-screen send-off in a movie that presumably involves spaceships, explosions, and lightsabres. The audience may want that, but then, they also want to eat McDonalds every afternoon and never get fat. We all want a lot of things. The reason self-control was invented (if poorly applied) was because generally speaking, half of our basic impulses around "want" are at best masturbatory, or at worst, heartily self-destructive.
Harrison Ford is now 71 years old. Six years ago, he blustered his way through an atrocious motion picture called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Admittedly, Ford got himself into better fighting shape, at 65, than I was in at 25. He looked pretty good for an old guy, even when they got him down to his birthday suit to scrub atomic debris and various refrigerator detritus off his pectoral muscles.
But at certain points in the movie, when Ford/Jones was running into the usual level of resistance that the archaeologist inevitably encounters when trying to track down an object of a Crystal Skull-ish nature, the wrinkles really began to show. It turns out, if retirement-age Harrison Ford blunders around and accidentally knocks over some nuclear test mannequins in a ghost town, he looks less like Indiana Jones than a senile pensioner who has to be asked to leave the grocery store. If you throw grizzled, grey-haired Ford off a waterfall, he surfaces looking less like a drowned rat and more like... well, my dad. Or maybe my dad after 36 consecutive hours of air travel, a mugging, and an accidental dip in the swimming pool at the "retirement community."
In featuring lead characters of this age, Star Wars: Episode VII basically has two strategies to choose from. They can a) ignore the ages for the most part, and let the characters engage in the kinds of action beats required of a Star Wars movie. You've seen this strategy before: it brought us Yoda's lightsabre duels with 80-year-old Count Dooku and who-the-fuck-knows-how-old Palpatine at the tail ends of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, respectively. Or, b) the ages of the characters can be fully incorporated into the storyline, in which case we might end up with something like Jim Broadbent's escape from the old folks' home in Cloud Atlas.
What the audience wants is to see Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo again. The problem is, that's impossible. Those characters are gone. They are a creation of celluloid well over thirty years ago. Without conducting the requisite thought experiments, though, the audience - and J.J. Abrams - will continue to "want" to see their heroes again, right up until the moment that they do. At which point, I think, a rather horrible collision between wants and needs will take place, right up there on the big screen.
What the audience needs, above all, is to not have their abiding affection for the original trilogy tampered with. (Here, again, I am talking about the mature audience. The child audience, once again, couldn't give a fuck. They're in bed by 9:00 anyway.)
On a larger level, what the audience - any audience - needs first and foremost is to be told a good, convincing story. A Star Wars movie is a rousing, swashbuckling adventure, inevitably centred around a hero's journey. If that part is done well, it will look, feel (and profit) like a Star Wars movie. If not, no amount of gimmicky fan-wankery will pull it back from the abyss, as any number of original trilogy callbacks in the prequel trilogy amply demonstrated.
The ongoing criticism around the prequel trilogy has been, as I'm sure most people are aware, unbelievably offensive in its choice of metaphor, but say we were to remove the "R" word from the "George Lucas ____ my childhood" statement, and consider what's being said underneath: fans of that trilogy hold those films sacrosanct. They like them just the way they are. (No special editions, thanks.) They're part of the popular unconscious now, just as they were designed to be. (We talk a lot about how Star Wars was based on Joseph Campbell's theories; we don't often discuss how Star Wars' impact is a Campbellian wet dream writ large.)
It's all well and good to imagine a version of Episode VII where Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford have one last hurrah and are generally awesome. Ask yourself, though: what will it feel like if they fail? What will it feel like if the effect isn't convincing, even for a moment, at resurrecting the characters that you loved in your youth, as you loved them in your youth? What if all you get is a disturbing coda to Episodes IV, V and VI that looks and behaves manifestly like an affront to the original product?
Someone, please, stop J.J. Abrams.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.