The Cinephile: The Fateful Marriage of J.J. Abrams and Star Wars

By Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff | 1/30/13 3:00am

Though this week saw the Sundance Film Festival and further Oscar politicking, The Wrap’s big reveal on Thursday that J.J. Abrams will direct Star Wars Episode VII (2015) has trumped all other news. Though just a few months ago Abrams told us he wouldn’t take on Star Wars, Disney’s choice rings of destiny. The marriage of J.J. Abrams and Star Wars, the ultimate consummation of devoted fan and pop culture icon, seems to be ordained by the Fates — or the Force.

In all his work, Abrams masterfully evokes pop culture touchstones and assembles referential material into something modern and new — he’s Tarantino for the sci-fi set, with less pretension and a good helping of awe. Abrams’ previous film and television endeavors flirt regularly with Star Wars, deliberately or unintentionally and his oeuvre is a treasure trove for the Star Wars fan.

In Abram’s early genre-mashup televison series “Alias,” the double-agent protagonist Sydney Bristow echoes Princess Leia in her intelligence, determination and notable acting chops. Like Leia infamously playing slave to Jabba the Hutt, Sydney assumes feminine wiles with the true intention of pursuing the ultimate goal of equality with the intelligence agency father figures that pepper the show. (Full disclosure: Sydney and Leia were my most beloved childhood fictional role models).

Though several of the many sci-fi elements of Lost can be construed to reference Lucas’ series, the most striking homage is in the character of Sawyer. Wisecracking, broody and handy with a gun, Sawyer is the Han Solo of Alabama — and also a bounty hunter of sorts. His famous nicknames for nearly everyone on the island particularly recall Han’s witticisms. (For more on the influence of Star Wars on Abrams’ other TV shows including “Fringe,” check out Moviefone’s list.)

Abram’s reimagining of Star Trek (2009) referenced Star Wars with winking abandon, from Kirk’s bar fight that ends up launching him into an intergalactic adventure (all that was missing was the Cantina Band) to his jaunt to an icy planet that looks remarkably like Hoth. Not to mention the Ewok-like creature that helps him along the way.

Abrams’ most revealing and personal film to date, Super 8 (2011) — a personal favorite — examines the nature of fandom with sweetness and candor. Wisely, Abrams pays his respects to Steven Spielberg instead of George Lucas (there is really no doubt who is the better director). Ostensibly just another knockoff alien flick, the film ultimately reveals just how strongly formative movies have permeated Abrams’ creative work. Fittingly, he metaphorizes these brushes with magic and the otherworldly as first love.

In the wake of the news, Abrams’ much-anticipated Star Trek sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) will face even more intense scrutiny this summer. With Abrams at the helm of two rival fan-based space franchises, one cannot help but be apprehensive. As Christopher Orr put it in The Atlantic, “I cannot be alone in fearing a rift in the fabric of space/time.”

Perhaps it would have been wise to hand Star Wars over to another director, say Bryan Singer or Guillermo del Toro. However, I can’t help but celebrate the choice: in an age of jaded and mocking blockbusters such as X-Men: First Class (2011) and bloated, self-important vehicles for special effects like The Avengers (2012), Abrams is still making movies with old-fashioned emotion and character development. He remains enchanted with the characters, and he enchants us right along with him. In my mind, his interpretations of Star Wars and Star Trek can rule the galaxy together.

Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff