Star Wars, J.J. Abrams, and the dangers of nostalgia

Contributed by
Nov 20, 2019, 6:51 PM EST (Updated)

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

When those words first appeared at the beginning of Star Wars on movie screens way back in 1977 -- which seems like a very long time ago, indeed -- George Lucas launched a cultural phenomenon that still captures the imaginations of millions of fans worldwide to this day.

Lucas handed off his creation last year to the Walt Disney Company and, more specifically, to writer/director J.J. Abrams, a self-avowed fan of Lucas' saga who was having a lifelong dream fulfilled by getting the chance to carry Lucas' vision into the future.

There's only one problem with that: Abrams does not seem to be as interested in that future as he is in the past.

(I should mention as a disclaimer that everything that follows is based on conjecture, speculation and unofficial reports about the state of Star Wars Episode VII.)

The first signs of trouble came when screenwriter Michael Arndt's script for Episode VII was rejected, with Arndt leaving the project so that Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan could start over (which is, according to rumors, exactly what they did -- a page one rewrite).

But the most startling news came this week, when it was reported that the original story concocted by Arndt, which focused on the children of Luke, Han and Leia, was being cast off in favor of a new plot that put the orignial trio front and center.

At first, the idea of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford coming back to the saga -- in supporting, mentor-like roles -- seemed like a nice touch. It would provide a connection to the older films and give those three beloved characters a chance for a loving curtain call.

But why -- when there are so many other possible directions to take this story -- would you make them the main characters yet again? Their stories were more or less completed at the end of Return of the Jedi. Are Abrams and Kasdan incapable of working with either the new characters that Arndt supposedly came up with, or even creating fresh heroes on their own?

This fits a gradually developing pattern in Abrams' big-screen work so farHis first feature film, Mission: Impossible III (2006), was OK, but ultimately not that memorable. His second film however, Star Trek (2009), was in many ways a success, taking a franchise that had stalled and giving it a fresh look and a new burst of energy.

Then Super 8 (2011) -- the first film he wrote on his own -- came along and displayed what was, for me, an astounding lack of imagination or even coherency. While Abrams acknowledged that it was a tribute to Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment, it was a hollow one: Super 8 is the cinematic equivalent of a mediocre cover band, except that the hits are called Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, E.T., etc.

And then we come to Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the worst example yet of Abrams' drift toward empty nostalgia. He insisted on rehashing one of the franchise's most iconic villains, Khan, yet in a way that made him unrecognizable to diehard fans and meaningless to casual ones. And for what purpose? Simply to push a certain button in fans' heads and give them the false excitement of revisiting a past triumph?

Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. There are so many instances in which we look at things through those famous rose-colored glasses and see them as we want to remember them, without looking at them in the plain light of day. Not every movie, TV show, comic book or novel we enjoyed as a child or teenager is going to hold up today. That doesn't mean they're bad -- it's just that sensibilities, both ours and the culture's at large -- have moved on.

Hell, even the original Star Wars trilogy (we'll skip the prequels) are simply not the movies we saw through our younger eyes. They've got plenty of problems -- bad acting, lousy dialogue, pacing and plot issues -- but they worked at the time they came out and they have an undeniable magic that still manages to enthrall many. And they worked because, while using classic tropes as touchstones, they gave us things we'd never seen before.

It's hard to recapture that magic, however, and perhaps the worst way to do it is to dust off the old icons and put them through their paces one more time. A perfect case in point is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- we all know how that ended up. Harrison Ford is even older now and his Han Solo would surely not be the swaggering smuggler we all know and love. 

By the way, this applies to the one-off "origin story" movies that Disney is developing as well -- totally pointless exercises. Do we really need to see how Yoda became a Jedi master? Do we have to sit through Han Solo's younger days? We don't need their pasts spelled out for us in every detail, especially since we know what happens to them, eventually.

If you're going to tell new Star Wars stories, tell new Star Wars stories. Give the kids of today their own mythology to fall in love with. Yes, by all means, pay homage to the past with a couple of scenes or a cameo -- that worked out pretty well for Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in Abrams' Star Trek. But simply taking the old characters and shoehorning them into a new story, purely for the sake of some kind of misguided fan service, smacks of laziness, corporate groupthink, fear and a lack of creativity. It risks turning the next Star Wars film into the Buzzfeed listicle of blockbusters -- 35 Things Star Wars Fans Remember About the Original Films.

If those are what's guiding the creation of the new Star Wars trilogy now, then the franchise we all want to love again will seem like it took place a long time ago, indeed. So, please, everyone involved in this: Look forward, not backward. Take us to new and amazing places the way George Lucas did in 1977. We promise we'll come along for the ride.