Avoiding my own screenplay, I pause to goggle at Ross Douthat’s suggestion that Ben Affleck should have been hired to direct the new “Star Wars” movies.
Affleck has now made not one but three movies that are better works of pulpy entertainment than anything J.J. Abrams has ever directed. And where the challenge of rescuing “Star Wars” is concerned, actual filmmaking talent might matter more than previous experience with spaceships and monsters.
Abrams’ filmography is nothing if not consistent: His “Mission Impossible,” his recent “Star Trek” and “Super 8″ are all zippy simulacra of more original pop blockbusters (the best of the three, “Super 8″ is just a pure Spielberg homage) with weightless action scenes, average scripts, and plots that only make sense if you don’t actually stop to think about them. They are not bad movies, by any stretch, and if what you’re concerned with is delivering a respectable piece of genre entertainment, he’s proven himself a safe choice. So I’m not surprised that Disney — which no doubt wants the safest possible return on its investment — went with him rather than making a more eccentric pick.
But fans of the original “Star Wars” trilogy should realize that the director of the next installment faces a bigger challenge than just serving as a capable custodian of a popular franchise, or enlivening a stale formula with some lens flares and sex appeal. That’s because the next movie will be released in the shadow of the epic, franchise-altering disaster of George Lucas’s prequels — a case, rare in the annals of pop culture, where a beloved story was ruthlessly and comprehensively torched, not by hackish studios chasing easy money, but by the very man who created it in the first place.
Thanks to Lucas, half of the official Star Wars story is unsalvageable dreck — but it’s canonical dreck, which means it can’t simply be shunted into an alternative timeline in the style of Abrams’ “Star Trek,” or dropped down the memory hole the way say, Joel Schumacher’s “Batman” movies were when Christopher Nolan set about making “Batman Begins.” Instead, the prequels have to be somehow formally accepted as part of the “Star Wars” story and artistically repudiated at the same time. That’s a much harder task than making a “Star Wars” sequel would have been back in 1995, before Lucas took a flamethrower to his legacy. And I can’t help thinking it might have been easier for a director who came to the project free of fanboy baggage, and who could cast a more dispassionate eye on a pop cultural mythology that too many people (myself included, before I was introduced to Jar Jar Binks) invested with far more significance than its creator’s talents could ultimately bear.
I’m influenced here by the fact that the best “Star Wars” movie, “Empire Strikes Back,” was directed by Irvin Kershner, a filmmaker who combined a distinct absence of sci-fi experience with an appropriate skepticism toward the man whose vision he was charged with translating into mass-market entertainment. When he set to work on “Empire,” Kershner’s previous two films were “The Eyes of Laura Mars” and “Raid on Entebbe,” both contemporary thrillers with nary a blaster to be seen. Yet the movie he made is the only “Star Wars” installment that transcends genre, and approaches art.
I obviously have no idea what the new “Star Wars” movies are supposed to be about, but I think Douthat goes wrong with his final reference to “The Empire Strikes Back.” Because that movie’s mission bears little resemblance to the mission of the director of the next batch of movies.
“Empire” followed the massive success of the original “Star Wars,” and the principal achievement of the original movie was creating a distinctive and original universe. Kershner and Kasdan could take that universe for granted, and ask the question: where do these characters go from here? How can we deepen the story? And they did a masterful job of executing on that mission.
But that’s not the mission of the director of the next set of movies. Rather, his mission is to re-create a universe that has lost much of its distinctiveness. And that kind of universe-creation has not been a hallmark of Affleck’s direction to date. Affleck is very much the heir of Clint Eastwood as a director, both of them making solid middle-brow pictures for grownups, both good at rooting their films in universes that are familiar – that are “movie real.” But they are not makers of worlds.
Abrams will undoubtedly do to the franchise exactly what Douthat expects: streamline it and make it “work” while making it less-distinctive. That’s probably what Disney wanted, because they wanted to avoid handing it to the sort of director who might recall Lucas’s failures by overstuffing their own version of Lucas’s universe. But I understand why that would be disappointing to someone with lingering affection for the franchise like Douthat.
But he shouldn’t be pining after Affleck. He should be pining after someone with demonstrated talent for universe-making who could make audiences forget the prequels and remember not “Empire” but the original “Star Wars.”
The hallmark of that original was the “dirty universe” – the contrast between the clean and sleek Empire and the rust-bucket rebels, and visually this was what was most obviously sacrificed not only in the prequels but in the changes Lucas kept imposing on his earlier, more successful films. If I were looking for a director to reboot the franchise, I’d look for somebody who I knew got that, and the obvious choice would be the director of the dirtiest universe to hit the screen in recent memory (one with Star-Wars-level odd family dynamics to boot).
Final note: as one of the few Joss Whedon skeptics, I have to disagree with Chris Orr that he’d have been a good choice to revive “Star Wars.” Wheedon’s stock in trade is a kind of witty self-awareness, where “Star Wars” depends crucially on taking the created universe completely seriously, and painting in clear, unironic emotional colors. A Whedon “Star Wars” would be radically untrue to the franchise’s roots. He’d be a better choice to re-boot “Star Trek.”
And now, back to creating my own universe.